Thursday, 15 June 2017

Response to a Review – 14 June 2017

The work of the critic, especially the theatre critic, is difficult. Critics can have a great influence on the cultural makeup of a society, and as such they become imbued with a certain power, not just over the audience, but over creators of art as well. With this power, as the saying goes, comes a responsibility to the public and to the arts. The critic should be an expert, well-read and well-versed in their field, and willing to put aside their own aesthetic preferences in favor of giving objective and reasoned criticism of work.

A recent review of a piece I directed has caught my eye, and I wish to address certain points. I find reviews to be helpful and instructive, pointing a finger at things that are working and things that aren’t. Examining criticism in this manner is only helpful, however, when the criticism comes from an objective, reasoned place. The review in question is, in my opinion, heavily influenced by the critic’s own experience and expectation rather than being rooted in a deep knowledge of the theatre.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course.

  • The playwright “has produced his own play and this may have worked against him, as he seems to have relied on the work being enough to carry the full weight of the theatrical experience. It can’t.”
In this quote, I believe the author of the review takes “the work” to mean “the text.” In my estimation, the work of theatre is typically not the text. The text is merely a literary device through which specific words might be put into the mouths of actors, if they are necessary.

Theatre intrinsically happens at the interface between actor and audience. It is unclear to me what the reviewer’s expectation of the producer-playwright is, that he should be relying on a script to “bear the weight” of a theatrical experience. It is also unclear whether the reviewer is hinting at a specific theatrical experience he was expecting. If he did enter with a certain expectation and wasn’t prepared to have those expectations dashed, I would argue he was unprepared for an evening of theatre.

If the reviewer’s point is that the text of a play cannot “carry the show,” then I would agree. The text of Romeo and Juliet by itself is not theatre, and as such it cannot be called upon to support an entire production. (Who hasn’t been subjected to poorly executed Shakespeare?)

  • The director “seems not to have imagined any style to the production or even taken the simplest steps to establish the reality of its dramatic arena.”
The assumption seems to be that the director has tried to present reality. Reality is not nor can be the goal of theatre. All theatre is on some level absurd by the nature of being an unreality—a lie, essentially, of unreal (though perhaps realistic) people acting in an unreal (though, again, realistic) time—unfolding before a real audience in a real time. If one is looking for reality portrayed realistically, one need not look further than film or television; theatre, in this case, is not the answer.

Perhaps the reviewer is unfamiliar with the sort of minimalist performance indicative of the intimate theatre; perhaps he is unfamiliar with theories espoused by Artaud or Grotowski, or of the work done by Robert Wilson or Ivo van Hove. This is not to say that the director has attempted to replicate a style; rather, he has used elements of various techniques in order to tell a story which, it seems, moves a number of spectators to strong emotion. This was the intent of the staging, to lay bare the emotional framework which supports a path to enlightenment through meditation, fasting, and mindfulness.

All of these concepts are limited by the strictures of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the venue, the nature of which means that the most ideal lighting, sound, scenic, and costume elements may not be achievable. This should not deter the theatre artist from presenting their work in a fringe festival; remember, all one needs to present theatre is an actor and a spectator.

  • We didn’t need to see the back walls of the theater or the chalk drawings on the walls ([the director’s] sole effort at creating a reality.) The entire play could have used dim and isolated lighting to convey a cave’s interior. This would have allowed for a variety of wonderful theatrics to effect the demons come to torment Anthony.”
Certainly, if the reviewer would like to design and stage the show, he is most welcome, should the playwright be willing to release the rights.

Why do chalk drawings indicate the “sole effort at creating a reality”? Do not human beings in a space already convey a reality? If the reviewer were looking for other “real” things to latch onto, what about the costuming? the blankets and other props? It seems arbitrary to pin one’s acceptance of a reality on one particular element of design, when the reality, as it were, of sitting in a theatre is its own experience.

  • There wasn’t even an attempt to show the interior light of the cave dimming when the huge stone used to block its entrance was rolled into place.”
Having few resources in the lighting department, perhaps the shift between daylight streaming in and the tomb being sealed was not extreme enough for this reviewer; however, the light did shift, even if it was not perceived.

The point worth making, though, is that there needn’t be an attempt to show this light shift. The light dimming in the tomb is unnecessary to telling the story. Half of the review in question is given to the description of a cave and how the work failed to portray this cave adequately for the reviewer. Certainly, if this had been a play about a cave, more attention might have been paid to it; however, this was a play about meditation and enlightenment. Perhaps a different play might have fed into the reviewer’s longing to return to the caves of his youth, seeing the wonder and magic of those caves and how their influence affected his life. This was not that play.

  • Even simple means were not employed, such as having [the actor] in the darkness change his costume to more ragged states to denote the passage of time.”
If this were a realistically-staged play, perhaps an element of costume change would have been considered. Given the time constraints of the Fringe and the fact that the creative team chose a more impressionistic staging, these changes in appearance were considered superfluous. They hoped instead that the audience would assume the passage of time had taken place, and this hope has been mostly realized, based on discussions with various audience members.

  • The director and playwright, it seems, just didn’t take this production very seriously. So why should an audience.”
It is unfortunate the reviewer has decided that the director and playwright would not take their production seriously on the basis that he did not agree with their artistic choices. The evidence would appear to the contrary, given the great expense (thousands of dollars) the playwright has put into the show, not to mention the hours and days spent writing, editing, and assembling the show. The director, too, has given his time to the piece, working through a variety of artistic concepts, eliciting performances from the actors, and so on. If the production team did not take their work seriously, would there be any production at all?

The question of why an audience should take a work seriously is a good one, and one which the reviewer should endeavor to answer himself in his critical work. Perhaps the reviewer has chosen a snarky way in which to indicate that an audience should not take this specific work seriously, based solely on his own definition of what a theatrical experience is, giving no example rooted in the grand tradition or theories of theatre. To do so is to be disingenuous to an audience looking for an expert opinion.

What theatre criticism should accomplish is entirely educational in nature. The theatre critic speaks first to the public in order to enlighten the lay person about particular details of the art with which they may be unfamiliar. Then the theatre critic speaks to the artists in parsing the techniques involved in the creation of their art; what works and what doesn’t. Finally, the theatre critic is uniquely poised to offer their discernment of the meaning and purpose of a piece, the effect the theatrical experience has on its audience. In this way, the theatre critic is positioned as the expert, using their power to influence culture in what we all hope is a positive way. To do this effectively, and for the sake of society, the critic needs to gain the trust of everyone involved, both in the creative community as well as the general, art-consuming public. Only in this way will the art continue to grow and thrive.

The Tomb by Ed Sharrow premiered as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 4, 11, 15, 17, and 19, 2017. “Recalling Anthony the Great in ‘The Tomb’” was written by Ernest Kearney and published June 13, 2017, on It may be accessed here:

No comments:

Post a Comment