I’ve been a theater critic in Los Angeles on and off for about three years now, and in that time I’ve been given quite a bit of advice – some solicited, some un-solicited – about what a critic is and how to be a good critic. For the most part it seems like there are three camps.
Camp 1 – synopsis of the play followed by “Yay, everybody was so good!”
Camp 2 – synopsis of the play followed by a history lesson about the play, the playwright, the time period that the play takes place in, the theatrical convention used, etc, followed by critical remarks about the production
Camp 3 – synopsis of the play followed by scathing remarks tearing apart anything and everything that was even remotely sub-par with the intent of culling the weak theater out to make way for the good.
Honestly, I don’t know that I fall into any of those camps. I’m a critic, not your mother. So if you want/need to hear, “Yay, everybody was so good!” then you better put on one hell of a good production. And while a little background about the play, time period or theatrical convention used is warranted if it helps to illuminate the critique; I don’t feel that a full-on history lesson is needed. In this day and age if people are really that interested they can Google the particulars.
Lastly, I definitely don’t believe that it is my JOB to weed out the bad from the good. I am one person and what I have to say is one person’s opinion. There will be productions that the majority of people will love, that simply aren’t my cup of tea. I commonly have this conversation with my sister:
Sister: How was the movie/play?
Me: Ugh, it was horrible. The acting was mediocre, the plot predictable and the story contrived.
Sister: But would I like it?
Me: Oh, yeah, you’d love it. Go see it!
This is not a commentary on my sister. It’s a commentary on me. I am hypercritical of everything I watch. I always have been, and it’s a rare circumstance that I can turn that part of me off. Yes, I’m the same with my own work, so at least I’m an equal opportunity critic. That being said critiques come down to one thing – they are the opinion of one person, and this person loves live theater.
I root for the theater companies. I want them to do amazing work and try new things and experiment and create art that can move their audience. Some of the most amazing experiences in my life have taken place in theaters either in the audience, onstage or backstage. However, as in any art form, when you put yourself out there and take a risk, sometimes you miss the mark and as a critic I do have an obligation to my readers. If they only have enough money to go see one show, then I need to steer them to the show that will help build their love of theater so that they’ll keep coming back.
So I tell it how I see it and I try valiantly to walk that fine line between being honest and being mean, because there is a difference. A HUGE difference. And if I can’t come up with anything positive to say about a production, I prefer to say nothing at all. That’s the kind of critic that I want to be.