There are few things in the world as rewarding as being the Artistic Director of a theatre company when you see that the hard work and strenuous effort of your board, your staff, and your artists have paid off. Sacrifices have been made to accomplish a successful production.
Long hours have been put in, donations have been made, seemingly impossible deadlines have been miraculously met. The effort often seems Herculean. But when you sit out front on the opening night and watch the artists take advantage of the opportunities that the hard work and sacrifices have provided them, the effort feels completely worth it. When you see an audience respond to the work, when you see its members moved to laughter or to tears, when friends and acquaintances, supporters and strangers, effuse about the accomplishment…believe me, after sixteen-plus years of leading a theatre company, I can tell you that the satisfaction you feel on those nights never gets old.
There are few things in the world, however, that are as soul-crushingly dispiriting as when one of those nights is followed, a few days later, by picking up the morning paper and reading a tepid or dismissive review, a review that you believe doesn’t comport with the consensus response to the work. If there is one thing I don’t miss about running a theatre company, it is that profoundly disappointing experience. What you experience then is the sinking feeling that you have something on your hands that will move or delight an audience but won’t find that audience because an important review is telling people not to bother to go to your show.
That has happened recently to my successor at WSC Avant Bard. I was at press night of Nero/Pseudo, its current production. I loved it. We all loved it. We were all so excited at the talent on display, so pleased and proud that the company was doing something so unusual, so cool, so funky, so different, and doing it so impressively. My husband immediately began talking about going back to see the show again, something he never wants to do. The on-line reviews were enthusiastic. Then the review in The Washington Post ran, and it was not good. The company has ended up, not for the first time, in a sad situation. We have something that audiences like. The only problem is, we don’t have audiences.
You never feel right about appealing a bad review, no matter how much you might feel as if it is an anomaly, and not a reflection of consensus. (For Nero/Pseudo, the critical consensus is clearly that it should be seen.) The impulse is, as they say, to take it like a man — to take the lumps, to commiserate privately with the many who agree that the show should be seen — but not to go public with your disappointment. To do so would seem whiny, perhaps seem desperate and display bad manners, or seem ungrateful for the approval, even the support, that you’ve gotten previously from a certain critic or a certain publication.
However, now I have emeritus status with the company and, funnily enough, one foot in the world of journalism. I’m about as disinterested in this project as in anything WSC has ever done. It’s true that I saw potential in the script and got it into the WSC pipeline. But I have had no hands-on involvement in the resulting production and hadn’t seen a second of it before the press-night performance I saw and so loved. So I feel quite comfortable letting whoever reads this know that the piece is wonderful, the production is terrific, and it will be a shame if it isn’t seen by the audience it deserves. I strongly suggest that you check it out.
I’d like to make a few points about theatre and its relationship to theatre criticism to contextualize my disappointment in this current situation and past situations like it.
You are always nagged on a certain level, and you ask yourself, is it delusional to expect praise on this occasion? Am I like that other person running that other company, desperately grasping at straws of approval and in denial that we’ve done something that isn’t as good as we think it is?
I’m talking about something different. I think, to be fair to myself (which is easy for me to be), that when you run a company as long as I did, you have a certain amount of self-awareness about the work. You can’t do four to seven plays a year for sixteen years without realizing that some productions are better than others. You always want the most generous press possible, and you hope that, when the soufflé doesn’t rise the way you wish it would, a critic will focus on the successful ingredients. There has been work we’ve done that I understood wasn’t as successful as it could have been. When we took a hit, I wasn’t thrilled, but I wasn’t despondent, either. There have been some projects that, if I’m honest, the press may even have liked more than I did.
There’s always the danger of operating in a bubble. The opening is usually a house full of supporters, friends, colleagues — folks you could call well-wishers, folks who will see the glass as half full. Except when they don’t. Believe me, when a board member, when a donor, when a designer or an actor or a company member, maybe even a previous Artistic Director — when one of those people has an opinion about what they’ve just seen, or an idea about what will make it better, if they have any hesitation about sharing that opinion, those inhibitions will dissolve after the second glass of Chablis. And if you don’t hear about it that night, they will email you the next day. That friendly audience you invited to the opening is, believe me, not slavishly supportive.
