Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Great Critic Test

By Adrienne Martini

MARCH 2, 1998: 
No one likes a critic. Largely, critics are viewed as the killjoys, the tomato lobbers, the heartless shrews who dare point out faults in an artist's creation, who suck the soul out of the work to feed their own minuscule egos. They are the bottom feeders of any creative endeavor, universally hated by everyone with whom they come in contact. But is that all there is to critics? University of Texas theatre professor Charlotte Canning and the students in one of her graduate classes invested months into investigating the nature of these black-hearted beasts, and the results of their study are on view at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in the exhibition "The Critical Difference."

"We discovered something thrilling," says Canning. "There's a potential for an exciting relationship between performers and critics. We all walked away feeling much more amazed by criticism and protective of it."

Turns out the curators found that criticism is more than lobbing negative comments from the pages of a newspaper. It covers a broad spectrum, with numerous points of entry, from relationships between artists, such as the one between the playwrights George Bernard Shaw and William Archer, to relationships between artists and audiences, which reached a passionate extreme in the Astor Place Riot of 1849, with 31 people killed because of a standing feud between fans of two different acting styles.

While the exhibition succeeds admirably in covering historical forms from Shakespeare to John Osborne, it leaves a few gaps that perhaps only a person fully immersed in the profession of criticism could truly appreciate. So, with tongue partially in cheek - my own, thankyouverymuch - here is a brief quiz to test your knowledge of that strange creature, the theatre critic - particularly the Austin area breed - in the hopes of encouraging a more "exciting" relationship between those who criticize and those who perform.

Questions

1) A critic is the same as

a) a reviewer.

b) a dramaturg.

c) an academic.

d) an audience member.

e) all of the above.

2) Adrienne Martini has compared a show to

a) a snowglobe.

b) a pizza.

c) a Jell-o mold.

d) a box full of puppies.

e) all of the above.

3) True or false: Critics criticize because they can't do.

4) Critics base their reviews on

a) the position of Orion in the summer sky.

b) the answer their Magic 8-Ball gives when asked, "Did I like this show?"

c) the aesthetic experience of the production.

d) the quality of the free food/booze.

5) True or false: An Austin critic has the power to kill a show.

6) Criticism is

a) always scathing and intended to make people weep.

b) always glowing, even if the show could suck the pink off the Capitol dome.

c) always a mix of negative and positive comments.

d) always snide and sardonic, only written to stroke the critic's ego.

7) Complete the quote: "Asking a working writer how he feels about critics is like asking

a) a lamppost how it feels about dogs."

b) Marlon Brando how he feels about butter."

c) Ann Richards how she feels about Aqua Net."

d) President Clinton how he feels about interns."

8) True of false: Critics are the ultimate arbiters of a show's worth.

9) Criticism is best used for

a) examining with a grain of salt while thinking about the success of a show.

b) adding to promotional material with exclamation points.

c) training your new puppy.

d) mailing to your "Uncle" Nunzio with the critic's address, $500, and instructions about which limb to break.

e) none of the above.

10) Critics (circle all that apply)

a) snarl and bite when cornered.

b) won't talk to anyone but other critics.

c) hate being disagreed with.

d) shrivel when exposed to daylight.

e) none of the above.

Answers

1) E. Critic is kind of a catch-all term for anyone who responds to a piece of, in this case, theatre. A dramaturg, for those still wondering what the heck a dramaturg turgs, is a person who offers historical background and textual insights into a dramatic work. A reviewer generally works in a journalistic setting and gives a rundown of a show, recapping the plot and doing a "thumbs-up, thumbs down" kind of thing. An academic generally analyzes the production for insights into popular movements, playwright quirks, and/or weighty dissertations on the nature of the form, usually in the context of showing off to colleagues. An audience member is simply someone who's seen a show. It's worth noting that audience members are critics, too, whether discussing the drama while waiting in a bathroom line at intermission, dissing the show to friends after the fact, or calling every human they know and urging them to go see an incredible, awe-inspiring work.

2) E. This might be the best time to explain why I, personally, am in love with analogies, particularly food analogies. Quite frankly, I feel the need to explain something as intangible as a theatre experience by comparing it to something tangible that the reader has probably experienced, like a pizza or a puppy. If I can make it something quirky, all the better, as more people are likely to read a review that uses familiar terms in a new way. Producing criticism should be viewed as more than a regurgitation of the production; it is an inherently creative process, using the production as inspiration. The notion of producing a new work based on the seeds of an experience is a driving force in my writing. Plus, it's all part of my master plan to make theatre more accessible to those who wouldn't know a Fresnel from a fire escape but still want to be entertained or enlightened. Well, that and I like to promote the notion that I'm a little bit odd. Strange metaphors seem to do the trick. Someday, I'll tell you about the ones that I've decided not to use.

