Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Criticism Vs. Reviewism

I reviewed two shows last weekend. Critics or reviewers (the second term fits better for the type of writing I do for this particular project--it's writing with the audience in mind more than a critique of the form) are typically given two tickets for the shows they review, as a courtesy, so that we don't have to be alone at the shows. Sometimes (most times) I can't find a friend to see the show with me, so I end up going alone. Which I realize is totally okay, but it does sometimes make me feel like Ms. Mousy without any friends.

While I appreciate the two comps, it is a bit strange, just a bit. Most jobs don't expect a team to arrive and do the work involved, especially when only one person's name will end up on the byline. And despite the fact that I'm the one ultimately composing the review, whenever I do bring someone with me, I find that their opinions seep into my review as well. Sometimes, certain of the people I see shows with expect me to put their opinions in my review (no, don't worry, it's not you), as if because they've seen the show with the reviewer, then they also get a say as well.

Which, really, I'm okay with. Except when their ideas and opinions aren't what I want to say at all, in which case, they should just write their own review and put it somewhere. I occasionally like to see shows alone, so that I can get my own unadulterated opinion of the piece, but then I also like to see shows with someone, even if so I can just bounce ideas off of them at intermission or at the end of the show. Sometimes I doubt my instincts and thoughts, and it's nice to have someone else to agree with me or argue with me. But then again, sometimes bouncing ideas just reinforces my self doubt.

So what does this mean for theater criticism or reviewism in general? I've had several acquaintances tell me that they enjoy hearing multiple voices reviewing the same show, preferably in the same outlet. I enjoy that as well, but not necessarily in the same paper. As an example, reviews for the recent Hamlet at the Lantern Theater here in Philadelphia spanned the spectrum from negative (such that I thought, eh, guess I can skip that) to glowingly positive (such that I'm still upset about missing it). Multiple reviews can be confusing in that regard too. Was the show good or horrible? Did I just miss something awesome or not lose three hours of my life?

I've come to the conclusion that there are two separate streams of theater discussion: criticism and reviewism. That's probably not that profound of a statement, but bear with me while I work this out. Criticism has a place--that is, it serves to place a show in the larger context of theater. Criticism is what is suffering the most, as people care less and less about "theater" than about entertainment. Reviewism, though, seems to be more about providing an opinion on the show's quality (the acting was spotty, the sets were terrible, really, that dialogue was unbelievable), in order to sell tickets for the company or warn others that their time and money is better spent elsewhere. Reviewism is stuff you find in the NY Times or weekly paper, criticism you'd be more likely to find on a journal shelved in the basement of your school's library (or on Jstor).

Reviewism lends itself better to the mass of voices, the couple seeing a show together and bouncing their thoughts and reactions off each other, perhaps to then put out there for others to read, and respond to (perhaps by seeing the show, perhaps by having seen the show and disagreeing with them). Yet, reviewism also muddies the waters a bit by being strictly opinion. You could have a totally different taste in shows than a reviewer, not know this, and go to a show based on a positive review, and end up hating it. Which is a very obvious statement: there's a bit of risk taking anyone's opinion to heart, even if it is someone you ordinarily agree with.

Reviewism is what is taking over, with the blogs and also with the complete lack of training critics (er, reviewers) receive. In my MFA program, I took one class in theater criticism, in which we spent a semester debating what "criticism" is and never really drew any firm conclusions. I'll say this: Criticism is for the record books, for history and theory. I'll also say this: most theater has not really done much theoretical exploration in recent years (there are exceptions), making the critic's task a bit dull. Reviewism is what is left: opinions on whether or not to put down your money and dedicate a few hours to something that you may or may not enjoy.

The enjoyment of the spectator doesn't figure much in criticism, which is possibly a topic for another post (The Pleasure of the Theater). Theatrical criticism is a bit esoteric both in its content and reach. Plays reviewed in scholarly journals have closed months before. Why read about them then except to place them in the canon (as it were) of theater, to contextualize the plays in terms of history and theory, which something that even theater practitioners care less and less about.

