Tuesday, June 13, 2006

She was especially hard on the IittIe things, the helpless and the gentle creatures.*

As expected, Margaret Boswell’s caustic review of the Springfield Muni’s production of Annie Warbucks resulted in a counter volley from the show's supporters in the SJ-R's letters-to-the-editor section (although surprisingly, only one comment appears in the online edition.) Also as expected, Boswell is subject to the usual critiques leveled at critics, i.e:

She obviously didn’t see the same show I saw!

These performers deserve better!

This isn’t Broadway!

She has known ties to recently slain terrorist leader; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!

Having not seen the Muni’s inaugural production for 2006**, I can’t comment on the substance of Boswell’s review, although I would be surprised if didn’t have a good degree of merit. That said, it is possible to write a less than glowing review without getting so personal, especially when your writing about amateur theatre.

What probably offended people the most was Boswell’s curt dismissal of the young lady in the lead role. I’m not a juvenile psychologist by trade, but I believe that teenaged girls are by nature given to insecurity and can be a wee bit sensitive about what other people think about them. Even young Hollywood stars, who are protected by teams of publicists and all of the fawning that money can buy, can be stung to the point of an eating disorder by a particularly biting review. So it’s probably best to err on the side of kindness when you’re dealing with a hopeful young actress during the brightest moment of her life. Besides, Jim Leach said that she was brilliant in the role of Annie, so maybe Boswell is all wet on this one.

There are obviously some hard feelings between those associated with the show and Ms. Boswell, although someone in the Muni’s publicity department is attempting to make lemonade out of one of Boswell’s comments that wasn’t overly sour. An ad for the show that appears on page 11 of the newspaper includes a quote from the review that praises the chorus and orphans. Although her comment wasn’t taken out of context***, it seems odd to see her name attached to a production that she generally panned.

I’m not one of those people who get offended that a critic would deign to dictate to me what I should like and dislike, because I understand that it isn’t their job to do that. A good critic can, however, provide key information that will help me decide if something is worth my time or money. The key is finding a critic who has both an astute knowledge of her field, and shares similar tastes as my own.

I often consult Roger Ebert, both before and after watching films, to see what he thought. Except on rare occasions, we usually agree on our overall assessments. One notable exception was on Raising Arizona, a movie that I loved and he found clumsily straddling the line between reality and farce. So resentful was I of his review that for years I refused to talk to him. Not that we talked before or since, but had he attempted to contact me in the years between 1987 and 1992, I wouldn’t have taken his call.

It’s normal to dismiss reviews that contradict with previously held views, but enlightened folks will at least entertain the critics.

In the past few months, I have read reviews that have attempted to dethrone two classics of American literature: To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. The former was dismissed as juvenile literature while the latter was ridiculed for its tin ear in voicing teenage angst. I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’ve read Catcher in the Rye a couple of times and rather enjoyed it. The criticisms that were made aren’t unfounded, they just never occurred to me, just as it never occurs to Dave Matthew’s fans that his hiccup-y vocal styling is every bit as annoying as Tiny Tim’s quivering falsetto.

As the previous sentence attests, it’s often more satisfying for a critic to go negative because it allows for a more liberal use of facetious asides and other devices such as sarcasm. I don’t think that’s why Ms. Boswell knocked Annie Warbucks, but she probably did have a better time writing the review then if she were showering it with unequivocal praise. There is, however, a price to pay for carelessly zinging performers – mainly that their fans will think that you’re an ass. I may never be able to face Dave Matthews again.

*A hint to the title's origin appears later in this post.

**We’re holding out for the King and I since my kids will be familiar with the music and storyline.

***It’s not uncommon for a movie studio to misrepresent the views of a critic. A review that reads “This is a great, big mess of a movie” becomes “This is a great . . . movie” on the DVD cover.


Monkey Boy said...

I did not get a chance to read Boswell's critique. However, to caustically write about local non-paid actors is a bit too much. Does Robert Burns rip into a Lanphier QB after a 2-9 for 7 yards performance? No. So Boswell needs to tone it down a little.

I also loved the Muni's response by quoting her in their ad.

And bravo to you for ripping Dave Matthews. How deserving. Someone needs to tell all the Matthews fans (little hippy wanna-be's) that the emperor has no clothes.......or talent. Do us a favor and rip Jimmy Buffett fans in your next blog.

Anonymous said...

Remember Anne Londrigan? She had a short-lived stint as a restaurant reviewer for the SJR. She was critical of a few things, and Poof! She was gone. Could it be that those of whom she was critical bought ad space from the JR? And didn't like her? I'd like to know why Ms. Londrigan's column disappeared without explanation.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...


I wrote local restaurant reviewers here: http://blogfreespringfield.blogspot.com/2005/07/no-scrutinizing-scaloppini-in.html

I don't know why Ms. Londrigan is no longer reviewing for the SJ-R. That's an interesting take.

Thanks for commenting,

Mary said...