3) Uh, Wink, that would be false. If I ran the world, I would force every theatre critic to publish his or her resumé before writing word one about a show. It only seems fair.


illustration by Robert Faires

But, in case you haven't noticed, I don't run the world. So let me give you the inside skinny on some of Austin's critics, an eclectic lot with one thing in common: experience. On the Statesman side, both Michael Barnes and Jamie Smith hold Ph.Ds in theatre. Smith is even allowed to mold young minds in such diverse subjects as dance history and script analysis for both UT and Southwestern. Jerry Conn, from The Westlake Picayune, is a talented song-and-dance man whose tribute to Johnny Mercer, Jeepers Creepers, just ran at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. The late David Cohen, who wrote for The Texas Triangle, was a playwright and educator as well as a critic. Here at the Chronicle, Robert Faires was treading the boards before he ever picked up a poison pen, and he still does, most recently in West Side Story for Austin Musical Theatre and Sherlock Holmes for The Public Domain.

Then there's me, probably the one person in the current crop I can write about and be sure I have the credentials straight. To make a long story short, my father is a part-time actor, which is relevant only because it means that I used to volunteer my time in theatres to be able to do some father-daughter bonding. Started doing technical stuff for summer stock, independent from the Dad-ster, in junior high, then continued doing it through college. Directed, acted, costumed, lit, produced, and wrote for theatre while in higher education. After graduation, moved to Austin, worked as stage manager for The Public Domain and Frontera, most recently SMing the site-specific Enfants Perdus in October of 1996.

So there you go. Consider yourself informed.

4) C, although there are those in the community who believe we base reviews on who we like, who bought the most ad space, and/or who can get us the best deal on a used car. Admittedly, there are some companies to which each critic responds more than others, but each critic is also enough of a grown-up to look at different forms of theatre for what they are. Not everyone adores Salvage Vanguard, but we're all able to talk about its work objectively. Not everyone responds to Zach Scott, but we're all familiar enough with what the company is trying to do to evaluate its success.

5) False. This is one common myth that really harshes my mellow. Believe it or not, kids, theatre critics in this town wield very little real power when it comes to actually tanking a show with a bad review. Trust me when I say that sometimes in the deepest, blackest recesses of my little critic's heart, I wish I could close a stinker with a 500-word review, just to save the theatre as a whole from the bad energy that a lousy show can generate. But it is never going to happen here. One of the best things about the Austin theatre scene is that it isn't New York City, a harsh, cruel place in which a bad review from The New York Times or Village Voice just might dissuade enough people from seeing a show that its producers choose to close it.

Theatres in Austin operate on a much smaller scale with more personal contact, on the whole, between the artists and the ticket-buying public. Look at Rude Mechanicals, an up-and-coming company with a huge following that will buy tickets to one of its shows because they respond to what the Rude Mechs are trying to do, more than what one person in the paper happens to write about them.

It's the Phantom phenomenon on a smaller scale. Peck Phillips, The Box Office office manager, muses that all the theatre critics in Austin could have written a joint letter decrying Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera as sheer fluff and "it wouldn't affect their ticket sales one iota." As it was, both this paper and the Statesman ran less-than-positive reviews of the recent touring production that came through and Austinites still ran to it in droves, proving there is an enormous niche the show fills.

Admittedly, it's hard to know for sure what impact a negative review will have on attendance for a show. "It's hard to determine the reason why people don't call," Phillips says. It could be simply that the company itself didn't do a very good job of generating PR that caught the eye of its intended audience or that word-of-mouth about a truly awful production spread independently of a bad review.

Still, one thing can be said without a doubt. "A really glowing review - especially more than one - will increase box office. People will take a chance," says Phillips.

6) In an ideal world, the answer would always be C. The word criticism indicates an evaluation of both the merits and faults of, in this case, a stage production. Most productions are not 100 percent perfect, nor are they 100 percent awful, and a wise critic will always point out what in the show succeeded as well as what failed. Why? Well, this is another strange but true fact: Austin theatre writers love theatre in this town and want to help it improve. Seriously. And the best way to help artists hone their skills is to praise the good and point out the less-than-good. Simply relying on a "floggings will continue until morale improves" philosophy, i.e., trashing the negative in every show without mentioning the positive, won't get anyone anywhere and will only cause nasty feelings and sullen resentments. Constantly praising even the most mediocre of work doesn't really help anyone, either; you have to know where the problem spots are in order to solve them.