This is where I fall down. I'd like to be a critic. But there doesn't seem to be much to criticize. Perhaps I'm wrong, and am holding out for some mythical awesome piece of theater that may never exist. Perhaps I have my head stuck in the theoretical too much and am missing what is going on, for real. Theater may never regain its standing in society and if it doesn't, we'll just keep churning out generation after generation of reviewers, folks ready with an opinion but with little else.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cycling in the City

I ride a bike. Almost every day, even in the cold of winter (it's faster than walking, which is my second most common mode of transportation). I ride my bike in the street, going the proper direction. I stop at red lights and stop signs. I yield to pedestrians. In sum, I am conscious of others and aware of my surroundings. I don't harass drivers or pedestrians.

However, certain drivers seem to think that they can ignore the rules of the road, ignore the rules of common sense and safety and do asinine things. Such as: yelling out their windows as I drive by them. Veering into the right side of the road, where the cyclists are, instead giving them a wide berth. Attempting to grab my handlebars as I drive by them.

I'm not sure what prompts this behavior and it upsets and amazes me every time it happens. I will note that it happens more the later the hour gets, possibly because the same people who are prone to assholery as also prone to having a few and then driving home (just a guess, just a guess). I prefer the "live and let live" way of being, and to be minding my own business and then have some stranger (usually a guy, just saying. But sometimes a woman.) come at me, in what could be considered a weapon (big, hulking thing of steel with a motor versus two wheels, two legs, and a chain), is really just too much. Why are you threatening my safety? What have I done to you? I'm writing this after reading this story. To the driver of that car, you've injured a man and nearly killed a child. And for what? I mean, seriously, why? A car stopped in front of you, instead of waiting, you swerved around it. It's hard to have sympathy for you, no matter how "shaken up" by the incident you appeared to be.

I'm not sure what the first step is to changing this sort of behavior. Some strange sort of shift seems to happen to certain people when they get behind the wheel of a car. Driving a vehicle requires a level of responsibility and care for the safety of yourself and others that is lacking in so many drivers. I don't quite understand that. Does one flip the machismo switch the moment one turns the keys in the ignition? Does getting where you're going become the be all, end all of your existence?

That said, what upsets me a bit more is the bikers who exhibit asinine road behavior. The ones who pull out onto the street without looking. The ones who ride the wrong direction down the street or in the bike lane and expect that you'll move for them. The ones who blow through stop signs and red lights, even when traffic is oncoming. Since it's tipping on summer, these clueless bikers are coming out in droves. And they make us all look bad, as if we're all just road horrors, which unfortunately, makes those drivers already prone to jerkiness more jerky, and to all cyclists, not just the misbehaving ones.

Traffic laws exist for a reason, for everyone. If everyone ignores them, chaos ensures and people get hurt. I'm not sure why this isn't just common sense for many. I'm not sure where this rivalry cars vs. bike vs. peds came from. We've all got a common goal: getting to our destination safely and with the least amount of error, so why can't we just follow the rules and let that happen?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chocolate Cake!

And now for something completely different.

I made two little chocolate cakes the other night. They're vegan (but not for any moralistic/ethical reasons, more because eggs are kinda expensive if you want the happy chicken kind, and kinda gross, so I don't use them all too often. Plus, sometimes they make me ill.). Anyway, what interests me about these vegan cakes is that they use vinegar (white or apple cider, doesn't matter taste wise). They came about around the time of the Great Depression and World War II, times when eggs and all that were expensive or rationed (also from this time is the mayo cake, but I just can't . . .I can't get into that. . .ugh. It probably tastes fine because mayo is just eggs and oil but just. . ick). They are called "Depression Cake" or "Wacky Cakes," the latter I guess because it is kinda weird. I haven't been able to find out who first thought to rely on the trusty old vinegar baking soda explosion thing as a leavener. What also interests me about these cakes is that they were "vegan" before there was really a vegan movement. Which is interesting, because this means that, most likely, your grandmother was eating vegan cake and there wasn't the "oh, ew" that you get now when you make something and tell people it's vegan (that said, sometimes vegan baked goods ARE really, really disgusting. You can't just leave the offending ingredients out and expect the same results, folks.)

