Written by Scotty Keister
The theater critic has existed as long as theater itself. Ask Plato. It’s a co-dependent relationship where both thrive on each other’s existence. For the ever-sensitive actor the critic carries a double-edged sword: if they get a good review they love the critic like family; if they get a bad review (or no review at all) the critic is a complete moron who should be tarred and feathered. However, the theater depends on the critic’s review to bring in the crowds, they have access to the media and some people even read reviews. So there is the delicate balance of the relationship, based on an ever-tentative tolerance.
This relationship gets trickier when the critic is a member of the local theater scene, as both a participant, colleague and friend. For myself, I’ve been acting and writing in local theater in the Fullerton area since 2005. Several years ago I was invited to start writing critiques on Facebook for a local theater, a theater where I had acted in shows and had many friends. Knowing how touchy theater folks can be – they don’t call it drama for nothing – I was a little hesitant, and I warned them that I was going to be honest. But they liked my writing and were okay with that. So far I’ve had no complaints, at least not to my face. I’ve also started writing reviews for this website over the past year. Although I’ve been writing reviews on and off for forty years, I’m a relative newby to the OC theater world.
Joel Beers has been writing theater criticism in Orange County for twenty years, in the OC Weekly. Joel is easily the funniest and best writer of all local theater critics (of which there are few), and for my money, the most versed in the subject matter. Like me, Joel is a member of the theater world, as a playwright. He’s had a number of plays produced at Stages Theater over the years, and writes reviews for every theater in town, although the Weekly has seriously cut back on space for Arts the past few years. Joel gets criticized a lot by people in the theater world for being too hard on local theaters. He speaks his mind and is always honest. If he’s critical it’s because he holds the world of theater to a high standard. Nobody expects Broadway standard production values on a community theater level, but one does expect good quality theater: writing, acting, directing, design, imagination. That doesn’t require money. Joel will always research shows he’s reviewing, looking for interviews or background on the writer and the play. He does this because he takes it seriously.
Joel says: “Criticism is just critical thinking. Appraising something in its literary context, in the execution of its performance, pretty much just bringing, hopefully, an intelligent analysis to something that you’re seeing. It’s the critic’s job not to blow smoke up people’s asses; it’s also not to mercilessly go after somebody and say shit like ‘this person should never be on stage again.’ I usually try to reserve my archer comments for professional playhouses where they’re getting paid for it. A critic’s job is to have an informed conversation about it, even if it’s historically been a one-way conversation.”
“If somebody goes and sees a play, they drive down there, get their seat, watch it for a couple hours, they go home and however long it takes, that person has interacted with that show more than anybody else, besides the people who’ve actually been in it, and I would argue probably have interacted with it more, because an actor is concerned about learning his or her lines, hitting their mark, putting on a great performance. But the critic sees it more like a director should, sees everything as a whole. Even a negative review, as bad as it might sting, depending on the outlet, if one more person sees or hears about that show or that theater through that, you know, it’s like they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Regarding the potential problem of reviewing friends in shows: “The Weekly used to have a policy that if you worked at a theater you couldn’t review them for a year, before or after. As far as people I know, I probably tend to not mention them as often as some people I don’t know, if they don’t turn in a particularly interesting performance. If it’s a small cast and it’s all people I know, I’m probably not going to review that play. Because it’s not just I’m going to be easy on these people, some people might actually try to be a little harder on them, subconsciously. Conflict of interest? You need to be objective whenever you’re writing anything, but pure objectivity doesn’t exist anyway. It’s all subjective. I write for myself, basically. I don’t try to please anybody.”
So, does theater criticism actually serve any function in Orange County? Does anyone, other than the actors in the show, actually read theater critiques?
Joel: “I have no idea. I would think that people who want to read something that is thoughtful and interesting to read would be interested, but does it effect box office? I doubt it. Nothing like word of mouth. We’re not a theater town. Criticism isn’t appreciated in Orange County, but is theater even appreciated, even by the practitioners? Look at the shows they’re doing.”
Theater criticism in the print world is dying. Page counts in publications are decreasing constantly as reviews are morphing into the online media world. The OC Register has all but dropped their Arts section in print, relegating it primarily to online. They don’t even have a full-time theater writer. Eric Marchese, who has been the Register theater critic for decades, has never held a staff position. Blogs like this one are becoming more the norm.
Joel writes because he loves writing, loves to see interesting theater and is passionate about it. South Coast Rep and The Chance are the only theaters that regularly still invite him to come see all their shows.
Joel: “The reason they do that is they understand that reviews are part of the whole process, part of the dialogue, the whole conversation.”
Joel is an advocate for theaters putting on new works and local playwrights, whenever possible, but you see very little of that these days, not as much as you used to when Hunger Artists and Rude Guerilla were in existence. Stages still puts on new work, but not as much as they used to. Unknown shows are a risky proposition for theaters and these days that can be too large a risk, as has been pointed out in this column previously. Aside from South Coast Rep, who regularly produce new American playwrights and whose ticket prices are quite beyond local theaters, a theater devotee is hard-pressed to find fresh and interesting work. The OC Centric festival that goes on every summer at Chapman College and features OC playwrights is about the only venue available to local aspiring writers.
So for Joel, local theaters all putting on the same shows in some kind of yearly cycle, over and over, year after year, there isn’t much interest in reviewing, and thanks to the Weekly’s sporadic art section, his reviews are fewer and far between. That’s an unfortunate thing because there really aren’t any other critics in town who bring the same level of thought and passion to the conversation. I learned a long time ago that if you’re producing a work of art, any art, in the public eye, you’d better expect some honest feedback. You’d better hope for it, because it’s probably the only place you’re going to get any real insight into what you’ve created.
I used to play in a punk band in Santa Barbara called The Neighbors. We gigged in town a lot for a year or so. A year after I left the band I was at a café in San Francisco when a guy stopped me and said, “Neighbors, right?” He went on to passionately tell me about a song I had written and what it meant to him, a much larger vision than anything I had considered when I wrote it. But he taught me something about that song and about the value of the public eye. When you’re a performer, you might not care what anyone thinks about your work, and that’s fine, you can do it just for your own satisfaction, but if you want to learn anything about how your work is effecting your audience, without whom there wouldn’t be much point in doing the work to begin with, then you’d better listen to your audience. That theater critic out there in the audience whose job it is to actually think about, research and carefully consider the work you’re doing can potentially be your ally if you put your ego aside and actually listen.
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