Metacriticism: Making Lemonade Out of A Lemon Review

What do you do with a negative review?  Burn it? Ignore it? Paper the critic’s house? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do this.) Get creative with captions?: “Read what the critics are not saying about…”

It is never easy to be on the receiving end of a negative review.  Trust me, I know firsthand.  I had this unpleasant experience just recently, and I have held off writing about it for a few weeks so that I could reflect and respond rather than react.  Fortunately, neither art nor criticism are created in a vacuum; they are dialogic, not monologic.  So here it is, my part of the conversation.

Sometimes negative theatre reviews  are apt, warranted, and can make us better artists.  These reviews fall into the category of good, constructive criticism, and we can learn from them to improve the work we do.  Negative reviews can also force us to face more *publicly* than, perhaps, we would like what we may already know privately, ie. the show under review has problems–needed more rehearsal time, needed to be cast differently, needed more financial backing, needed better direction, better set, lighting, sound design, blah, blah, blah, etc., and so on.

And sometimes negative theatre reviews can just be, well, wrong–flawed themselves.  This is not to mention the negative reviews that are so biting and pretentious that they might as well have been written with a dagger as with a pen. These masturbatory exercises wherein a critic strives to sound intelligent and important, like a formidable intellect, an artist in his or her own right by way of punchlines and zingers, do absolutely nothing to make us better as artists.  After giving some thought to a particular review of the production of Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade that I recently directed, I have come to the conclusion that the review in question is an example of this latter kind of negative review.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

I and others, such as Isaac Butler of the Parabasis blog, David Cote of TimeOutNY, and August Schulenburg of Flux Theatre Ensemble to name a few, have written on various occasions in the past year about the nature and purpose of theatre reviews and the role of theatre critics in today’s climate.  Here’s the abbreviated and obvious reality: Paid theatre critics at longstanding publications are gradually disappearing, and theatre as a form of art and entertainment is, arguably, facing greater challenges than ever, from funding cuts to competing forms of entertainment.  For these reasons, it seems crucial that theatre makers and theatre reviewers attempt to work in greater harmony.  This is not at all to say that critics should feed artists and audiences ‘the lie,’ but that theatre critics should advocate for the health and well-being of the art.  In other words, theatre critics need to serve as advocates, not adversaries.  No matter how flawed a production, the role of the critic should never be to make the people behind the production the butt of some intellectual joke.

One way for critics to serve as critic-advocates is to move away from the tired practice of pan/rave reviewing, which over time erodes the integrity of both criticism and theatre.  I would venture to say that there are no blemish-free productions.  I would also venture to say that there are no productions without a single saving grace.  Feel free to disagree with either or both of those statements.  I have done my share of formal and informal theatre reviewing, yet I have somehow managed to avoid panning or raving about a performance.  Even with performances I have found largely unfavorable, I have always been capable of making at least one positive observation.  For these reasons, I have become increasingly skeptical of one-dimensional reviews that sound as if written by either a cheerleader or Oscar the Grouch.

Warren Day’s pan review (RTWT here) in The Florida Agenda of MilkMilkLemonade at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale contained only a single comment that might be construed as positive, and this had nothing to do with the production itself, but the fact that such a ‘different and difficult play’ had been brought to South Florida.  His review provided little in the way of useful feedback about the show and was so general in nature so as to suggest that Day may not have researched let alone read or understood the play.  Instead, his review reminded me of the intellectual posturing and rhetorical feats that give critics a bad name and fuel, rather than bridge, the gap between critics and artists.  For instance, Day felt the production failed comedically: it needed “a feather light touch” and “razor sharp timing,” but was in the end “heavy-handed.”  Fine.  I’ll take it–we did, after all, shave about 10 minutes off of the running time in the first week of the run as actors relaxed into roles and improved with picking up cues.  Still, I’m not sure exactly what he meant by ‘feather light touch,’ and at least one concrete example to back these claims would have been helpful.  But, wait, there’s more.  After making these claims, Day concluded the review with the following quote: “Edmund Kean. a famous actor of the early 19th century, said on his deathbed, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”  It can also be hard to watch a comedy that isn’t working.” (sic)  Given all that he said earlier in the review, was this humdinger really necessary?   Is this the job of the critic, to really stick it to the artist, add insult to injury?

