Friday, August 10, 2018

Single White Fringe Geek (blog)

American Theatre magazine produces a podcast I have been enjoying called Three On the Aisle, for which critics from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Terry Teachout, respectively) weigh in on the national theater scene.

In this most recent episode, they began by discussing staff layoffs at the New York Daily News, and listeners were treated to the unusual sound of Marks losing his shit, loudly and profanely lamenting the fate of American theater criticism.

This is not a subject I am unfamiliar with. In this blog I have also asked what will happen when theater criticism is no longer a profession unto itself, but is a minor responsibility relegated to journalists who have numerous, diverse beats, freelance community writers, and blogging theater fans.

At the turn of this century, John Vacha wrote Showtime in Cleveland, the history of Cleveland theater up to the year 2000. For this book he leaned heavily on newspapers and the work of theater critics, not only to discover what details could be gleaned about specific productions and performances, but also the behind-the-scenes history of the business of theater in one large American city.

Without a written record, our work may be lost to future generations. And in the present, audiences and potential audiences suffer from a lack of sources of good theater criticism. And yes, we as artists miss out on having a variety of critical eyes assessing us, holding a mirror to our work.

Fifteen years ago today, we concluded our run of I Hate This (a play without the baby) at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. At this festival I attracted audiences, met new colleagues, and received plenty of praise and encouragement on the local online message boards.

I also received my first actual pan for this play. Matthew Everett had only just started the blog Single White Fringe Geek, a record of MN Fringe reviews he keeps to this day. On my way out the metaphoric door, I read his review and it was not exactly glowing.

Red Eye Theatre, Minneapolis, MN (2003)
Everett felt that, in spite of the play's unique male perspective on the subject of stillbirth, it suffered from not including the grieving mother’s voice.

He said that the narrator (me) was the only fully-developed character, and that of those other characters represented, the kind ones were casually dismissed while much more attention was focused on those who were unkind, insensitive, or -- to use my own word from the show -- evil.

“There was,” Everett wrote, “a lot of anger in this play. It bordered on being unsympathetic.”

This was a lot to swallow. When you stick your neck out to create something so intimate, you know you are taking a risk. And yet, you can’t imagine someone actually criticizing you.

I hadn’t read his review these fifteen years, though I never forgot the gist of it. Reading it again, however, was eye-opening.

Because now I understand it was the single most important review I think I have ever received.

Remember, this is was at the beginning. He attended the eighth public performance of a show I went on to produce regularly for almost five years, and have returned to several times since. And it was with comments like his in mind that I revised the script, and more importantly, modulated my performance.

I didn’t change a lot of the script, a few words, light editing, nudging the piece in a certain direction. What would have happened at the New York Fringe Festival the following year without Everett’s observation? If I had received a notice like his in the New York Times, instead the positive review I did receive, due perhaps to the changes I made at his suggestion? That might have been devastating to me.

I do not believe I am overstating this when I suggest that Matthew Everett's highly-critical review saved I Hate This.

We need criticism; thoughtful, engaged, intelligent, professional criticism.

References:
"A Cornucopia of Questions," Three On the Aisle, 7/26/2018
"Closing the Fringe With Mom - Part 6," Single White Fringe Geek by Mathew Everett, 8/12/2003

"I Hate This (a play without the baby)" now available for Amazon Kindle.

2 comments:

  1. At the Minnesota Fringe in 1999, I received a hand-written note on the program of a one-man-show I performed (although didn't write), saying "If you have a day job, keep it." All that did was plant a chip on my shoulder the size of Lake Minnetonka. Not really a parallel, in that that kind of unsolicited, unkind review is miles away from a thoughtful critique. That being said, we do this work for others, not ourselves, so other opinions actually do mean something. And not just felicitous opinions. How does an artistic community foster better critique, critique that moves the needle forward? (That being said, I am a firm believer in not reading ANY reviews while in the liminal space of creation -- good reviews probably worst of all, as they can be the most dangerous.)

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    1. You will have to tell me about this solo performance some day! But an anonymous, hand-written diss? That's just rude. Today people like that occupy Twitter.

      Glad to know you bounced back with such fierce determination!

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