Should a new play festival be a nurturing place for playwrights, free of the potentially debilitating glare of outside critics? Or is it beneficial to have scribes chiming in on what they see on stage?
Is there a different responsibility for critics of premiere works or should they be held up to the same kind of scrutiny at a festival as they would if they were opening fresh on Broadway?
Engine 31’s Chris Arnott and Lou Harry debate the topic.
Chris: I’ve been to Humana twice now. It’s a world unto itself—a smooth-running fest of full productions of noteworthy new works by established playwrights. It’s also a world unusual for me as a theater critic, in that I am welcome in it. I’ve been a theater critic in New Haven, Connecticut, for a quarter of a century. I see and write about new plays all the time… as long as they are part of the regular subscriber seasons at established regional theaters. Many shows—branded “workshops” even though they’re full productions, or “student work” even though they’re open to the public and sell tickets—are off limits to me as a critic. This includes the Carlotta Festival of New Plays at the Yale School of Drama and offerings at the Goodspeed Opera House’s new-works venue, the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. I’ve come to accept and even defend this practice. Then I go to Humana and wonder.
Lou: They are only off-limits to you as a critic because they aren’t giving you tickets, right? As a journalist, what is preventing you—besides budget—from buying tickets and writing about the work?
Chris: Like I say, I agree with some of the arguments. For instance, if the show is truly a workshop and is getting actively rewritten while it’s at the theater, I think it’s unfair of me to assess it based on seeing one random performance. If, however, I committed to visiting the show frequently during its run and wrote about it then, I think reviews should be allowable. When Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre, I was alerted to every major change in the script or production, and I saw the show four times.
My rule is that if it’s open to the public and charges admission, it’s fair game. That speaks to the critic as journalist, describing a public event as a service to readers. That said, if a theater has a compelling argument as to why critics shouldn’t come, I can respect that.
Lou: I remember hearing a critic in one town saying “Why are they doing that show? They know I hate it.” Paraphrasing, of course, but you get my point. Can that blur into critics helping dictate content? Is it okay, for instance, for a theater company to say to a critic: What do you think of so-and-so’s work as they consider putting together a season?
Some of the disappointment in some theater—including some Humana shows I’ve seen—is that they feel over-workshopped, as if the edges have been buffed off them to a point where they don’t feel as alive as they should. The productions leave me wishing I could see them earlier in the process when they had more loose bolts. When they rattled a bit more instead of feeling so finely tooled.
Chris: Over-workshopped shows deserve to be treated the same way that overproduced revivals are. It’s useful and acceptable criticism to say that a show’s essence has been lost or obscured. When I see a play that’s truly new, just getting staged for the first time, I just love the rawness and energy. Readings at the O’Neill Center’s Playwrights Conference and at the Yale Institute for Music Theater (both of which I’m allowed to attend but not review) can be intoxicating. You feel involved, like every time you laugh or applaud you’re giving a note to the playwright or director.
Chris: I was at the Long Wharf Theatre this week—for a new play on their mainstage, Ride the Tiger by William Mastrosimone. The show’s assistant director—a board member at the theater who’d never been part of the actual production process before—was telling me how he’d had to throw out a lot of psychological concepts and other insights he’d developed, because he realized it was too late for that now that the show was being blocked and rehearsed. I sympathized, telling him I always thought theater critics had a real place in the dialogue surrounding the meaning of a play. It’s just that our timing sucks. We come along at a point when the show is up, and other concerns have come to the forefront—commercial concerns, technical concerns, practical rather than philosophical concerns. I can get why we’re not always appreciated by the playmakers. But early in the development of a play, it’s possible that astute critics could really make a difference.
Lou: Of course, some plays read a lot better than they stage.
Chris: I read plays before seeing them—we’ve had that debate already—but what I’m reviewing is the full production, in as authoritative a way as I can, for a general audience. Critics have to be clear with ourselves about who our readership is. Are we writing for the audience members or the producers/creators?
Lou: And the answer to that is….?
Chris: I don’t expect the creator of the piece to read me, though they’re of course welcome to. I think that most of my work is about explaining a work of theater to those who are experiencing it from the auditorium.
Lou: For me, it’s writing about the experience of the arts. To welcome readers into the process. To encourage excellence. I’m aware of artists as part of my audience but not all of it.
Chris: I always tell actors who I’ve reviewed that “If I was writing this just for your benefit, I’d have a readership of one. Does that make sense to you?” Lou, you and I both have print forums for our long-form criticism. We also both blog. Plus we socialize in theater communities where we can express our views freely. It’s great, isn’t it, to have all these options? There’s stuff I can say casually in a blog post that I’d feel the need to express more carefully and formally in a review. With new plays, I can do a blog on the experience and label it a “non-review,” and feel that an internet readership gets the distinction.
Lou: It’s great, yes, but it’s all still Google-able. A theater interested in comments about a past production or reading of a show hits a few keys and, voila, there are your thoughts, whether as a blog post or a formal review. I think we draw a clearer distinction than the online world does. I rarely review community theater productions, but when I do that’s one of the reasons I tend to keep actor names out of it unless I am singling out very strong work. Why have my negative comment come up on a search engine when someone looks up the dentist/actor’s name?
Chris: I think context counts for a lot. Whatever a critic writes, the frame of mind and background that led to any writing that critic does should be clear to the reader. That’s why I don’t like checklist-style or other overly formatted reviews. It’s hard to get at where the critic’s head is.
Lou: And that’s why I won’t go to a production unless I can go in with an open heart and mind—which is why I dodged a recent Indy production of “Menopause: The Musical.” It could star Meryl, Liza and Barbra and it would still be awful.
Chris: I interview playwrights regularly, especially the ones at Yale. They want me to read and see and discuss their work. As a rule, they’re not precious or defensive. Paula Vogel affirmed that for me when I interviewed her at Humana last week—she believes playwrights are overly protected, for no good reason, at some festivals. She welcomes the idea of critics at new play festivals.
Lou: Truth is, there are a lot more readings than there are productions of new plays. It’s an elaborate gatekeeping process. My gut is that there are very few plays kept out or let in primarily based on reviews—although I hope that those that get in are stronger because of the commentary.
Chris: A few years ago, the Yale School of Drama switched from a longtime system of having its playwriting program culminate with New York readings of the graduating students’ works (back when Mark Bly was running the program) to the Carlotta Festival (co-founded by Bly’s successor Richard Nelson), which encouraged full productions of plays. (Neither system, by the way, allows critics to review, though we’re welcome to attend and do previews and non-review coverage). There are problems inherent in both approaches. Some readings demand more complex stagings, and some vulnerable scripts aren’t well served by big-budget presentations.
I am very fond of the Humana way: These are full productions, but promoted in an accessible, low-key, multi-show, community-friendly manner that doesn’t heighten expectations for any single show unnecessarily. Critics are an expected and welcome part of that process. I can’t see a single bad review killing the long-term chances of a Humana show any more than a single bad performance or design concept could.
Lou: Humana has the advantage over most new play workshops in that it has an audience partly made up of ATL season subscribers who also go to see Dracula and Our Town and A Christmas Carol. They also have a voice—particularly in the non-industry weekends. And that voice outside of the theater establishment bubble is of enormous benefit.