Theatre Criticism

The feedback that I have received from theatregoers and members of the theatre community about my reviewing style is that they appreciate my emphasis on the ideas and issues of a particular piece as well as my examination of a production's strong and weak points, rather than the usual retelling of the story and the litany of descriptions for each aspect of the stagecraft. As a friend of mine who teaches high school theatre told me, "You interest me in the play without giving away the plot." Much of this is done through evaluating the motivations of the characters and the effectiveness of the actors in communicating these forces.

One of my goals as a theatre reviewer is to motivate people to see live performance. When it comes to attending theatre, however, the public has a limited budget. So, while I am an enthusiastic supporter of the theatre, it is my responsibility through my reviews to distinguish the better artistic performances from the lesser ones, as well as to give people a flavor for the nature of each work relative to their own tastes. Over the past nineteen plus years, I have made it a point to observe and discuss the nature of theatrical criticism with a variety of local and national theatre critics, patrons, and talent. As a result of this inquiry and my own beliefs, I have developed very specific attitudes concerning the requirements that it takes to provide effective theatre criticism.

One tendency that I have observed among critics is what I term "the critical school." These critics relish showing others how smart they are and use their space to display their intellectual muscle and vituperative personalities at the expense of whatever production they happen to be covering. To these critics, criticism is identified with negativity. Eventually, these people lose their credibility within the theatre community and become generally ineffective at covering the scene.

In contrast, there is "the educational school" which understands that one of the important functions of artistic criticism is to educate. To build audiences in the present as well as the future, it is necessary to be an advocate for the arts, and to do this it is not enough to just criticize—one must give "the whys and wherefores" of their opinions as well. Constructive criticism is particularly important when it comes to new work. Any new play that has gone through the process of readings, re-writes, and rehearsals deserves this consideration.

The value and benefit of the arts in developed countries outside of the United States, and within pockets of this country, is well understood. If we are to expand the appreciation of the arts where it is lacking, we must use criticism to educate. In the larger picture, one could point back to Shaw, or more contemporaneously, to John Lahr, of The New Yorker, as admirable examples of this school. There are also a few fine examples of this point-of-view within the Denver metro arts community.

I must also mention worldview and attitude in relation to criticism. While objectivity may, by definition, be impossible for any individual, this does not mean that pure subjectivity should reign. The cultural, intellectual, or social biases of individuals can severely limit their ability to interpret and evaluate works of art. This is obviously the most subjective aspect of comparing critics. Perhaps, this standard is best approached backwards, that is, by asking "What is the nature of the voices that the theatre should present?" This is not just a First Amendment issue, but a philosophical one as well. Divergent voices must be given an opportunity to be heard. It's crucial that open-mindedness be a part of theatre criticism. Whether one views the world from inside or outside of "the matrix" of the financial cartel is critical.

Additionally, the transformational aspects of the performing arts cannot be emphasized enough. This is because they are related to the most basic rituals of human centering (see our essay on Social Criticism). In a world where the institutions that claim to hold spiritual truths are, for the most part, apologists for materialistic values, the showcasing of individual and artistic soul-searching is vital for our survival. Here again, criticism must make room for different spiritual approaches, particularly ones outside of organized religion.

Finally, by emphasizing the importance of theatre as a transformational art form and forum for social criticism, I don't mean to slight its value as entertainment. A production that doesn't entertain will not get heard no matter what its message. This is the great challenge to playwrights, directors, actors and the rest of the theatre community—to entertain as well as inform and question.

It's my hope that, by elucidating my positions, I've interested you in my work, and have given you a basis for understanding the point-of-view underlying the reviews on this site.

Bob Bows


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