What I’m talking about is when even your friendliest second-guessers are feeling it, are enthusiastic, and the money review, the one or two on which the attendance is most dependent, is an outlier. Sometimes those bad reviews reflect a consensus, and sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, that’s when it’s frustrating.
Of course everyone (even a critic!) is entitled to an opinion, and of course a contrary perspective can be valid. (God knows, I’ve swum against the tide about a lot of theatre and about a lot of popular culture). However, I think that it is a sad fact that sometimes stuff people will like isn’t being seen by the people who will like it because a cultural gate-keeper may not reflect a reasonable consensus opinion. And there is no such thing as 100% approval, is there? There’s someone out there who didn’t like The Book of Mormon, someone else who thinks Audra McDonald is over-rated. Some of those people might be opinion-shapers. One of the chief critics of The New York Times was dismissive of Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield this season, a performance that, otherwise, was praised to the hilt. (She was stunning in the part. It was the other thing this year that my husband saw twice.)
Consider some interesting cases. For about five plays I did at Scena Theater in the late 1990s, there were bad reviews in The Washington Post and rave reviews in Washington City Paper. It was a text-book case of the subjectivity of theatre criticism and a striking example of, on the one hand, “she’s just not that into you” balanced, on the other hand, by “she’s really, really into you.”
Another reality check for me is to consider that Nero/Pseudo has received a “Helen Hayes Recommended” designation, which means that a consensus of Helen Hayes judges who have been to see the show to score it for awards consideration would advise you to see the show.
There’s a site called TrueTheatregoer.com, and it has an audience compilation score which appears to prove that audiences can like things much more than critics do. I see a few shows on that site that (out of a possible high score of five) get a four-point-something score, but which are not “recommended” by Post theatre critics in the Weekend section. For instance, Faith Healer at Quotidian Theatre Company (which I was in, I admit) got four-point-two out of five on the site, but didn’t get a Post recommended check. That’s a pretty wide discrepancy.
I’ve read what the Post wrote recently when it has come down hard on some actors I greatly admire — Bill Largess, for instance, in the current show at Washington Stage Guild, and Tom Story, in the current show at Synetic Theater. It’s hard to think of anyone with a more impressive career in classical and contemporary theatre (not to mention in film and television) than Stacy Keach, whose Falstaff at Shakespeare Theatre Company was not to the liking of The Post. Sure, even the best actors can have a performance that isn’t as impressive as their greatest achievements. However, I’m also hearing wonderful things about those performances, and, unless and until I see them, I am inclined to believe the folks who think that these gentlemen are doing impressive work. Because reaction to art in general, and arts criticism in particular, is not an objective activity. It is subjective. And that should never be forgotten.
You would think, then, after all I’ve been through over the years, I would know better than to take a critical perspective as gospel. But, no. A friend offered me a free ticket to a play at Woolly Mammoth. The Post review hadn’t been encouraging. I went reluctantly. It was only wonderful. (It was Starving.) I almost missed something terrific because I had seen a bad review. (P.S. The script was eventually nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical.) When it comes right down to it, who knows when you are going to agree with a critic and when you are going to have a diametrically opposite opinion?
Often, people are aware that some critics have opinions that don’t closely match their own opinions, but are swayed anyway. Remember when Gary Arnold was the Post film critic? I would hear people, in the same conversation, say “I hate Gary Arnold!” and then, moments later, when asked whether they will see a particular movie, answer “No. The Post didn’t like it.” Um. Okay.
There’s an old saw among theatre people, at least, among the ones who purport not to read reviews or not to give them credence. It says, if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones as well. So, presumably, don’t take them to heart in either case.
I think that attitude is odd. I can’t think of any other activity where 100% convergence is a gauge of seriousness. Would anyone say, if you agree with a political candidate on one issue, that means you have to agree with that candidate on every issue? If you and a friend both liked one movie, that means you must share opinions about every movie? I like Pauline Kael more than any critic I’ve ever read and know that our tastes overlap a great deal, but they are most emphatically not identical.
Look, I like critics. Some of my best friends are critics. There was a critic at my wedding. (Not there professionally, I will point out.) And you get over the depths of the disappointment. There have been times when I’ve felt “I can never face this person again.” (I remember in particular feeling that way about someone who is no longer writing, who was consistently supportive of WSC, but who came down like a ton of bricks on something that deserved better). But then you move on. And you find that you can face that person again.
