14 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 4

[This is Part 4, the final installment, of my commentary on Kirk Woodward’s book, The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272).]

After treating the matter of reviewers closing productions with poor notices, Kirk raises the question of reviewers who know people connected to the production and fear their notices might hurt their friends and acquaintances. It’s hard, perhaps, for reviewers not to become engaged in the social whirl of the arts they cover. That’s probably more true in smaller markets than in large ones like New York or L.A., but there’s a danger here, too. I remember reading an article about New York Times chief reviewer Ben Brantley, who I thought had taken a pretty extreme action to avoid that--he literally absents himself entirely from the New York social scene. According to the report, he lived outside the city (though he may have moved in since then) and apparently doesn’t socialize with anyone connected to theater. (I thought this was extreme not because Brantley avoids the social aspects of the biz—that may be difficult but wise—but because, not living in the city he covers, he loses perspective on the atmosphere—political, communal, economic, cultural—that surrounds and informs the art about which he writes.)

The Times doesn’t permit its theater reviewers to participate in any awards program (editors and other journalists may, and I don’t know if reviewers in other arts are similarly enjoined) because the editors don’t want their reviewers even to appear to have conflicts of interest. A few years ago, Critics Quarterly (the newsletter of ATCA, which Kirk would insist ought to be called Reviewers Quarterly . . . or, maybe, Reviewers Review) did a series of articles, plus letters from members, concerning reviewers who got involved in other aspects of theater such as playwriting or acting. Some members felt this was a good way to learn more about the business, by seeing it from the inside while it was working. Others were vociferous in their opinions that this placed the reviewers in danger of becoming too personally acquainted with the artists they would be called on to criticize. I no longer was trying to act when I was writing reviews, but I still knew actors, directors, designers, and stage managers who were working in New York and there were theater companies run by friends and former colleagues producing plays I might have to review. The situation only arose once or twice, and I raised the potential conflict with my editor, but I was surprised when he said he didn’t really care. (I think the real situation was that he didn’t have that many writers on whom he could call and he couldn’t replace me.) It was very hard to be objective and I had to question myself very carefully when it came to writing about the people I knew, even slightly.

Interestingly, there’s an organization in New York City that was established essentially to address this situation. The Players, on Gramercy Park, was founded by actor Edwin Booth (in his last home, where his room is still preserved as he left it) to allow actors to meet the important citizens of the city on a social basis. He thought that members of his profession ought to know the people who supported the theater and the city’s movers and shakers in all fields, politics, finance, merchandising, letters, and so on, should know the theater artists who were so important to New York’s culture. (Theater was, at the time, the popular entertainment, much as movies and TV are today.) That is, all the professions except one. No reviewers could be members of The Players. Booth didn’t think it would be wise to put actors in the same room with the writers who from time to time may have said uncomplimentary things about them. Now, the all-male membership has been integrated in recent years, but the prohibition against reviewers still holds. (By the way, the organization is called The Players, not the Players Club.)

When he writes about reporting on the play’s plot, Kirk proposes, “We can ask, what happens to the characters? Do they grow, change, move from point A to point N?” This is very close to the question dramaturgs learn to ask when analyzing a script for their artistic directors: Who does the play happen to? It’s a way of determining which character is the focal one (which may not be the same as the lead role or the literary protagonist). It’s an interesting question to ask, even for a reviewer.

When it comes to the perspective of the spectator, Kirk reminds us that “not everyone in the theater sees—or hears—the same show.” It’s a fact of live performances that no two people see the same show and no two performances are the same. No matter where you sit in a movie theater, you see essentially the same movie as everyone else (barring sitting behind a pillar or a very tall person). But with a live performance, especially theater or ballet, there’s an element of Heraclitus’ tenet: “One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” The corollary is that no two people can step into the same river because the water where one stepped is not the same as the water where the other did. (Besides, no two people’s experience of that river will be the same, either. That’s true of movies and television, too, of course.) The trade-off is that in live theater, I can choose where I want to look. In film and TV, the camera, under the director’s control, does that for me.

Kirk asserts that theater pros feel “that opening nights are the worst performances” of a play’s run. Openings are still the traditional night for reviewers and the press, despite the scheduling of “critics’ previews.” (No matter when the reviewer sees the show, the notice traditionally appears the day after opening.) I was never a first-nighter, so I had the luxury of seeing the performances after the play opened and settled down, and even now, I generally avoid opening nights. To be frank, openings are more social events than artistic ones and the company’s emotions are high and tight. Friends and family are in the house; agents and managers come to see their clients; the producers, backers, and investors and their invited guests are there for the festivities; non-reviewing press—editors, feature writers, cultural reporters—are covering the “news” event. Everyone backstage is on edge, you can bet. (When I first started to perform, I couldn’t eat before a performance. When I got more used to the experience, that was no longer so—except on opening nights.)

