Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ruminations from the Old School

Posted by Bruce Miller
To one and all-- I'm sorry I ever wrote my spoof of Susie's review of Lend Me a Tenor. Over on Dave's Theatre Blog, which I enjoy, it seems to have created a mini-firestorm, which was not my intention.

Here's what people seem to think. I read Susie's mixed but mostly favorable review of Tenor, didn't think it was favorable enough, wrote a scathing attack on her and Richmond critics in general, posted it on the Barksdale blog, at which point someone calmer and wiser "dropped the hammer" on me, and commanded me in fear and trembling to take the post down.

Here's what I think happened. I read Susie's mixed to mostly favorable review and thought it was pretty much on the mark. I also thought it was a crystal clear example of subjective, rather than objective criticism. Since it was a mixed but mostly favorable review, and pretty much on the mark, and since Susie is my professional friend, I thought it was safe for me to spoof the review, with everyone knowing that my spoof was written in good clean fun.

Call me crazy.

I think it's a very good thing that all of us, theatre artists and critics, are passionate about what we do. I also think it's very easy for blog posts, and particularly anonymous comments, to come off as nastier than they're intended to be. That's a lesson I should have learned long, long ago.

For the record, I never thought that Susie wrote a negative review of Tenor. I read her review just like you did. I'm not stupid. I know it was mixed but mostly positive. If I had written a review of Tenor, which I think is a real crowd-pleaser and lots of fun, my review would have been mixed but mostly positive. I don't think everything we produce is perfect. Quite the opposite. I think all of us at Barksdale are our own toughest critics. I'm glad about that. I think that's what has encouraged and allowed our artistic quality to improve over the years.

My point in writing the spoof was to shine a light on what I guess is an "old school" / "new school" debate in journalistic circles. Dave reports that during the recent criticism seminars he attended in California, a prominent film critic and speaker stressed the importance of avoiding the "dreaded O," or something like that, with "O" standing for objectivism.

When I took criticism in college a very long time ago, around 1972, we were taught the exact opposite. "When you write subjectively, " our professor would say, "you make the critique about you. Your readers are not picking up the paper to know more about you. They want to know about the play you are critiquing."

If you write subjectively, we were taught, your criticism risks being influenced by what you had for dinner, whether or not you have a head cold, whether or not your bills are paid, whether or not you just had a fight with your significant other, whether or not you could find a date for the performance. None of this is relevant to the quality or success of the performance you are reviewing. None of it should be included in your review, consciously or sub-consciously. All that personal stuff is relevant only to you.

If we ever wrote "I believe" or "I feel" or "it seems to me" or anything like that, it was crossed out with a big red pen and our grade was lowered for each offense. "It's not about you," was the mantra. It's about the play.

What I was taught, and what I believe, is that artists are entitled to informed, objective criticism, not a personal reaction based even in part on previously established bias or state of mind. I think Mark Persinger's comments on Dave's blog are on the mark, sorry, in this regard.

Dave seems to think, and I can somewhat understand, that objective criticism is impossible, because all journalists write subjectively, like it or not.

Those are our opinions. So be it. "New school" is no more right or wrong than "old school," and vice versa. But, perhaps, it's worth consideration.

In all my journalism classes, we were taught to write in "inverted pyramid" style, even in reviews. My journalism mentor, legendary U or R professor Joe Nettles, long revered as the "dean of Richmond journalism," stressed that the "inverted pyramid" style (I encourage you to Google it and find more info than you need) not only led to good, effective writing, it also allowed readers to opt out of any given article after a paragraph or two having learned the most important information the writer needed to convey.

Readers of my age (61) or older have been trained, subconsciously, to expect the most important information to be in the first few paragraphs. Most of Richmond's ticket buyers (not all, thank God) are my age or older. If they skimmed the first five paragraphs of Susie's review of Lend Me a Tenor, and read no further, they would have closed the paper believing that the most important information was that the T-D theatre critic hates farce and invites others to join her. They would have read nothing in the first five paragraphs about Susie's opinion of this production of Lend Me a Tenor.

