Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Do/Don't Review This

All of us want glowing reviews for our work. Professional reviews. We believe they will bring audiences and lasting recognition; we believe they will be useful in obtaining grants. Though we hold fast to our public assertions that we don’t need them for personal validation of our creative talents, we secretly covet the words when they glow. For the past few years my faith in these beliefs has waned. I’ve seen glowing reviews do nothing for audience attendance; I’ve grown to understand that the only thing that brings lasting recognition is consistent and continued quality in one’s work. And the eruption of audience reviews on sites like Goldstar Events and other places have shown themselves to have a more immediate impact on ticket sales that traditional reviews, even if I can’t attach them to a grant application or clip them to a play submission. I don’t mean to diminish the value of a professional opinion; I’m just recognizing its changing place in a changing world.

I was intrigued, then, when I learned of a controversial blog written by Melodie Bahan, the Director of Communications at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, entitled “Don’t Review This”. She stressed that “too much emphasis has been placed on theater reviews to the detriment of arts. Does the average newspaper reader even skim – much less read – a review of the latest production from a small theater company she’s never heard of and has no intention of seeing? Probably not. But she might well read movie reviews and almost certainly reads feature stories about the movie industry, even if she sees only two or three movies a year. I believe it’s because, in part, newspapers provide stories about the film industry that explain and inform, yet provide little real coverage of the theater community in this town.”

In advocating for theatre “journalism” rather than reviews, Bahan wants coverage that gets inside of the theatre world, a look within productions, coverage that builds a sense of community between artists and audiences. I say "Amen" to that-- it's what this blog and our Twitter page ( are all about, building a community. She goes on to write:

The readers of the two major daily newspapers in this town would be better served by forgoing hastily-written, ill-considered snapshots of an opening night performance and focusing instead on actual journalistic coverage of the arts. I’m not against theater reviews; I’m against theater reviews that are poorly written, thumbs-up-or-down laundry lists of actors and designers that don’t do anything to illuminate the production or give readers a real sense of the experience.”

I don’t know if I agree completely with Bahan’s a solution to diminishing theatre reviews. I rarely read movie reviews and almost never skim feature acticles about the movie industry. But I’ll admit I’m intrigued. And it’s definitely worth some discussion. With reviewers been forced to critique productions in a hundred words or less, it's almost impossible to write something that illuminates the art of a single show. Consider how many artists contribute to a show: set, light, sound, costume, prop designers and graphic artists-- not to mention stage managers, tech operators (have you ever seen sloppily run lighting? it can ruin a show), directors, choreographers, and actors. You could fill a hundred words just placing names to occupations. More importantly, I think Bahan's article poses a question about the role of the reviewer. And that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

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