We Get Our First Bad Review

It’s probably bad form to read and mock your reviews in public, but since I’m not an official theater person, I don’t think I’m bound by convention.  Therefore, I must take issue with our terrible review today in the Scene.

(Though, just as a side note, I must say that I am shaking with delight that something I helped with has been reviewed in the Scene.  How cool is that?!  I mean, really, what the fuck?  I write here every day and the only person from the Scene who ever says anything good or bad about it is Gandalph Mantooth, and never in the pages of the Scene.)

I have two big criticisms of the piece.  The first is that Martin Brady’s whole critique rests on the notion that he’s just a little too jaded and worldly, too tuned into what "art" should be to sink to the level of actually enjoying the piece.

The second seems to be that Brady articulates the point of the piece, but doesn’t seem to understand what that actually means.

Let’s start with the second.  Brady says, "Actual recorded faith testimonials serve as a springboard for the 14 scenes and four songs that make up this dramatic review."  But then he complains about "strangely bloodless writing" and that "When it’s not naive, faith/doubt comes across as preachy, an odd outcome for a show that purports to show the blessedness of all faiths and creeds.  Neither its obvious sincerity nor its focus on our most dearly held beliefs guarantees success.  The show is long on uninspired storytelling and short on universal meaning."

Well, dear Brady, it seems to me that you didn’t really get what we were up to, then.  The faith testimonials were not a "springboard."  They were the whole piece.  We took what people actually said and used their actual words.  We didn’t rewrite anyone’s stories in order to come up with something "better" or more properly theater.  We took those words that came out of y’all’s mouths and said them back to you.

A different kind of piece would have sorted through all the words folks in Nashville said and soaked them in and then come up with something different from but inspired by what we heard.  That was not our mandate.  Our mandate was to take this material and make people’s everyday faith stories new to them.

If you think the goal of the piece sucked, then say that the goal of the piece sucked.  But don’t deliberately misunderstand the piece in order to criticize it for not being something it never set out to be.

If it’s sincere or naive or "bloodless," well, those are the stories people told us.

If Brady thinks that it fails because it "never really probes what it means to live in a frightening modern world or how faith sustains hope or fortitude to a person at a spiritual crossroads," I almost don’t know what to do for him but laugh.  Most of the folks we talked to don’t think we live in a frightening modern world.  Most folks either didn’t have those spiritual crossroads moments or, I would posit, didn’t find those moments to be the most meaningful moments of their spiritual lives to talk about.

Which brings us nicely to my first critique, that Brady thinks the piece isn’t sophisticated enough, that it doesn’t deal with big enough themes, like fear or doubt or ambiguity.  But, when faced with the set, he complains "the actors settle into what presumably are church pews, but look suspiciously like jury boxes, leaving viewers to wonder whether what they’re about to witness concerns celebration or judgment."  I mean, my god, yes, exactly.

That’s exactly what you’re supposed to wonder when you look at the set.  Why is that a problem?  If the play is too sincere and unambiguous for his tastes, why does he turn around and bitch about the things that don’t quickly reveal their meaning to him?

Anyway, I could go on.  I won’t.  I’ll just mention that it’s interesting to me that the same man who a week ago recommend it as a critic’s pick, this week hates it.

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16 thoughts on “We Get Our First Bad Review

  1. "Well, dear Brady, it seems to me that you didn’t really get what we were up to, then"Is "getting it" the responsibility of the writer or the viewer? Seems to me it’s the former. J

  2. A critic is not a normal viewer. He positions himself as the arbitor of whether the play is good or not, whether people should go see it or not. If he’s going to base that on whether we’ve done what we set out to do, yes, he has a responsibility to understand what we’ve set out to do.

  3. "If it’s sincere or naive or "bloodless," well, those are the stories people told us."Isn’t that the same thing you were accusing the Other Tennessee Blogger of just the other day?

  4. I swear to god, W., you people who sign your posts only with your initials (ahem J.) just will kick a girl when she’s down.