I’ll go Day one further.  It’s equally difficult to read a review that’s arrogant, verging on rude, not to mention somewhat off the mark contextually.  While I do believe one task of a good critic is to situate a work within the theatrical landscape, that placement must be sound–or at the very least good-intentioned and supported with evidence.  Day devotes an entire paragraph (see below) to summarizing theatre movements that have only tangential relevance to Conkel’s play.

MilkMilkLemonade” belongs to the Theater of the Absurd, that movement that originally grew out of the disillusionments of World War II, but had its roots in the theatricality of commedia dell’arte and the off-the-wall humor of such vaudeville comedians as the Marx Brothers. To these playwrights realism on the stage was often a barrier to them dealing with the reality around them. They preferred to be like a surrealist artist who paints melting watches to say something about memory.

If Conkel’s play has ties to the theatrical traditions of Absurdism and Comedia dell’Arte it is only in the broadest sense, and even then, these connections are so very many generations removed so as to have not even consciously registered as influences for Conkel.  Day’s description leads one to expect a play in the spirit of Beckett or Ionesco with cyclical plot, repetitive language, and so on, yet MilkMilkLemonade is none of this: the plot progresses in linear fashion over a single day, and the homophobic speak spouted by the bully and the grandmother in Conkel’s play is delivered straight-up, just the way we hear it in everyday life. MilkMilkLemonade does not endeavor to depict life as meaningless and monotonous, but instead to satirize and expose the constructed and destructive nature of social norms. Furthermore, Conkel’s characters are not reducible to Commedia dell-Arte archetypes; in the end, Linda, the chicken is given a voice to express her aspirations and hope just as one would expect of a humanized chicken who is the imaginary best friend of a 10 year old, and even Elliot, the bully, reveals a softer side.

In actuality, Conkel’s play is much more in keeping with the work of writers such as Charles Busch, Nicky Silver, and Charles Ludlum–the last of whom passed over absurdity and opted for ridiculous, marrying the aesthetics of avant-garde with camp (though he disliked the latter term).  Ludlam insisted that his plays be performed with at least one role cross-gender; Conkel takes this a step further freeing directors to cast all parts in any way conceivable, “The characters may be played by actors of any physical description, across gender or ethnicity… Don’t be a pussy!  BE BOLD.”  The following stage directions further underscore Conkel’s ties to Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company: “Emory and Elliot sit cross legged … They are naked.  If one or both characters is played by a female, it might be funny to put them in flesh colored nude suits with tiny penises and testicles. In fact, that might be funny even if both characters are played by men.”  When the central character, Emory, an effeminate 5th grader, goes to the barn to choreograph dance routines, he does so to carve out a safe, creative place for him to be his authentic self.  These dance interludes are allusive, campy and ironic, not random, vaudeville-inspired distractions.  Try as his grandmother may to butch him up, in these moments Emory remains true to himself and the countercultural influences (such as Boys in the Band, Hair, and Nina Simone) that speak to him.

Day’s review contains no mention of a single actor’s performance, no description of set or costume (just a blatant dismissal of both), no mention of sound, lighting, or choreography.  For these reasons and those stated above, his review does the production and many people a disservice–from me, my cast and crew; to Conkel, for whom this production marked the Florida premiere of his work and who, incidentally, really appreciated the show and was relieved (having read the reviews beforehand) to see that we had not mutilated his play; to potential viewers; to companies who will be mounting MilkMilkLemonade in the fall and be looking through reviews in planning their own productions, just as I did with the New York reviews for this show.  In a mixed-review of the same length as Day’s, Rod Stafford Hagwood, Fashion Critic for The Sun Sentinel, at least managed to touch in more specific, tangible terms on core components of the show and what worked and didn’t work for him.

For me, then, what is truly absurd is criticism that fails to even address certain basic aspects of a production and traffics in self-indulgent, acerbic remarks and unexplained or inaccurate assertions–criticism that is more concerned with sounding clever than with conscientious, constructive critique.

Allie Rivenbark as a Cyndi Lauper-inspired Linda the Chicken and Christina Groom as Rochelle the Spider          (Photo by Richard Viola)

8 Responses to “Metacriticism: Making Lemonade Out of A Lemon Review”
  1. Josh says:

    Thank you for this. I sometimes forget that I’m allowed to question critics.

