Reviews are often the secret terror of the theater world – a necessary evil that many performers wish they could do without. Some refuse to read any, good or bad. Some performers have a friend or loved one vet them first, so they won’t read something harsh that will negatively affect their performance. Some voraciously read all of them and obsess over the details. But many performers take the good points with the bad, with a grain of salt, the same as receiving feedback from a friend after a show.
It may be considered gauche to discuss reviews and the dirtier, more personal side of the arts. This blog is intended to be a clear window into our work and our practices, and that includes how the company deals with reviews. We cannot pretend that these things don’t matter to us, and we want to dissolve the false barrier between ourselves as performers and the world. There is no doubt that reviews affect ticket sales, so we have to acknowledge the power they hold in our line of work.
Even within our own company there is a spectrum of different responses to reviews. As reviews have been published, we have had to collectively decide whether or not to alter the show in response to reviewers’ opinions. As a devised theater company, we are in the unique position of being able to continually alter our work. Most conventional theater companies are unable to change things once a show is in performance. The script for published plays is set in stone, and the Actors Equity union has rules to keep directors from continuing rehearsals after opening night. For our own devised productions, we tinker with timing, dynamics, movement, and text, up through the final performance. This follows the grand tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, where the performers owned their own characters and material and could adjust it at will. Even with shows that are critically praised, we continue to finesse moments throughout the run. We chat during warm ups about what might work best, or confer in the dressing room after a show to figure out a new energy or approach for a moment. Sometimes reviews give us a new opportunity to reexamine our work and our intentions.
Howlround published a fascinating article this past week about the purpose and nature of criticism. This article beautifully points out the dual purpose of criticism – to identify the function of the theater company, and also to identify their primary audience. One of the reviews we received this week, from the Washington City Paper, is actually a beautiful example of this sort of intelligent criticism. Klimek has seen many of our shows and spends a great deal of his review articulating our company’s style and production history. While admitting to not understanding the message of the show, his review is full of wonderful words about our skill and sensitivity as artists and creators. He also points out that Vanitas is a very different show for us, a departure from our past projects.
Developing Vanitas has been a mysterious marvel – full of new and huge risks for us as a company. We are in unfamiliar territory, as creators. We decided to follow the same characters throughout, instead of constantly changing costumes to play many small roles. We chose to develop a loose narrative arc, with generated text and dialogue (instead of only collaging quotes). The show has a deliberately limited palette and vocabulary – only a few colors and textures, a small amount of props, simple set pieces. The theme of 17th century still-life is very different from the crackling cynicism of Victorian gothic cabaret. We chose to embrace the meditative slow quality of painting, as well as the esoteric, heightened language of the Age of Discovery. These qualities make for an unusual experience, and we feel they best express the truth of our subject matter.
Also this week, an serendipitous burst of eloquence and praise came from the Pink Line Project review:
“…In the spirit of its source material, Vanitas is symbolic theater—it has no intentions for a standard story, except the one you piece together in your head…The show is a swirl of delicate objects, pastels, bits of verse, and soft ballads—an artistic take on death that is both uncommon and effective. With so much supersized mainstream theater, Happenstance is providing a lovely and quiet respite. Who needs a gaudy $100,000 set when there is more beauty in one tiny movement of the hand, or a simple line of text? Theater’s power lies in its ability to create experiences in real time that are witnessed in one room, in one moment. Just like life, it’s fleeting.”
We are proud of our creation, but a gentle pride that still allows us to strive to perfect it, to regard it with curiosity, to continue to explore. Audiences have stayed after to give us their thoughts & reactions, which have been as fascinating and full of variety as we could hope for. As artists, it’s always comforting to keep in mind the infamous quote from Theodore Roosevelt, echoed by many in the arts as a worthy inspiration to keep creating our work.
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”