Asking theater people what they think about critics is a little like asking Tweetie Bird how he feels about Sylvester - wary. Very wary."
That's how Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Charles Morey began his response to a recent request from The Deseret News to evaluate the work of theater critics.What is the critics' role? Can criticism enhance the creative process? How often does it do so? Do theater reviews really impact box office sales? And what is the state of theater criticism locally?
Morey and five colleagues - Ed Gryska of The Salt Lake Acting Company, Tom Carlin of Theatre 138, Sally Dietlein of Hale Center Theater, Fran Pruyn of New Shakespeare Players and Tom Parker of City Rep - were asked to talk about critics from the perspective of those whose work is criticized. Their comments provided interesting insights to the artists and to those who evaluate their art.
"The critic's role is to respond intelligently to the theatrical event and report that response in a cogent and informed manner to the public," Morey said. "It should be assumed that the critic must have a basic appreciation and concern for the art form; a working knowledge of the literature, theory and practice of the art form; and, perhaps most importantly, hold a genuine desire to see that art form prosper and grow."
But most of our respondents feel that ideal is rarely realized.
"Frankly, in most American cities arts critics may or may not have any idea of whence they speak," said Pruyn. "They are not required to have ever had any experience whatsoever in the art form upon which they sit in judgment. They are not required to have taken a class, or even to have read a play. Frequently they are enlisted for the job simply because they work for a newspaper."
Morey suggested that the ideal critic would be a "mature theater artist who is willing to step back from the day-to-day business of making theater in order to consider and reflect upon the work of his/her colleagues.
"But since the ideal only rarely exists," he continued, "what is the reality? Critics who presume to know something about the craft but don't and demonstrate their ignorance in uniquely arrogant style. And, on the other hand, reviewers who admit they know nothing of the art form and rationalize their professional existence by passing off ersatz `Consumer Reports' as theatrical criticism.
"Given the above," Morey concluded, "most theatrical criticism must be taken with a very large grain of salt and looked at simply as one person's opinion at one moment in time."
Which is why Parker says he prefers to think of the critic in "a higher role."
"I would downplay the role of the critic or reviewer as a protector of the consumer and his money," said the City Rep president. Rather, he continued, he sees the critic's most important function as "educating the populace to a diversity of tastes in the arts - what is good and fine, and why. That by itself is a tremendous task."
"Arts are a precious element in any community," added Dietlein. "The media can and should be a support system to the community - hence the critics should be helpful in realistic ways to worthy theater."
"The theater group and the critic should search out and utilize a completely symbiotic relationship," noted Carlin. "Unfortunately, this notion is rarely achieved. On one side you have someone with a sense of importance - the need of the critic to criticize. And on the other you have people who sincerely feel that the critic doesn't know what he or she is talking about. This leads to a . . . puerile and petty notion of who tops whom in what should be a common endeavor - the pleasing of an audience, or a readership."
Make no mistake about it, however, all of the respondents insisted that reviews do have an impact on the theater audience.
"Absolutely," Gryska said. "When we get a good review or a positive review, our phones ring off the hook. When we get a bad review or a mixed review . . . well, that's when we have to depend on our season ticket holders."
And what if a company doesn't have a lot of season ticket holders to fall back on? "A negative review can and has meant the loss of thousands of dollars," said Pruyn of her experience with New Shakespeare Players, a small company that exists on show-to-show ticket sales. "This is especially true of riskier, lesser-known, more literary works."
But of even more concern to some is the impact reviews have on the art form in general - and on actors specifically.
"An actor is the most vulnerable person in the world - standing on a stage, deliberately exposing himself, begging for praise, expecting criticism," Pruyn observed. "Criticism . . . is the price an artist pays for being public. It is the artist's lot to endure the criticism, sift it, and grow from it."
And to not pay too much attention to it, according to Morey. "The healthiest situation for the artist is to not give too much weight to any review," said the PTC director. "There is an old saying: `If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones.' So it is probably best to stand back somewhat from all of them . . . The healthiest theater artists I know simply don't read reviews."
Besides, Morey continued, "as a craftsman or an artist it is imperative to operate from . . . your own perceptions, instincts and taste. When one begins to try to direct or act in order to please (the critics), one is short-circuiting the mechanism that allows one to function as an artist at all."
Parker agreed. "The artist should produce to please himself, his collaborators and the audience," he said. "If he lets his art be affected by what he thinks the critic might say, then he might just as well join the more commercial outlets for theater - television and films, where the only thing that counts is `does the buck make a buck?'."
Still, Pruyn maintains that "good criticism is essential to good art. It tightens and molds a creative piece. It gives objectivity to a subjective offering."
At least, it can. But does it happen very often in Salt Lake theater?
"Salt Lake City has two dailies with writers assigned specifically to cover theater," Morey said. "Both papers and their writers attempt to deal with theater seriously and honestly. And, in the main, they succeed at doing so." However, he added, neither paper has a critic that conforms to his notion of the "ideal" critic, and both are hampered by geographical isolation which makes it impossible for them to "place the local theater scene in a national perspective."
Said Carlin: "In our local situation, some critics seem to have favorite theater groups, favorite performers and favorite types of plays. Very often, thanks to these influences, the critic seems to lose his objectivity and become totally subjective."
"Local reviewers are not always responsible critics," Pruyn said. But she added: "Salt Lake City is no better nor worse in this matter than most American cities."
Some other observations:
Dietlein: "There is a phenomenon in this area. Some papers and reviewers have the idea that `clean' and `wholesome' are dirty words artistically, that because we choose to do that kind of theater we're not legitimate theater and that we shouldn't be taken seriously . . . What does that say about them?"
Carlin: "Give us an even break. Keep in mind our limitations, both financial and time-wise, and give us a point or two for effort. After all, we are not able to devote all of our time to the theater. Economically, it's a part-time obsession. Nothing on earth is perfect, and what you see is, by and large, the best we have to offer."
Gryska: "Even though negative criticism absolutely can help, I would hope that the actor would listen more to his director and put more trust in him than in the critic."
Parker: "Many Salt Lake people wait to attend a performance until it is recommended to them, either by a friend or by the newspaper. I don't fully understand why they wait, but believe it is because many are worried they might not enjoy something they haven't seen before, or be offended, or that money is tight and couldn't be `wasted' on something that is not really enjoyable. All the more reason for the critic or reviewer to build a discerning, educated, adventurous audience for the arts!"
Morey: "If we are even the least bit honest, we have to admit that we like it when we are praised and it hurts when we are criticized and anything beyond that is probably just so much cow-flop."
Pruyn: "Nobody likes a critic. We all want to think we are wonderful. And performing artists have to think they have something special to offer if they are going to get up on a stage and stay there. A critic can reinforce all those ugly insecurities we have worked so hard to dispel. Worst of all, a critic can be right."