  2. Autumn says:

    Good advice once given to me: Don’t allow others to define your/your work’s worth in this world.

    That means both good and bad criticism. If you want to believe the good stuff, you will have to also believe the bad stuff as well. Does the good review validate your work? Does the bad review invalidate it? Neither should have that effect.

    • nstodard says:

      Autumn, thanks for your comment.

      Actually, I don’t agree that you should wholesale believe the bad stuff or the good stuff. Or that if you accept the good, you must accept the bad, too. And, no, a ‘good’ review does not necessarily validate a work; nor does a ‘bad’ review necessarily invalidate a work.

      In the world of reviews, there are false positives and false negatives, if you will.

      Among the points I was trying to make in this post are (1) reviewers are welcome to dislike a show and explain why, but they should do so in good conscience, professionally, ethically, in good taste. It’s the age-old adage about minding how you say what you say. SNARKY CRITICS SUCK. (2) criticism must be accurate, informed, and backed with examples/evidence.

      The reality is that reviews still have the power to impact a show’s attendance and overall success. For a company with a history, an established following, a negative review is easier to take in stride. For a new company with no history, no preexisting reputation or audience base, and little/no funds for advertising, reviews are just about all you’ve got to work with, and a negative review can kill ya before you’re even out of the gate.

      For these reasons, reviewers need to appreciate their ‘role’ and recognize their potential impact. And before they write a pan review, they need to make sure they’ve done their homework and that they loathe the performance so deeply that they’re okay if their words put the whole production out of business.

      • Autumn says:

        As a blogger you must realize that you (or other’s when you’re reviewing them) have no control over other’s opinions of your work (I think you gave that play in LA a review they didn’t appreciate, if I am not mistaken. I remember seeing a comment about this on your blog and how your write-up was unfair. It was their interpretation of your criticism and I think in this case you’re letting this critic become a bigger thing than it should be). A critic often supports work that he/she connects to or believes his/her surrounding community should appreciate. If your work isn’t supported in South Florida, it might be wise to relocate or to make the decision to not give too much credence to these newspaper journalists (it seems like unpaid bloggers are the wave of the future anyways).

        Also, word of mouth is very important and is not something you can gauge as much because there isn’t an “official” review. The fact that you got a write up is publicity. Many artists don’t even get that.

        • Autumn says:

          I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d rather read about your process of directing this play than about how much power this write up has over the outcome of the play itself. I don’t live in South Florida (and I do think that South Florida needs more artists like yourself there, but I don’t think their is a great deal of support for innovative or experimental work in Florida unfortunately). I agree with the commenter below in that you were able to do justice for the playwright and in the end, that is what is important (not what this critic is writing).

          • nstodard says:

            Thanks for participating in the conversation, Autumn. One of my hopes in writing this post was to encourage more conversation on the subject. I wrote a post on directing earlier in the process and this
            post on reviewing after the show was up. I think both are equally valid. Critics don’t live by the same standards and
            practices. I have spent years analyzing reviews and criticism, my own and others, in an effort to be a better theatre writer myself. And I’ve called out other reviewers in the past just the same as I’ve tried here to identify what I believe is problematic about this particular review of my current show. I also engaged in conversation like this following my review of Callaghan’s play, which you mention. The difference is that my review wasn’t a pan review and the objection was largely over my writing about a preview, which I disclosed
            very plainly at the start of the piece.
            Anyway, if I can’t write a single post on the subject on my personal blog, the alternative is silence, and I don’t think artists should live under an unwritten code of silence. That in its own way gives special credence to a critic. And just as I appreciated the responses to my Callaghan review, good, bad or otherwise, I thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Kenyatta says:

    The “Metacriticism” was well-written because it was generous in its description and depiction of a reviewer’s role in theater or other artistic arenas–for that matter. Zadi Smith (writer of fiction) believes critics can truly help a writer (or artist) grow if their feedback is given with the intentions you so acurrately described in your article, Nicole. What’s sweet is that the playwright saw his play performed as he imagined it, that your role as director, and your company of actors delivered! There’s the true review!–in my humble opinion.

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