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Vive la critique

San Luis Obispo needs legitimate theater criticism, but can't handle it

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Sharp wits armed with even sharper pens and a bastion of theatrical knowledge and experience can turn their critical butts around and return to New York or Los Angeles or Bakersfield, or whichever haven of theatrical criticism from whence they came. San Luis Obispo is a little too preoccupied with being inoffensive for serious or relevant theatrical reviews. Ever heard the phrase "you can't handle the truth"? It's a non-theater related saying that perfectly expresses why none of the handful of SLO County-based papers is even pretending to publish serious reviews of local performances.

So why are so many papers printing reviews that read more like an elementary-school book review all plot and theme overview and no substance instead of digging in and assessing whether a performance was worth the ticket price? For one thing, 90 percent of those local performers are volunteers or students. They're sacrificing their precious non-work and non-school hours to pursue a passion, and who wants to discourage that? Who wants to tell the unpaid volunteer that they were the reason the production wasn't worth watching or even that their inability to refrain from stammering onstage distracted from the production's positive qualities? It's even worse when many local theaters frequently rely on performers who are either very young or very old. Not only are you then the jerk struggling to convey the idea that, for some would-be actors, maybe a dream deferred isn't such a tragic thing after all, but you're also the jerk going after Grandpa or Timmy. Why not shoot Lassie while you're at it?

It also doesn't help that San Luis Obispo is a small community and the Othello that you panned last night may very well be the person you bump into at the grocery store. Worse still, it may be Othello's mother, daughter, grandfather, second cousin three times removed, or co-worker. And you can be damned sure that even if they were watching the same performance you were, and even if your criticism was entirely justified, an actor's family just doesn't see that performance the same way. Maybe they shouldn't. After all, what would the world be like if, instead of praising you after your performance as Carrot No. 2 in your fifth grade production of When Vegetables Attack, your parents instead provided an honest assessment of your performance?

But the loving support of family and friends can take a detrimental turn when they begin attacking a theater critic who didn't love every second of a performance. What these protective non-critics don't realize is that their very eagerness to defend a friend's ego ultimately consigns said friend to the near-inescapable depths of mediocrity. Every actor needs some form of feedback removed from their friends or family precisely because every loving parent, grandparent, son, or daughter will praise said actor's performance. That's just a fact of life. But there's a reason we don't have people's parents grading them at school. Nobody would ever improve, because everybody's parents would think they were doing great. It would be the most absurd educational system in the world. And yet that scenario is essentially the environment this county has created for actors, which is sad for the actors who really don't have very much talent, but even worse for the many gifted actors whose talent might flourish under well-intentioned, honest criticism.

A city like San Francisco plays host to hundreds of local theater groups and venues, making it a lot more difficult for one bad review to forever alienate an important community contact. If the executive director of Community Theater One takes issue with a review and refuses to cooperate in future articles and reviews, a local critic is left with Community Theatre Two, Three, and Four, and that's it. Another benefit for a theater critic from a major metropolis is that there's a precedent of genuine theatrical criticism. If a community theater group in a larger city requests a review, it doesn't expect a whitewashed book report. Locally, a lead could arrive on stage completely hammered, not remember a single line, and stagger drunkenly across a poorly painted set, and the unfortunate reviewer would be expected to write about the beautiful costumes. This is not to say that local actors arrive at performances inebriated, because to date I have witnessed a level of professionalism from these volunteer performers that would shame many of the celebrity actors making millions of dollars. But I have also seen actors forget lines and butcher accents. Though most critics really are rooting for a good show it's so much more easier to write genuinely nice things about a performance what do they say when they wince their way through a bad show, or elements of a bad show? Generally, nothing.

One local theater "critic" had the gall to state that a performer forgot her Irish accent, and that another character's accent was too thick. Instead of making this gem of criticism something that the performers could profit from, she instead dismissed her complaint by saying "but that's nitpicking." Details like accents can disenchant an audience. Even if every other aspect of a production is great, if a character falls out of an accent, it impedes the audience's ability to immerse itself in the show. And given that the "nitpicking" comment was the only negative comment in a review that otherwise provided background information that the audience could have acquired for itself online, it was probably the most useful indication as to whether someone would enjoy the show. A review isn't meant to tell people that Hairspray is "the story of a girl named Tracy Turnblad whose dream is to dance on the Corny Collins Show" because they could read exactly that description on Wikipedia. These book-report reviews inform readers that there's a show taking place, but give no indication as to whether that show is any good.

Robert Brustein stated that "theatergoing is a communal act," but without the benefit of an honest exchange between critic, performer, and theatergoer, this living, breathing art form is stripped of its communicative power.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach likes to be nice, except when she's feeling mean. Sound the trumpet for real theatrical criticism at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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