Good Reviews and Bad Sex – by Amy Tofte

A Good Review is like Good Sex. You feel affirmed, happy, thrilled, all is right with the world and you can conquer any challenge with your belief in all that is wonderful.

Conversely, a Bad Review, of course, is like Bad Sex. It can range from embarrassing to upsetting to frustrating to—in some cases, yes—infuriating. Because, really, how could this union between play and reviewer ever result in anything BUT a horrible experience? What were you thinking?

I believe if we in the theater community thought more about reviews in this way, we’d all be a little more sane about the review process.

I also think this paradigm might help our reviewers, um, rise to the challenge (oh, yes, I did just say that) in writing reviews, whether they be good, bad or lie there like a cold fish.

For example, an online argument erupted earlier this month about the following review:

Bechnya Review

Bitter Lemons Article on the Bruhaha

If you don’t want to read the review, don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you. And I’m going to ask us all to think of reviews a little more like consensual sex and a little less like playground name-calling.

Here’s the short version:

The reviewer wrote a negative (Bad) review for the play Bechnya at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood. Once posted, the reviewer received a whole bunch of pissed off people telling her where to put it. As you might suspect, some of these people seemed reasonable with valid points and some sounded like angry crazy people. I’m going to assert these people are not actually crazy, just hurt by the review and reactive which makes them sound crazy. Right?

What got me further interested, however, is the reviewer responding to the hate mail and then her site’s editor responding to the criticism of the criticism. You just don’t get more LA than that.

But I think we can all learn from this.

Good Reviews = Good Sex and Bad Reviews = Bad Sex.

A review is a snapshot of a production for a potential audience. And I think it should do, at minimum, three things: 1) determine what the art being made is attempting to do 2) make a critical assessment of whether or not a piece of art is accomplishing the goals put forth by the artist and 3) deliver an opinion based on the readership of its audience as to how the audience might feel about the work. (This is the thumbs up or down assessment of the work.)

Writing reviews is difficult work that requires skill, patience and some level-headed critical thinking. When you talk to reviewers who are steeped in journalism and have experienced their mistakes, this is how they talk: They take in. They ask questions. They are curious. They listen more than speak. They are often dispassionate and thoughtful more than emotional. They absolutely have opinions. But they are concise in how they express them. This is why I could never be a reviewer. Or why doing so might drive me slightly mad.

I think this particular review for Bechnya is bullshit and this is why:

I copy and pasted the review into a word document and did a breakdown of the actual content. The total word count for this review is 844 words. The first 212 words (25%) describe what was experienced in unflattering, albeit entertaining language. All this is done to come to an overall statement of the play that is finally brought to a head and set aside as a one-liner: “It was a convoluted hot mess.”

Seriously? This is the one line take away? …”a convoluted hot mess”?

Is this journalism or a Facebook status update? Is this how we’re talking about art in a public, written-for-all-time forum? Or is this a cocktail party among friends bitching it out for laughs? Was all that 212 word lead-in a chance to show us cleverness pointing to a well-crafted punch-line at the expense of the play you simply didn’t like? Or maybe you just didn’t understand?

We’ll never know because there is nothing in the review attempting to understand the work being watched. Lots of questions are raised, but never once does the reviewer surmise maybe this convoluted, frustrating experience has something to do with the very message of the play.

Is this the limit of our critical thinking skills for theater? Is this the best we can do?

Then the reviewer goes on for another 499 words (59%) to complain further (again, very entertaining) about what she’s seen. The same ideas are repeated: it was confusing, didn’t get it, didn’t like it, hated it, it’s bad, there was so much bad, everything was bad, bad, bad.

Okay. We get it. It’s supposed to be a review not a rant. Why not just say it ONCE in a clear, concise way? Why not craft that one sentence that you can replace all 844 words into because that is the information I am expecting when reading a review. I am expecting the snap shot. Not a laundry list of creatively expressed angst against a production. There are audiences that might be intrigued by something non-linear even if a reviewer is not. Without a more accurate snapshot, we don’t get insight to this.

I also know from reading other reviews of Bechnya there was a multi-media element to this production. It seems that element is a pretty big part of this show—and possibly part of the confusion—but a significant part of the production nonetheless. That’s barely mentioned in this snapshot and seems to blame its use on the playwright, which is unlikely but also hard to discern as a playwright choice or a producing choice. Where is the evidence?