It's not the end of the world, my friends. I'm not steaming with anger. I just thought it was a perfect time to discuss "subjective" vs "objective" journalism.

I wrote the spoof because I thought it would be funny, in a Jon Stewart kind of way. I copied the first several paragraphs of Susie's review almost word for word. I simply exchanged the words "subjective criticism" for "farce."

It came off nasty. I'd forgotten that that's what emails and blog posts do sometimes. You can't type in tone of voice, raised eyebrow, glint in eye, or twisted smile.

That's when I take blog posts down--when I become aware that they're being interpreted in a way not intended. When my trusted colleagues, Chase Kniffen and Billy Christopher Maupin, told me that the social media world was abuzz regarding my "attack" on Richmond's critics, I followed their suggestion and removed it from public view. I apologized publicly, on the blog, and privately to Susie. She was great about it all, as I suspected she would be. My apology was and is sincere. Not cause I'm kissing up to her or any critic. I just think everyone who means no harm is due respect. I never intended otherwise.

Susie is a valued professional friend, as is Dave. As a side note to one of Dave's commenters, it's a small community, and a lot of us are going to be friends. I think that's just the way we're wired, not any attempt on anyone's part to win influence with anyone else. The good news is, none of the current critics hang out in the lobby after a show and play kissy face / drinking buddy with the artists they are about to review. Only one critic in my memory did that, which I too found unprofessional. That critic is no longer here.

As for the objective/subjective issue, debated at length on Dave's blog, well, I think Dave and I will just have to disagree. Nothing wrong with that. I find some validity to his point of view. I expect he finds some in mine. I know we both respect each other.

Perhaps what is most interesting is that when Susie began her review by proposing a test, suggesting that all readers who enjoyed farce stand over there, and inviting all readers who hated farce to stand over here, with her, critics seemingly could not understand how that could be offensive to theatre artists. When I spoofed the review, and suggested that all readers who enjoyed "subjective" criticism stand over there, and invited all readers who hated "subjective" criticism to stand over here, with me, the general reaction was that I was issuing a "pointed" attack.

Bottom line: I have affection and respect for the critics and the artists. I mean no ill will toward anyone. I prefer my drama to be on the stage. I do think it's interesting to consider and discuss these things, however, even while remaining truly sorry that my initial spoof caused the reaction it did.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Dave T said...

Mr. Miller says, "I find some validity to his point of view. I expect he finds some in mine. I know we both respect each other."

This is absolutely true and I appreciate you stating this so clearly. It's fascinating to me to discuss a topic with some vehemence. But regardless of our differences of opinion, I maintain the utmost respect for you (and Mark and any others who have offered clearly-stated, rational opinions).

And just to be clear, I don't think avoiding objectivity is the goal. I believe presenting a critically rigorous review with as much objectivity should definitely be the goal. However, I don't believe there is any way to completely remove subjectivity. On some level, we may be splitting hairs but I still think that acknowledging this is important.

A purely hypothetical example: I love "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and don't love "[title of show]." Another critic loves "[title of show]" and doesn't care for "DRS." Both of us have completely valid critical reasons why one is great, the other is not-so-great. We can couch these reasons in objectivity -- "DRS" doesn't connect with the audience as effectively, "[tos]" isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is, etc. etc.

But underlying these points may be that "[tos]" appeals to a younger audience more than an older audience, and that appeal may be mirrored in critical response. Hopefully, a critic is self-aware enough to abstract him or herself from that kind of bias. But I'd argue that doing so completely is impossible.

In my view, the newspaper has "News" and "Editorial" sections. News is objective reporting -- just the facts, ma'am; Editorial is analytical, critical, evaluative and, ultimately, subjective. Theater reviews belong in the Editorial section. But I'm more than willing to discuss this further with "old school" fellows like Mr. Miller anytime, preferably over a beer so we can shake hands when we're done!