Putting a Face on Theatre
How do you talk about work you don’t like?
Not long ago, I had a chance to see a play—I won’t mention the name, so don’t ask—that a few people I greatly admire highly recommended. A theater critic with whom I speak frequently had panned the show, both in print and in a conversation with me, so I was wary going in… but one friend’s particularly glowing, even passionate recommendation inspired me to see the show anyway.
(Side note: never doubt that our friends influence our theater-going decisions at least as much as reviews.)
As it happens, by intermission I was troubled by what I was watching. By the end of the marathon performance, furthermore, I had assembled a carefully elaborated list of what I thought were significant problems with the play (and a few with the production). I was ready and willing, once the lights came up, to share with whoever might listen.
And then I happened to run into someone else I admire—another theater person who, as it happens, is someone I’d very much like to work with—and the first words out of his mouth were, roughly, “Wasn’t that stupendous?” I literally didn’t know what to say. Mostly I just… listened. He offered a few things he really loved about the script, and I nodded, and he mentioned one or two more things, and I told him how good it was to run into him, and then we were mercifully interrupted.
Why did I feel as if I couldn’t tell him the truth? Why did I also, much later, fail to say anything particularly negative on Facebook, where several theater folks I know were discussing the play? On Twitter, I made a mild passing comment suggesting that I agreed with the aforementioned theater critic’s assessment… and immediately worried that I might have gone too far.
So you know what I did? I consulted that very theater critic. I shared my full thoughts about the play with him (entirely off the record, of course) and we had a terrific conversation. And then I mentioned my trepidation about offending anyone—not only the artists who wrote, directed, staged, and performed the play, but my colleagues who held the play in high esteem—and he suggested that anyone who would hold my opinions against me isn’t someone to take seriously. That hit home.
I thought to myself: that has to be a dearly-bought pearl of wisdom, given that his job is to share opinions in public. Perhaps I ought to consider it.
And I have. I think I’m going to be a bit less restrained in talking about the plays I see than I have been. In the past, I have been willing to share my thoughts publicly about productions that did not originate in DC, where I live. For local productions, with local artistic teams, I have occasionally commented, but I typically wait to do so until after the run of the play had ended, so as not to affect sales via word of mouth (or word of blog, word of tweet, word of status update). Moving forward, I’m going to eliminate those self-imposed limits… tentatively at first, to see how it goes, but with the hope that it doesn’t prove catastrophic.
To be clear, though, I’m not going to try to review plays—that’s not my job, and I’m not nearly as qualified as I would want to be. I’m also not going to share any particularly scathing observations. For the sake of decorum and esprit de corps and support of my fellow artists, those I will continue to keep to myself, where I believe they belong. But if I don’t care for something, and I think I have a valid and constructive point to make about it, I’m going to say so, with as much confidence and clarity as I can muster. And it feels scary, but also honest... which is a good thing.