We all feel strongly when we get them. Good or bad, they change how we feel about our work. They influence us, even if we choose to ignore them by entering the room through our audiences. Good or bad, they color what people see and prime the aspects of the work that are highlighted. So rather than asking whether a given critic is right or wrong, let me back up and ask, do they need to be at all?
Last fall, I remounted The Giant Squid (with co-producers The Berserker Residents) and toured the show to a variety of academic institutions in the Philadelphia area. We had wanted to rework the show for a while, and had lots of thoughts about the things that we hadn’t been able to get to in the first round. The show in its original conception was quite successful, and in many ways helped define an aesthetic sensibility that carried forward into future work. We got good reviews. We got nice sized audiences. We handled some crazy challenges working in a non-traditional space. It spawned some future opportunities for both companies. As we spent our time trying to market the thing we used the press quotes as indicators of its inherent value. We held these opinions out as proof of our worth. And in many ways, I think of it as my first real “big girl” show.
But in coming back, there was a funny kind of comfort. Not because the work was always easy – which it wasn’t – or because we knew exactly how to solve the problems – which we didn’t – but because at its core the piece had already been through the debut hazing. Because we were taking it to places with mostly built in houses, we didn’t have to make the work for anyone other than ourselves and these very specific audiences. And despite the bumps in the road getting to the actual performance, once we got there, I felt like I really could just sit back and enjoy what we’d made. I could see the audience loving it. I knew that I was proud of the progress. I knew that it was a better work this time than it had been before and I measured that in the people I watched and their reactions to watching the show.
As I said, for most of the run we played to closed communities – schools or our already solid circle of audience base – and thus weren’t really looking to draw “the general public” in the way that most shows are. That relief of trying to impress the outside world in general, and just make work for these audiences in particular, was a weight that suddenly lifted. And the amount of lightness it generated was a real surprise.
It’s funny, because I didn’t really notice that I’d been carrying it. I hadn’t noticed how much this idea of being judged “in general” had affected me. And I think it unfortunately still comes down a lot to the traditional reviewer. Squid did end up getting a review, a fine one, not spectacular, and about what I expected. The person saw the show in the worst of our venues, a place a bit stuffier and more formal than the show was really meant for, and with an audience that didn’t quite get what we were about.
And surprisingly, and I can say this with a complete and total 100% certainty, I didn’t care.
I knew that audience at that location wasn’t a great fit. And I knew that space wasn’t exactly what the piece needed. In touring it to so many locations, I really got to see what kind of surrounding helped the show to sing, and what kind of people we really should be going after, neither of which were perfectly in place the night the reviewer came.
So he took those external influences – which I could see so clearly – and assumed that they were inherent characteristics of the thing he saw. And in that context they were. But it also didn’t stop me from knowing that out of that place and space and personage, this new version of the show was glorious and crafted and so so so so much better than the first version he mentioned liking better.
I’m not digging on the guy. If it has to happen, he’s actually one of the writers I’d prefer to see my stuff.
But does it have to happen? What is the use of criticism? What is its purpose?
Is it for the artists? Is it a chance for an informed and outside eye on the medium to offer perspective on our work in context of the whole?
Is it for audiences? Do they need a medium through which to evaluate the multitude of cultural intakes they might participate in?
Or is it more functional? Is it a way to separate the good from the bad and point out that for the world to see?
On each of these levels, I think I disagree that the current system is working, at least in terms of the work I like, the work I believe in making and seeing. I sometimes agree with these folks’ assessment and sometimes not. It really feels about as random as chance. And the works that I feel spectacularly strongly (both positive and negatively) about, I almost never agree with.
My own experience with review has been this: it is totally unaligned with my sense of my own work.
I have had pieces that I loved that were panned. I have had pieces I thought were weaker and not ready for audiences that get raves. Mostly, it feels really random.
And perhaps more importantly, I have had a show utterly slaughtered in print but sell out every performance and another get glowing words in literally every venue that it was showcased in that I was dying to get butts in seats for. I have had every iteration in between. And always, it feels really random and disconnected to the work.
What was amazing about the experience of remounting Squid was this: I never had to think about getting people in the door through this imperfect intermediary. I could just market directly to these people and then watch how much they liked it myself. I could talk to them and ask what they thought. I could hear them laugh or gasp. I could see how the things I’d tried to do worked or didn’t.
And it made me think, “What if I never had to have a critic in a show of mine again?”
Because if I don’t feel in alignment with the assessment and most of the time the assessment doesn’t seem to make a difference on who comes, why bother? What does a review do for me if not generate audiences? Does it help me get into a festival? Not really. At least not so far. I’ve only ever done that by making a personal connection with a presenter.
Does it help me reach a wider viewing base? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Not in my anecdotal experience. Because of the kind of performance runs I have (which unlike the traditional Broadway deal, is maybe a few weeks, max) I haven’t seen a noticeable uptick from a rave. I don’t think the people I am best suited to are reading these things. And I’m pretty confident that the people that are reading them are less likely to be interested in what I’m after with my artwork.
And even if I could prove that these reviews actually brought in new people and even if I could prove that these new people were well suited to seeing what I make, I’m STILL not sure that it’s worth it.
Because I don’t believe that one person is a stand in for all people. Because I don’t believe we should come down on declaring if the thing is good or bad. Because I’m more interested in knowing what the artist was trying to do, how they attempted it, and how close they felt they got.
Because I don’t believe there is such a thing as an objective truth about a piece. Because I deeply believe that art work should not be universally appealing or it will only appeal to the shallowest and least complicated parts of ourselves. Because I believe that a multitude of opinions are necessary and diverse expression is the point of artistic creation.
Because so much of what I believe rests on a system of artistry that builds over months or years. And when I read things like so and so “has repeatedly proved herself an excellent director and [she] should stick to that” instead of trying to do something new, I think what an ignorant and limited view of art-making that is. I think that the idea that a single work as a litmus of potential is ridiculous and that anyone who has ever made anything knows that reward is predicated on risk. And I think that to denigrate the attempt (even if the result is spectacular failure) is short sided and ultimately harmful to the form as a whole.
Because so much of what I do is about a different kind of critique, one that is less concerned with whether the thing is good or not good but whether the thing is asking interesting questions and answering them in new or surprising or thoughtful ways. I don’t know that I need someone to tell me if a work of art is worth buying, because so much of the time, it’s the less polished, midway things that I want to see more of, even when, maybe especially when, they are still in progress.
And putting all that into a system in which one voice is meant to stand in for all the possible interpretations of a work, to sum up what it is and means, and stamp whether those things are worth twenty bucks makes me feel a little ill.
I believe in feedback. I believe in response. I believe that it is important to hear how our work resonates with our audiences, as we define and seek them to be. But not everyone is my audience. And I don’t need to keep asking, “What did you think?” from folks that want something different out of theater than I do.
And the truth is that NOT everyone is a critic. We all have opinions, but we’ve set up a system in which we allow some opinions a greater forum for expression than others. And if I – the artist being judged – fundamentally don’t trust those opinions more than the general public, what the hell am I letting myself be judged by them for? If I don’t agree with their assessment of works that I see, why do I assume what they say about me is any more true? Why do I give them the power to have influence over me? I’m the one giving these people tickets.
I think about the times I’ve spent waiting for those words to come and the stress it caused and the uncertain help that it offered and I wonder why put myself through that?
And maybe, just maybe, next time I won’t.