Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

November 30, 2010 at 1:08pm

The life of a theater critic

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I don't sleep well the night before a negative review goes online. There are probably critics who enjoy shredding the dreams of theater artists, but I don't happen to be one of them. I try to keep my critical writing, if not impartial, then at least devoid of personal attacks. You won't see me, for example, sharing gossipy dirt on the people who work in and around the South Sound arts community, no matter how juicy or seductive that gossip might be. It's the only way I can express my opinions without being fairly accused of succumbing to vendettas. I've been doing theater - as an actor, then a playwright, then a director - for decades longer than I've been writing about it, and I care about it more than I probably should. That informs all my reviews, and I try to assess the efforts of others as generously as I would have them assess mine.

It's one thing to evaluate child actors or even amateur thespians at Olympia Little Theatre (OLT). They almost always get a pass. It takes guts to take one's first steps onto the boards, and a professional critic should lower his or her expectations, as should discerning audience members. It's quite another to post a bio full of creative accomplishments ("Dale Pretentious has directed over 60 shows in three states"), then phone it in. I will catch you. I know it's just "one man's opinion," but I am one man who's paid - is still paying - hard-earned money to know exactly what he's talking about.

As in Almost Famous, I try to judge creative efforts "warmly and accurately." I've written kudos to people I don't like and stinging dismissals of people I do. I imagine I've lost any chance of friendship or even mutual respect with some of my targets, and that never fails to sadden me.

So why do I do this? First, the Volcano pays me to write about an art form I love. That kind of employment doesn't come often. Second, I hope I can help to improve the work of beginners by defining what went wrong. And third, I harbor this tiny, self-delusional hope that by holding my fellow artists to the lofty standards of which they've already proven themselves more than capable, I can help make South Sound theater even better, more creative, cathartic and relevant, than it already is.

Of course, I still direct and tread the boards myself, so the handle of my critical dagger turns out to be yet another dagger. This week I begin rehearsals as Zelnick in Tacoma Little Theater's production of Frost/Nixon. So if I've annoyed you with any of my writing (and I plan revisit one of those offenses down the road), it should cheer you to know I'll be subject to the same critical body blows, courtesy of the Volcano's Joe Izenman or Joann Varnell in mid-January.

For more of my writing on a variety of subjects, please visit Carv's Thinky Blog at www.ChristianCarvajal.com.  Also, feel free to buy my debut novel, Lightfall, at an independent bookstore near you. It's between Lewis Carroll and Raymond Carver, which is patently hilarious.

Filed under: All ages, Arts, Olympia, Tacoma, Theater,

Comments for "The life of a theater critic" (1)

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alec clayton said on Nov. 30, 2010 at 1:35pm

From one critic to another: I empathize. When I see a less than stellar performance from an experienced actor or a slap-dash effort from a visual artist (I review both theater and visual art) I agonize over how to express my displeasure without sounding mean, and I sometimes get nasty emails from people who disagree with my reviews and that hurts. I also worry that people will think I'm not being very discerning when I overlook mistakes, but I do try to be generous when reviewing less experienced artists. Besides, even the greatest actors go up once in a while. Hell, I couldn't memorize two sentences, so I'm not about to berate an actor for dropping one line out of two hours worth of dialogue.

The rewards of doing this far outweigh the downside. You and I are very lucky to be able to do what we do.

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