Saturday, February 21, 2009

Performance Log Manifesto


At the end of this, I'm going to owe Joe Dowling a bit of an apology, but not for what you expect. In my performance log on Dowling's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, I indulged in a bit of snarkiness, the kind of criticism theater reviewers go in for when their sense of aesthetic is bruised. As a former theater critic, I feel pretty well versed in the formulae of major metro daily reviewing, and one reason I am no longer doing it is that I became pretty disillusioned by journalism's restrictive expectations as well as the quality of what I was putting into print. I continue to be disillusioned as I read theater reviews either because many critics seem to have no sense of aesthetic at all or because, if they do, they limit themselves to employing it toward banal observations and consumerist conclusions.

The "performance log" has been my attempt to resuscitate, at least personally, a dying form. (And if you don't think it's dying, compare the number of volumes of collected theater criticism published in the 1950s and '60s to what's being published now or the prose of those bygone critics to those we read today; Kenneth Tynan spins in his grave.) To do so, I have set a few modest goals.

1) Write from the point of view that there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" art.

Such qualifications remove the likelihood of thoughtful discourse, turning it instead to material arbitration and calling more attention to the critic than the art. Now, we've all seen stuff that didn't go well or which deeply moved us, and it's natural to reach quickly for qualitative extremes. However, I want, and have tried, to shift the emphasis to the consequences of artistic choices, emphasizing their impact over my judgment of them because judgment, I feel, tends to undermine the thoughtful exploration of ideas. Here's an example from a review of Alan J. Pakula's Pelican Brief by San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle: Julia "Roberts has a hard time playing the intellectual: Whenever she has to explain anything of a thoughtful nature she sounds as though she memorized the dialogue phonetically" ("Pelican Not Brief Enough," Dec. 17, 1993).

Notice the structure of this pair of sentences ― judgment followed by example. By the way, the same day Scott Rosenberg reviewed the same film in the San Francisco Examiner: "Roberts … plays vulnerability convincingly enough. It doesn't help that [she] sounds ill at ease with legal argot. (Listen to the way she slurs a phrase like 'As yet I rule no one out.')" ("Case Against Pelican: Not Enough Thrills, Not Nearly Brief Enough," Dec. 17, 1993).

Same structure. Judgment followed by example. Having seen Pelican Brief I would agree with them, and it's worth noting that they agree with each other about the same specific acting issue (and their copy editors certainly agreed on the most appropriate headline). My question is where does the judgment get you if you really want to have a substantive discourse about the movie? (And I want to set aside the question of whether its worth having substantive discourses about non-substantive art. I think it is.) Once you say Roberts, in this movie, is a bad actress, what's left to talk about. For LaSalle and Rosenberg, both critics I liked a lot when I read them regularly, not much. Their reviews move on to take stock of other aspects of the movie.

Part of the problem is that the nature of major metro reviewing and its abrupt deadlines and limited copy space often preclude a "studied evaluation of an artistic effort" (Titchenor). And because more people read major metro reviewing of movies and theater than more thoughtful efforts (the popular press, after all) it becomes the baseline for both practice and expectations. So I want to get away from that.

I'm not the only critic who feels this way. Dominic Papatola wrote a smart column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few weeks ago arguing for ambivalent reactions to theater because "good criticism can and should steer a middle path: It should provide enough reporting to give a sense of what alchemic thing happened in the theater on a given night. It should impart sufficient context to help an audience understand why what happened matters ― if, in fact, it does. And it should present enough informed and leavened opinion to give readers the tools necessary to decide whether what occurred within those four walls is worthy of their time, their energy, and their money. … But criticism shouldn't be concerned with certainty" ("The thing about straddling the fence is, the grass is greener on both sides," Feb. 6, 2009).

I think Papatola gets himself into trouble when, after he acknowledges that "criticism should contribute to the dialogue and keep the conversation flowing" and decries "the Rush Limbaugh, my-way-or-the-highway brand, so certain in its perspective and so steamrolleresque in its delivery that the only possible responses to it are a sycophantic ditto or an angry, equally blustering counterpoint," he includes consumer advocacy as a goal of criticism. Is the conversation really advanced by claiming something is worth your time and money.

In my career as a theater critic, I only wanted to walk out of one production at intermission. I did not. (I was on assignment and needed to review it.) To this day, I talk about that production, not because I found it bad, but because I remember why it challenged my expectations of what should happen in the theater. When I bring it up with theater people, often a boisterous discussion ensues about directorial choices and working with actors. I often leave those conversations with a deeper appreciation for theater. Was the production I forced myself to sit through worth my time? Yes it was. In the consumer advocate mode, would I have said so in print? Probably not.