I’ve been involved in the local performing arts scene for over 20 years. Some of what gets produced around here is quite good; another portion of it is crap. Sometimes aggressive reviews are warranted...sometimes they're not. Reviews aren’t always bad but they have, in the past, been vicious. For many years, theater people have groused that there are no reviewers who “understand the process” or appreciate what it takes to produce a show because if they did, they wouldn’t write such horrible things. I don’t necessarily think it’s required that the writer be a theater aficionado in order to be a good critic. Common sense, a keen eye and deft writing skills are all that really matter in my book.

Some time ago, I was hired to write theater reviews for the sj-r. Not being a writer by trade, I took the job as a personal challenge but also thought the community theater community would appreciate the fact that finally a critic was in place who could “understand the process” since I was, after all, a theater dork. I think my reviews were mostly fair and accurate but in hindsight, I was probably too kind. In fact, I was often told that. It was harder than I thought to write about people I knew but I was often commended by my peers for taking on what was considered to be a thankless job and they trusted me with it. Whenever I was perceived as being negative towards a show, there would be the obligatory letters to the editor and/or angry emails from cranky season ticket holders who would suggest that I must not understand the sacrifices performers make or what they go through as they “work their guts out” every night to entertain us. (Yup, someone said that.) I was never heartless or mean but ANY sort or constructive criticism seemed to always ruffle someone’s feathers. I quit reviewing after about 18 months. These days, a lot of people feel that local reviews are more often than not, overly nice (with the exception of some of Maggie's reviews). I personally believe part of this is an attempt to avoid the wrath of theater folk, the likes of which you have recently witnessed.

My point is this (sorry it took so long to get here): there was a mild rebuke, letter-to-the-editor in Wednesday’s paper which really put this “controversy” into perspective. I know the letter writer well and she’s completely right. It used to be that people got involved in theater because of the positive experience they were sure to have and the desire to create something that mattered, not for the review or public praise. I’m shocked by some of the reactions to Ms. Boswell’s critique. Did she, and have other reviewers before her, gone too far? Absolutely. But when people...especially leaders in the community theater environment react by publicly complaining or by attempting to make a mockery of a reviewer or the paper, then they do a great disservice to their institution and loose credibility. To take a quote from the review and twist it in an ad, I think, lowers them to the level of the reviewer that they’re upset with. Not only that, but what do their actions teach the kids and volunteers they’re supposedly defending? It teaches them to be a bad sport, to not value what truly matters (i.e., making friends, creating art and having fun) and that what one person says about you really DOES matter. What a shame. Some of my fondest theater memories are of experiences had in shows that, whether justly or not, got panned.

Dan, one a personal note….I wanted to say “hi”. We went to grade school together. Ever since the 25 year reunion last year (which I had to leave early so I never got a chance to check out how well you’ve aged compared to everyone else), I’ve been reading your blog. I don’t visit many blogs but I always look forward to coming here and reading your thoughts. Congratulations on the sj-r gig, too....maybe you can start writing theater reviews someday?

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Hi Mary,

I figured out it was you as soon as I read that you used to write reviews for the SJ-R. I always read your work and I don't recall ever thinking that it was too fawning. I agree that it is a thankless job. I'd much rather review movies because there is no chance that Keanu Reeves mother will take me to task on the letters-to-the-editor page.

You make a good point about how performers should be concerned with the process of creating art, rather than what the reviewers say about it. I have zero experience in the performing arts, but I can imagine that playing to the critics could seriously screw up a production.

I'm interested in hearing what you think about Julie Davis' letter. I found it odd that she took the time to respond to the review and the other letters but didn't have the time to actually read them.

I'm glad you like the blog and I hope that you comment more often. Sorry I didn't get to talk to you at the reunion. It was a lot of fun, we should have them more often.

Thanks for commenting,

Mary said...

I finally read Julie Davis’ letter. Hmmm. Again…I really think leaders in the theater community (in this case, the “Annie” director) should not be jumping into this fray. It makes them and their organization look bad especially when the person reacts to something they admit they have no first-hand knowledge of, only what was filtered down to them. She does make one good point though which is don’t feel sorry for or treat community theater people like amateurs. We are mostly amateurs, of course, but I’ve heard many a local performer refer to themselves and the level of the work produced around here as professional quality. If that’s the case, perhaps they deserve to be critiqued at that level.

I do not, however, agree with her likening of community theater to sports or actors to athletes. There are a few parallels that could be made but her assessment that actors “live and die by the audition and review” in the way certain athletes might only play to win is a) something I find a little insulting and b) tells me some people in the theater need to readjust their priorities. The audition is only the beginning of the process and the review is hardly the end. It’s what happens in the middle that really matters.

Contrary to popular belief, reviews aren’t written to stroke the performers' egos or help them improve as artists; they’re written to inform an uninformed public. That’s it.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...


I agree that a reviewer's obligation is to the reader. Performers may be able to learn something from a review, but it isn't really meant for them.

By the way, the second paragraph of your most recent comment is masterful in making your point. You might want to think about a career in punditry.

Thanks for commenting,