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.

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