Recognize the importance of critics
Critics are nobody’s favorite people in the arts community. Artists work hard for months or even years at a time only to be criticized in a few hundred words written by a third-party audience member with their own subjective preferences and interpretations. This, however, is what makes the critic’s circle so diverse. It’s not made up of generous opinions. We are all a part of a varied community. We muddle each others’ voices, thinking ours is more important and correct than our friends’. We are all alike in this way. This is the nature of criticism. Positive criticism prompts thought-provoking discussion and enjoyment. Negative criticism is fun to read and discuss because we all have a little schadenfreude in us. It is all an inescapable part of life.
Recently, I have been receiving negative reactions to some of my reviews of on-campus productions. This prompted an interest in the relationship a reviewer has with student productions. Critics in my situation are familiar with labels such as “heartless” and “harsh for the sake of being harsh” when writing negative criticism. These labels don’t bother me. I’m not someone who shies away from up-front refutation so long as it is well-founded.
My criticisms do not come from a place of hostility. If I really wanted to be deliberately harsh, I would say that certain actors performed terribly, without regard for their lack of formal training, or that technical errors negatively affected my experience when they were, in reality, isolated incidents. I would say that certain set designs are uninspired without regard for students’ limited budgets or that the overall production is lacking, without regard for their limited resources. But I curb myself because these are not valid criticisms for a student production. If, however, some of these aspects are praiseworthy and vastly exceed my low expectations, I will of course give credit where it is due, which makes my positive commentary all the more genuine.
There are two aspects, however, that are well within my purview to critique: the writing and the directing. Unless the writer is previously established — Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, August Wilson –– critique of the writing is fair game. It’s the writer’s job to convince me that their characters are worth caring about. It’s the director’s job to ensure, through creative storytelling, that their adaptation and interpretation does the story justice.
Of course I’m not going to be as familiar with the source material as the crew — the point of theater is to be introduced to new characters. We, the audience, go to the theater to empathize with them, to be moved. We do not enter the theater sharing the same views as the director; we are there to be convinced!
I am not a theater expert, and I don’t claim to know all that happens behind the curtain or the meaning of every stage direction and quote on the page. Yet as little as I may know about theater, I am there to serve as a representative of the general audience.
This brings me to my point: Critics are there to guide an opinion, not form it. The only personal aspects of our reviews are our subjective interpretations of your art. We are not out to get people involved in productions. We write our reviews to direct attention to aspects that may or may not have worked. As the movie “Ratatouille” says, “But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” Though this wisdom was imparted via a Pixar movie, it stuck with me when I was young and still rings true today. We write to amplify the thoughts of the general audience. If individuals all critique simultaneously, they dilute themselves in an ocean of opinions.
When it comes to student productions, it seems that the cast and crew grow accustomed to positive feedback. When critics review these productions we do have to take in account that they are not professional. Once again, all we can review is the portrayal by the actors and the creative contribution to the script.
In summary, when I review more on-campus productions in the future, I want it to be known that my negative criticism does not come from a place of antagonism. It is mere advice to use and take into consideration to appeal to the general audience. It is a necessary opposing force to art. In , Nancy Morris, a specialist in business psychology, mentions that “when we say we want feedback, most of us desire appreciation, dread evaluation and forget about the most important part, which is coaching.” Artists need to recognize that it is impossible to please everyone, and rather work to use reviewers’ words to fulfill their true artistic potential.