More critics.

Last week I plumbed the depths of my own pettiness for your entertainment. This week I offer a more literary frame as a reflective surface. Wheeeeeee, buckle up…

Ok. Say you get one’a those reviews. You know the ones. The kind that makes you feel totally incapable of rising above your worst self. Like you’re suddenly ashamed to be a person in a body. Maybe it helps you to picture this dude tossing the newspaper aside, screaming “ENOUGH,” ripping the cover from his Underwood, and banging this out on your behalf:

FROM W. H. AUDEN'S 1952 ESSAY 'DE DROITE ET DE GAUCHE'

“The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

“Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices.

“Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

“The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.”

.

If you get these posts via email, you’re probably like, “Banging what out? Nothing’s there.”  Yeah, sorry. The content exists in dropdown script for my website. What you missed is an excerpt from an essay by W. H. Auden that reads like a treatise on the Critical Ideal. The dude got so chafed he decided to tell reviewers how to do their jobs better.

It’s a cathartic read for any writer who’s ever been dinged in the press. But when Auden claims the best critics are aware and openly accepting of their own prejudices, for the most part he seems to be talking about artistic bias.  Which is um…

Ok. It’s easy for those of us who have any kind of career in the arts to imagine we’ve consciously styled our aesthetic biases. And as long as we’re able and willing to put those biases aside, we feel capable of delivering a thoughtful educated impartial appraisal of a play.

But what about the influences we didn’t cultivate? The ones we don’t even know we have?

In Quiara Hudes’ keynote address for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference last year, she said this: “I struggle increasingly with the atheist white male aesthetics I inherit.” She uses the word “inherit” to describe a sensibility that was grafted upon her, while framing her discussion in terms of her Latinx-ness. And she says this about critics:

“Even positive reviews yank my art from my hands and serve up my heart like a well-dressed ham. Even rave reviews have deposited me, post-celebration, in a disorienting depression where I feel my mouth has been slapped with duct-tape. People call and congratulate me not on the work but on the Times review.”

Because her writer sensibilities were shaped almost exclusively by the work of white men (Miller, Albee, O’Neill), she feels comfortable penning canon-friendly plays that create a safe space for the average theatre patron. But the act of creating Latinx characters who perform their brownness for mostly white audiences is humiliating to her.

So when she asks, “Can institutional theatre not hold multiple aesthetic paradigms?” she is using the language of bias to discuss both literary taste and cultural conditioning.

In my own life and career, I find it a lot easier (and much less existentially troubling) to identify my artistic biases than I do my racial ones. Primarily because I don’t recognize the latter until someone else points them out.  However, I have very little problem perceiving sexism, having been its victim once or twice or a thousand times.

Ideally, a good critic will consider self-accountability a requisite, and tend to it with regularity. But what of those powerful few who, while fastidiously tuned to their artistic biases, have no awareness of the other kind? It’s certainly not unusual to have trouble locating the effects of socially sanctioned bigotry in oneself when one has never been a target of it. You can’t police something you don’t perceive.

However. As we all know. Taste is not formed in a vacuum. And it’s dangerous to believe otherwise.

When our opinions about the quality of a work are shaped by prejudices we don’t even know we have, we perpetuate a sickly narrow idea of how a play should look/sound/feel. This is damaging to artists for all the reasons Quiara mentions in her speech.

But also, it’s corrosive to the field. Our under-examined instincts become criteria for identifying what a play is, thus depriving us of the more essential question: what is it doing?

And like, isn’t that the burning question at the molten heart of any vibrant, passionate, culturally fluent discourse on art????

Unfortunately, the way we tend to address the bias of critics is to scream at them on Twitter, or scream on Facebook, or scream in the comments section of the review and hope it gets past the moderators. None of this is particularly effective. It further affirms the status of victims and reinforces the authority of power structures.

I have no answers. But I’m no cynic. I’m a broken-hearted person who wants to be in love. I’ve seen a bunch of articles lately that give me hope, like this one from Maya Phillips and this one by Kelundra Smith, both from the November 2017 issue of American Theatre. And people are still talking about Victoria Myers’ takedown of Hilton Als in The Interval for his appallingly sexist New Yorker review of Sweet Charity.

And although a precise public discussion about these issues is meaningful, we still need to act. We gotta make work that talks. We gotta support work that walks. We gotta stir up a ruckus. We gotta shine a light on one another’s blind spots. We gotta receive the same light from others with grace, even though that ego-squeeze is hella uncomfortable. We gotta do a fuckton more to bash some biases than we have in the past.

Starting with our own.

You in?

Critics.

I don’t make a regular habit of reading reviews of my work, or anyone else’s. I can tell when they aren’t good, though. I get asked how my show is going instead of being congratulated for it. Or someone will say “so-and-so’s review is waaaay off,” and I’ll feel compelled to investigate further.