  5. How can you take this so hard? Much of the criticism that he levels is an almost verbatim recitation of some of the same problems you and I discussed that the piece suffered from.Be honest, the play needs work. There are too many cooks with 14+ "writers" adding to the mix without a unifying theme or "point" manifesting itself.Further, the material YOU worked on, was the best of the lot. The parts that came off as amateurish were the aforementioned Diety Game as well as some of the other more cheesy elements.Take the criticism for what it is and move on. Being thin skinned isn’t going to help.

  6. Aunt B., maybe it would be therapeutic to go back and read your post about how the Nashville Scene is like your grandma. I’ve always considered it one of your greatest hits.

  7. Sarcastro, I don’t think I’m taking it hard. I’m simultaneously thrilled and insecure. I’m just processing those feelings while at the same time being snippy at the accusations that I’m somehow being unfair to Martin Brady.I may well be being unfair to him. But I’m not feeling charitable towards him at the moment because I’m weirded out by the whole thing and not sure how I feel about it and my ego is a little bruised.Oh, I get it. You thought that when I said "kick a girl when she’s down" I meant that I was all depressed. I just meant that I’m feeling weirdly exposed and not sure what to make of things.Frostine, thanks.

  8. I realize that I am quite biased. I’ve known Vali all of her life and have enjoyed watching her grow into her passions. I’ve been an admirer of you since I began to read blogs and have been edified more than once by your writing.Obviously I came into and left THE play with those facts, and I couldn’t write a totally objective review. But, I’ve seen a lot of plays and read a lot of plays and I would have kept my mouth shut if it sucked.It didn’t suck. Maybe it’s not perfect – parts of the Deity game need some work – but there are moments of transendence, and the thing works together as a whole. I was in that audience first night and I paid attention to what was going on not only on stage but with the people around me and the discussion afterwards. The play is storng, has something to say and is worth seeing. Your writing brings it home.I hope you write more plays and write whateverthehell you wanna write. As I wrote elsewhere, I hope you and Vali continue to collaborate. It’s a good and powerful thing when people find their passion and know how to express that passion.

  9. PS..some less than creative souls spell the word ‘strong’ as s-t-r-o-n-g. I often find it is fun to use an alternative spelling, as in the above post.Likewise, the word transcendence is often spelled differently than how I spelled it above.

  10. Although I haven’t seen your play, and I doubt I’ll get to, if your blog is any indication of what you put out into the world, I’m sure your contribution is amazing.As an artist myself (of the graphic variety) I can only offer this advice – FUCK critics. Well, FUCK the ones who just sit at their computer and criticize. Those people have never poured their heart and soul into a piece of art only to have someone shit all over it. You (and all the other people who created this play) know the effort that everyone took to get it together and present it.If you and the others are proud of the "child" you’re produced, great. Don’t let someone piss all over what you worked hard to produce. Or, better yet, don’t let that person who pissed all over your hard work change the way you perceive it.So what, your friends loved it. That shouldn’t skew your own perception of it. If these people are truly your friends, they could tell you it sucked, and you’d still love them. That’s what friends do.Sorry for the long post, but critics bug the everloving FUCK out of me – at least the ones who just sit and write for a weekly rag, which sucks more and more with each issue (save for "Suburban Turmoil" – and I thought I had a potty mouth…) – I remember when the Scene was worth picking up for free…now I don’t even bother. I read, gasp, "The Rage"

  11. Sorry B. I’ll try not to kick. I’m hoping to see the play tomorrow night so I’m not going to judge until then.If you still visit my site you know what I think of the Scene. I still read them because they talk about things no one else does, but I’ve never been impressed by their reviews.