In addition to the emotional tension, there are the various production issues that affect the performance. It’s a truism in theater that no planned rehearsal period is long enough. You always need another week. In many shows, the first time everyone has gone through the entire play with full tech and costumes the way it’s supposed to be seen by the audience is the final dress rehearsal. On opening night, there will be acting and directing problems from both nerves and from not being quite ready yet. In new plays, it’s not unusual for new lines and even new scenes to be inserted within days of opening; new songs can be added to musicals. Because of the labor-intensivity of the rehearsal period plus the union regulations, technical adjustments are often brought in at the last minute: costumes don’t fit quite right yet, set pieces haven’t been tested, lights aren’t focused right. (I once actually went on stage with a set still wet with last-minute, improvised “paint”: pea soup!) No, opening night is not a typical performance. It’s more like the first time a cook makes a new recipe—it’s not really ready for primetime.

Still, I remember an occurrence that remains one of the strangest of which I have ever heard in theater. In 1997, The Scarlet Pimpernel opened at the Minskoff Theatre on 9 November. It received mediocre reviews or worse. New producers stepped in and bought out the old investors, closed the show on 1 October 1998 for retooling, and reopened it on 4 November. Talk about not being ready on opening night!

In debating whether reviews are “art,” Kirk paraphrases Will and Ariel Durant’s definition of art: “significance expressed with feeling through form.” (The quote is from Writing Reviews, not the Durants.) I’d like to add another, very similar definition from Susanne Langer, another philosopher: “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” As you can see, it’s nearly the same language. Let me add here another of Langer’s statements that I have found revealing—because it’s a comment about “beauty” in a context we should consider when viewing many new kinds of art. (This harks back to the remarks Kirk and I made about standards and new art not resembling the old.) Langer writes: “Beauty is not identical with the normal, and certainly not with charm and sense appeal, though all such properties may go to the making of it.”

Beauty, I think Langer’s saying, ain’t always pretty. She also defines beauty as “expressive form,” by which she maintains that it affects its audience in some way. “Beautiful works may contain elements that, taken in isolation, are hideous,” she writes. This interpretation of beauty, which may owe something to Heraclitus’ view that there is beauty in a random collection of unrelated elements, can be seen as an application of Aristotle’s explanation that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we’d regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure. Furthermore, Langer admonishes us that we may not recognize as good a work of art that puts us off until “we have grasped its expressiveness.” One friend of Vincent van Gogh’s, for instance, admitted that at first the painter’s art “was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be . . . so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that . . . I was unable to think it good or beautiful.” It’s noteworthy that Marshall McLuhan calls “good taste,” often substituted for “beauty” in the judgment of traditionalists, “the first refuge of the noncreative . . . , the anesthetic of the public . . . , the most obvious resource of the insecure.” Richard Kostelanetz, whom I quoted earlier, also submits that “a truly original, truly awakening piece of art will not, at first, be accepted as beautiful.”

In his discussion of “good art” and “great art,” Kirk remarks, “I could write a play that conforms to all Aristotle’s principles and has no value at all—indeed, many have.” First, let me reiterate here, in the words of Susanne Langer, what I said about poor art earlier: “There may be poor art, which is not corrupt, but fails to express what [the artist] knew in too brief an intuition. . . . . The result is a poor and helpless product, sincere enough, but confused and frustrated by recalcitrance of the medium or sheer lack of technical freedom.” Langer takes a harsher line with “bad art,” but making poor art is not a criminal act. Now, I’ll draw a literary parallel between what Kirk wrote about writing a mediocre play that follows all the rules and an old play to which I once introduced Kirk, Plots and Playwrights by Edward Massey.

The plot concerns Caspar Gay, a successful Broadway playwright wandering Greenwich Village looking for “an inspiration” for his next play. He meets young short-story writer Joseph Hastings in front of a boarding house. Gay explains his desperation, and Hastings suggests that there’s a play on every floor of the house and the two writers challenge one another. Hastings composes small dramas based on the intimate, but revealing, stories of the residents of each floor of the house, one scene for each apartment. Gay’s output, on the other hand, is complex and predictable, a contrived melodrama about all the house’s residents in improbable relationships. Hastings reacts in disbelief to Gay’s creation, and the famous playwright responds, “But it will run a year on Broadway.” “My God,” cries the enlightened novelist, “it has.” And that’s what can happen when you merely follow all the rules!