Or sometimes I’ll sneak a peek when I’m in the mood to hurt myself. It always works.

I used to read all of them. Bad and good. I was drunk on the strangeness of that kind of formal reckoning. But there were um. Side effects. So.

Luckily, I’ve only been forced to socialize with two human theatre critics; one at an arts festival in Europe and one at a mutual friend’s wedding. In both circumstances, I had to be careful to not over-drink so I wouldn’t start an uncomfortable conversation.

Before we get into that, I want to admit I’m not a total “CRITICS SUCK” kind of gal. Many reviewers write thoughtfully with deep love and respect for the theatre, much the same way a restaurant critic writes about food. They’ll take past work into consideration and synthesize a playwright’s larger cultural goals into their critique, even if their opinion is ultimately negative. They don’t let the pressure of getting eyeballs on their publication influence what they write, and they can have a shitty day and not grind it over a play like seasoning.

In my experience, most theatre critics aren’t like that. But so what? Yes, writing a play is hard, getting it produced is hard, getting it RIGHT is hard, and inviting public praise and/or ridicule from strangers who have no problem letting their mood affect their appraisal is like, masochistic. And yeah, misogyny and unconscious bias and identity politics are often at play, from all genders/races of critics.

But sometimes, a critic is just not that into your writing. It’s all part of the deal; no writer goes into capital-T theatre thinking that’s an avoidable risk. It’s still considered a sign of success (and often a sour badge of honor) to have been smartly castigated by a top tier reviewer.

Bottom line: it’s not our vocation to judge what the critics do, even when they suck. It’s theirs.

Having said that.

The uncomfortable conversation I was afraid of having at both the wedding and the festival was this: I wanted to know to know how these critics were so casually and pleasantly hospitable to my face when they had to know I fucking hated them.

I mean. I deeply, professionally, ferociously hated their guts. (This was years ago. I’m in therapy.) Both reviewers had indirectly suggested I failed at the task I set out to accomplish without ever identifying what it was. They had taken multiple paychecks at my expense for their lazy, imperious writing. Or so I felt.

My main issue wasn’t even about the content. It was about the tone. They’d been so icily dismissive of me so often it felt personal. And here they were in festive attire, making amiable eye-contact, pretending what they’d done hadn’t hurt.

Well, it had, ok? My irrational and misplaced hissy-fit was all about being unfairly judged. I wanted them to feel guilty for getting paid to identify me as dismissible. Because I deserved to be taken seriously.

Which is bullshit. No one “deserves” anything. You can work hard and get lucky, or work less hard and still get lucky, or work really really hard and never get lucky, or work really really hard and get sick before you get lucky. Et cetera.

But at the time, all I knew was my pain. So if I had knocked back a cocktail or three, I may have asked them if they enjoyed being terrible at their jobs, since they’d made it clear I was bad at mine. Or maybe I would’ve quoted their words back to them to watch them squirm.

Instead, I feigned supreme sanguinity. I clutched my single glass of red wine like a life raft and muscled through the mirth. I sprayed the flame of my hatred in the cooling mist of civility, knowing this was temporary.

And then. Months later. I wrote a ten-minute play for a one-night thing where I had several actors attack the audience with the most puffed-up excoriating shit they (and other critics) had ever written. Not just about my stuff. All plays. All playwrights.

It was so freeing and fun to write. But when I saw it performed, it felt like I was parading my smallness around on stage. As if it was something to be proud of. As if I hadn’t just given away all my power.

And for what? Vengeance? Did I actually expect either critic to show up and watch my play and feel something other than pity? Or even remember their own words?

Turns out… one of them was there.

In the audience.

For that play.

They approached me afterwards, laughing oddly. The sound was like a saltine snapping into smaller and smaller pieces.

“I think… I wrote… some of that…”

HERE'S SOME OF WHAT THEY/I WROTE.

ACTOR ONE:
Carefully plotted and marked by a savage comic flair, you are nevertheless seriously marred by overstatement.

ACTOR TWO:
Much of your material is frankly facile, predictable, and too reliant on stereotype.

ACTOR THREE:
You verge on the morbid in both your mood and your details.

ACTOR FOUR:
Your external manners are polished, but your grief remains unseen.

ACTOR FIVE:
You are sleek and functional, if a little bland and a little glib.

ACTOR ONE:
I prefer you when you’re being a nasty ol’ bitch.

ACTOR TWO:
Your few soft breaths of self-pity dissolve into the quiet birth pangs of a new philosophy that sees the hollow, provisional nature of worldly stature.

ACTOR THREE:
There’s an intelligence to your gaze and a patrician cast to your face that renders you less like a deranged army man and more like a grad student with caffeine d.t.’s.

ACTOR FOUR:
Looking at you is like spending the night in that sleazy bar I swore I’d never go in, not even to use the bathroom.

ACTOR FIVE:
Unfortunately, you often mistake frantic pacing for effervescence.