It makes no difference to me if the play was the most god-awful, horrible thing on earth. It deserves more critical assessment that is not fueled by sarcasm and repetitive badgering. This is actually NOT A REVIEW. This is a blog post editorial. Even the editor says his writers, “Have a free hand…” (Um…okay, so no one takes the time to edit anything. Good to know.)

Then, buried toward the end there is a 55 word section (7%) that talks about what was actually good about this production. Oh, so there WAS something good happening. There was something GOOD about this experience. In fact, it sounds very good. It wasn’t all just a cocktail party joke. But what’s good got unfairly buried inside 789 words that are practically making fun of the play, driving home a repetitive argument and exhibiting a very personal response.

If we HAVE to accept this as a review, I think it’s pretty clear. It’s some pretty Bad Sex.

Bad Review = Bad Sex

Now let’s flip to the people who got angry and lashed out. The reviewer couldn’t BELIEVE the responses to the review.  And wondered why she only gets responses to bad reviews and not GOOD reviews. Are you kidding? Is this a real question?

Let me repeat…Good Review = Good Sex

And if you want Good Sex to stop happening, the first step might be to complain about it. Good Reviews are affirming and helpful to market a play. Please don’t be silly. No one will complain about a Good Review.

I think the people who responded were mad over this particular review because it was some Bad Sex and the reviewer is blasting it all over the internet with a whole lot of spiteful details. The reviewer clearly liked something that was going on but chose to dwell on the Bad Sex. In fact 93% of the review dwells on it.

It’s humiliating and unfair. It’s not good journalism. And the show is placed in a completely unfair position because if they lash out at the reviewer, it just appears to be sour grapes. Because it’s a REVIEW…oh, my God…it’s on the INTERNET. It’s like the word of God.

Trust me. It’s not.

Good, bad, mediocre…it’s just sex. And a one night stand at that.

This reviewer further states that if she can’t express her honest opinion it will discourage real critical feedback that might be negative.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there isn’t a reviewer worth their salt who will start soft-balling reviews because people got angry over what they said. I don’t know a single reviewer who thinks this way. This is why they craft what they say the way they do. They CRAFT it.

A good reviewer—and, yes, Los Angeles has them—is most often quick, painless and fact driven. Sometimes even if it’s a “Good Sex” review it can still be that simple. Most good reviewers I read that write “Bad Sex” reviews also cut to specifics without much emotion and they certainly don’t feel like someone gleefully trashing how bad it was.

How completely rude and unscrupulous would it be to revel in Bad Sex at someone’s expense? It just wasn’t a good fit. Or the attempt failed because of “x, y and z…in this reviewer’s opinion.” Onward.

Now for those of you taking this reviewer to task…let it go. And please know, as a fellow artist who has had her share of harsh commentary, I feel your collective pain. I really do. Many of us do. But it was just Bad Sex.

The review lacks some critical distance. And reviewers are allowed to screw up. They have to watch a play, make an assessment and try to write something worthwhile about the experience. They have crazy deadlines they are trying to keep. They sometimes have to work from the gut. No one here is a bad person…it’s just Bad Sex.

And when you’re sexually active (i.e. making theater)…you run the risk of having Bad Sex.

Please, by all means, run wild with this analogy to theater in LA: sexually transmitted diseases, masturbation, prostitution…it’s all there.

I’m light-hearted with this because this post actually IS pop-cultural, intrepid blogging not robust journalism.

I don’t know anyone involved in this particular debate. I don’t know the Bechnya cast or crew. I don’t know the reviewer. I don’t know the play and I certainly didn’t see the production.

Putting your name on something in writing and putting it out into the world takes more guts than most people have. And it’s the common ground reviewers and artists stand upon. I’m sorry if I’m asking all critics (bloggers included) to take more time, edit carefully and be more precise, but it’s the least they can do for the hundreds of combined hours theater people slave over to create one night of theater.

I rarely read reviews anymore until after I’ve seen something. The good ones illuminate. The bad ones…are usually just Bad Sex. And I forget about them.

I do think critics don’t always spend enough time asking: What is the artist trying to do? What am I watching and is it succeeding at its goal, even if I don’t personally like it?