Having said that, let me add this: There are some shows that misuse their audience's time so heinously that it is hard to see the positive beneath the abject sloppiness or lack of effort. My best example of that involves a three hour-plus costume drama that I was assigned by Robert Faires to see. The review that I sent to him consisted of one sentence: Theatre should not have to be endured. It was next to impossible for me as an audience member to get past the fact that those responsible for the production did not seem to care about my being entertained or to question the quality of the work that they were presenting. Fortunately, a cooler head than mine prevailed and my one sentence summation did not run.

7) A. This quote comes from John Osborne, a British playwright who formed a "playwrights' Mafia" after being jerked around by the press one time too many. This attitude, however, expressed in the late Seventies by a disgruntled playwright across the pond, doesn't seem to hold true in pre-millennium Austin.

"Critics," says playwright Kirk Lynn of Rude Mechanicals, "are almost like parents. You have the desire to both piss them off and win their approval." Case in point: Statesman critic Michael Barnes once called one of Lynn's plays "juvenile." This one-word description made Lynn and the rest of the Rude Mechs want to carry their juvenile-ness to the extreme in their next show, just to prove that Barnes underestimated how juvenile the group could really be. Lynn admits that he has used some of the criticism from Lust Supper, the first play in his "Faminly" trilogy, to craft Krucks, the second. "In an ideal world," says Lynn, "critics would be helpmates, not just reviewers. In Austin, the criticism could be even more critical."

8) False. Critics are people who get paid for their opinion. Period. While professional critics, collectively and individually, have seen a lot of theatre, all we can provide is a context in which to consider a piece of work: a little historical background, a partial list of influences on the creators, or a catalogue of noteworthy performances. Words from a critic should not invalidate the experience of creation; if you had a great time putting a show together, you had a great time even if a critic hated the show. A critic can only talk about what he or she got from the theatrical experience and how it fits into a larger rubric, not what the participants got out of it.

I'll let you in on another little secret as well: Sometimes, we're wrong. Not wrong in the sense that we added two and two and got nine, but wrong as in, we made a judgment that, upon further reflection, was too harsh or too kind. Reviews in most local publications are written within days, sometimes hours, of seeing a production, which does not always give the writer enough time to digest an experience fully. Unfortunately, the logistics of newspaper production generally don't allow a critic the opportunity to go back and change an initial opinion. Time pressure is part of the nature of the beast of publishing, whether for a daily, weekly, or monthly.

9) A and/or B. Call this the trick question. Some theatre companies only see reviews as fodder for PR, you know those snappy little lines on posters and post cards. "Fantastic!" says Jamie Smith. "Riveting!" says Robert Faires. Personally, I have no problems with my work later showing up on a bright, shiny poster weeks after I've written it. What does bother me are the damn exclamation points. Hate them! With a passion! Makes everyone sound like a Kerri Strug on speed!

But I digress. The sincerest hope of most critics is that people will read their work with more than an eye for praise attached to their own names. Reviews are more than a popularity contest, listing who we love. They are, generally, an honest reaction to a piece of work with perhaps some suggestions as to which of the production's concepts were communicated and which were not. Hopefully, this is information that a production team or theatre company will find useful when plotting their next attack on the boards.

10) E. Critics in Austin welcome feedback. Really. Criticism is not intended to be a one-way process whereby theatre is produced and critics judge its worthiness. Rather, criticism is intended to be part of a cycle, whereby theatre is produced, critics talk about their experience of the production, and other audience members or company members can tell the critic he is full of crap and why. Write a letter. Call (during reasonable hours). Send e-mail. Make your disagreements known. Don't let them fester through assumptions about the critic's intentions.

A word of warning: Critics are people, too. No one likes to be accosted on the street and asked when they plan to get their head out of their ass. No one like phone calls at 3am, followed by heavy breathing and recitations of Neil Simon. Approach a critic as you would any other human being, with a modicum of politeness and courtesy. Now, let's all hold hands and sing "Kumbayah."


Scoring

Give yourself one point for each matching answer.

7-10 points: Call ACoT and start putting together your 501(c)(3). You are ready to have your work dissected by Austin's finest.

3-6 points: Not bad. Perhaps you were still stinging from the reviews of your last production and need to deal with your rejection issues.

0-2 points: Call me. We'll have coffee. I'll bring the clue.


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