In the spirit of the depression (or Great Recession, whatever) and being cheap and out of soy milk at my house, I used water as the primary liquid in the cake. The first recipe I ever came across for this type of cake, in some PETA or Farm Sanctuary Go Veg! type pamphlet specifically stated that you needed to add the vinegar at the last minute. And so for years, I did that, excited by the swirling cake batter not-quite volcano effect. Then I got Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and those two ladies tell you to mix the vinegar (and they specify that you should use ac vinegar) into the soy milk, to create a buttermilk-ish effect. So, no waiting until the very end. I did it that way for a while but now I'm back to vinegar at the end and also, back to water. It's cheaper and let's face it, cheap dessert that tastes good and isn't full of crap is pretty awesome.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I've two new reviews up on the site I write for,

You should read them:

Le Serpent Rouge
Ore, or Or

Do it. And then come back and comment.

Sorry if it seems that I am getting pushy about my work lately. I am.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

SB-850 Update

Just to share, yesterday I got an e-mail from the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance inviting me to their next Activist Council meeting on 5/27 from 6-8pm at the Art Alliance. So, great. Maybe I'll go, I dunno yet, since I'm not involved in any arts organization in any official way. Anyone who is planning on going?

Friday, May 15, 2009


Pennsylvania voted on its state budget week or so ago. Why am I mentioning this now? Because today when I got home, I was greeted by a letter from Sen. Larry Farnese. I had sent him an e-mail the evening before the vote, asking him to vote not to completely cut out arts funding from the state budget. I sent the e-mail with the help of the Phila. Cultural Alliance, who did their best to rally everyone to protest the line cuts. Farnese voted against the proposal, but regardless, it passed.

$0 for arts/culture, including museums. We're not just talking about funding people to stick Jesus in a jar of pee again, here, we're talking about funding cultural institutions that people use regularly, that schools take kids to on field trips, that people value and that make this a decent (if not great) state.

Is utterly ridiculous. And it's not all that is wrong with the new budget, which I didn't know until reading the Senator's response. The new budget cuts funding for education, for public welfare, for libraries, for job training (at a time when many people are unemployed). What's more, according to the letter, the cuts "jeopardize PA's eligibility for federal stimulus dollars."

What the hell. Actually, more like what the fuck. And also, why am I not hearing anything else about this? I read the paper, I read the blogs, I write for a Philly blog (Phillyist). I remember a few years ago (2004), Street threatened to cut arts/culture funding for just the city, and we were out there, rallying in the park, wearing buttons, protesting. Even just recently, when Nutter proposed axing 11 libraries (from a 54 library system), the teeth and the protesters came out, leading him to nix that idea and consider other options (which may actually be worse, in my opinion).

PA's a big state, and Philly is on the far edge of it, geographically and politically. But surely, we can do something more about this. And I realize that there is no money. But if there's no money, and the Federal Gov't is offering stimulus money, and the budget threatens that. . . someone show me where the sense is. And someone show me where the grassroots stuff is. Anywhere?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Time for a Reformat

This blog needs a do-over. Initially, I thought it would be all about theater, since you know, I'm a dramaturg and all that. But really, when I look at my life (especially my life now), theater is a small part of it (which may be why I've felt so lost and sad of late but let's not think of that). So I'm going to make this thing more all about me and the stuff I do rather than that one subset.

So, from now on expect posts on the following:
*cooking, I'm currently mildl obsessed with bread baking
*frustrations in life in general (sorry, that's just my way)
*experiments in creativity or lack there of