  12. I had to — had to, I tell you! — respond to this post….I’ve been razored by both sides of this sword in the (recent!) past.I’m a performer/writer/director; I’m also a theatre critic. Most times — not always, but most times — the two sensibilities don’t feel that conflicted. When I review, I view amateur theatre differently than I do professional theatre (with college theatre somewhere in between). By that I mean one needs to review a show in context — while it’s not fair (or efficacious (or wise)) to hold community theatre to the same standards as, say, The Cleveland Playhouse, neither should they get a "bye". I honestly believe — rightly or wrongly — that part of my role may be to help viewers decide whether to view a particular show; at the same time, I believe (rightly or wrongly) that a criticism done fairly and thoughtfully can help a production and a troupe in general. To do that, I strive to understand the playwright’s intention as well as the director’s vision; I strive to grasp the design and the context of the performances. When any element of the production appears out of place or stylistically marginalized, I try to evaluate how intentional that might have been, and (if intentional) what the intended effect was and how well they achieved said effect.So. Do I sometimes give "bad" reviews? Maybe (and maybe more so from the standpoint of the production company), but I honestly think I’ve never given a review that didn’t struggle to come to grips with the intentions and effect of the show. For that reason, I’ve never once reviewed a show that didn’t have merit and worth, even if all the production goals were not quite reached….and I’ve never given a review that I thought was quickly or mindlessly reactive.Flipping that coin, I recently played the lead in "Man of La Mancha", a role I had wanted to play my whole life. I also did the production design, and designed and built the set, of which I was (justly, I think) proud. The audience response was enthusiastice, with "bravos" and standing ovations. Yet the reviewer gave the weirdest review I’ve ever seen — wasting more than half of his limited review space giving an inaccurate and lengthy plot synopsis (which I subsequently discovered had been lifted in toto from Wikipedia). He didn’t care for my (and several other performers) performance. I have done enough (literally hundreds) of shows to have a pretty good idea of when a show works, and when fellow performers are pretty good or not. Without being able to judge my own performance, I know — with certainty — that the other performers were really really good; and that he was wrong wrong wrong. No idea what his agenda was, but it certainly wasn’t to help us or to help the audience. I’m not, to be honest, 100 percent certain he even watched the whole show. Despicable, in my view.And yet….I did then (and still do) hurt over the review, and I will not ever be able to fully consider my performance as anything better than pedestrian and serviceable. The "bravos" were nice, but the only (theoreticaly) objective review I got found me lacking.So. What does all this mean? As a reviewer, I (re)learned the importance of my words to the real people involved in a show; and as an artist, I (sort of) learned that reviews are, at best, ephemeral and nebulous. At worst, they are agenda-rich and thought-poor, devoid of meaning.Seems to me your goal was to present reality (or realities) of faith; and to provoke thought in your audience. Seems to me you accomplished that with unfettered success. Theatre that gives itself difficult and lofty goals AND THEN ACHIEVES THEM makes the world a better place.

  13. I was lucky enough to see faith/doubt with Aunt B. tonight and I feel I owe her my opinion as return credit for the kind invitation.I agree with Sarcastro that some of the set pieces were very weak, but your pieces brought it home in the end. But that’s the nature of the beast; not all of the actors were of the same caliber and not all the stories were as interesting as some of the others.The difficulty for me came in the attempt to force these stories into a dramatic construct. Moises Kaufman took oral histories in the "Laramie Project" and put them into the voices of performers. His stagecraft was far superior to what ABE put together, but he had a NYC budget and a couple of years to workshop the piece. His topic, the Matthew Shepard murder, was more current and compelling than the ethereal ideas of faith and doubt. Does that mean they’re not interesting or worth hearing about? Certainly not. Murder and homophobia sells tickets and makes for more gripping theatre.But to try to express these experiences of faith and ephanies in dramatic readings and skit forms forces the audience to watch instead of listening. The attempts by the actors to pantomime, sign and prance around the stage was distracting to me when I’d rather be listening to what these folks had to say.The only set pieces that worked for me were the ones where the actors were playing people I knew or had read, B., Sarcastro etc. It was novel to hear their voices coming out of strangers’ heads, but since I was familiar with them, it was less distracting to me.I was also disappointed in the fact that the entire middle of the play ignored the minority actors, because they were very good and added diversity to the proceedings. After awhile, even I got tired of watching perky white chicks tell Church of Christ stories. (And I never thought I’d get tired of that…)So on the whole, I give faith/doubt a B for effort and a C for execution. But I was REALLY proud of Aunt B. and tickled that she got a shout-out from the stage before the curtain went up.I’m asking for an autograph at our next sushi lunch!

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