Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Director vs The Critic: How we talk about theater

By Barry Johnson

Earlier this week, critic Bob Hicks and director Chris Coleman had a robust yet civil disagreement about how critics should go about their business. The occasion was a Coleman-directed production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid at Portland Center Stage, one that Hicks enjoyed with reservations. What I like about the argument is that it opens up the business of criticism as it's conducted these days. And as we all know, everyone is a critic at one time or another: It's useful to think about what our rules of engagement should be as we consider works of art (and most other things -- but that's another subject).

It started with a review by Hicks, in which he called the production a glossy, handsomely appointed crowd-pleaser. But he had some problems, too, mostly that Constance Congdon's translation and Coleman's direction accentuated the comedy of Moliere's play and missed its context. Here is the crucial graph of this critique:
"Key to any understanding of Moliere's plays and the culture in which they existed is an appreciation of their sense of danger, a heightened stake that playwright Constance Congdon's adaptation carries mostly by a few flatulence jokes and a little heavy-handed sexual innuendo. It's the Jack Black school of cultural commentary, which, whatever it may miss in genuine satirical force, is always good for a few laughs."
Hicks's review then prompted a letter by Coleman, which he posted on his blog at Portland Center Stage. Coleman argues that critics arrive with preconceptions about what a production, especially of a classic, should accomplish, and that they aren't open to the intentions of the director of the translator (in this case, Congdon): "So I have, of late, found myself impatient with reviewers (the world over) bringing so much of their own ‘expectations’ to a production of a classic, and judging its merits based on what they walked in hoping to see."

In this particular case, Hicks's belief that the production should reflect Moliere's time (17th century France under the absolute monarch Louis XIV) kept him from appreciating Congdon's intent -- which was to emphasize its low comedy and skewering of the medical profession. And Coleman argued that the concerns Hicks wanted to highlight were minor matters in the text anyway. You should go to Tartuffe or The Misanthrope for those.

Then Hicks responded to Coleman's letter. On the matter of the critic's intent, he acknowledged it as a potential problem, but thought he was open to new interpretations. And in this particular case, he elaborated, "I guess when it comes down to is, I felt that Congdon’s adaptation was neither here nor there—not in the full, complex spirit of Molière, but also not radically different enough to stand as a compelling reinterpretation."

I have rushed through the arguments -- you can read them for yourself, after all. But I want to express some sympathy for, ye gods, the director in this case. Not that I think Hicks's review was unfair, because it wasn't. Even better, it was useful to me and will enhance my experience of the play when I see it, which is what we hope we read a review, after all.

But Coleman's general complaint describes a lot of the criticism I read, too, especially of classics in the interpretive arts -- music, theater, dance. A certain sort of formalism reigns in these reviews: We know what Brahms is supposed to sound like, how "To be or not to be" is to be delivered, how "The Four Temperaments" is to be danced.  If you don't meet this standard, your work is a failure, to one degree or another.  This implies a "perfect" Brahms, Hamlet and Balanchine, frozen in time, an ideal that is the only proper target of a performance.

We know that this is simply false. How much more we appreciate the Goldberg Variations after Glenn Gould's radical interpretation or A Midsummer Night's Dream after Peter Brook reimagined it. I love the twists that great directors give the classics, and I need them -- otherwise Hamlet dies... for good. A good interpretation shows us something we haven't noticed, connects a text or score to the present in a surprising way, reminds us of our own power to interpret freely and, hopefully, well. The formalist critic misses all of this -- where the real life of art is lived.

How are we to judge the success or failure of The Imaginary Invalid then? Here, I disagree with Coleman. As an audience member, I don't allow the playwright or director determine the rules of my  interpretation of their interpretation.  They may manage to embody their intent perfectly, but still leave me cold, dull and unenlightened. I come to the theater with needs, some of which I don't even know. Either the production meets those needs or it doesn't.

Most of us have more pressing needs than preserving the intent of Moliere throughout time, whatever that intent might be (and we really don't know, when you think about it -- even if we had some record of Moliere's stated intent, which we don't, would we believe him?).  I'm even less concerned about Congdon's intent. I want the thrill, the wisdom, the escape, the depth of feeling, the insight, the descriptions of the human heart and human society that theater, specifically, provides. A failure is something that doesn't reach me on any of these levels. And I admit that it's very personal, ultimately, something I try to explain and understand when I'm acting as a critic, seeking to provide a useful account for readers or listeners.

That is a summary of what I posted on the Portland Center Stage website, which I repeat here:

I haven’t seen “Imaginary Invalid” yet, so I can’t weigh in on the specific case. I would make the following observations about criticism (“reviewing”) as we practice it these days.

