by Christian De Gré, Artistic Director of Mind The Art Entertainment
Warning: The following article contains creative rantings and ramblings that may offend pretentious critics.
So I just finished composing the music for the renowned theater director Dario D'Ambrosi's new work Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads at La MaMa E.T.C.'s 2010 Puppet Festival. It was an incredible project that told the story of the genius of mentally handicapped children in a fairy tale puppet musical fashion. I was thrilled to be working on this piece and once we opened I was looking forward to seeing what the critics thought of this genius work directed by a man who has spent 30 years working with this subject matter. I couldn't have been more naive.
To not get into the gross details I will simply share the highlights of my experience reading these reviews. One reviewer, in the New York Times no less, forgot to mention that there was music in the piece, ignoring that he sat through a one hour musical of which 40 minutes were completely filled with songs and instrumental music. Another reviewer dared say that Mr. D'Ambrosi, who is recognized internationally as the leading authority on theater for the disabled, lacked perspective and insight in his subject matter. (Errr) Another reviewer presumed to build connections between the musical structure and aesthetic choices of the piece that he felt he had a great ear for but anyone with any musical knowledge would know he had no idea of what he was talking about. However the one that wins the award as the most irresponsible and lazy critique must go to the Village Voice who decided that they would publish, in a major city-wide publication, a review in BULLET POINTS with such creative insights as 'the origami frogs appear to be very well folded.'
To those who do not know, theater survives largely because of reviews. The shows that make it to Broadway (usually after a painstaking 8 year journey) arrive because along the way someone gave them a star review in a major publication. If a piece gets a bad review it is almost impossible to recover, and ticket sales plunge if a major publication looks down on your work. Because we live in an information obsessed and media saturated society the people look to reviews to choose from the plethora of activities at their fingertips what they should do. They trust these reviews, put faith that these professionals know what they are talking about and then proceed to follow their advice. As artists we recognize the power that the press holds over our careers and futures. To quote the Artistic Director of La MaMa E.T.C. "you get a positive New York Times Review and you get to eat for three years." It is because of this fact that we, as artists and producers, become obsessed with getting press to our shows. So we embark upon a journey, we woo and bribe, we spend thousands of dollars on a pricey PR Manager and a Publicist, we dress up, we walk them to their seat, we almost literally do anything they want but prostitute ourselves (hopefully) in order to get them to our shows and do whatever is in our power to make them happy. These "journalists" then proceed to "evaluate" our piece and then share with the "common" people of the world, who are in theory much more limited in creative endeavors having not made a career of this, their views and recommend what people should or should not spend their hard working money on. We artists then sit ALL DAY and NIGHT by a computer and a newsstand, with coffee, whiskey and cigarettes in hand, waiting anxiously to see what these "trained professionals" have to say about our art. This is an excruciating affair, painful for all involved. Finally we see the listings pop up on Google and in print and we gasp, fear and excitement coursing through our veins, and we read. We read what these "great minds," who make quite a bit of money with the major papers, have to say about our bohemian poverty stricken creative endeavors. This moment for us in a culmination of not just however many years we have worked on a piece, or how many things we have sacrificed to make it come to fruition, but is a culmination of all our dreams and struggles since we were a fetus with a vision. And then we read... What do we get more often than not? We get rewarded with a half assed review written two weeks after they saw the show that talks about nothing in our piece but how well-folded the ORIGAMI FROGS ARE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Surely this must be a one off event. This can't be the norm can it? Well, let us take another example. I spent 9 years of my life with my good friend and co-writer Paul Deakin, creating a musical Spellbound- A Musical Adventure. We opened this summer at the
So these horror stories, and I have hundreds, are just the beginning of a larger set of questions. What does it take to be a reviewer? I have been asked by two publications if I would like to review, and while I now see that I am probably more qualified (I actually work in the arts) to do so I have declined because I don't see myself as a "responsible, trained and qualified objective journalist." Also what has happened in our modern day and age that we have given so much power to the reviewer? Why did we do this? Why must art be funded based upon the opinion of those who have more of an inclination to write a satirical or unnecessarily mean review over a proper critical analysis? Now there are a few responsible ones out there, of course, but even the best of them fall to this exaggerated hyperbolized tabloid style of writing quite often. My favorite quotes from these fine, established fellows include "the cast often performs with disillusion, as if they are attending a terrible Halloween party, dressed only in straightjackets and are forced to stay against their wishes," and "you could go down to your basement, eat two packs of cheese puffs in darkness and vomit, or you could watch this piece, the end result would be the same" and my favorite from the great Ben Brantley "You will have the occasion to learn that Romeo is not circumcised." Bravo! Is this the responsible, objective journalism we have all been waiting for? No! It's irony, satire, comedy, vulgarity and scandalized explosive commentary meant to amuse rather than inform. The great Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theater, comes to mind, screaming down the phone at a reviewer of A Chorus Line decades ago "Are you trying to fuck me? Why are you doing this? You will never set foot in my theater again, you pretentious dick! You fuck me again and I'll kill you."
So what is to be done? Is it too much to hope for someone to attend my show and see things objectively and whether they like it or not write appropriate thought out criticism? I guess it is. Meanwhile I guess I have no choice but to keep feeding the machine and keep searching for my New York Times Review that will feed me for 3 years. I suppose I just have to keep gambling and throwing up shows and eventually I'll get lucky. As you see I have realized it’s just a matter of luck, seeing as I see no logical way to put art up and expect constructive feedback in this modern age.
Hmmm... maybe if I give them cheese puffs and mountain dew at their seats they'll like my work more.