I do want to take small exception to one thing Kirk writes. Actually, I want to expand it a bit. The author notes, correctly, that “some works are simply better than others.” I’d add, “. . . for some people.” As Kirk continues, “Our criteria and judgments about art will always be subjective,” so each of us will see and feel things no one else will, and vice versa. Hence, art I think is great may seem mediocre or even awful to you and art you love may leave me cold. (Furthermore, taste, like the truth, changes over time. But let’s not get into that.) I’ll admit here that I don’t much like Harold Pinter’s plays. I’ll acknowledge that he was probably a genius, but his plays always just confuse me and leave me frustrated. I don’t enjoy those feelings. Obviously, though, mine’s a minority opinion since he won a Nobel in lit in 2005. As my father liked to say, De gustibus non disputandum est: There’s no accounting for taste.

When it comes to defining who’s an artist, Kirk quotes some lines from 8th-century Chinese poet Li Po. Allow me to add another voice, William Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Further, Kirk adds that someone who writes, plays, or sings isn’t automatically an artist: an artist needs “to create something that changes the way people feel, hear, and think.” Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck declared, “An actor who brings back from his adventures a moment of communicable penetration is a hero, the light of our lives.” It is perhaps noteworthy that the people who make commercials don’t call the performers who appear on the screen “artists”: they are simply “the talent.” I guess even the producers of TV commercials don’t figure it takes an artist to sell toilet paper or cars.

When Writing Reviews gets to contemplating how a reviewer actually goes about composing the review, Kirk addresses the question of whether or not to take notes while viewing the performance. (The question is less pertinent for non-performing arts, such as book or art reviewing, for obvious reasons.) His conclusion comes down on both sides of the question: “Take notes when you have to.” I’ve tried both ways, and a third in the middle (taking notes without looking at the pad!), and I end up in Kirk’s corner on this. You have to pay attention to what you’re watching and any distraction lessens your attentiveness. On the other hand, there are details that you recognize as potentially telling, like, say, a line of dialogue or a particularly revealing movement or gesture, and you know you can’t remember them for long without writing it down. Sometimes I’ve been able to keep the thing in mind long enough to jot it down in the lobby at intermission or right after the performance, which kind of splits the difference, but there’s no definitive answer for everyone; some people’s memories are just better than others' and some bits of performance are more memorable than others. You have to go with what works for you under the circumstances.

By the way, in an earlier paragraph, Kirk advises that “it is difficult for anyone . . . to take in an entire show at one sitting.” This is especially so if you’re taking notes while you’re watching. The trade-off is that if you don’t take the notes, you might not remember later what you did manage to “take in.” Going back, as some of the pros Kirk invokes suggest, is a good way to solve this dilemma, but that’s time consuming and, if you’re footing the bill for the extra tix, expensive. It also can get in the way of meeting deadlines. (TV reviewers have a much easier job here: they are usually provided with recordings of the program, several episodes if it’s a series, and can both pause the video to make a note and go back and re-watch parts or all of the show.)

I want to comment on something Kirk wrote near the end of Writing Reviews because I've always remembered it ever since I heard it. (I don't always follow the advice very well, but I do remember it!) In the "Reviewing your review" section, Kirk tells the reader to ask, "Can you say things more directly, cut out useless words, eliminate the unnecessary?" (That’s writing advice, of course, not just review-writing advice.) A teacher of mine used to say, "Kill your babies," meaning be willing to cut the things you like the most when they aren't really helping. Be ruthless, she meant. I often wish I could do that—but I have too much "ruth" I guess. But I hear her say that whenever I edit my work—especially when I come to something I know I should cut . . . but don’t want to.

Finally, one of the last observations of Writing Reviews is the statement that though we may “see a lot of bad art” over our lifetimes, “we’ll also experience things that enrich and possibly change our lives . . . .” Intentionally or otherwise, Kirk’s speaking of all kinds of art, not just theater or the performing arts. I could make a short list of the works of art, performances, texts, and visual art, that have moved me or showed me something so that I’ve never forgotten it or the experience. But I want to close out these comments by quoting an artist who made this point very clearly in his own way. I’ve written about the Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat before (ROT, 28 September), and I quoted this then: “If an artist draws a subject over and over again in different ways, then he will learn something. The same with someone who looks at drawings—if that person keeps looking at many drawings, then he will learn something from them too.” A wise, wise man.

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