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Writing about Writing about Writing

Criticism | Fringe

The hardest thing in writing theater reviews is to resist the urge to take a cheap shot.

Because it’s quick and it’s funny, and it gets the job done.

If I had the same word and space limits (and time crunch) as print reviewers and critics, that urge might be harder to fight. One of the many wonders (and dangers) of the internet is that there seems to be an unlimited amount of space, so you can go on as long as you like (often longer than you should). Control is a learned behavior. Many would say I’m still learning.

I’m a playwright. I also write theater reviews. I was asked if I’d ever written about the relationship between being someone who writes about theater and being someone who actually writes theater. Does one impact the other, and if so, how? So now here I am in the hall of mirrors, a writer writing about writing about writing. (And acting and directing and designing and stage managing, too, of course.)

There was an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago wondering why there weren’t more playwrights writing theater criticism and reviews. A lot of the online commentary surrounding the article suggested that perhaps, theater being the small community it is, playwrights didn’t want to offend people they’d want to end up working with one day. Honestly, the reason I don’t write more than I do about theater is equally selfish but in a completely different vein. Every minute I spend writing about someone else’s theater production is a minute I’m not writing a script of my own.

The writing about theater I do today was something I sort of backed into sideways. There was the occasional random opinion piece I cooked up prior to 2003, but it really kicked into high gear in the summer of 2003 when the folks at the Minnesota Fringe Festival asked if I’d write a blog about the Fringe. After they explained to me what a blog was, they further explained that while there wasn’t any monetary compensation, I could see as many shows as I wanted to for free. Free theater? Sign me up! And down the slippery slope I went. That blog now lives at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and they have me reviewing theater the other eleven months of the year as well.

A lot of people read reviews just to see if the show is any good and whether it’s worth their time to go or not. I understand that impulse. We are blessed and cursed with an overabundance of theater offerings in this town, and the same old 24 hour day in which to get things done. Having someone else flag a production as something you simply must squeeze into your schedule, or could just as easily live without, that’s handy.

Other people read reviews to see if there’s anything you’d written about their show that they could use to pimp the show to other people and get them to come see it. “Look, someone who isn’t my mother says the show’s really great! You should buy a ticket!”

Me, I write reviews to figure out how theater works. It’s often easier to see mistakes in other people’s work than it is to recognize them in your own. It’s also great to be inspired by other artists’ ways of telling a story, often things you’d never have thought of yourself. Being immersed in the Minnesota Fringe Festival once a year is always useful for expanding my definition of what’s possible in live theater. Of course, writing about what does and doesn’t work in a play is a little like trying to explain a joke, with the unhappy side effect of making it less funny. Or like the alien that took the dog apart to see how it worked, and then of course, oops, it ceases to be a living dog.

But there’s also nothing less helpful than a three word assessment like, “Wow, that sucked” or “That was great.” Yes, you’re entitled to your opinion, but why did it suck? Why was it great? Will other people think it sucked? Will other people think it’s great? How does an artist keep doing that great thing if they don’t know what it is that worked so well? How does an artist get any better if they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong? How does an audience member like me learn what works for me and what doesn’t - what kind of theater should I be seeing more of? what should I avoid? what’s going to feed my head and my heart not just as an audience member, but as someone looking for inspiration to keep creating theater myself?

Because nobody sets out to make a bad piece of theater. It happens, but no one deliberately tries to make bad theater. Theater takes a lot of time and energy (let’s not even get into the money). Why would you waste any of your life making something that doesn’t work, that is painful to perform or painful for someone else to sit through?

I’ve spent many years as both a stage manager and a playwright and I’ve seen all the working parts and how they come together. I know it’s not easy. When I sit in the audience, I’m rooting for the whole thing to work. When I sit at the keyboard afterward, whether the production was wonderful or terrible, I approach it with great sympathy. I’ve waited for those reviews. I’ve scoured them for one kind or encouraging word. Reviews can boost someone’s confidence or cut them off at the knees. It’s easy to ask someone for their opinion. It takes a thick skin sometimes to listen to that opinion.

