What We Talk About When We Talk About Theater
In 1964, when I was five years old, my father told me that Patty Duke didn't have a twin. Naturally I recognized this information for what it was -- a bald-faced lie. Every week on The Patty Duke Show anyone could see there were two teenage girls, not one actress and a body double. No revelation about stage tricks could convince me otherwise. And why should it? As every budding critic knows, illusion is almost always more fun than reality.
Years later I still wonder about this phenomenon. How does stage illusion work on our imagination? Shakespeare, for example, got away with spinning seemingly ridiculous stories about twins separated at birth and statues that come to life -- and yet even today we feel these dramas are meaningful to us. Is there any end to the variety of tales can you tell if you stretch reality a little bit? And what about the other end of the spectrum? Why do the extremes of realism and naturalism -- the Henrik Ibsens and the Sam Shepards -- also ignite powerful drama?
It's a privilege to be paid for worrying about these things, I know. Indeed there are worse jobs than going to the theater. It's a serious task, though. I don't enjoy writing reviews about bad productions -- every negative review represents hopes dashed, potential lost, an evening that could have been better spent. At the same time, few experiences are as thrilling as great theater, and nothing is more gratifying to write about.
As I don't always get a chance to explain myself outside the confines of a critique, and because Hurricane Georges canceled the shows I had planned to see that week, this space is devoted to answering some frequently asked questions about theater critics.
What do critics want?
Critics want audiences and actors to come together -- whenever they meet -- in such a way that everyone goes home transformed. Today, though, the biggest threat to theater is empty seats. Television long ago replaced commercial theater as our primary source of formal entertainment. I love television, too, but I think viewers should get off the couch more often. If they did they'd see for themselves that there's no type of dramatic performance more powerful than live theater at its best -- and that includes the work of every film genius from Steven Spielberg to Akiro Kurosawa, and every TV impresario from Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) to the geniuses who write Frasier.
Are critics necessary?
Audiences need critics in the same way coal miners need canaries. With countless entertainment choices competing for your time and money, it's essential to have someone evaluating the alternatives. If you feel you would have missed something crucial if you hadn't taken a critic's recommendation to see Angels in America, for example, then you availed yourself of one service critics can provide. You certainly don't have to agree with the reviewer on the merits of a particular production to acknowledge that theater producers are in business to make money, and that somebody ought to be examining their product.
Consumer guidance aside, another part of the critic's job is to question the status quo. If you felt trepidation when you shelled out $75 to see Rent, then suffered through the mediocre acoustics at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, then wondered what the monumental fuss was about because you didn't even like the show -- well, you know it's not such a bad idea to have a contrasting point of view aired alongside the hype that accompanies a hit show.
A good critic will also step back and try to figure out where the power of a work comes from. Is the play all flash, or is the playwright saying something new to us? Is a monologue just fun to sit through (nothing wrong with that) or is it commenting on our lives?
Why do I say bad things about your best friend's show?
I am not an advocate for the commercial theater community, and I am not a cheerleader for local actors. I am here on behalf of the audience, which I always thought was obvious. Still, a few weeks ago I took some friends to see a production that turned out to be dreadfully soporific. When my review was published, one of these friends (the one who had spent two hours at the theater checking his watch) said, "I thought you were going to be nice." Nice? So other people could suffer the same excruciating boredom? The critic's primary job is to report whether a show succeeds in telling the story it has set out to tell in the best way it can. If a shows fails and a published review doesn't point that out, how can a critic expect to be taken seriously?
What are the strengths of South Florida theater?
As my former Miami Herald colleague and fellow former New Englander Fernando Gonzalez once put it: "Miami is not Boston with a beach." His point being that this city -- barely 100 years old and influenced as much by the Southern Hemisphere as by, say, New York -- defies comparison to other cultural centers. Our expectations are provoked daily, which is one reason it's such a pleasure to be here. Likewise South Florida theater has its own rhythms. For one thing, it is not encumbered by 300 years of tradition and the stifling of creativity that inevitably accompanies it. Innovative projects such as the Summer Shorts Festival can incubate here in a culture that isn't burdened by long memories of failed artistic experiments.
Talented actors in South Florida are far enough away from New York that some are tempted to stay here, and we benefit when they do. In addition local audiences can listen in two languages, unlike almost any other part of the country. (If all the kinks of bilingual theater haven't been smoothed out, at least we're working on them.)
What could improve theater in South Florida?
I'd like to see controversy and risk play a bigger role in the theater here. "Without danger," says the Maggie Smith character in Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, "there is no theater." We could use more danger in the choice of works being staged. Few places can match South Florida as a cultural crucible, yet local theater seldom takes advantage of that.
Indeed, it's frustrating to see outsiders such as Los Angeles' Culture Clash visit here and then create a eye-opening show like Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami, when the resources and talent exist for South Floridians to portray and comment on each other. I'd like to see more theater that challenges our ideas about South Florida.
I'd also like to see more homegrown productions that defy our idea of theater itself. Where's the street theater for which Latin America is famous? Where's the political satire? Where's the agitprop? Where's South Florida's answer to Robert Wilson and Philip Glass?
What's the best theater I've seen in the past six months?
The most compelling theater I've seen in the last six months was Sen. Robert Byrd's performance on the Senate floor in mid-September. (Honestly, it would be difficult even for someone as visionary as Eric Bogosian to make a lasting impression, given the drama that's being played out in the national arena.) Byrd's speech exhorting his colleagues to consider impeachment was showstopping testimony that 19th-century oratory is alive and well in West Virginia. I only wish I had taken notes.
What's the worst thing I've seen?
Not enough South Floridians at the recent "Inroads" festival presented by Miami-Dade Community College. Not enough publicity about it beforehand. Not enough discussion of the acts afterward. Opportunities to see groups from a dozen countries ripping apart stereotypes of their own cultures don't present themselves often.
What's the most formidable aspect of writing about local theater?
Reviews I've written, like those of any critic, have elicited a wide range of responses. I've been yelled at by Tommy Tune. I've even been yelled at by the producer of Beverly Hills 90210. But none of the attention has ever equaled the exhilaration -- or presented the responsibility -- of writing about the community in which I live, where, each week at the theater and on the street, I encounter the people I reviewed the week before. Owing to the monolithic nature of the film and TV industries, directors and actors rarely read the articles written about their work. (The 90210 producer only saw my Miami Herald article about his show because his mother lives in South Florida.) The people I see on stage are not abstract entities to me, and neither is the effort they put into their work.
Why did a naked man sit on my lap?
His name was Tim Miller. He was one of the so-called NEA Four, the quartet of performance artists condemned by conservative congressmen who successfully undermined public support for the National Endowment For the Arts by highlighting the sexually explicit material in their work. I saw Miller's show, My Queer Body, in Boston in the early '90s. His account of negotiating a tricky childhood, adolescence, and manhood struck some people as offensive. His act, consisting of an exhilarating monologue and a segment in which he strips and sits in the lap of an audience member, was not an example of gratuitous nudity but rather of the exquisite beauty of human vulnerability. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Even after seeing weeks of bad theater, I never forget what art can deliver. And I keep going back.
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