Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 2

As promised, here is the second part of my discussion with Isaac Butler about reviewing directors. Part 1 generated some very interesting responses, especially from my nytheatre.com colleague Matt Johnston, which I will respond to soon. For now, however, let me share with you more of what Isaac has to say: 

Q: When you read a review of something you’ve directed, what do you want to get out of it?

A: Well, I should say that I think the proper way to think about reviews is as marketing tools first, and as records of experience second. I’ll take these in order. In the first sense, all you want to look for is what sentences can I pull to put in an e-mail that’ll make people want to come see the play. These are called pull-quotes, as I’m sure most of your readers know. I don’t care if people are ruthless about this.. This is the dance we’re dancing, the game we’re playing. Aritists and reviewers are using each other, it’s an exchange, so of course we should try to get as much out of our end of the exchange as possible, right?

Also, keeping focused on the marketing end helps keep you sane because a review is, ultimately, simply the record of one person’s experience of the play. That’s all it is. And in that case, you want to look at it and figure out what you can learn from it. With volume of smoke, I solicited a lot of opinion, good and bad, about the show. So when your review came out (largely positive about the directing, mixed-to-negative about the script), it was one voice added to a mosiac of impressions about the play, many of which agreed with yours, and many of which didn’t. And then learning as much as possible from this larger tapestry– if I may use so cheesetastic a word– become the goal.

What we absolutely cannot look to reviews for is any kind of validation or measure of success. Those you have to find and define on your own. I know from In Public that if you look to reviews for it, it’ll drive you batty (and make you insufferable!). When we were doing In Public, it got really good reviews and positive audience feedback. And when the Times review didn’t come for days and days, I went a little crazy. Once it finally wasn’t going to run I was able to look back at what I was doing and go oh, I was looking here for validation. How mad! And it was mad. Also, our constiuency as artists needs to be the audience, not reviewers, not artistic directors of major institutions whom we want to get jobs from, but the audience right there in front of us.

Q: Are there any general things about your work that you hope the reviewer picks up on?

A: I hope my work changes enough project to project that there wouldn’t be a consistent thing beyond what’s going to go into my answer to your next question…

Q: How would like to see reviewers write about directing?

A: In an ideal world, reviewers would’ve read the script before they came and saw the play. I think that way they could see how much of what’s going on is based on choices (not all of which are made by the director, mind you). I would like reviewers to see and report on the choices made vis-a-vis bringing the script to life on the stage. Because, as I wrote on the blog, doing a “transparent” kind of job on a play is itself a choice. As is doing something more “high concept”. Was that choice appropriate for the play you’re watching? Reading In Public, for example, I think you’d expect a production that was more naturalistic than where that show ended up. And you know we disregarded a few stage directions, and created moments were more abstract etc. George was there for all of it, it’s not like we were purposefully going against his thoughts on the play. But I feel for those people who saw the more naturalistic workshop, or had only read the play, seeing our production of it was a bit of a different experience.

So what can we do that we don’t live in that ideal world? I don’t know. Directing as a discipline hasn’t been around very long. It’s still fairly ad hoc and oddly undefined in a lot of ways. So reviewing it is tough. But I think if reviewers thought of themselves as critiquing the production instead of just the script, we’d be in a better place. Even if that meant the directing still wasn’t talked about, but there was more focus on the acting and design.

Also… just to be clear: it’s not that I want the focus that’s going to writers to be going to directors (or more specificaly, me). In traditional text-based theater, the text is really super important, and I appreciate that. I just think it’s in an extreme place right now that puts undue pressure on the script for the choices of the collaborators making the play. I think it’s helped contribute to an environment in which people are very scared to do plays that are unknown commodities.

As you can see, there’s a lot of good fodder here for thought and debate. I have a few responses of my own, but I’m going to let them percolate a little bit longer before serving them up. Check back with me in a day or so.

In the meantime, however, I want to thank Isaac for sharing for his thoughts and ideas with me (and for using the belly-laugh-inducing word, “cheesetastic” – Isaac, you may use that one on my blog any time you like).

Your turn to weigh in, dear reader. Let me hear some more of your responses.


8 Responses to Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 2

  1. MattJ says:

    I think Isaac and I could have a really good debate about this. I’m not sure I disagree with any of his ideas, except maybe about the review to be aimed as a marketing tool first and foremost and not about the success of the production. It goes back to this other idea circulating on the blogs a lot about why preaching to the choir ain’t so bad afterall. So why make reviewing a marketing technique?

    That aside, I brought up the detail of the work in my own post because I think that reviewers know the director plays a huge role in the process, but they often have no idea what that work actually is. They are going to critique the directing,it’s going to happen and they should! But necessary to that is to know how to recognize what they see on stage in relation to the director’s work and how they can articulate their opinions about it.

    I’ll leave it there for right now……..

