Thursday, December 07, 2006

J.V. Bullshit

Over at Superfluities, George Hunka weighs in on the weirdness going on with people offering comments high on hysterics but low on reason in blogs deigning to be critical. Long story short: blogger Alison Croggon wrote about a play she recently saw and hated, the director of the piece wrote to her to ask she not allow readers to comment on her blog, then wrote to blogger Ben Ellis to say that the discussion of his show was hurting audience attendance. Another blogger, Ming-Zhu Hii, was critical of some theatre festival, and as a result of the onslaught of vitriol sent to via readers' comments (saying her irresponsible criticism has hurt the show), she deleted the post as well as disabled the ability for readers to comment.

I had mentioned once in a previous post a while ago that a friend of mine who writes reviews had on more than one occasion received venomous hate mail from the creators of works that received negative reviews from him.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I find that unthinkable. Absolutely unthinkable.

If you want to be taken remotely seriously, you need to learn to suck up whatever negative press you get and not throw a public fit. As George puts it, "public reception is fair game."

With regard to rancorous and histrionic comment-posting from those not involved in the criticized production, I understand that this is a by-product of the Internet and allowing illiterate dipshits to anonymously put in their two cents anywhere and everywhere (believing that all opinions, no matter how ill-informed or tangentially related to the subject being discussed at hand, are equally valuable). It sucks, but it is, of course, inevitable (like having hecklers in a comedy club).

The creator publicly weighing in on a discussion of his or her own work, on the other hand, is another kettle of fish.

One of the biggest problems with creators attacking (and I mean "attacking," not "disagreeing with") reviewers/bloggers who write negative criticism is that the creator almost always comes across as a...fine, I'll say it...whiny little bitch. With very rare, singular exceptions, the creators of the work being criticized should stand mute in the critical discussion and adopt a "Speak When Spoken To" policy. Otherwise, they (we) end up coming across as adolescent jackasses.

[Tangential note: Can someone review/comment on a show they've walked out on? Absolutely, provided they admit up front that they did (which Ms. Croggon did). Professional reviewers do it all the time. That a piece compelled an audience member to say, "I've had enough," is something worth commenting on.]

Yes, this vitriolic whining and false sense of entitlement within the theatre world against anyone who dares criticize a play drives me absolutely batshit. It's amateur hour; or, "J.V. Bullshit," as Nosedive alum Michael Gilpin would say. Those of us trying to prove that theatre — and in particular theatre at the self-produced Off-off-Broadway level — is a legitimate medium that should be given some degree of attention wind up back at square one. It's completely hypocritical to, as George puts it, "want attention, but only the right attention" and expect to be regarded with any modicum of professionalism.

Sigh. Who needs a drink?

Ending the year with hatred in his heart,

James "Cranky Bastard" Comtois


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no problem with people offering opinions/reviews on anything and everything with two provisos.

1. That it is clear that it just one person's opinion. I've seen reviews which indicate that everyone hated a play/film/whatever when clearly that hasn't been the case (and a reviewer who famously would refer to "my audience"). I'm sure we've all read a review of a comedy where we are told how the jokes fell flat despite the audience laughing at them. If the reviewer does decide to indicate that others present didn't share their opinion then, invariably, the others are painted as being sub-intelligent. Even the one's that start out with "this is what I thought" end up sounding like "this is what you should think too".

2. Reviewers review what they see and not anything else going on. True examples - a reviewer who panned a play in a festival without revealing he had submitted and been rejected from the same festival; A reviewers who singled out a specific person for praise in an otherwise damning review because they that person was a friend or (in once case I've heard of) the reviewer wanted to get into that person's pants; Reviewers who damn a specific work without revealing they hate anything remotely on that subject or in that genre or by those people before they even see it.

And I just thought of a third one. Reviewers should know what people do. I've read too many directors blamed for bad writing and writers blamed for bad directing.

I guess it's the whole non-accountability of reviewing/criticism that always bothers me. As you say, there's no point having people with no connection to a performance responding to a criticism and people who are connected come across as thin-skinned whiners so that leaves - nobody.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...


First of all, thanks for responding. Second, I apologize for my delayed response. I don’t have Internet access over the weekend, so I’m just getting your comments now.

I realize that I’m very much voicing a minority opinion when it comes to creators adopting a “speak when spoken to” policy in terms of criticism against a show. Hey, it’s any writer, director or actor’s prerogative to respond to a negative review or blog entry. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, because when one does, there’s a 99.9% chance they’re going to sound like an idiot.

Take, for example, the situation with Chris Bendall from Theatre@Risk responding to Alison Croggon and inviting her to “see the show again - in its entirety.” Essentially, she said the first act was interminable and unbearable. Mr. Bendall’s response was essentially, “Well, the second act gets better.”

Reading it, I was reminded of the scene in Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood where Ed, played by Johnny Depp, is on the phone talking to a studio executive in the hopes of getting his follow-up film to Glen or Glenda greenlit. You hear Ed’s side of the phone conversation, when he asks the exec what he thought of his first movie: “Really? Worst film you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better. Hello. Hello.”

(I don’t know anything about Chris Bendall, his show or his company, and make no presumptions to do so. I’m just basing the above on his comments and pointing out that such comments from a creator almost invariably make said creator sound incredibly petty and amateurish.)

I should point out that you haven’t really given two provisions against certain forms of criticism but about seven (#2 is about five provisions). You have to admit, there’s something a little screwy there, don’t you think? You basically said you have no problem with people offering opinions/reviews on anything and everything, followed with nearly a page-long list of exceptions. (That’s kind of like saying, “I don’t want to be rude, BUT…” followed by a page of rudeness.)

I think if any of the elements in item #2 are disclosed, then it is a fair response (i.e., “I can’t stand plays about (say) abortion and this show didn’t make me change my mind,” or, “I got rejected by the festival and am a bit bitter about it so take my criticism with a grain of salt.”). If these elements were not disclosed, then how would you know that the examples you brought up were true?

The facts of the matter are every critic or audience member brings his or her own baggage to a show. What I find mildly appalling is that rather than the creators of theatre acknowledging these being the rules of the game they go on “attack” mode and try to prove that no negative review is valid. Would such a stink be given if someone wrote an ill informed and unfair rave review?

You make some good points about the lack of accountability being very annoying and frustrating. It sure frustrates the hell out of me when my company gets such a response. But having said that, I do think that, if we want to be taken seriously as legitimate creators, we have to toughen up and not stoop to the level of mean-spirited reviewers (and we would sink down to their level if we responded).

And I should explain that I have no problem with people not connected to a performance responding to a criticism; The New York Times allows readers to write their own reviews alongside the paper’s in the online edition. I do, however, have a problem with (or rather, I’m perplexed by) anonymous vituperation.

Anyway, thanks for responding, Brett. And best of luck with your current production of A Delicate Egg.



12:08 PM  

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