"oh what a tangled interweb we weave..."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How to deal with critics (when you're an emerging artist)

Since uber-women Bekah, Colette, and Kelcie have already expounded brilliantly on topics of love, diversity and creativity, I thought I'd be the first one to talk about something more neurotic:


Yes, for all of us "emerging artists," the c-word can be as alluring as it is ulcer-inducing. After all, which of us hasn't secretly pined for one of those laudatory reviews of our play to be printed on oversized poster-board and placed prominently in the theater's lobby for all to see?

The problem is most of us are so busy getting numerous rejection letters from the most-esteemed theaters to the most-fumigated theaters alike, that when we actually do get to put a play up and celebrate with the kind of reckless abandon a madman feels when he escapes from the asylum, we forget that much of our success rests in the hands of these peculiar people.

No, this post is not going to be filled with zingers. (For that I direct you to Jon Robin Baitz's article about Captain Complement himself, Charles Isherwood: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robbie-baitz/all-the-views-fit-to-prin_b_72637.html)

Instead, it'll be filled with my personal experiences.

You see, At Play is a wonderful company. So wonderful, in fact, that it produced my play Al's Business Cards this past July/August. A theater was booked, a press agent was hired, and then starting a week into the run, the reviews came pouring out.

Was I prepared? I thought I was. But I was not. Not because they were 'bad.' Not because they were 'good'. But because they were SO different from each other, that it was as if they had all seen different plays. And I had no idea what to make of it all.

One reviewer praised my "twisty plot." Another said I "needed to go work on plot." One reviewer favorably compared the play to the classic La Ronde. Another called the play a "mediocre sitcom." It was called "sublime" by the New York Times, where it was a 'Critic's Pick' and yet Time Out New York called it "faint and unfinished."

(The most confusing critique of all came when a reviewer attacked the plausibility of the main character -- an Indian man who looks Hispanic -- by saying "the script states that he is dark skinned, but [the actor] neither looks Spanish or Indian." On the contrary, the script states that he is "light-skinned," because I wrote it for my friend, the wonderful Azhar Khan, who is in fact 100-percent Indian, but gets mistaken for being Hispanic all the time.)

So how does one make sense of all these contradictions? Well in my case by re-reading what William Goldman said about critics in his book The Season (a MUST read for any theater fan). Commenting on the belief that drama critics are "not very good," Goldman retorts, "This is simply not true. They are putrescent." Pu*tres*cent [adjective]: undergoing the process of decay; rotting. In other words, much much worse than "not very good." (He then analyzes why. Read away at your leisure.)

If that seems excessive, here's a story: When I was a student in Columbia University's M.F.A. playwriting program, the course 'History of Theatre' was taught by a prominent New York theater critic. His version of that 'History' consisted of him reading his reviews of well-known plays out loud in their entirety, but that's beside the point. The point is that for his final assignment, he asked the students to write an epilogue to any Shakespeare play and encouraged us to try it in Iambic Pentameter. I chose the tragedy Titus Andronicus. I passed the course and thought nothing more of it.

Fast forward to six months later, when a fellow student randomly said that he had an email to show me. He had invited this same critic/teacher to a show of his and received this response: "Thank goodness you're not Josh Koenigsberg. For one forgetful moment I thought you might be. But then I realized, of course, that you don't write tragic monologues about someone who speaks in rhyming couplets." The critic/teacher then declined the invitation.

Believe it or not this story is both entirely true and meant to alleviate any fear of critics. Because hopefully it illustrates that critics are just people like all of us -- people who are powerful, sure, but also strange, flawed, and unpredictable.

Sure, a critic may seem more likely to forego the appropriate critique of "this is not MY cup of tea" for the more forceful "this is NOT a cup of tea." But ultimately that's irrelevant to those of us who want to be artists.

Because if I learned anything in getting my work reviewed it's that there's no way to accurately predict what another person's taste will be all of the time. The only person whose taste you can safely predict is your own. So it doesn't matter what critics think about your tea. If you like it, then keep brewing all the same.

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