Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In Defense of Critics

I was considering writing this post a while ago, after a previous post raised some discussion, but I felt it was probably best to leave it alone at the time. Besides, critics (good critics, veteran critics) can take some abuse. They have to - it comes with the territory. Like umpires, critics have to anticipate that people giving them shit is just part of the job, and if you can't handle it, mabye you need to choose something else to do. Critics don't need me to defend them.

But then this happened.

And then - well the comments have been removed, but apparently someone left a series of vulgar, threatening, and anonymous comments on this review which sought to demean Byron with sexual, homophobic insults.

So. Maybe critics do need us. Maybe they don't need me particularly, but they need us generally - to testify that they are members of the artistic community as valuable as artists and producers (sometimes more valuable). Maybe it's a worthy exercise to write something on this topic.

First let me address a couple issues that came up in response to or near the time of my previous article.

1) Who is qualified to be a critic?

My opinion: Anyone. Everyone. Do you have an opinion? Do you want to express it? Great. Do it. You have that right.

The idea that one needs a certain pedigree or education to have an opinion about art is, from my perspective, foolishly limiting. And now, there are no gatekeepers - you can literally set up your own website for ZERO dollars. If you want to start reviewing plays or movies or pudding flavors, you can do that. So go do it.

Does that mean that all reviews and reviewers are equal? Should we treat all reviews as equally valid?

Hahahaha. No.

Reviewing well takes skill, thoughtfulness, awareness of larger cultural contexts, and hard work. Most reviewers and most reviews don't have this. Even reviews from experienced reviewers fall short (hey, nobody's perfect). What I'm saying is that everyone has a right to express their opinion, and those opinions should be judged on the merits of their expression, not the resumes of their authors.

2) Reviewer or critic?

I use these terms interchangeably. I realize that "critic" often implies some higher level of skill, some dedication or goal to not just review the performance, but to place it in a larger cultural context and artistic dialectic.

Frankly, while that is a fine thing to strive for, I'm not sure it's really possible given the word limits of publication. The popularity of online-only publication should not, theoretically, have that limitation (this blog certainly doesn't) but some still seem to stick to word limits. And those that don't aren't uniformly more interesting or in-depth. The better uses of the extra space leave the reviewer free to comment on all aspects of the work - the comments on costumes or lighting don't get cut for space - the worse uses tend to be "ah good I can recap the entire plot!"

So I use these words interchangeably. I hope no one is offended.

3) What is fair game for review?

Everything you perform in public.

That said, different types of production should not all be judged on the same scale. Staged readings should not be subject to the same scrutiny as full productions. And works produced by students or younger people should properly be seen as educational opportunities for the participants in addition to entertainment for the audience. It's simply not fair to hold all production to the same standard. As long as a reviewer takes this into account, and INFORMS his readers about that context, it is totally fair to review anything you put out there. Producers don't have to comp reviewers, and can even tell reviewers they do not wish to be reviewed. But producers simply do not have the right (legally or ethically) to prevent a reviewer from providing their opinion. You don't want it to be reviewed - don't do it in public.

4) Lack of diversity.

I think that a lack of diversity among critics is a totally valid criticism of society as a whole, or any particular publication (print or online) as applicable. It is a real problem when "critical feedback" is only coming from one demographic perspective.

That said - it's not a valid criticism of an individual reviewer. Well, it's not a valid criticism in and of itself. It's totally valid to say "reviewer X can't see past his [and yes, it is his] bias/experience/etc..." But hey, people can't help who they are. I get people being a bit sick of hearing white male voices as critics, but that's not their fault. At least someone is actually putting the effort out to show up.  The solution to a lack of diversity is in (1) above. It costs you literally ZERO dollars to start a review blog (this website costs me zero dollars). If you say that "hey I run a review blog" and I can google your blog and it exists and has reviews on it, yeah, I'll give you a comp. It would be AWESOME to have more diversity in critical voices out there. Go do it! Don't let anyone stop you!

So all the above said - 

I wanted to say that I really value critics. I appreciate their work, and we are better off as a community and as individual artist if there is a robust critical component in our scene.

Reviews are not, strictly speaking, necessary for good art. But they help. Hm. Good (as in well written and thoughtful) reviews help. At a minimum they serve as publicity and recognition. I've said before that I'd rather get a negative review than no review at all. Even a bad review means that people thought your art worthy enough to consider, to spend time with and reflect on. Getting no review at all seems to me as if it is considered not worth engaging with.

And if they are well done, critics place a work into the cultural context and landscape of the time and location. They provide valuable feedback. They help people access the work, or provide context for the audience to reflect or consider aspects of it that they may not have on their own. And they say yes, the work is worth the time to engage.

