Musings on criticism – Feb. 27, 2014

How does/should one watch a play as an audience member?

How does/should one watch a play as a director?

How does/should one watch a play as a critic or reviewer?

And when are these lines blurred?

I have been pondered these questions for several years and they still haunt me.

The conclusion that I have come to (at least for the time being) is that a critic should achieve some kind of middle ground between all of these. That is, I think a critic needs to be able to juggle several different “hats” of sorts to use when watching, enjoying, thinking critically, and then of course writing thoughtfully about a play.

A critic should have an informed opinion of his or her impression. The critic should be well-read on the playwright of a play or the choreographer of a piece or the composer of a symphony that he or she is seeing. He/she should be aware of the sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Should he/she always be aware of direction? What about symbolism of the play? If the director did his/her job, is looking for “symbolism” irrelevant?

My directing professor, Stan Wojewodski, Jr., would say “focus on what you see.” He asks us after we have watched a scene in class (as a director), “what action gave you an impression?” He does this to get us to get as specific as possible with the work, so that we can best communicate with our actors. We cannot speak in generalities in the theatre. To create a “vibe” or “feel” of a scene is to destroy it. Rather, it is crucial to attain the proper language with which to discuss a scene best so that actors have tangible working notes.

The same goes for criticism, I think. Critics need to have the language with which to discuss what he/she saw in the play, the impression that these actions made and then furthermore, his/her informed opinion about the piece. Should the criticism focus on the direction?

Of course, this all depends on the landscape of the criticism. Is it for a newsweekly, an online publication, a newspaper, a magazine? There tends to be a disconnect between when actors are using criticism to promote one’s event and when actors are choosing not to listen to critics. What does the criticism do? Just as the actors have to find the necessity for the text because the text feeds the play, what does the criticism do? What is its purpose? If most actors “do not listen to the critics,” why does Ben Brantley (and countless other reviewers nationwide) still have a job? Who is the audience that reads this work, even with the collapse and decline of newspapers? In line with the tradition of the old critic, are critics often expected to have an opinion and then have the ability to apply their point of view to whatever they see?

Some of these questions remain unanswered, but I hope to be able to talk about this.

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