Andrew Snowdon

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Critic, Review Thyself

In Uncategorized on Friday 31 December 2010 at 23:34

REVIEW, v.t.
To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb.

—Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

The teacher, critic, competition judge, assembly of fellow students all watch the performance in order to judge, and so their opinion, either of the moment or of the piece as a whole, is worthless.

—David Mamet, Theatre

This past summer, I was on my way to the Ottawa Fringe Festival office to purchase my Fringe pins (or pick up my media pass, I can’t recall which), and I stopped at a Bridgehead to pick up a coffee. As I was leaving, I passed a lady wearing sunglasses on the patio. She was reading a Fringe program. I commented favourably, and mentioned that I was on my way to pick up my pin.

“What should I see?” she asked. I balked. There were sixty shows in the Fringe, and it hadn’t even started yet. I hadn’t seen anything. There hadn’t been anything to see. There were performers from out of town (and some local companies) that I knew nothing about.

I seem to recall muttering something about Jonno Katz, giving her the website information, and hightailing it down Dalhousie.

This is neither the first nor the only time something like this has happened to me.*

Playwright, philosopher, and plenty else besides Sterling Lynch raised the perennial question of the role of popular criticism in the arts recently. Although as someone who writes theatre reviews I’m probably singularly unqualified to judge their value, I do have some opinions by which I attempt to govern my conduct. These may amount to a statement on my view of the place of popular criticism.

There exists a large portion of society that has to “know before they go”. You can test this. Find someone, and say “hey, I have two free tickets to see X show, would you like to go?”** Among the possible responses you will receive are: “Sure!”, “No.”, and “What is it?” From experience, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet” is never the answer they’re looking for.

Most people want to go into the theatre knowing something about what they’re seeing. It almost doesn’t matter what.*** (Is it a comedy? If so, is it funny? Is it a tragedy? If so, is it funny? A melodrama? Satire? Who are the actors? What have I seen them in? Is the play one I ought to know? Did the playwright write anything else I should recognize? Arthur Milner… did he marry Marilyn Monroe or Anaïs Nin?****) The publicist is aware of this fact, or at least they act on it as if they were. The publicist can be trusted to say good things about the production, and they are most likely written before rehearsals start. If there is a synopsis, it is usually accurate; if there are adjectives, they are usually hyperbole. But at least it’s something.

I think, ideally, the critic as reviewer is working on behalf of the potential audience. Therefore, it does the critic no good to dwell too heavily on the themes or the minute details of stagecraft unless they interfere with or add to the enjoyment of the performance. The potential audience wants to know if a production is worth spending money and time to see.***** They also want to know why—and as different things appeal to different people, the popular critic has to be aware of this, and roughly judge what will be popular to whom.

There is a piece of advice often given to directors, playwrights, and the like that critics and reviewers ought to follow to a certain degree. They are told to sit in the back row during the performance and watch the audience. Yawns, fidgets, excessive playing with the program… all these indicate something isn’t working. When I am reviewing, I take note, in my peripheral vision, of people sneaking glances at their watches, and ask myself “What went wrong there?” It’s the easiest way to zero in on the shortcomings of a production.

The easiest review to write is the absolute failure. Remember Dorothy Parker: “The House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.” Such a thunderbolt. (These, by the way, bring some public in the door; they want to see if it really is that bad of a trainwreck.)

Personally, I don’t read the reviews until after I’ve seen the performance and written my own; I understand, too, the actors and directors who don’t read the reviews at all, and have sympathy for the poor publicists who must.

So the popular critic is… the foreman of the audience? An armchair director? The advance scout of the general public? A scapegoat?

Maybe. But the answer, as with most arts, is that the more you complicate something, the more theory you evolve around it, the further away you are from understanding it. So at its most basic, the scene is: a popular critic goes to see a production, writes about what they saw, if they found it good or not, why, and what parts. The utility thereof is determined wholly by the person who reads (or listens to) the review.

And unlike the actor, there is rarely applause to tell us if we are doing it right or not. On occasion, as a reviewer, I have received some word from an audience member, a performer, or a (paid and consecrated) theatre critic that lets me know what I write is being read and is thus of use to someone.

I find that is all that I need to know on the subject.

* Serves me right for setting myself up as a bloody authority on the subject.

** Prepare to back this up with actual tickets. It may backfire.

*** You will see this same phenomenon in a variety of situations where a person comes up against the unknown. For example, a doctor’s office: Doctor: “Well, you’re going to need surgery.” Patient: “Wha… surgery? What kind of surgery?” Doctor: “Oh, we’re just going to go in through the medulla oblongata and cauterize the corpus luteum. It’s an outpatient procedure.” Patient: “Ah, that’s alright then.” Now, it doesn’t matter that the patient doesn’t know where or what a medulla is, why it might be oblongata, if that’s even an orifice through which the body can be entered (it isn’t)… but he has been told something and that’s all that’s necessary in a great many cases.

