Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Critical Analysis

There have been interesting exchanges over the past several days between readers and writers of the blogs Richmond VA Theater, by Style Weekly freelance critic Dave Timberline, and The Barksdale Buzz, by Barksdale Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Miller. So interesting, in fact, I'm going to join in. How'd you guess?

"What are critics good for?" is a fair paraphrase of the central question. Although some commenters would answer simply, "Nothing," the real discussion involves the role of a (theater) critic in relation to theaters, audiences and potential audiences.

One could argue that a theater critic, reviewing a play on the first night of an at-least-3-week run, has a different role than a music critic reviewing a one-time performance. (Since the Richmond Symphony switched to only Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances, reviews don't appear in the Times-Dispatch until after they could affect attendance for that particular concert set.)

But in the big picture, I think none of us are critics so much as we are intermediaries between the artists and the vast, vast number of people who haven't ever gone to a live performance but who we desperately wish would. These are the people I write for.

To get more specific, I'll play a number game:

  • 1,250,000
    Number of people in the Richmond-Petersburg MSA.
  • 1,000,000
    Number of those people who are a lost cause as far as attending arts performances goes.
  • 2,500
    Number of people who actually attended the last Richmond Symphony concert set. (Bump that down by about 60% for the Modlin Center or other venue.)
  • 7,500
    Number of regular or occasional classical music patrons who may decide to attend a concert in the next month or so. (These are the people--less than 1% of the general population--that arts organizations worry will be put off by a "bad" review--which is reasonable, as they're the people most likely to read reviews.)
  • 240,000
    Everybody else. (I know, of course, that they're not all reading my reviews, but just play along with the game, please.)

These are the people I'm so eager to reach, because I feel deep in my sweet little optimistic heart that if only they would release their preconceptions, let down their guard, truly listen and watch with their emotional, human core, they would be, yes, converted.

They are people who probably do not know the setting of "Carmina Burana" and have never heard of Philip Glass, let alone Mark-Anthony Turnage. They don't know (as I didn't, really) the plot of "Children of a Lesser God" and, because they're reading the newspaper, they are very unlikely to look up any of these things.

That's why I spend some of my precious word count on description, even if I'd rather not. I recognize the need to put my comments in context, because little is more off-putting for me than feeling like I'm on the outside of some exclusive coterie--I feel sure I speak for a few other readers.

That's why, when I sort out my thoughts after a performance before writing a newspaper review (as opposed to my ramblings on this obscure blog), I ask myself, "What will catch the attention of the non-patron? What will most usefully prepare a potential audience member's expectations for a future performance?"

In short, I don't write for musicians or their bosses. I don't care if my words are blurbable or not. I don't expect to be helpful in any kind of technical or promotional way, although I'm delighted on occasion when I feel I can be.

A few other thoughts:

1. I wouldn't be reviewing, as a critic, any concert or production that wasn't professional. I work under the assumption that professionals know what they're doing. However, as an editor, I know that even the best article benefits from a set or two of fresh eyes.

2. The quality of professional performances in Richmond is high. The question is never "Was the performance good or bad?" Instead, I address questions such as "Does this particular interpretation seem to be communicating with the audience, starting with me?" "Does this performance help me reach beyond the little box of my existence? If so, how? If not, why not?"

3. I have a vested interest in getting readers to go to concerts--after all, they keep me in work, in an indirect way.

4. Did you notice those quote marks around the word "bad" up there? Partly that's because I believe any free publicity is good publicity. (Of those 240,000 people, several thousand of them have never even heard of your organization/group/company.)

But partly it's because, Richmonders, if you ever think you've gotten a bad review, you need to stay the heck out of New York City. Tosca at the Met? Try this choice review with its opening line: "The Metropolitan Opera opened its new season last night with a shabby new production of Puccini’s 'Tosca' and a soprano who fit right in." And later: "Bondy’s new production is short on tassels and ormolu. That would be fine, but it’s also short on sets and costumes and imagination. How did this dopey show get on stage?"

Wonder how many tickets that sold?!


  1. Hi Angela. Remember, please, what met with our disfavor were not negative reviews, but tepid reviews where you couldn't figure out what the critic's opinions were. Certainly one could figure out the opinions of the Tosca critic that you referenced. They were clear and supported. And no one spent the entire review giving away the plot. Like you, I don't think it is a critic's job to sell tickets. As I state on the Barksdale Buzz, I think it is a critic's job to have informed opinions, state them clearly, and back them up with specific details from the production. Thanks for checking in!!

  2. As for "spending the entire review giving away the plot," please remember that we CANNOT assume that our readers have the in-depth knowledge we or the producing organization has about the show/music. (We also can't assume that everyone will want or be able to go look it up on Wikipedia, as a commenter on your blog hoped.) Often, opinions don't make sense and can't be supported without the context of some description of musical "plot" or literal plot.

    Bruce, I think we could have a lengthy and entertaining discussion about at this (in real life, I mean), at the end of which we'd both sigh and, with nothing else resolved, agree that, for starters, there should be an arts section in the paper every day, just as sports gets its own daily section!

  3. I didn't find a single paragraph in that Tosca review without at opinion.

    In the Souvenir review which spawned this conversation the first four paragraphs (out of an eight paragraph review) did not express a single opinion about the production.