CURTAIN RISES ON A RAH-RAH, BOO-HISS COMEDY/DRAMA
Dominic P. Papatola; St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 21 1999
It’s about joy.
You don’t hear that word much anymore, but it’s a simple and honest word, and as I begin my tenure as theater critic at the Pioneer Press, I can’t think of a better one to explain why and what I do for a living.
Theater is a magnificent alchemy of art and craft, of preparation and spontaneity. Because it’s served up hot and live by fallible human beings every night, there’s always a tinge of danger in the air – along with the certain knowledge that, for better or worse, last night’s performance will be a little bit different from tonight’s.
That gives theater a unique ability to engage and to thrill. To create laughter or fury or introspection. And to make the folks in the audience a little different coming out of the theater than they were going in.
But theater can’t do any of those things unless it’s underpinned with the passion and the sense of fun that fuels the creative process.
And while “fun” may not be the word that springs to mind in the middle of a production of, say, oh, “Medea,” it’s an absolutely critical part of comedy or tragedy or anything in between.
Any serious practitioner of theater will tell you that it’s a load of work. But anyone who says they don’t have a damn good time doing it would be better off pursuing a career with more livable hours and a bigger paycheck. I can’t think of a single person who started in theater to cure cancer or to become president (in moments of quiet introspection, I’ll bet even Vaclav Havel admits to himself that he first got into theater to meet girls). While making good theater is an effort, it should never be a chore.
Seeing – and by extension, reviewing – theater should be the same way. Plays produced by vigorous minds deserve engaged audiences and robust criticism.
It all goes together. It has to, because theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. At its best, it’s a dialogue between the people who produce it and the people who consume it. The role of the critic, to my way of thinking, is to help keep that dialogue going beyond the ovation and even beyond the review. Good criticism should be a part of the artistic process, not apart from it. It should foster the kind of conversation between audiences and artists that – as much as the performances themselves – keeps the art vibrant and meaningful.
So my job is more than the rudimentary one of sticking my thumb up or down. That’s a simple and popular way of approaching criticism, but it’s neither very useful nor very interesting. No opinion has a corner on the truth, after all, and my likes and dislikes can’t possibly represent all the divergent tastes of the people who read my stuff.
Instead of a light switch, think of me as a barometer. I will tell you – in the most honest, interesting, thought-provoking, hosanna-shouting, boo-hissing, gads-I-love-my-job manner as I can – what I think of the local, regional and national theater scene.
But I won’t tell you to go or to stay home. Once you figure out where my affections, my biases and blind spots lie – and I don’t think that’ll take long – you can figure out whether our time would be better spent in a particular theater or at home with a book.
I’ll try to give you the tools. You make the decision.
We’ll go halfsies on the joy.
IT’S THAT 80 PERCENT IN THE MIDDLE THAT’LL KILL YA
Dominic P. Papatola, St. Paul Piioneer Press; May 11, 2003
When I talk to theater students about the job of a critic, I almost always tell them that 10 percent of the plays I see are transcendently wonderful. Another 10 percent are really awful.
The hard work comes in the 80 percent in between.
Working the edges is the most satisfying part of this gig: Any critic who tells you there isn’t perverse fun in writing a really nasty review is either lying to you or so generous he really shouldn’t be in the business. And the experience of a truly sublime night of theater is worth enduring 50 bad ones.
But what of those nights that are neither black nor white — the scores and scores and scores of shows that run in a spectrum from pretty bad to pretty good? Those are the ones that will kill you — or burn you out, anyway — and there are lots of them.
Early in my career, I had an excellent mentor who told me that the first job of a critic was to “forgive the playwright.” I’m still not exactly sure what he meant by that, but I suppose that behind the sentiment was the idea that, much as those of us suffering in the darkness might sometimes think otherwise, no one sets out to write a bad play. The characters may ring false, the plot may creak and the dialogue might have an ear of 100 percent tin, but the person behind the word processor was giving us the best he or she had at the time.
That admonition of forgiveness, I guess, should extend to directors, actors and designers, too. The interpretation that seems so ludicrous during a performance probably felt visionary in the insular warmth of the rehearsal room. The set that looks ridiculous and rickety in execution seemed revelatory on the designer’s page.
And honestly: Have I ever written something that made me wince with its triteness or clumsiness the next morning when I read it in the newspaper? More times than I’d care to count.
So, yes . . . forgiveness.
WHO AM I TO CRITICIZE?
Balancing against that is another equally sage observation made by a coworker during my tenure as a critic in Duluth. It was a town that took its arts seriously, and there was a great dialogue at the News-Tribune: I’d trash a show, and in the following days, the letters-to-the-editor page would be dotted with missives questioning my critical acumen, my observational skills, my training or my parentage.
A recurrent theme was the idea that the people who did these plays put a great deal of time, effort and energy into them, and that my reviews would dissuade them from doing so in the future.
Whenever I would start to feel put upon by those letters, a newsroom buddy would come by, clap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, just remember: It takes just as much energy to do a bad play as a good one.”
So, yes . . . shout garbage when you see garbage.
Last weekend, I saw a play called “Jeffrey,” staged by a theater company called Starting Gate Productions, which has had a fair amount of artistic success in its freshman year. It was one of those shows that, as I walked out of the theater, really left me without an opinion.
But inasmuch as I am paid by the good people at the Pioneer Press to have opinions on a regular basis, I started asking myself that series of “why?” questions that generally guide me toward the deeply buried opinion that almost always resides somewhere in my consciousness.