**** Neither. Arthur Milner is an Ottawa playwright and director. Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman and married Marilyn Monroe. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were lovers. Henry wrote Tropic of Cancer, which ended up helping to shape the legal definition of obscenity in the United States. If you can keep all of that straight, you have enough material to last you through at least one cocktail party.

***** A reviewer has to be a bit of a Method actor: he has to believe and act as though he has paid full ticket price, even though he got into opening night Scot free (rather, for the low, low price of staying sober, staying awake an extra couple of hours to write, and not being able to look certain actors and directors in the eye at parties). Otherwise his experience is not that of the general audience member.

A Full House Beats a Flush

In Uncategorized on Thursday 30 December 2010 at 7:55

In mid-October, I had the chance to see Raoul Bhaneja perform Hamlet: solo at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. I went with Nancy Kenny and Linda Bedford, and we ran into (amongst others) local actor Corry Burke, who was at the time pursuing a seat on Ottawa City Council. After the performance, the four of us retired to the Royal Oak on Wellington to discuss politics, theatre, and marketing.

Here is the question I put to the table: all other things being equal, would you rather sell out every night of a two-week theatre production at 10% profit per ticket, or have half-houses every night for four weeks at 25% profit per ticket?

Mr. Burke (who is an awfully good sport for having put up with my spirited soapboxery) chose the latter. I asked him why. He replied that he wanted everyone who wanted to see a production to be able to see it.

I can think of no more noble and artistically motivated answer.

Unfortunately, this is not economically sound thinking, and would doom a professional theatre*, casting its actors, crew, and production staff into penury.

The trouble is this: you cannot warehouse theatre. It does not store well. There are no “leftovers”. There is no surplus. An essential component of theatre—and a key factor in its value—is time.

To the degree that something is scarce, it will become valuable. Reduced supply mimics, and in many cases causes, increased demand. This applies to any commodity (oil, gold, sugar, water even), and to entertainment as well. Music, film, television—any of the recording arts—currently find themselves devalued because their scarcity (limitation of supply) is threatened by almost limitless copying. This is much less possible with theatre. Therefore it is quite simple to manufacture an artificial scarcity.

If the concept of creating an artificial scarcity of theatre seems unethical to you, get away from the box office. You shouldn’t be anywhere near the money flow in a theatre if you are at all squeamish about turning people away at the door. An artificial scarcity of wheat is unethical; it places the value of money over that of human life. That’s different. Nobody is going to die because they didn’t get to see a play**.

The ideal scene of a performance run is not that everyone who wants to get in gets in, and there are seats left over. That is a waste. You can’t save those seats for later. The ideal scene is that the show sells out every night, the theatre is full to capacity, people are turned away at the door, and the house is worried about the fire marshal showing up.

Of course, a sold-out house means different things in different venues. Can your performance sell out the National Arts Centre? The GCTC? Fifty seats in an art gallery? The wrong way to approach this problem is to attempt to sell 500 tickets to an experimental play by an unknown local author (or worse, Yet Another Romeo and Juliet—although that may stand a chance). Choose your capacity so that it does sell out, and it will***.

You think that people coming out of a good play are your best advertisement? Try the ones that couldn’t get in! They’re free—and they’re loud.

Imagine running a theatre without having to discount last-minute tickets. Imagine having to extend a run because of popular demand.

Sold-out houses lead to advance ticket sales in the future.

And if you’re selling out, there will be a future.

* Barring the case of government subsidization, which establishes a welfare state for the arts. But that is a topic for another day.

** Of course, now someone is going to die just because they didn’t get to see a play, just to be obstinate.

*** There is, by the way, an equation to figure out what the most economically efficient length of run for a given capacity theatre is, taking publicity into account. Remind me to share it with you sometime.

A Theatre Hierarchy of Needs

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 28 December 2010 at 6:55

I got myself a Christmas gift (that’s another tradition in my family): David Mamet’s Theatre. Having blitzed through it, I would recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in theatre, theatre marketing, stagecraft, directing, or playwriting—unless you are a devotee of Method acting, in which case it might make you queasy (or at least make you feel as though you’ve wasted a whole lot of money).

I agree with most of the ideas in Mamet’s essays in this book. This is no surprise; he is primarily a playwright and director, and as a writer I have sympathies in the same areas: the fundamental integrity of the text of the play, the minimalist approach to directing, the distaste for “updating” classic plays.

