Critic Spotlight: March 2021
New England area critic
Outlets: New England Theatre Geek, HowlRound
How long have you been a critic, and how did you get started?
In 2011, Becca Kidwell, who used to live in the Boston area and is now in New York City, ran a blog called the New England Theatre Geek. She and I did an improv class together and she said, “How would you feel about inheriting a blog?” I became the Queen Geek at the New England Theatre Geek. It felt like a huge opportunity. I wasn’t going to get paid, but I was going to get to do my favorite thing in the entire world, which is to see a lot of theater and write about it.
In HowlRound, you wrote “Some reviewers believe that creating theater while critiquing it will lead to bias. But I find that bias is much preferred when the alternative is ignorance.” Can you elaborate on that?
I have done research about people who have come into being a critic through having a different job, like a beat reporter. They come at reviewing theater from a place of having no idea how any of it is done. I’ve met people currently working in New England as critics who pride themselves on not knowing how the sausage is made.
I have two degrees in opera. Before that, I did children’s theater. I know the work and the sweat, the tears, the occasional blood of what it is to be a performer. I come at it saying, “This is why this thing didn’t work,” versus “I don’t know what just happened, but I didn’t like it.”
In the theater, which is a living art, you need to understand anti-racism. You need to understand trans rights. You need to understand why people hate J.K. Rowling and why BTS is such a big deal. I can watch a musical intended for people 20 years younger than me and understand why it’s important.
I love the disclaimer that you put in some reviews: “I auditioned for this production and was not cast. It is my opinion that only a jackass would allow rejection, a natural process of auditioning, to taint their review.”
There is no excuse for cruelty. People who are performing, people in the theater, are vulnerable. And they have to make themselves that way — we have to make ourselves that way — to tell our story. By putting a disclaimer, I am hoping to let the reader know that I’m being sincere, and I respect the process.
I am a critic to give constructive feedback. I decided that 10 years ago, because I was reading other people and they’re not giving the feedback I would want as a performer. OK, so this was “dazzling” and “wonderful.” Why? What worked? What didn’t work? I want to know what craft went into this.
I’ve written that I didn’t know I was supposed to clap and I’ve received feedback from the director or the actor saying, “We didn’t know it was a problem. We fixed it.” That is the best response I could ever get. That’s wonderful. That’s what comes from being constructive, even if something isn’t working for you.
Critics have told me that they have more fun writing pans than raves. But if you’re spending your time being whimsical, you’re not going to end up writing anything constructive.
Also, there are circumstances in which you just need to take more time to think it through. I watched a film based on “Miss Julie” by (August) Strindberg called “Julia.” I was triggered by it. There were some warnings on the website, but because of a whirlwind of stuff happening in my life at the time, I was ripe for triggering. If you’re an assault survivor, you should know that the main character is underage, and there is a graphic sex scene.
I sent my response to the show, and the PR person got back in touch with me. They thanked me for the review and said, “Would you be willing to meet with somebody from our department to discuss how we can make this more accessible to people with your experiences?”
We had an honest conversation. They said, “We are going to change our website for this production so other people can be forewarned and protected too.” That sums up why I do this.
What is the difference between a good review and a bad review?
A lot of it is taste and writing and having a personal voice. Some critics use a strictly objective, “daily news cycle report” reporting style. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s the same style one uses to report a crime scene or an event. It’s reporting what happens in a show, and it’s very dry; it doesn’t show me any personality.
When I’m working with my geeks, especially if they’re brand new to writing, I tell them, “Your grammar, I can correct. I don’t want to know what happens in the show. I want to know how you responded to it. So if you hated the show, tell me why.” I hate putting up reviews that are “It was fun” and that’s it.
I hate when writing sounds exactly like all of the other people who work on a site. I don’t know why I would trust your opinion. That’s the difference. I don’t like it when people are super exuberant about things, but I would also prefer to read that over dry reporting. I prefer a little bit of comedy and a whole lot of compassion.
Compassion is critically important. A lot of times people ignore that or forget that.
I see criticism as an opportunity to serve. I am not separate from the theater community. I am a member and I am serving the other people in it. I know that somebody in my position has power, just a little bit of power, but some people let that go to their heads.
There are so many situations in which one can be correct and incorrect. Multiple things can be true, based entirely on what your taste is. If you don’t like my opinion, there are lots of other opinions out there; please go find your people. Or write it yourself. We are not anonymous in our writing, and that’s the point. I like to support my writers in their outspoken natures.
Could you send me links to some reviews or articles you are especially proud of?
Feb. 11, 2021: “Protect Yourself as Needed: ArtsEmerson Presents ‘Julia’”
Feb 4, 2021: “The Horrors of Knocking: ‘No One at the Door’”
Aug. 14, 2020: “Burning Down the Establishment One BIPOC Critic at a Time: A Profile of Pascale Florestal”
— Interview by Karen Topham. Edited for length and clarity.
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