Here, in part, is what I came up with:
“It’s a wearyingly mediocre staging, the kind of night at the theater that has a critic plumbing his thesaurus for synonyms for ‘adequate’ . . . Theater that hovers around competence is death, because it fails to engage, because no one talks about it and because it rewards the inertia that keeps most people at home in front of the tube instead of engaging with their fellow human beings inside a live theater. . . . ‘Jeffrey’ isn’t an awful production. But its mediocrity is pernicious.”
THE PASSIONATE REVIEWER
Are those the words of a jaded theatergoer, a critic on the fast track to burnout? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
I’m like Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire”: Theater had me at “hello.” More nights than I consider it prudent to admit, when I’m waiting in the darkness for a show to begin, I still get a little thrill that I’ve actually managed to snow someone into paying me for doing what I do for a living.
But I don’t think that kind of passion necessarily burns inside every theatergoer — I know very few people, for instance, who have seen a thousand shows in the past several years, as I have.
I don’t think most people go to theater looking for a transcendent experience night after night. I think they go for entertainment. Or for distraction. Or to be seen. Or because they think they should. Or to be supportive. Or because they got the season tickets, and that’s what’s on the calendar tonight.
These are all legitimate reasons. But, in a way, these reasons make the rest of the people in the seats tougher critics than I am. After all, I’m paid to be there, and a mediocre evening at the theater for me is still better than the average day of work for most people.
But you — the people who read the reviews — you have the choice whether you want to come the next time, or whether you’d rather waylay the steep prices, forgo the parking hassle and not sit in seats that send your spinal column whimpering to the chiropractor the next morning.
Sure, creating theater requires a lot of effort, but so does seeing theater. And a play that’s just average doesn’t reward you for that effort. Not everything can be exquisite, but if you can’t remember the last time you were wowed by something on a stage, you’re probably in danger of becoming one of those people who think that maybe the arts aren’t all that important — that perhaps they don’t deserve the kind of support that individuals and companies and foundations and governments in Minnesota have always given them.
I don’t want that to happen.
So, yes . . . the average shows will burn all of us out if we let them. But they’re also an opportunity. For me, they’re a chance to stay sharp, to be precise with my criticism, to choose the words with exactly the right colors and textures to say what happened that night in the theater. For you, they’re a chance to discuss, to kvetch and to periodically demand better.
Because all of us — theaters, audiences and even critics — we all deserve the best.
Because the adventure doesn’t end when the curtain falls
Dominic P. Papatola, St. Paul Pioneer Press; January 24, 2010
It’s about joy.
More than 10 years and nearly 2,400 bylines ago, those were the first words I wrote as the theater critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It was May 21, 1999, and I introduced myself to you as the guy who promised “to tell you — in the most honest, interesting, thought-provoking, hosanna-shouting, boo-hissing, gads-I-love-my-job manner as I can — what I think of the local, regional and national theater scene.”
So, how’d I do? That’s not my call to make, but I will tell you that at least the first three words of that column remained true from that day until this one.
Writing about theater and the way theater affects our lives has been a joy for me. Doing so in the community where I learned about the power and the possibilities of the art form has been nothing short of a blessing.
It has been that because of the kind of art we make here. As someone who has lived in a few places and has seen theater in quite a few more, I have become convinced Twin Cities theater is magic built on alchemy. There’s a unique stew here — of talented writers and directors, performers and craftspeople — that operates in big venues and small ones, concocting wonder no matter the budget. Supported by a network of educational institutions, funders with foresight and a community with imagination, that work finds a hospitable home here that is different from just about anyplace else in the country.
Just as it’s hard to find bad live music in New Orleans or bad wine in Sonoma, it’s tough to find bad theater in the Twin Cities. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of shows I haven’t liked over the years, but the level of craft here — the way we make theater — is reliably solid and remarkably consistent.
That’s all necessary for a great theater town, but it’s not sufficient. The final piece, and in some ways the most important one, is audiences that are intrepid and enthusiastic, loyal and smart and willing to take chances. That’s why I talk about the way “we” make theater; because it does not and cannot happen without the people in the seats.
Yes, I’m talking about you.
By and large, Twin Cities audiences aren’t the kind who go to the theater to be seen. We love our big, splashy touring musicals, but we have a special affection for new experiences, whether that means following an itinerant theater company to its latest found space or watching a script in its embryonic stages develop in a workshop reading.
Maybe it’s because of our agricultural background. We live in a place with a short, sometimes unpredictable growing season, so we know the importance of cultivation and careful tending. And we understand that after all the watering and weeding, both plants and plays need space and sunshine to grow.
The landscape and the institutions of theater in the Twin Cities have changed in the past decade, and so has the critical community that comments on it. In 1999, when I returned to the Twin Cities, serious criticism was mainly the purview of a handful of people, most of whom were attached to large media organizations. In 2009, those media organizations are fighting for their lives and livelihoods, and criticism has become exponentially more democratic.
That’s a good thing: More conversation about the arts is better than less.
But it also presents a challenge: With the traditional gatekeepers gone or going away, people who make art and people who consume art are faced with a brave new world in which authority and expertise can’t be assumed.
That means everyone’s going to have to get smarter.
How will it all come out? I don’t know, but I do suspect that, in theater as in plenty of other realms, we live in a liminal time. We’ve been somewhere great and glorious, and we’re headed someplace that will be just as great and just as glorious. Getting there is going to be an adventure.
But isn’t that what theater is all about? One of my favorite lines comes at they end of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” In it, Barnaby, the youngest character in the play, is asked to sum up the events of the evening.
“I think it’s about adventure,” he tells the audience. “The test of an adventure is that, when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home, wishing you were out having lots of adventure. So that now we all want to thank you for coming tonight and we hope that in your lives you have just the right amount of … adventure!”