Many apologies, everyone (for those who have actually been visiting this site), for my long hiatus. I was mired in a veritable miasma of screenwriting projects, finishing a short film I wrote, directed and produced, and shoulder surgery, but I am refreshed and redeemed (one can hope) and back with some more razor-sharp analysis (one can further hope) and general provocation on all things Los Angeles theatre. Gasp.
Very good. A few points of order before we plunge in; this site is still evolving and we encourage people to become involved, either as contributors, commenters, and most importantly, as a programmer that might be able to help us create a “Rotten Tomatoes” type of engine to run on the site. Please check in often, link, send to friends, post your theatre company info on the home page, etc… I am confident Bitter Lemons will become a valuable tool for the Los Angeles Theatre Community in the very near future.
If you’d like to take your shot at being a contributor please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and put in the subject line “Would like to contribute to Bitter-Lemons. Please set me up with WordPress.”
All right. Onward. So below is an interesting article written by the playwright Marsha Norman, sent to me by my friend and the prolific award-winning playwright Richard Martin Hirsch and it touches on a theme I was exploring in an earlier post; basically, the critic accepting their responsibility as theatre advocate. Very heartfelt and very true. Enjoy.
Oh, also, a little personal plug. My one act play “Musing” has just been chosen to appear in the The Production Company’s first annual “Summer Sizzle One-Act Play Festival” which bows in early September. Stay tuned.
The Critic as Advocate
I was really interested in Frank’s question about why “August” has “connected with a large and diverse audience in a way that other equally well-reviewed plays have not.” This question opens the floodgates to a huge issue, which is the relationship between critics and the audience. What responsibility, if any, do critics have to theatergoers? What is the purpose of criticism now? Is it anything more than what you’d find in TV Guide — who’s in the thing and what’s it about? Or is it sevice journalism — is this piece of entertainment worth 47 bucks of your hard earned cash? (That’s the median price paid for a Broadway ticket, by the way.) What kinds of experience should be required before a person becomes a critic? Should they be held responsible to anybody or anything, or can they just write with a free hand, and be loose cannons for life, some of them?
I have had great reviews in my career, and I’ve had some that were so bad I stopped writing for years. That is more or less what all writers can expect. So this is not about me, or playwrights even. This is about the audience, the people the critics are writing for, I guess. But that’s the question: what are the critics doing? In the case of “August,” critics are encouraging people to go ahead and enjoy a play that people like. And that’s the answer to Frank’s question — that’s why “August” has been such a success. But that’s not always what critics tell the audience.
We in the theater community routinely blame critics for closing plays, chasing away playwrights and telling the audience in so many sarcastic words that shows in general are just not worth going to. Critics themselves say that they are, after all, only expressing their personal viewpoints — and so are themselves exempt from criticism of any kind. Generally they deny they have any real power. Newspapers, magazines and TV outlets also deny the power of the critics they employ. They operate as if people read ten or eleven papers a day, watch all the networks and can easily see what the other reviewers think and so come to a conclusion of their own.
Big media companies resist all complaints that any single critic has undue power. But if they are not interested in wielding critical power, why do newspapers and magazines continue to remind audiences of their critics’ opinions long after the original review has run? The practice of putting checks or stars in the listing of long-running shows is offensive in so many ways. It doesn’t inform the audience. But it does have the effect of shaming the audience into staying away. Many prominent critics seem to write one negative review after another. And even though the effect is generally to depress the theater and keep audiences away, theater producers continue to use critics’ quotes in newspaper ads, and wait to set a marketing strategy until the reviews come in. Producers continue to place ads in the same newspapers that are warning the audience not to see their shows. It’s a situation that’s gotten completely out of whack. Critics are no longer the advocates they once were, and audiences are drifting off to television, where so many playwrights are making a living now. And that is where we get back to Frank’s question.
Audiences love “August.” The critics love it too. And that doesn’t happen very often. Usually, when the audience likes something, the critics tell them they’re stupid for liking it, so fewer and fewer brave souls venture out until the show ultimately closes. Sometimes, critics like a play that leaves the audience cold. And as Frank notes, there is nothing a critic can do for a play if the audience doesn’t like it.
So how can critics serve their readers – and the theater – better? They need to accept their responsibility to report how the audience responded. And not in a dismissive way, but in a way that reflects the standards of ordinary journalism. I’d like to see sentences like “On the night I was there hating it, the other 1,600 people were cheering in the aisles. Go figure.” Or “On the night I loved it, half of the audience was asleep. Check it out.” If the critics are writing for the audience, then the reader needs to know what else was going on besides what was in the critic’s mind.
We need a new day to dawn here. At the very least, newspapers should run box scores of critical response, so readers can see what other reviewers thought. This is heresy, of course. But a vibrant theater is possible only when the critics stop leaving the audience out of the review. I’m not saying the critics have to distort their opinions. I am saying that critics have to accept responsibility for what they write. They can do enormous good, as they have in the case of “August.” And they can do great harm. If critics love the theater, as some do, and if they want more good plays like “August,” they should not be afraid to really champion a writer or a play, the way that Frank Rich did for me with “‘night, Mother,” and how Walter Kerr celebrated David Mamet. And if they don’t like a play, they should not be allowed to wipe the piece or the writer off the face of the earth. They need to advocate for writers and for writing. The theater community needs to feel that even if critics don’t like a particular work, they at least like plays. We need critics to use their power for good. I know how freaky that sounds. But I’m dead serious. We need critics to use their power for good. Otherwise, what on earth is the point of having them?
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.