I don’t believe anyone enters an artistic endeavor to do bad work. (Does anyone ever WANT Bad Sex?) But sometimes the planets don’t align for whatever reason. Or the work you’re doing doesn’t match the work a critic wants to see. It happens to every single artist on the planet. Van Gough died a poor man.  Not all art is accepted in its time.

So you got a bad review. It was a little Bad Sex. Nothing to dwell on or cry about. Look ahead to all the good maybe GREAT sex that is waiting around the corner. A reviewer is only ONE OPINION. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

Lighten up artists. Get serious critics. Let’s all take a cold shower and start over.

Filed Under: amy tofteFeaturedPonderings

Tags:

Amy Tofte About the Author: Amy Tofte is a writer/director who worked way too hard for her SAG card that she stubbornly hangs on to. She has her MFA from CalArts (Writing for Performance) and has seen her work produced all over the country and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is a founding member of Fierce Backbone in Los Angeles (a theater dedicated to all levels of play development) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit Amy at http://amytofte.com

RSSComments (4)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Trevor Thomas says:

    In your compellingly argued 1,957 word essay, four words (0.204%) strike me as key, and to remain faithful to your tasty literary conceit, they feel like a powerful hip thrust that misses its target and rams instead into a soft creamy fold of upper thigh.

    As regards this reviewer’s practices, you write: “It’s not good journalism.” In point of fact it is not journalism at all. Journalism involves several key factors seemingly absent from this particular effort. To be a journalist first implies that you have endured a process whereby your prior work is evaluated by senior writers and editors to see if it is worthy of being presented beneath their banner.

    In true journalism, you must compete to be heard; you don’t just start nattering away. Even those serious-minded outlets which have no corporeal existence outside the internet adopt this model of vetting: you will never write for Stage and Cinema without first braving the Scylla and Charybdis of Tony Frankel and John Topping. (And good luck with that if one is not generously endowed with raw talent.)

    Even then, the writer’s work remains always subject to editorial oversight. This can be sometimes a humiliating process, but having one’s copy coldly torn apart and reformed, without recourse, is how you grow as a writer. In editorial, I am quite certain that at least 30-40% of the Bechnya reviewer’s content would have vanished, along with its many instances of self-indulgence. A sentence that begins “Bechnya turns out as an everything but the kitchen soup smorgasbord that falls into its own trap…” would be gone, if for no other reason than nobody has ever seen a kitchen soup – much less in a smorgasbord – and wouldn’t want to even if such existed.

    As young bloggers rush headlong into the moist gaping hole that is internet self-publishing, they imagine themselves pioneering some new and improved form of journalism, but they are not. They are simply bypassing those obstacles necessarily put in place to winnow out dilettantes and the unqualified. To be a great lover requires skill, finesse, long experience, sensitivity, and imagination: the same qualities that mark a gifted reviewer. Anything less is just so much fumbling around in the back seat of a ’67 Nova.

    • Amy Tofte Amy Tofte says:

      I have so much respect for journalists. And after working with Don Shirley over at LA Stage…it’s a huge difference for any writer to have a truly seasoned editor at your back. (Colin Mitchell is no slouch, etiher.) I bow down to thee… I also think everything should be broken down into percentages 100% of the time.

  2. I need a cigarette.

  3. Greg says:

    Hi Amy. I also have not seen this play & know no one involved, so have no dog in this fight. After reading the review in question, it doesn’t strike me as rant-like (and I say this having had a couple of my plays on the receiving end of a couple of definite rants); the reviewer at least engages with what the play seemed be *trying* to do, and then explained the reasons why it didn’t work (too much going on in the script). As for the question about multimedia, playwrights have absolute final cut in the theatre; if Ms. Stanescu didn’t want the projections in her show, she could have ordered them cut. I can accept that there may have been a communication breakdown between writer & director, but it is not the reviewer’s responsibility to know about this in theatre because, again, playwrights have final cut, and 2) how would the reviewer know?

    (Different story in film, of course; no critic worth his salt blames a non-directing writer for a bad script, since movie scripts can be altered by directors/producers/studios at will.)

    Presumably the reviewer discussed the things that weren’t working in the show because at the end of the day, the production as a whole didn’t work. That’s the way it goes.

    Finally, one comment on the original review asks “aren’t reviewers supposed to read the play before writing?” The answer is no; reviewers can only judge the production in front of them. We don’t even know if the script was made available to interested critics.