Theater is at its best when it teaches us something. When it makes us think, and reconsider our stance on an issue, or when it carries us away into another land and time, where characters, fantastical though they may be, are essentially human and essentially ourselves. The mirror held up, as it were.
This is true also of writing, particularly critiquing theatre, where the goal is to experience the production, to illuminate the story for folks who have not been there and to answer the reader’s question: “Will I like it?” by giving the writer’s opinion of its strengths and weaknesses.
As my last act as a DCTS writer, I will attempt to describe, by way of two anecdotes, what this critic has learned in six years of writing for DC Theatre Scene:
A black, fuzzy shawl with woollen fringe hangs in my office. A gift from my mother many years ago, it was once a nice fashion accessory, but its function now is to keep me warm in my largely unheated office.
It’s been decommissioned from my clothes closet because it’s out of style, and its wool is like Velcro. Every bit of debris that floats around the office (paper trimmings from the shredder, dog hair, odd threads and dust from the ages) sticks to this shawl. It’s like a magnet for stuff, and the stuff never goes away. If I ever get around to brushing this shawl out, I betcha I’ll be able to knit another shawl with what’s stuck to it.
DC Theatre Scene has been like that: the writers who arrive never go away. Why would we? Yes, the pay was not much. Yes, parking near some of the theaters could drive you to- well, to far away if you couldn’t get parking. Yet for the most part, the writers, once hooked in by owner and editor Lorraine Treanor, never felt an urge to leave. Lorraine brushed out some of our overblown prose but never laid a heavy hand cutting out the stuff that accumulated. Each writer has a style- and rather than make the fabric of the site ‘uniform’, as on so many websites, writers were allowed to bring their own stuff to the table, and it mostly stayed on the table. That’s a rarity in editors, boys and girls. A brushed-out shawl will look nice, but it won’t keep you as warm.
The Vicuna and the Deer
This second is a tale of Christmas: most notably, driving around looking at holiday lights this Christmas Eve here in Bowie, Md.
Bowie, once a desert for wildlife when it was built in the 1960s, has over the years become something of a zoological paradise. In addition to the ever present songbirds and squirrels of suburbia, you can routinely see groundhogs, chipmunks, snakes, tiny lizards, eagles, herons, snapping turtles, rabbits, deer and even foxes in Bowie.
Animals that once were scarce and timid around humans are less and less afraid of us; we have a herd of four deer we see quite often in our lightly wooded backyard. This Christmas Eve on my drive, I spied a herd of deer. At first I thought I saw a large white dog with them- chasing them? I’m no David Attenborough, but the shape of the dog looked off, even in the dark. But it was bright white and had spots- surely a dog, one with an unusually long neck? An albino deer, maybe? That would be interesting, so let’s stop the car, take a flash picture with the phone, and we can look at it later and decide what the mystery animal is.
In the title above, I’ve already given away the ending: a spotted vicuna, running with a herd of rather species-tolerant deer. (An escapee from a nearby farm, no doubt, as there are several in our area that keep small herds of llamas, alpacas, and vicuna).
How does this relate to writing for DCTS? That’s an easy one: look for the unusual. Do. Not. Just. Tell. The. Plot. That isn’t the job at hand, not at all. Don’t just look at the herd of deer or the production as a whole, instead notice what stands out from the crowd: good costumes in a less-than-perfect-show, a young actor to watch for, a budding theater company with something new to say. Find the vicuna among the deer.
That is, essentially, the job Lorraine taught all of us: help readers see what we’ve seen on the stage that stands out. A critic’s role isn’t, as some people think, to lambaste a show but to celebrate that which works. Yes, we wrote about shows which were unsuccessful – on more than one occasion- but even those shows have something to teach. It’s a critic’s job to celebrate theater as a whole, and to guide the audience to go and see the work of artists in our area- even work that may not be perfect. And what art is perfect?
By the time you read this, sadly, DC Theatre Scene will be nearing its last day of publication, Dec 31, 2020. It is, of course, mostly a domino effect from Covid- there’s only so much you can do when the essential revenue stream of theater ads dries up for months and months. But DC Theatre Scene has been a wonderful place to be, and I have no doubt that many of us will take what we’ve learned from Editor Lorraine and keep on writing and working and creating. It’s what critics and artists do.
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