Of course, he’s not a fan of the theatre critic, but it’s for much the same reasons that I’m not a fan of the theatre critic when they lose their perspective as a member of the audience.

Based on my own experience, and influenced heavily by Mamet’s analysis, this is my summary of what a piece of theatre requires*. There is a hierarchy of importance; each level is meaningless and useless without the supporting level below, suggesting the structure of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Also, I like drawing triangles.

Theatre Hierarchy of Needs

First, the play itself must have a plot capable of standing alone, and decent dialogue. The play must hold its own as a text. It is supposed to be, first, a piece of literature. If, and only if, its performance would be better than reading the text, should it be brought to the stage.

If it should be brought to the stage, it must have good acting and decent direction. By direction is meant blocking, movement, and the guidance given to the actors—not interpretation. Interpretation is a sign of weakness in the play.

At this point, you have actors moving on a bare stage in street clothes, speaking lines. Only if this works as it is, do costume and set belong. Barring a few exceptional cases, if the play does not work without lavish costumes or an intricate set, then it does not work with them either. (If the audience is talking about the costumes and the set… then they’re not talking about the play or the acting. Might as well have just rented mannequins; they’re rarely Equity and don’t have to be paid as much.)

After this, well, bells and whistles. What do I mean by that? Pyrotechnics. Audience interaction. Scented biscuits. I don’t know. If you even need anything else. Theatre occurred way back down on the second level of the pyramid.

You will encounter, on occasion, as I have, some enterprising director or collective trying to pull a right rotten play (lacking plot and/or dialogue) out of the mud; sometimes they meet with considerable successs, and you would be well to listen politely to their proud stories of having done so.

Recognize that it is smarter not to paddle upstream where there are rapids in the first place.

* Yes, I’m familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle’s sixfold division of the elements of theatre is valid, and as worthy of study as it is apparently neglected. There is nothing hierarchical about it. If you’ve heard of the Poetics, but have never read it, go do so.

The Gift Guessing Game

In Uncategorized on Monday 27 December 2010 at 19:13

Christmas morning always had a very definite ritual feel to it when I was growing up, and I’d like to share that with you.

The first thing Christmas morning, my mother, my father, and I would assemble to open our presents. Breakfast consisted of shortbread cookies and egg nog, consumed between gifts. I would wear the Santa hat and distribute the stockings; we would take turns removing presents until they were empty, then turn to the gifts under the tree. One by one, with my mother’s guidance as to which gift was next, I would hand these out too, and we would take turns opening them, until there were none left. Usually the last couple of presents were mine. The whole process took a couple of hours.

As an added level of complexity, on the tags to each gift was written a (very cryptic) clue to the contents. Before opening each gift, the recipient was expected to make a fairly precise guess as to what the gift was. I learned a lot, over the years, about shaking gifts to check for fluid and moving parts, running my fingernail across edges to feel for pages, and the relative weights of different kinds of book paper.

These are traditions that I continue to uphold when it comes to gift-giving, particularly at Christmas: the strict order of presents, and the guessing game.

Of course, the clues are never quite straightforward. If they are decipherable at all, they usually require following a particularly schizophrenic chain of word-association. Often, they make specific reference to something that only the recipient would understand (or, if I am having a particularly stressful holiday, something that the recipient could never hope to understand until well after opening the gift).

For example, I have drawn ice floes, footprints, and snipped a phrase from a Weakerthans song to hint at a mug with penguins on it.

“It’s not lupus” was my mother’s only indication that she was getting Hugh Laurie’s new novel this year—all the more obscure since she has never seen an episode of House, and is familiar with Laurie only from Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder, and the like.

I usually leave my Christmas shopping until the last minute, not least because I am tempted to drop hints as soon as I have made the purchase. One of my oldest and dearest friends was once unlucky enough to get a Christmas present that I had purchased well in advance; thus, the guessing game started several weeks before. Unwilling to fully avoid the subject, I agreed to answer simple yes-or-no questions about the gift.

“Is it an electronic kit of some kind?” “Almost.”

“Could I eat it?” “In dire circumstances, yes.”

The gift, of course, was a Knight Rider t-shirt. I believe my answers were quite straightforward. It does portray an electronic car named Kit. And in the direst of circumstances, a cotton t-shirt can be eaten.

My friend just picked bad questions.

I enjoy giving gifts at Christmastime, or indeed on any occasion that calls for the giving of gifts; but there’s no reason I shouldn’t get a little something in return. I’m not perfect at picking gifts, so I can’t always count on gratitude. However, I’m pretty much guaranteed bewilderment, and that makes for better pictures in any case.

Happy Holidays.