You can’t be totally objective about your work. Another old saw is that our work is like our children and who wants to pick up a newspaper and see “Ugly, Stupid, Ill-Behaved Child at WSC.” (Of course, you end up caring more about your actual children, I have recently discovered, than your metaphorical children.) And now I’m reviewing things occasionally, on this site, so I know that distinctions are important.
That said, the myth of theatre criticism, I believe, is that there is an objective reality — good, bad, mixed — that can be discerned, when what is really at issue is, who will like this, even if I don’t?And the best criticism conveys this, and has done so in The Post.
Because, believe me, it happens that sometimes, something wonderful gets a lousy review. So my point is this: Be aware of that. If all you hear about something is that it is bad, well, I guess it’s not a great idea to prioritize that on your to-do list. But if you’ve read something bad, but hear something good, or read something good somewhere else, or see that it’s Helen Hayes recommended, or that it gets a high score on a web-site — you know, it just might be good, it just might be something you will like, that you will be glad you saw.
I’ll never forget the time my mother read a bad Post review about a show I was in and that the critic didn’t like. She said to me, “I thought, oh, boy, it’s a bad review, and then he described the play, and I read it and thought, that sounds wonderful; what’s not to like?” So sometimes, if the description of the event in a bad review sounds cool to you, well, who are you going to trust, the review or your own instincts?
It’s not the job of the critic to do marketing for a theatre. That’s true. The critic works for the audience. The sad thing is when the critic discourages the audience from seeing something the audience will love. That happens. And it sucks when it does.
Here’s a challenge: Buy a ticket to Nero/Pseudo. If, after the performance, you feel ripped off and dissatisfied, let us know ([email protected]) and we will give you a free ticket to something else at WSC Avant Bard. Because this is really good. We think you are going to love it.
Christopher H says
Loved this anecdote, which seems germane, from Holden’s NYT review yesterday of Lyrics & Lyricists concert, theme of which is great songs from flop shows: “Every notable Broadway songwriter has had to weather failure. Mr. Zippel related a description by Marvin Hamlisch of the shame and dread he felt the day after a negative review, when he imagined that a cabdriver who bypassed him had just read a bad notice.”
Erika said: “Thank you for taking the time to write and post this. It’s an opinion I know so many people share, but I haven’t heard/seen it put into such thoughtful context.” Amen to that and your wise and nuanced advice.
Ed Kelty says
Chris: You took a lot of words to say it, but I agree. We have a problem in DC in that most people read only one newspaper and overly depend on its critics. The City Paper has a limited audience and you have to be in the know to regularly read the interesting local theater blogs. Most of our senior friends who are theater goers are not even aware of the alternate reviews.
Occasionally the bias of a critic is not clear. When “If/Then” started in Washington, it was confusing to the Post reviewer, but praised by the blogs. I suspect there was an age difference in the reviewers. The younger ones could relate it to their lives. It went on to praise in NYC by the younger theater goers there who were not confused by it.
Thank you Chris for so beautifully expressing the high and lows, the triumphs and disappointments, of producing theatre. Theatre criticism is a necessary evil it seems because so often it doesn’t really share the potential rewards of experiencing the production with the reader. We really must train the theatregoer to trust their own instincts and knowledge of the theatre company and the actors and the material and make their own decisions. I too have thought about offering a money back guarantee because I knew that if they would just come they would enjoy the production.
And BTW the show at MetroStage this season that broke all box office records was NOT Helen Hayes Recommended. It is a crazy business. But the triumphs keep you coming back.
Will Cooke says
Hi Christopher — I was recently in Everyman Theatre’s production of THE DRESSER, and I’m sure you’ll recall Sir’s great line when asked if he hated the critics. Quoth Sir: “The critics? Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient and the dead?….Bastards!” This is FAR from the point of your well- wrought piece — but it DID get a giggle out of my pal Richard Byrne when I quoted it to him!
Nancy Michel says
Intelligent, informative and beautifully written.
Thank you for taking the time to write and post this. It’s an opinion I know so many people share, but I haven’t heard/seen it put into such thoughtful context.
I’ve heard nothing but good things about this show, usually in the form of a comment like “you MUST see this show!”