1) When I was reviewing theater for The Oregonian, I saw 150+ productions a year, year in and year out. That made me a very peculiar audience member—generally more impatient, less easy to move, more preoccupied (with what I was going to write) than I was when I went as a “civilian.” At the same time, I think I went to the theater better prepared to consider what I was about to see, because that was job—I wasn’t coming to a play exhausted from a day at the office doing something entirely different.

2) I think Chris’s observation—that the critic’s expectations, which really is to say the critic’s ideal performance, are critical in determining the review that appears for the public consumption—is absolutely correct. A critic like Bob is open-minded enough to put his expectations aside and consider a different approach, of course.

3) I think that Bob’s expectations, as he explained them, are “interesting,” by which I mean “useful” to me as I consider the play. But ultimately, whether the play itself is useful to me is more important to my own thinking about it.  And then I have to figure out why the play is or isn’t useful to me (by giving me an escape from reality, say, or reinterpreting reality or showing me a thread that runs through diverse cultures—whatever), and I may or may not draw on the review to help me.

4) As a critic, it was easy for me to get involved with this rational, internal argument (the preparation I was talking about in #1) and forget the power of the “moment in the dark,” the experience of the play itself as it tugged my brain and heart one way, then the other. That experience is more important to us than anything else, really, and the best review indicates whether and how a play or concert or dance works at that basic level. (My son, at age 6, taught me this, but that’s another story!) The critics of the Buchner were too caught up in their “histories and theories” to experience the play, maybe.

5) A review is an invitation into a speculative space. The critic starts the speculating, but really the invitation for all of us to continue the exercise is implicit, to consider and re-consider the meaning of the play and how it achieved its goals/intentions, as well as how pertinent it is for us (me) now. All of these are subjective. All of them change (if we are open about it) as we hear more, better, or contradictory assessments. Experiencing art, in short, is both personal AND social. And that’s what makes art so important—it works for us as individuals and it binds us as a community.

6) The critic’s work is the same way. A response is developed from experience, research, something you heard in a literature class long ago or in conversation with a friend before the show began.  It comes out in a personal way, even though it has that social side to it: Bob’s values (his theater ideology) have both personal and social roots. Then the readers/listeners/viewers completes it—by finding it useful or not in their own considerations.

7) There is no perfect critic. I’m not even perfect for myself (all those limitations!).  A critic organizes a response to a work of art, a description, and if the critic is good, that description is useful as a start to my own description, my own speculation, my own re-living of the experience. I improve it, toss it out, build on it, compare it to that of my neighbors.  Gradually, something emerges that is more and more satisfying. But that is my responsibility more than it is the critic’s.

8) I wouldn’t read a critic who doesn’t regularly help my considerations of the art work at hand. On the other hand, the same critic I’ve abandoned may be perfect for you! And that’s not being mealy-mouthed.

9) Gee, 8 is plenty…
Yes, plenty.  But I think the conversation that Bob and Chris have had is clarifying. They won't see eye-to-eye on this production, but that doesn't matter.  In this spirit, their comments on their practice (of directing, of reviewing) push things forward a step. And I'm glad they took the time, stepped out onstage from behind the curtain, and talked about it some.


MightyToyCannon said...

I enjoyed reading the dialogue between Chris and Bob, as well as your additions to the conversation. My quick thought is that we tend to make the mistake of thinking that reviews serve only as consumer recommendations. Is this play worth seeing? Is that symphony "good"? Will I enjoy that ballet? As an arts administrator, I pray that a reviewer will speak highly of a production, give it prominent placement (and a big color picture), and help move some tickets. I imagine that the creator of the work hopes that the review will validate her artistic and abilities. It's easy to forget that the media is not there to be an p.r. wing for us. I look to reviews to guide me in making choices, but I also turn to reviewers I respect (you and Bob more than qualify) to inform and teach--to give me context and perspective such that I can understand and appreciate the work more fully. I also like to compare and contrast my judgment against that of the reviewer. Did we see they same things? How did my bias affect my experience, compared to the baggage the reviewer toted into the theater? I often go back and read reviews after I've seen a production to compare notes. I also read a lot of reviews for performances and exhibitions I will never see.

Barry Johnson said...

MTC, a most excellent point. Often reviews function as consumer advice, which is fine, but we hope that art is more than just something to be bought and sold, even in America circa 2011. And as you know, I don't think it's healthy for the audience to think of themselves as "culture shoppers," either. I'm hoping they will be more active than that, participate more deeply, become art critics and art makers and art advocates, encouraging their artists to do more and do better. And criticism can help develop this sort of engaged audience. Maybe.

And thanks for the kind words!

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