Thursday, August 30, 2007

And Suddenly "100 Saints You Should Know" Has Tons of Free Publicity!

So, George Hunka posts a review of 100 Saints You Should Know. (He leaves at intermission, so perhaps it should be 50 Saints You Shouldn't Know.) This inspires some flurries in the blogosphere, particularly from Matthew Freeman, who wonders when it's OK to walk out. At this point, Leonard Jacobs gets involved, which starts out as a question of ethics about reviewing a show before it opens, and becomes a hyperbole heavy fallout, a response to the apologists, and a series of rebuttals between Jacobs and Hunka. Jay Raskolnikov weighs in from Chicago, talking more about the issue of when it's fair for a critic to review a new work, and using Hunka's blog/review as a discussion point.

The main talking points that sprang out of that included the difference between blogging and reviewing, the ethics of leaving a show, and what an audience owes a show. (Isaac Butler has a more specific question: "What do reviewers/critics owe their subjects?")

I'm not neutral on this subject; like Hunka, I was invited to attend 100 Saints You Should Know, and I accepted free tickets on the condition that I blog something about it after seeing the performance (good or bad), and was given a discount code to share with readers if I wanted to encourage others to see the performance more cheaply. I don't consider this to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show (actually one of the lighter bits of hyperbolic metaphor Jacobs uses). I'm twenty-three, I work two jobs, and I love theater: if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too.

I think an embargo is necessary for the mainstream media because they are businesses first and writers second: removing the prohibition forces critics to go to attend ever earlier previews so that they can get the first word while it's still relevant, much like movie critics are currently flying out to London to catch earlier and ever earlier premieres, chasing the scoop. But a blogger is a writer first, their reviews don't have an institution backing them up; if they happen to see an early preview, they're ethically off the hook so long as they acknowledge what they saw, and when. If a show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they've pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too, and a blogger, who speaks directly from that audience and not from a cultural arbiter, has the right to post a review as early as they like. Being formal isn't a crime, it's a blessing; a lucid blog is a treasure.

The issue I do have (which Hunka casually dismisses as me telling him how to write a review) is that Hunka left at intermission, wrote a review anyway, and didn't mention his incomplete knowledge of the subject until the end of the piece. That's a trust issue: what separates an opinion from talking out of your ass is knowing what you're actually talking about. You can review something you've only seen half of, but you need to make it clear early on that what you're talking about is that first half of the play. Otherwise, any assertion you make about the playwright's style, message, goal--you know, important things for a review--is ass talk, and I mean that respectfully. I walked out of Tragedy! (A Musical Comedy!) and made that clear. I did the same when analyzing Only Revolutions. That can, and should be a focal point: for instance, if Rob Kendt wrote a review saying he walked out of something, I'd pay attention. Doing otherwise devalues--collectively--everything that other blogging critics write; it puts a smear of doubt behind every flickering letter.

As for the obligations of a blogger or critic, I posted this one Isaac's site, and I stand by it:
I think a modicum of respect -- a silent acknowledgment that cast and critic share a desire for the work to be good. For that reason, the critic shouldn't launch personal (or political) attacks, and shouldn't put words in other people's mouths. The goal of a review, even a slam, should be as accurate a description of what happened, and, for the better critics, why.
Leaving at intermission is fine; failing to be accurate and being unable to offer constructive criticism on how a new work might be improved, that's not. Or at least, that's a type of reviewing that I want no part of.

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