A Discussion of Theatrical Criticism, Started by Criticism of a Review

The last thing in the world that I want to do at this point in my life is get into a public pissing match with anybody, especially with the people who work in the theater world in Milwaukee – people who have been hurt so dramatically by the last 18 months.

Recently, however, I was blasted by Michael Cotey, who directed “Natural Shocks” at Next Act Theatre, for my review of that production. It’s a play by the uber-talented Lauren Gunderson, the most produced living American playwright. 

The solo character in the play, Angela, was played by the talented actor, Jennifer Vosters.  It’s a complex play and Angela is a character who has suffered an abundance of slings and arrows during her life and marriage to an abusive husband.

The problem I had with the play was that Ms. Vosters looks too young and innocent to have gone through all these trials and tribulations. I used some unkind words to describe her appearance, and I apologized to Mr. Cotey and Ms. Vosters for that excess.

The interesting thing, to me, was how many theater people jumped in on Mr. Cotey’s criticism, praising his words, vilifying me. I was called an asshole and a number of people said that I wasn’t qualified to review theater. 

I’m an old man now and I’ve been frequently blasted in my life. I’ve taken hits from the best in the world and I can take it. But I think it may be important for the people who make theater in Milwaukee to listen to a suggestion I’m about to make. 

YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER READ REVIEWS!!!!!

Care about your art. Care About the people who work so hard to create an evening of wonderful theater. Care about the people who buy tickets to your plays.

But don’t waste a second of your life worrying about reviews.

There is a lot of research that’s been done showing that theater reviews have little or no impact on sales of tickets for regional theaters. A bad review can kill a Broadway play and a great review can generate support.

But it’s just not true in regional theater markets like Milwaukee. 

When I started reviewing plays after decades acting and being a patron, I had a conversation with a friend, Ben Brantley, who at the time was the theater critic for the New York Times and arguably the most influential critic in the world. 

Here is the conversation.

Dave Begel: What role does a theater critic play in the establishment and maintenance of a vibrant theatrical community?

Ben Brantley: A theater critic’s main purpose in this regard is to sustain an active dialogue about the theater and to generate excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity. And, yes, debate.

Dave Begel: Does a good reviewer need to have experience in the theater to be credible?

BB: I think it helps to know how theater works, of course, and to have had at least some first-hand experience. But I think what makes any artist good – which is a particular, passionate and idiosyncratic point of view – is not what makes a good critic.

Dave Begel: Just as actors, directors and producers are sensitive to what critics say, should a critic also be sensitive to what theater people say about his reviews?

BB: My personal position is that no one should read what critics write about him or her. And that includes critics.

Dave Begel: Should a theater critic try to be controversial or should he review the play as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may?

BB: Controversy is a way of making your name, I guess, but it’s artificially generated; it doesn’t have much of a shelf life. It’s always best to write what you feel, in your gut as well as your head.

Dave Begel: When you are a reviewer in a smaller community (like Milwaukee), how critical should you be?

BB: Honest but tactful, I’d say.

Dave Begel: Many critics seem to write reviews for the theatrical community. Is it better to try and write for the general public?

BB: There are specialty publications that write for the trade. Criticism in daily papers or blogs is written for the people who buy the tickets.

Dave Begel: And finally, what advice do you have to make this new undertaking a successful and enjoyable one for everyone involved?

BB: Once again, I’d say trust your own instincts. If you love the theater, as you obviously do, and can convey that love, you’ve already taken the first step toward engaging your reader.

I’m sure that Mr. Cotey and Ms. Vosters and the dozens of people who clamored on board that original critique of my critique will recover and now that normal comes near they will once again make theater that is remarkable.

I have often said that there is nothing that matches a night of live theater. Every time I walk into a darkened space I have hopes for an evening of excellence that will take my breath away. Most times in Milwaukee, that is exactly what happens. 

Break a Leg!

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