But, also, a theater production is a couple of hours of someone’s life that they’re not going to get back. What are you giving them for it in exchange? What story are you trying to tell? What characters do you want to introduce them to? What’s your point? These are questions I always ask myself writing plays, so they seemed useful things to ask about the work of others. It’s a more constructive version of the less helpful question, “What the hell were you thinking?”

As an artist, blaming the audience isn’t going to get you anywhere. You’re a storyteller. If the person hearing your story isn’t getting what you mean to convey to them, that isn’t necessarily their failure. Somehow, you need to be a better communicator. I haven’t yet run into anyone at a theater who bought their ticket just to sit there and deny the artist any hope of getting through to them. Doesn’t seem like a very relaxing or entertaining strategy for filling one’s free time.

Some people want to see something familiar when they go to the theater. Some people want to see something new and different. Our theater community has plenty of both. If I have a bias, it’s probably toward new work, since I’m a playwright myself. Playwrights can use all the help they can get, since they have one big disadvantage compared with other theater artists. You can’t work with a dead actor, a dead director, or a dead stage manager. People work with dead playwrights all the time. They’re much less trouble. Sometimes you don’t even need to pay them.

As a reviewer, I try to be both fair and honest. There’s no point in telling people to go see bad theater. We want them to see good theater, so they’ll like theater, and go see more theater. At the same time, nobody sets out to make a bad piece of theater. Artists are people, too. They have feelings that can be hurt. So you tread lightly. The subtext of most reviews I do of less than stellar productions is normally, “I know you’re not a horrible person. This just wasn’t your finest hour. And here’s why it didn’t work for me...” Because what doesn’t work for me as an audience member might be just the thing someone else is looking for. So I try to unpack my experience as an audience member and, whether I’m excited about the play or not, people can make up their own minds.

To my knowledge, I’ve only ever ticked off three people so badly that they felt compelled to write me angry comments in response. One was a visiting company that felt I’d spoiled the ending to their play (even though the ending to their play was in all the publicity materials, and I actually quite liked the play and said so). They asked that I no longer review their work. I haven’t been back since, even though they have. One was a guy who felt I was unfairly criticizing an actress who also happened to be his girlfriend (later wife and mother of his children), so I can understand the depth of feeling there. The most recent, well, it’s a local company and we’ll see if I get invited to their next production or not. The artistic director was pretty mad, and also pretty dismissive of me as a theater person and critic, so who knows? I actually admire their mission as a theater company. I just didn’t think they did it all that well the last time around.

And that’s the thing. It’s one person’s opinion. The internet’s a big, easy-access kind of place. Anybody and their sister can start a blog. If you say nice things about a production, people will find a way to quote you, and it all just snowballs from there. I now occasionally even get paid to do reviews. I’ll be assigned to see things I might not otherwise have seen. I’ll pitch ideas to my editor about little hole-in-the-wall theater companies that intrigue me and maybe get them a little bit of attention and a few more audience members that way. When you feel like you could do someone some good by not just coming to see their show, but also writing about it, well, that can become a bit of a mission that takes over your life.

You also spend a lot of your time feeling inadequate, and disappointing people. Because you can’t see everything. You can’t even see all the things you want to, or even just the things your friends are part of. There’s just too much theater. And I have two day jobs, and a writing career of my own I try to keep sputtering along. No one’s going to write my plays for me. However, someone else will always have an opinion about a play they won’t be shy about sharing with other people.

There was an uncomfortable period not long ago when I felt like I was better known for writing reviews than writing plays. Balance. My lunch break at the day job is over. I’ve got a play hitting the boards in October and my director is still waiting on some rewrites. The first press release from a visiting Fringe artist just landed in my email box this morning. As they say in Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” the world only spins forward.