The stereotype of critics is that we salivate over the opportunity to skewer struggling productions, deriving pleasure from other artists’ pain (see Peter O’Toole’s character in Ratatouille). I’ll admit to enjoying penning the occasional evisceration. But on the whole I’d much rather write a good review than a bad one, due to the bitter blowback I’m bound to receive for the bad review.
Case in point: Last week’s negative notice of Gramercy Theatre Company’s Little Shop of Horrors started a small shitstorm of complaining web comments. The common subtext of their queries – “Did you see the same show we did?” – is the bane of all reviewers. My answer, of course, is “No”: We may have been in the same building at the same time, but we experienced the show through different sets of eyes, ears and expectations.
In all fairness, I devoted nearly half my review to the positives, giving appropriate props to the sets and stars. Unfortunately, even perfect parts don’t necessarily make a satisfying whole. I suspect that the show will sufficiently sate infrequent theatergoers desiring a diversion. And I sincerely hope Gramercy finds its footing going forward; any opportunity for working actors to make a buck in this economy can’t be all bad. Though others whose opinions I respect (including fellow OW staffers) had a fine time and post-opening performances reportedly smoothed out some of the opening-night snafus, I can only call ’em like I see ’em.
The vicious vitriol in a few of the online opinions inspired me to share some of my hard-learned life lessons on the pitfalls that all theater companies – and their supporters – should seek to sidestep.
• Don’t sabotage yourself before the actors even arrive onstage with a clumsy curtain speech. Any opening oratory more than 60 seconds is bound to bore at best and offend at worst. The “show” starts the second the audience enters the building; everything that occurs until they head home is part of the experience and fair game for critique.
• Don’t boast about your budget or tout your financing as a form of advertising. Unless you’re giving your gross to charity, the audience isn’t interested in your cash flow, only what ends up onstage.
• Don’t charge a premium for an opening-night “gala” and then deliver a dress rehearsal. Technical snafus are expected at a discounted preview, but not when the audience has paid a higher-than-normal ticket price.
• Don’t blow a wad on professional-quality designs and then entrust their implementation to amateurs. Any set piece, no matter how sumptuous, is only as good as its backstage running crew.
• Don’t forget the fundamental purpose of theater: to tell stories. Re-read The Poetics of Aristotle’s production priorities: Song and spectacle are great as long as they support, not supplant, emotional and intellectual engagement.
• Don’t assume a standing ovation vouches for excellence. The “Orlando Standing O” is endemic, especially at splashy musicals, and has become more devalued than General Motors stock.
• Don’t bellyache about “bias” in an inherently subjective subject like arts criticism. Fact-checking a review is fine, but demanding “objectivity” from an opinion is absurd and oxymoronic, especially when a critic is consistently forthcoming about his or her prejudices.
• Don’t forget that there’s no such thing as bad press, as long as they spell your name right. When I receive a really terrible review, I quote it proudly on my posters.
Now that we’re past those pleasantries, I need to apologize for slacking in my arts awareness. Unfortunately, commitments professional and personal (aka “Three Performances and a Funeral”) constrained my cultural outreaches last week. I did squeeze in a lap around Lake Eola during Sunday’s Come Out With Pride event, and I was impressed at the number of families with children (swarming the Disney-sponsored kid zone) and teens in attendance. Best visual juxtaposition: The bondage-gear gentleman camped out next door to the Log Cabin Republicans’ booth.
This week’s cultural calendar is chock-full, starting with Third Thursday: I’ll be checking out Love Works at CityArts Factory, Ginormous Art at the Metro, and Chris Johnson’s exhibit at AKA Lounge. On Friday jazz genius Sam Rivers headlines the “Obamarama” fundraiser at the Plaza Theatre. And if you’re looking to support local theater, buy a ticket for To Kill a Mockingbird (Theatre Downtown), A Streetcar Named Desire (Greater Orlando Actors Theatre), All Hallows 10-for-the-Fringe (the Parliament House), Happenstance (Harwood-Watson Dance Studios), Zombies From the Beyond (Garden Theatre), The Glass Menagerie (Orlando Shakes) or even Jesus Hopped the “A” Train (cough, cough). Maybe I’ll see you there – if so, please don’t throw anything at me.