Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh, snap!

So, there's a very interesting conversation at Tony's place about content with asides as to how content-driven discussion begs for honesty over beating around the bush. And in the midst of that talk, I stumbled across Randy Hardwick's review of La Costa's The Devil's Daughter. It's one of the rarely seen Chicagocritic.com Not Recommended reviews (the show has been taking a hit elsewhere as well), and it closes with this sentence:

"[Director Jonathan] Hymen, who is also La Costa’s artistic director, has taken this once promising, now struggling company a giant leap further down the role [sic] to hell with this choice."

Oh, damn! Randy went there! $64,000 question: Is that striking, honest criticism or just a dagger in La Costa's side?

The caveats: 1) I make it no secret that I take issue with Chicagocritic.com, Tom Williams' little compendium of Why I Liked This Show, from time to time. However, Hardwick is far and away the best contributor to the site, so I'm approaching this review as actual, credible criticism.

2) I have never been to a La Costa production, largely because their programming is the sort that makes me want to never go to a La Costa production. True story: upon reading the promo material for Stuck, their last show (Six people! One subway car! Stuck! Now they sing and dance!), I turned to my roommate and requested that he shoot me in the face if I ever wrote or conceived anything even remotely similar. I'm holding him to that. The Devil's Daughter, if the reviews are to be believed (personal aside: I'm believing them), is a half-assed magic show with a quarter-assed script crumpled up and tossed on top.

So, here's the conversation starter: Should bad theatre be run out of town at high noon? If we are to improve as an artistic community, do we build or do we burn or can we do both? Do we owe it to each other as fellow artists and humans to find the silver lining so that our own silver lining will hopefully be seen on our lesser days? Is it our responsibility to call out bad theatre or do we let the audiences learn for themselves at the risk of losing a couple?

I'm a rabblerouser, I'm sure it's no surprise where I stand. But I am curious to see the if we can make the content discussion already happening a little more content-based.



Tony Adams said...

I think it's counter productive to be assholic just for the sake of being assholic.

I have a hard time finding Hardwick credible myself. I actually gave up on that site a while ago.

I'm trying hard to refrain from doing the same my self, as any possible constructive feedback is immediately negated by the claws coming out.

This one would be easier to coherently discuss if the review wasn't so poorly written.

There is nothing that could be reasonably taken away by the artists to learn from.

From what I can gather from the reviews, (not-having seen it) the biggest sin is doing a half-assed show, and not one the writer wanted to see.

Now granted some will take any negative feedback as an insult. And I'm not making excuses for half-assed shows (once again I haven't seen it, so I can't say that myself.)

But it is possible to write about a show that isn't very good without daggers in the side.

Honesty, coupled with fairness, is harder to do than insults or beating around the bush. It's also far more productive.

But it can be helpful (for me at least) to remember that just as there is a lot of crap theatre, a lot of criticism out there belongs in the same bowl.

Enough of my rant. We do have long overdue beer, maybe sometime in December? (depending on how the birth goes and all.)

Paul Rekk said...

Gotta disagree on this one -- critics and audiences alike don't have the slightest responsibility to give artists something to learn from in their response. When a producer or director asks someone into rehearsal or a run-through or a dress to act as another pair of eyes, then by all means the response should maintain that tone. Once a show opens, the artists are in essence saying, "Here, this is finished, we feel that it is worthy of your time and money." Period. And anyone who takes them up on that offer has the responsibility (or option of responsibility) to respond to the degree that they agree or disagree on the piece's worth.

Of course, if you see a bad production with a nugget of something that could have been great, the natural response is constructive -- "This could have worked if...", as it should be. If you don't see that nugget, if the work inspires zilch in you, you don't owe it to the artists to help them get better any more than they owe you your money back. Choices were made, perhaps bad ones on either side, and at that point it isn't about turning the crap into gold, it's about doing the best we can to avoid crap in the future.

Yeah, being assholic just to do so isn't cool, but I don't think harsh language or strong opinions or an unwavering viewpoint automatically qualify as any of these things. Hardwick's review (and I use credible in comparison to the rest of the CC/steadstyle online contingency, which, granted, is a low benchmark) never strikes me as assholic. He's not targeting (he obviously at one time held respect for La Costa), he isn't going out of his way to repeat criticisms ad nauseum, and he does try to provide some positive, which is more than I can say for myself for a number of shows I've disliked (let's ignore the shaky area of my credibility for the time being).

Hardwick saw a show he hated and what's more a trend of unworthy shows from a particular company and he reported back. It's not his duty to help La Costa (or whoever) not put on bad theatre. That's La Costa's job, and if Hardwick (and Bresloff and Thompson) are to be believed, they failed to perform it this time.

I don't want all the bad theatre in Chicago to get better. I just want some of it to go away. Instead of 88 shows running with only 22 of them worthwhile, I would gladly take 66 running with 33 worthwhile. I say we call out bad work -- you can tell the difference between mediocre work with promise and that without. What's the point in trying to help the work without get better?

End of my rant. Wish the lady some fine baby-havin'. My best goes out to both of you, and we'll touch base on that beer after you gots you another kid!

Rex Winsome said...

I'm mostly with you Paul. I think harsh borderline assholic criticism is great and warranted. I've given some myself, always with ugly consequences.

Theatre will continue to be an irrelevant isolated art form as long as the artists are incapable of withstanding a good thrashing.

and i disagree with Tony that " any possible constructive feedback is immediately negated" in harsh criticism. If he's right, then the person negating that criticism is failing to do one of the essential tasks of an artist. The initial response might be anger and rejection of the bad review, that's natural, but it's important for an artist to look past their initial emotional response and examine the work in question through the reviewers eyes and then ask themselves (if this reviewer is the type of person they want to make theatre for in the first place) what they could do different.

I will draw the line at "running people out of town" or wanting bad work to go away. But, I really don't think that in the long term honest reviewing will reduce the number of shows being produced. People don't avoid theatre because there are bad shows as much as they avoid theatre because with the lack of public criticism there is no way of knowing if a show is good or bad.

Tony Adams said...

I don't know if that's what you feel, but I think there's a difference between the responsibilities of an audience member and that of a critic.

I draw a line between honest criticism and an attack. And to be honest that line of demarcation is usually when a reviewer stops talking about the work and starts talking about the person.

That's me though.

Though I should also say reading poorly written criticism immediately makes me question the quality of the that writers perspective.

Usually, in practice, "a good thrashing" is often not better in quality than the show being talked about.

Bad writing is bad writing, regardless of which end of the spectrum.

Ed said...

Was I supposed to have that much fun? I hope so. Is it weird that I take lots of meaning from that piece? I feel like maybe DADA isn't supposed to be meaningful, but I can't stop my brain from making connections when I see a show, even if the show is attempting to be nonsensical. By the way, I found this piece to be more meaningful to me, with all its nonsense, than shows that try a lot harder to have meaning. It also was really entertaining and made me laugh a lot. Delighted. I was delighted because it was delightful. Everyone was cool, though to be completely honest Dabo (that's the name of the one Jen plays, right?) was my favorite, because she's always the cruelest. Jeez, what does that say about me? Well done. You should be proud to be part of that- seeing the show sorely tempted me to cast 'meaningful' theatre to the wind and try DADA myself.

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