They can also help shape the artistic landscape (hopefully for the better) by providing encouragement and exposure to new artists or ideas, and really exciting projects, and by providing negative feedback where it is justified. Every show does not deserve a rave review. Whether or not one agrees with their opinion, a critic that is willing to be critical and consistent (in a thoughtful way) can provide a service. Not as a gatekeeper, but as a barometer. They are not always right (far from it) but if they are at least consistent, they can serve as a useful reflection for creators, telling them they reached or did not reach this type of person for this reason.

Having reviews of theatre run along side movie reviews and music reviews keeps the theatrical art alive in the community at large. A publication's dedication to producing them is a vote of confidence and a work of faith that they see plays as equally worthy of column inches (or virtual web pages) to other forms of artistic expression. And this placement, this faith, keeps that alive in the minds of the community.

As many have pointed out, reviews can help build long-term projects by providing proof of an independent evaluation of a company's work (and its body of work over time). Grant applications and other large scale fundraising techniques often rely on having a body of critical evaluation. For better or worse, whether or not such reviews appear in print does matter for these purposes. So losing space for print reviews hurts the community as a whole.

But most importantly, let me say a few words about two people in particular: Roy Dicks and Byron Woods. These men are goddamn heroes of the local theatre community. There are probably 5 or 6 people who can legitimately say they've been more influential in creating an maintaining the local theatre scene in the triangle than these two men. MAYBE 5 or 6. That's it. Honestly. They've gone to hundreds, probably thousands of shows between them. They've been doing it consistently for decades. And they've seen a lot of bad theatre. I mean, A LOT. Look, I love y'all, but every show isn't a winner, know what I mean? And they've maintained their ability to be passionate and excited about new works or fresh productions.

Is every review these two write brilliant? Of course not. Do I always agree with their opinions? No way. But they are almost always professional, respectful, and thorough. And when they fail to be so (and I have had occasion to call out one of them for a rare lapse in that regard), they take that criticism with respect. Their ability, their dedication, and their apparently iron tuchuses drive them to go to multiple shows every week.  And they have both produced consistent quality writing for DECADES. That is something that should not be taken for granted.

Losing Roy's reviews is a major blow to this community. He will not disappear - he's already begun appearing in CVNC. We will not lose his critical voice. But losing his place in the paper is a blow. Like it or not, reviews that appear in print are simply seen as more "real" more "valid" than online reviews. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but for grant applications, building a reputation, etc... these things matter. And of more concern to me personally, is that it signals that the local paper for Raleigh sees theatre as simply not sufficiently important enough to its readers - not a sufficiently important part of the cultural landscape - to spend time on. And that fact more than any other concerns me.

The kind of comments Byron had to put up with,* well that's simply inexcusable. Representatives of Honest Pint/Sweet Tea made clear that the poster was not associated with their production (I feel certain that they are not, or if they are, there is no way that Jeremy or David know who it is, they simply would not tolerate that kind of behavior). I feel like the theatre community has universally condemned the statements of this poster. Which is good. Because disagreeing with critics is fine. Disliking them is fine. But threatening them, demeaning them, or making them feel unsafe is absolutely something this theatre community needs to condemn (and as far as I know, has). When that sort of thing happens, we all need to stand with the critics.

We can't take our critics for granted. And we need to remember this as well: Roy and Byron (and really, most reviewers) do it for one reason: because they love it. Because they passionately care about local theatre. Because THEY think it's worthy of their time, effort, and attention. Even if you don't agree with their reviews EVER, if you love theatre, you should at least respect both of them for their love and their dedication to it.

Losing a critical voice in the N&O is terrible. And the kind of bullshit that Byron had to put up with is inexcusable. Critics can write things that we disagree with, even things that hurt us. They are not infallible and they do make errors (in criticism and judgement). But we need to recognize that while we may disagree with them occasionally (or even frequently) they are a valuable part of this community. We need their voices, even if we don't always like what they say. And we need to stand with them when they suffer these sorts of attacks.

I personally do.

*I did not see any of the comments. Here is Byron's description of the comments left on the article taken from a post he made on Facebook:

None of the 15 posts had anything to say about the production, or my coverage of it.
Instead, the writer began with criticism of my "fat face and ratty dead facial hair" and a Grindr account I was alleged to have. My overweight physical form and presumed sexual orientation were of great concern to this individual.
So were what they alleged as my proclivities for exhibitionism, bondage and anal sex.
The writer also attached links to websites on suicide prevention (“Just incase").
And the treatment of AIDS.

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