#15. The Critics – Should You Care?
By Anna Nicholas
Save a playwright, shoot a critic? Unwise; though many a playwright has thought about it. According to Bernardo Cubria, who helms a NY Theatre podcast called Off and On, “At some point in their lives, theatremakers develop hostility towards theatre critics.” To Bernardo I’d say, “Why bother?” One bad review doesn’t make or break a play, a playwright or a theatre; even if it feels that way sometimes and even if the person penning the review might like to think he’s got that kind of power. Similarly, a couple of great reviews won’t necessarily drive people to your play and turn it into a hit. And sometimes a bad review can even make people want to see a show.
If anyone remembers the controversial and often hostile New York Magazine critic, John Simon, now 90, you might know what I mean. His brand of theatre criticism was erudite but scathing and after reading a Simon review, I would often feel compelled to see the show that was the source of so much vitriol. A case in point was Joseph Papp’s Cymbeline. In Simon’s 1989 review of that show, he took apart (among other things) the actress, Joan Cusack, and her performance: “The heroine, considered by many, Shakespeare’s most golden girl and described right off as ‘divine Imogen’ is played by Joan Cusack, known from the movies as the low-comedy, lower-class, addlepated or wisecracking, homely sidekick of the leading lady. Here she looks like a travesty of Tenniel’s Alice after ingesting EAT ME (but having grown more sideways than upward) and talks in her usual proletarian accent and in that breathlessly breathy voice we associate with Saturday Night Live parodies… Miss Cusack remains ‘unimogenable.’” You can read the whole review here. Yes, it’s cruel but I think it’s also a case of so much hate being the flipside of love. To work up the passion to be so nasty, at least he cares! I think it’s way better to be hated than leave the likes of John Simon wholly indifferent. Personally, I miss this type of theatre criticism because as cruel as people thought Mr. Simon to be, he knows the English language and theatre history and, best of all, he was entertaining to his readers (unless of course you happen to be the victim of his ad hominem evisceration that week). As a playwright and novelist who’s developed a thick skin, I’d rather have a scathing John Simon review than a milktoast blogger spewing my plot back at me anyday.
But back to you… “I need to get critics to see my show!” you say. “If I don’t, people won’t come!” Possibly. But there are plenty of stories about shows by no-name writers, starring people no one knows, that somehow get traction, and go on to be successful. When these shows finally do get reviewed it’s almost embarrassing for a critic to admit he’s so late to the party. See it’s hard being a critic, too. Think about it, if she says awful things about the work, she’s accused of being cruel; if she’s too nice, she’s pandering.
Critics are just there, like your set, and they have always had a symbiotic relationship with theatre as well as the other art forms. They have just been opining longer and louder so we have elevated their opinions above those of every other person seeing shows or movies or museum exhibitions. Maybe we shouldn’t care so much.
Jonathan Mandell, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, has written about theater for Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com, among other outlets. He currently blogs at New York Theater and tweets as @NewYorkTheater. HowlRound, which bills itself as a “knowledge commons by and for the theatre community” invited Mandell to answer the question: “Are Theatre Critics Critical. An Update.” In the post he quotes Mark Twain (along with several others of varying perspectives) on the value of critics and the future of criticism in general. Mandell’s been in the trenches and I recommend all aspiring producers read the piece. But in essence, Mandell thinks theatrical criticism no longer has the sway it once did.
As touched on in previous posts, our need to be reviewed stems from our fear that without good notices, our show will somehow not have the legitimacy needed to fill seats. But this isn’t true. There are other ways to get people to buy tickets and we all need to think more creatively about how to do that. There are too many tiny theatrical presentations, at least in LA, for the critics who count to get to them all. And even if they could, there’s no guarantee they will review your show with the enthusiastic pull-quotes you need to promote it on posters, websites and ads.
But don’t worry, the economics of supply and demand have kicked in—at least in LA—and, as a result, several things have occurred. The first is that the limited supply of what I’ll call the “power” reviewers has created a vacuum that’s been partially filled by bloggers and others who call themselves critics. They write for online sites like Stage Happenings that don’t have much clout with the LA theatre intelligentsia. Even a good review from one of these folks won’t motivate most of your potential audience to buy tickets. And yet, you may feel having a few of these independent blogger types review your show is better than nothing? It’s not for me to say. I would argue, however, that you should consider fresh ways to promote your show rather than grovel at the feet of critics, particularly critics with no clout. It’s a waste of time.
But if getting a critic or two to review your show is of utmost importance, there’s a sure fire way to get at least one person to write it up and this presents the next item on the list of what’s been spawned by the reviewer vacuum: since April 2015, producers in Los Angeles can pay for the privilege of being reviewed. That’s right, for $150, (or less if your show’s a “fringe” show) you can pay the creators of the Lemon Meter who run the online review-aggregator site known as Bitter Lemons to review it. I don’t think an artist should ever have to pay to be reviewed, but you can read all about what’s called the “Bitter Lemons Initiative” (BLI) in the BL boss’s own (and excessive number of) words and decide for yourself: http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/article/2456
Even if you pay for your BL review, it’s still not going to have the weight of a review from the LA Times or NPR. That’s because a lot of seasoned theatregoers still don’t even go online. They trust their big local newspaper and nothing else. It’s also because another part of the theatre-going population goes to shows to support friends, damn the reviews. In 99-Seat theatre in LA, which I attend at least a couple of times a week, I see the same people in the house over and over. The new folks are usually friends of cast members I’ve never met. This is fine but it goes to the question of who the audience is for small theatre. I submit that most of the people in the houses of waiver theatre are not there because of the reviews. We all know each other. That said, in order to be really successful, one needs to break out of that womb, as it were, and reach an audience that might be interested in your play if they simply heard about it. This might mean getting a star in a lead role (see the casting post) or doing a play that’s particularly topical. So you see the problem isn’t really critics, it’s marketing and that starts way back when you’re considering what play of yours to produce.
As a group, critics are like any other. Some are good and some are terrible. Some have agendas they’re unable to put aside when writing a review. It rarely happens that everyone who sees your play, critic or not, is going to love it. What people think is out of your control. My advice: Don’t give critics that kind of power and just do your work. You didn’t write your play for critics and if you did, you might want to reassess your theatrical motives. Playwright and co-artistic director, Daniel Pinkerton, summed it up well in the comment section to Mandell’s post, “Does a bad review hurt some people? Yup. Is war hell? Yup. Next subject, please.”
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