Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
A Moment of Musing: Critics, Discourse and Trolls
The role of a critic in any arena is a complicated one, a thought which has been underscored since I began this blog. One must use one’s own training and expertise to try and be as honest as one can. Since everything in a critique is a matter of opinion, even if a critic’s opinion is an educated one, it will face opposition from someone with a differing view. That is to be expected. Not everyone looks at anything with the same eye.
The best a critic can do is to be consistent. If a badly hemmed costume bothers me, it must bother me all the time. If the timing in a comedy matters to me, it must do so consistently. That way, those who read my reviews can process that information and decide whether the issues I raise matter to them or not. If it doesn’t, they can discount my review, or that portion of it. No critic claims to be God.
On the other hand reviews are not puff pieces. My predecessor at the Pasadena Star-News, back in the late 1970s, turned them into ones, though. If you believed her, everything she saw was ready for Broadway. I was reviewing for a little weekly at the time, and saw some shows most of the audience found atrocious, yet she gave high praise to, so I know how inaccurate her reviews were. She did it, I believe, because every little community group she encountered treated her like a queen. Her reviews were posted in every local small theater and she was greatly rewarded by them for making the people doing the productions feel so good. But she was doing a disservice to the readership of the paper – the people who were paying her way. They couldn’t trust her reviews. What she wrote mattered only to the performers. Many, many, many people said that very thing when I took over her spot upon her retirement: “Finally, someone is writing those things with a critical eye.”
Indeed, I have developed a reputation for being able to be friends with a producer or director or actor and still being able to be honest about his or her production or performance. As case in point, I can remember seeing something really awful at the Mark Taper Forum, and then encountering a long-time friend associated with that production a couple of days later. All she said was, “I haven’t seen your review yet. Did you skewer us as badly as everyone else?” When I said yes, she only said, “I thought you would.”
Of course, all people have a right to voice their opinions. It’s part of an open dialogue. During my 30 + years as a newspaper critic I have occasionally gotten letters – or my editors have – agreeing with or strongly disagreeing with my opinion on a particular work. Still, there is an innate sense of distance to a mailed response. A person who sits down to pen a complaint, or a compliment, must take time to consider phrasing, and even whether or not the comment is worth making. That person is writing to a large entity (ie: a newspaper), and in many cases has no idea who I am or what my background is. I have had to take some spectacular blows over the years, but they came muted by time and a sense of physical separation. That doesn’t make them un-painful, but it does give one perspective. I have tried to weigh each critique honestly and use it to help me grow. Sometimes, though, it was simply a difference of opinion, which I honor for its own value.
In the digital age an angry reader does not have that delay element – the time to consider one’s words. The moment a person is upset by something in the digital arena, that person can blast away. There is no necessity to think out what is being said, and no time for the cooling of one’s ire. Instead, venting can become the standard, complete with ugly words and uglier implications. A few people begin to make this a hobby, and a few of those use it to bolster their sagging self-esteem at the expense of another. Such actions can turn into cyberbullying, particularly if aimed at the young or the insecure. For more mature people, such messages underscore the increasing incivility of this electronic world. Name-calling is not discourse. It has no end other than inflicting pain.
For the uninitiated, there is a word for these kinds of messages. They are called “flames.” And people who begin to make a habit of writing insulting and derogatory messages are called “trolls.”
And, yes, I have encountered trolls since this blog began. Interestingly, almost all, though not absolutely all, of the troll-like behavior comes from the fans, or perhaps the members, of one theater company – people who (also unlike a previous age) use screen names or even remain anonymous so they can spew without being answerable for their actions. My ancestry has been impugned, as has my eyesight. I have been called heartless, or pandering, or been seen as showing wild favoritism toward some other theater. I have been psychoanalyzed as having a childhood of underachievement I’m somehow trying to compensate for by trying to destroy others from my apparently lofty current height. It’s all rubbish, of course, but it has become the aftereffect of virtually every review I write about this one company.
Sadly enough, this theater sometimes does excellent productions. Still, sometimes they do not. No theater company is fabulous all the time. Now I find myself beginning to hesitate when asked to attend one of their shows. With no editor here other than me, there is no filter anymore. Hate can arrive right on my doorstep. I know it is part of the job, but frankly it’s getting old.
Do I want to hear what readers think? Yes, even when there is a disagreement. This can start a healthy dialogue… particularly if the reader or I have misunderstood something the other has said. On the other hand, invective doesn’t teach anyone anything. Maybe it’s time a few folk let their initial reactions cool a bit before they hit the keyboard. Either that or I could just stop covering that one company. It would certainly make my life easier, and my inbox a nicer place to spend my time.