ACTOR ONE & TWO:
Audiences will leave you and your requisite upbeat ending filled by the menu, but not terribly satisfied.

ACTOR THREE & FOUR:
Your incidental fun, while keeping yourself pleasantly buoyant, only points up the absence of any center.

ACTOR FIVE:
Your lack of inspiration is saddening, because you invite so much love, and have so much potential for arousing it.

ALL ACTORS:
Americans are likely to find you neither surprising nor particularly relevant… you are classy, in your low-class way… you have a cheerfully vulgar New Jersey spirit… you have nothing but coarse obviousness going for you… you have little sense of character… your surrounding elements are too crude… you have no value beyond righteousness… you are creditable but unmoving… you ring hollow in your second half… everything about you smacks of amateurishness… you peak a little early…. your ending is a serious letdown…

(Beat.)

ACTOR ONE:
…you barely exist.

One person.

If you get my notes via email, you may have received a draft of this one in September. I was trying to schedule posts in advance for the weeks I knew I wasn’t available, but I accidentally sent it early. Ooops.

I pre-scheduled this because right now I am locked in a rehearsal room in downtown LA working on this play. I did a small reading of it in NYC in October, which was like placing a pillow under its head and asking if it wants some warm milk. Right now, however, I’m gouging it with a hunting knife and ordering it not to bleed on my nice white carpet.

Why?

Because it’s a one-person play.

I don’t like one-person plays.

For one, they invoke in me a sort-of empathetic claustrophobia for the performer. “That poor gal is stuck on that stage for a whole hour with no air! Get her out of there!”

But my bigger issue, I think, involves my struggle as an audience member to understand my role in the narrative.

Like, if the character is talking to a literal theatre audience, as with my friend Heidi’s play, I get it. I bought a ticket and sat down and now a performer named Heidi is talking to me about stuff she cares about. My job is to pay attention to her.

I can do that. Heidi’s amazing. The show is great. Easy peasy.

And in McNally’s Master Class, which I saw at the Taper in LA a bazillion years ago, we are cast as Maria Callas’s students. My “purpose” in that audience is to stay silent and worship her so she can react.

I’ve been a devoted disciple. I know how to worship a legend. Done and done.

Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger, Soho Playhouse, NYC 2001. A librarian gives a lecture about a book that was returned 113 years late. My role is pretty clear. I’m a person who showed up to a lecture about a book. My character likes books. Perhaps I have lots of free time. I’m… enterprising? Educated?

Check.

The Object Lesson at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City two years ago. We’re literally moving boxes and sharing food and dancing with Geoff Sobelle’s character. We have jobs! We help him build the event of the show. He can’t make his play without us. He’d have no one to dance with.

I’ve only ever read 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane ’cause when it was at St. Anne’s in Brooklyn four years ago I was feeling maybe not totally emotionally prepared for it, but in it you witness a young woman’s mental collapse on stage. Your role is almost opposite to The Object Lesson; she would fall apart even if you weren’t watching. You’re basically there to hold the stories of the woman who can’t. You’re the survivor.

I’ve been a survivor. I know how to do that.

However.

When I can’t tell who I am as an audience, I get a little um nervous.

Like when the character on stage is a just a person telling horrific or humorous or meaningful stories. I’m like, did I just casually wander into a trauma circle? Why is only one of us talking?

(Is that crazy?)

I loved Will Eno’s Thom Pain at the DR2 in 2005 (didn’t see the recent revival at the Signature, sadly). I looked it up for the character breakdown:

In this show I play an anonymous passive observer cloaked in a temporary theatrical convention. Ok… but why does Thom need me there? What am I doing?

Same with Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolin, which I saw at the Taper. An out-of-work actor named Alex talks about the time he got hired to work in a basement mall at Barbra Streisand’s house. He’s telling me about it because… I have no idea. Am I his friend? Are we having coffee? Why isn’t he asking me about the bleeding gash above my left eyebrow?

I don’t have a gash. But if I did, he wouldn’t ask about it.

(Am I the only person who’s been hurled into an existential void over this??)

For some reason I don’t have this problem when the performer portrays multiple characters connected by a central theme. Like with Danny Hoch’s show about gentrification called Taking Over, or Heather Raffo’s Nine parts of Desire dealing with the plight of Iraqi women.

I saw neither of these. I looked them up.

‘Cause I’m writing a one-person show, man.

By choice.

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

The structure of my play hangs on an actual yoga class. Before the show begins, play-goers are invited to participate on-stage where they remain until the performance ends. They are “yoga students.”

But my character only addresses those people. She doesn’t address “the audience” at large, who is crouched behind the ol’ fourth wall.

Who the hell are they?

Am I writing a hybrid between a traditional play and an object lesson?

Do I need to account for the relationship between on-stage audience and in-house audience?

Am I doing it wrong?