Reviewing Thoughts


Note: this blog was already well on it’s way before I received the comment on my Macbeth review from Frank Psola. However, many of the thoughts here grew into focus as a result of both of these events, in terms of what I feel the role of a reviewer is and how I approach reviewing.

a photo from my time at the NEA Institute
Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton

Reviewing is thumbs up, thumbs down – it’s consumer advice. Criticism is placing something into context. – Bob Mondello, Reduced Shakespeare Company podcast episode 82

I want to like the shows I’m going to see. I’ve loved theatre since I was a little girl and my grandmother took me to shows at The Muny, and have known I needed it to be a part of my life since seeing a production of Of Mice and Men at my local community college that affected me so much, I couldn’t applaud at the end.

I want that feeling of being drawn into the production, of forgetting about my life for the time of the show, and being taken away into another world, even if it’s just another person’s life.

I don’t like giving negative reviews. I don’t want to dislike a show. I go into each production hoping to come out if not happy or impressed, at least satisfied that it was time well-spent. And as someone who has acted, directed, and even stage managed, I know how hard it is to put together a show. I also know how close you get to a production as you close in, and how it can feel like the best show ever done while you’re in the middle of it. In fact, when I do have to give a negative review, I find it to be the pieces I take the most time on, making sure I not say anything too mean and that every negative comment is backed up with an example and an attempt of constructive criticism.

I love acting, and I love being in a show. But at the same time, I know I don’t have the chops to be much of an actor. And I don’t have the patience or energy to be involved on the technical end of things more than once a year or so. However, I try to use my experience in my reviews (with just a dash of criticism) to see things that a ‘typical’ audience member (if there is such a thing) wouldn’t necessarily notice, mostly in the tech areas.

But a lot of my reviews come from me as an audience member, regardless of my experience. After all, I may have never played baseball professionally (although I did play softball when I was young), but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when a team is doing a bad job.

And yes, I do get influenced by such things as whether I’m put through a pre-performance speech (and how long and what said speech is about), whether the production has a LACC, and what kind of seating situation I have (i.e., is it outside in 100 degree heat? Are the chairs so tiny that Twiggy would have problems sitting in them? etc.). I also get influenced by the ticket price, even if I am getting free media tickets, because I know how lucky I am to get those.

The level of the production is also something I consider. I go into professional productions with higher expectations than community theatre (or college) ones. I’m more likely to forgive community theatre productions if they’re not stellar. That’s not to say I haven’t seen community theatre/college shows that have blown me away (CenterStage’s Children of Eden and She&Her’s The Pillowman to name just two), but – by definition – a professional production should be better. They have better budgets and more time in their proverbial pockets, and putting on performances is their job. As a result, I feel they should be held to higher standards.

Frank had written that my reviews, “have the tint of being personally offended – which is bizarre”. I don’t think it’s so bizarre. I sometimes am personally offended, with Macbeth being the perfect example. I think I wouldn’t have been quite so harsh on the production had I not had to sit through the speech that informed me they had to raise (and therefore spent) over $300,000 on this production (which then was followed with another call for funds). Even keeping in mind how much of that went to salaries both on and off the stage, I was offended that with that kind of budget I got such a mediocre show – especially when there are so many people wanting to cut arts funding (and government arts funding) because they feel the arts are frivolous.

As I said in my commentary part of the review, this is some people’s only theatrical outing during the year. As such, HASF has an obligation to make it the best show possible – every night. Especially since I had seen this particular group do so much better in the past. In the end, I wanted my 2 1/2 hours back.

I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with my husband after the last few shows, wondering if I’m becoming jaded in my watching of productions. After seeing so many especially so many professional ones, I have started lately to wonder if it has made me a harsher judge than I have been in the past, making me lose my inherent love of performing arts.

There’s a common trope whenever anyone posts a negative review on the KC Stage system, which then goes out to our e-mail discussion list. It inevitably gets people into a tizzy, with the people who are in the shows decrying the negative reviewer as ‘having an agenda’ against the show, the company, and even sometimes just the director or an actor. Inevitably, it’s not. In fact, it’s more likely to be the opposite: when it’s a positive review, many times it’s someone involved in the show.

To quote managing editor Richard Buswell after a particular nasty flame war broke out about a negative review, “I know some people think you should only say good things because of all the hard work. The problem is the people who sit and suffer in silence. They don’t enjoy the experience, so they don’t come back. Not just to one production, or one production company, but to theatre in general. It’s like eating in a bad Indian restaurant for your first experience. You don’t complain to the chef. You just assume that Indian food is not your thing and avoid all Indian restaurants.

“I’ve known too many people who claim they don’t like theatre. The problem is, they don’t know the difference between good theatre and bad theatre, because they never learned to discriminate between the two, or to understand that there are varying levels in between.”

I want to love every show I go to see. And I feel sad when a show fails to live up to that hope. Most shows could have been so much better.

Again, in today’s economic and political climate, when the arts are getting short shifted by budgets of both individuals and governments, it’s that much more important that organizations put on the best programming possible. Is it too much to ask the best of everyone involved?

  • Mark Cofta

    I know how you feel, Angie! Particularly about taking offense: it’s a nice reminder that what we do is a personal reaction to what we see. When I used to review community theaters and they objected, they sometimes would ask for more “objective” reviews — as if such a thing exists!

    I think professional theatre people take reviews more in stride. When community theatre artists feel stung, it’s a personal reaction, and they should try to remember that how they feel about our reviews is similar to how we respond to their work. When it’s great, it’s like falling in love; when it’s poor, it feels like an insult, or betrayal. Our responses are that strong because we all love theatre, and we shouldn’t forget that common bond.

  • Mouse
    • I actually saw that the other day – thought about posting an update here, but ended up not. So thanks!