Tuesday, July 24, 2012

After Dark, July 24, 2012

I Know I'm Right
Reviewers, artists and the gray in between
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

As I walk the dog I listen to podcasts both to relax me and to feed my writing. There are three in particular: This American Life, WTF and Analog Hole. As I've said elsewhere, Marc Maron on WTF has turned out interview after interview that is personal, funny, and truthful with a wide variety of celebrities. Last week he did one with Fiona Apple.

Apple was talking about the insanity around her first album and tour and Maron asked her how she dealt with it all - the adulation, the critics. "I don't read reviews," she answered, "because I know I'm right."

"But don't you know you're right?"

I actually stopped walking. The dog stared at me as I stood in the alley for a long moment, processed and had an aha! moment. I was immediately reminded of a comment we got on a review last week where someone wrote, "Actors, directors and designers just work too hard to be judged by such bias." Now this is a comment people involved in a poorly-reviewed production often make. But Fiona Apple's claim immediately made me think of that very comment and suddenly it dawned on me that the perfect answer to the comment on the review would have been, "But don't you know you're right?"

Yes, I would add, the reviewer thinks you're not right but thus begins a discussion that is crucial to theatre. It is not one between artist and reviewer - that's not what reviews are for - it is one between artist and everyone. For the record, I firmly believe the reviewer is just ONE in that everyone; sometimes a louder or more erudite or convincing one to be sure, but...just...one. I never understand artists who get their panties in a twist when one review is a pan. (And what's weirder in this case I'm using, the review wasn't even a pan, really.)

If you're not prepared to continue the dialogue what you're doing is not art at all.

Moving on...

If it is not crystal clear on that stage that you ARE right (rave reviews across the board and standing ovations every night), then you must continue the conversation. If you're not prepared to continue the dialogue what you're doing is not art at all. It's...well...masturbating. Sure, you might have convinced playwright, director, actors, designers and company to participate with you, but that only means it's a circle-jerk that we - the audience - is merely meant to watch and praise. (No one likes to feel excluded from a circle-jerk. It's rude. Especially if you've paid to get in.)

Live performance is not TV. We can leave but we can't change the channel. Because it seems to be frowned on, on this continent, to boo or hiss a show, there are reviewers, comments in the lobby, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. It is impossible for artists, obviously, to respond to everyone (especially to do it with the finesse required), but it does behoove artists to pay attention to the generalities of opposition to a vision.

But ultimately it is key that artists know they're right when they are. That means not responding like cavemen to a single voice, accepting praise as encouragement to better work, and never losing that niggling second voice in their heads that says, "Okay, I'm not ALWAYS right."

It's the difference between living theatre and dogma.


  1. Yeah but there's no denying, particularly today, that many people who call themselves "reviewers" are not particularly bright critics or gifted writers and, at times, what they say is so stupid it has to be addressed. It might only be one voice but it's the one voice people are reading. I've been noticing lately that many "critics" are more thin skinned and defensive than the artists they criticize and that's not a good thing. If you want to dish it out you'd better be prepared to take it too.
    Brad Fraser

  2. I agree. I think the emotional nature of theatre makes it difficult on both sides to enageg soberly. Let's face it: with both reviewer and artist, egos are on the line.


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