Yes, just because I sit through bad art and get a professional value from it doesn't mean I should force others to do so. But I'm not arguing that criticism should lack opinion. Our reactions to art are necessarily subjective. I just no longer want to write like I'm the final arbiter. I may have a lot of experience, but what discussion functions smoothly if one participant continually tells the others whether they're right or wrong.

2) To sidestep judgment, shift the focus from coverage to feature.

In journalism a coverage story focuses on the basic information associated with an event. In sports, it's who won the game, who contributed most to the win, a little context for key statistics, and usually a reverse chronological reporting of significant moments of the game. I think that theater criticism, in its most mundane form, achieves no more than coverage ― who the director is, a few directorial efforts, who the actors are, what kind of characters they establish, maybe the writer, maybe some design pieces like the set or costumes ― all framed by the critic's judgments of good, bad, or indifferent. This does no one ― artist, critic, or reader ― any good.

A good feature story contains "emotion and analysis" (Ricketson), but also character. It eschews the objectivity of news and many of the news values that limit news's relevance after a few days, like prominence, timeliness, proximity. Good features plumb depths, entertain, explore, enlighten. In the performance logs, I try to choose a few of the most interesting aspects of a production and explore their implications. I want to expand what I'm doing to include breaking the critic's barrier of authority and feel free to call up a director or an actor and question a choice. I want the license to notice something that may seem on the periphery of what's happening and focus on that: If Olivia sounds like Edith Bunker, what is the overall effect on our understanding of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night? If the guy playing Osric illuminates something in that character I never noticed before, why shouldn't we examine the role as much as we would Hamlet's?

For readers, this can be frustrating. There's a "yes, but is it any good" demand from people. Papatola notes in his column that after he wrote a "middle path" review of Hitchcock Blonde at the Jungle Theater, a reader e-mailed him "Is this good or bad? We should not bother to see this play?" This sort of response comes because readers have been conditioned for summary judgment rather than discourse. The irony is that if you engage in the conversation, readers will know whether the show is something they want to see or not. Whereas if Star Tribune critic Graydon Royce says a show is awesome and you go and don't enjoy yourself, then of course you're heading down a long path of non sequitors, usually beginning with "Graydon Royce is an idiot."

Another advantage of the feature approach is that it captures the truly memorable or the most worthily memorable. I sometimes go back and look at reviews I wrote under a more formulaic style. If I reviewed Hamlet, I made sure to comment on the actor playing Hamlet. But to be honest, sometimes even after reading the review that I wrote, I cannot remember the actor's specific contribution to the role. On the other hand, I will never forget the opening five minutes of Liviu Ciulei's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Guthrie in 1985, a scene that involved Hippolyta and two Athenian guards. Even today I could write an entire article on Ciulei's work using that as my only example.

Memory, though, can be unreliable. In these performance logs I want to capture moments that matter and which, in the great hurlyburly of time and other theatrical experiences, might become unfairly unretainable. Those moments may be the kind that one normally reads about in a review, but they are just as likely not to be. Good discussions are organic, not pre-scripted. Also it's easier to build discourse if one selects moments that are really thought-provoking and ignores even major elements about which one has no strong reaction. I have found, so far, that pursuing these kinds of moments, I've been able, for the most part, to avoid some judgmental tone, dismissive rhetoric, and dead-end discussion points that evaporate as topics the second a production goes dark.

This is not to say that I am changing my mind about Joe Dowling. Rather, I am acknowledging, as I think I did in the original review, that Dowling accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do and that his Shakespeare comedies represent a very clear approach to the genre, one that I happen not to agree with, and that Dowling is a skilled practitioner at bringing that kind of Shakespeare off. But the productive conversation comes from looking at the Dowling Shakespeare phenomenon more as a jumping off point. I'd wager Dowling does implicitly trust Shakespeare (I said he didn't, and I haven't asked him) to be expansive enough to withstand whatever comic setting and added entertainments Dowling wishes to add to it. If we explore that attitude on stage rather than dismissing it ― there is no relevant "good" or "bad" about it ― then what we have instead is a question like "what does it mean to turn Shakespeare's comedies into boffo circus acts"? That, to me, is an interesting question.

And one that I'll answer in a performance log on Dowling's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, next.


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