  2. RLewis says:

    Lots of good stuff on this topic, and it reminded me of what is often said of actors – if you can see their technique, the acting isn’t that good. I try to direct the hell out of a show until I can’t even see where my work ends and the actor’s, designer’s and writer’s work begins. If a review mentions my work as a director in anything other than general terms, I feel guilty. It’s not about me, so I’d prefer not to have my work noticed, if, if, they have lots of great things to say about the show. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” lol. $.02

  3. Bryn Manion says:

    I have to say I passionately disagree with Isaac in thinking that reviewers should ideally read a script before attending a performance! Theater is a composite of elements, the script being only one aspect and no more than a road map for what the entire event should encapsulate. The ephemeral and heady mix of words, movement, sexuality, chemistry, visuals amd rhythm is what is truly the director’s full task to orchestrate. I think too frequently we get stuck in the semantics of interpretation when what we’re really hungering for is the vibrancy of an event that invokes mystery.

    Furthermore, great scripts are sacred texts — they churn up emotions and images and memories and a whole tapestry of complex creative yearnings and ideas. Reviewers are human too! They’re affected just as directors are by the power of the text. Reading is a creative process and it is an entirely different mental activity than absorbing a live performance and responding to it. How can reviewers be expected to objectively respond to a production when they’ve just experienced they’re own creative act while reading a script?

    Really, would a music reviewer be expected to interpret a score before reviewing U2’s new album*? Never! And you can always tell when Brian Eno or Marius DeVries or Mitchell Froom has produced an album even though they aren’t performers. They have a voice. Directing theatre is no different. I can’t figure out how reviewers can learn to hear that voice, but that’s part of their job — that’s what they get to obsess about and learn how to identify as they respond to plays.

    *Maybe exceptions can be made about classical works, but it simply isn’t appropriate or important for new works.

  4. MattJ says:

    Good points Bryn.

  5. isaac says:


    My point was that perhaps reviewers would be more inclined to see the various elements that make up a production if they were already familiar with the text. As it stands right now, they just review the text and the rest of the production is almost irrelevant. By reading the play first, perhaps some understanding could be gained about how the rest of the project works.

    But if you have a better idea of how we could reviewers to pay attention to the production as a whole and not put the weight of the review entirely on the writer, I’m all ears.

  6. Bryn Manion says:

    Total immersion. Period. If anyone really wants to understand how anything in this world works, truly works, (s)he’s got to dig deeper than is comfortable into the mechanics of that thing. That means a full body, all senses activated cannonball into the deep end of the pool.

    If someone totally immerses herself in theater, she’s eventually going to develop her own taste and voice — she’s going to become aware of light cues and differentiate the accidents from intentions and the skill from the talent. She’ll know the difference between text and direction. Immersion will eventually make an expert out of someone.

    But that brings up a whole ‘nother issue. There’s a difference between a theatre reviewer and a theatre critic. A reviewer is not necessary an authority — just a person relating his or her experience. A critic is an authority who’s chosen it as his or her profession to give skilled and pointed feedback. If I’m going to accept criticism, I’ll only stomach it from an expert, because the implicit deal is that artists and critics determine in tandem the future of theatre and its role in socitey.

    As for reviewers, I’m always interested in hearing their impressions because that tells me whether or not I’m communicating to the audience at large in an engaging fashion. Who cares if they can’t tell the difference between writing and directing or the million and one erudite things we make ourselves crazy with while in production? What matters is if we made them feel alive while they were with us and if we’ve encouraged them to think a little more deeply and care a little more intensely about each other.

    Very Pollyanna of me, I know. But critics = barometer for theater world, reviewer = barometer of world at large. Love and need ’em both. And it’s definitely our job to know how to listen to the various levels of feedback we receive.

  7. David Fuller says:

    Reviewers ought to remember this axiom: generally speaking, the text is the child of the author; the entire production is the child of the director.

  8. Meredith says:

    I was actually brought to Mike’s blog site because after having read a review of a play he had seen, ‘Dutchman’. His review was an unbiased reaction to what he saw, but not a very informed perception because of his lack of knowledge of the script. This is what defined his piece as a review, rather than a critique. I do believe that a review is more of a marketing tool for the unassuming public, and a critique is for theater scholars, afficianados, and other theatrical artists (not even to necessarily convince them to see it).

    Mike’s dislikes of the show were those of most people who had not much prior knowledge of the script, other than maybe in their college readings. But, I must say that it is the director’s job to make sense of the script to the audience, so there are as few awkward moments, of what would seem to be indecisiveness, in the production.

    An example of how one would better prepare to see a show by reading the script would be to say that Dutchman is NOT a play of realism, even though it seems that way at first (setting, characters, time). But one of the first interactions between them is Lula OFFERING Clay an apple. And if you know your historical literature, there was someone else who gave someone an apple, and things went mighty bad after that. Dutchman is obviously a sort of allegory. It takes place in the subway, which is described in the first stage directions as “the flying underbelly of the city (makes me think of ship)…steaming hot…the subway heaped in modern myth”. The title obviously refers to the ghost slave ship that was condemned to sail forever. Sooo, the set of the subway should allude to this. I once saw this play have rope nooses as the handles on the subway. Subtly brilliant!

    Anyhow, the people don’t react to Clay and Lula because they represent something larger than the individuals they seem to be. As the ‘masses’, they refuse to address the race issue, and consequently don’t pay attention to what’s really going on around them. And when the master of the ship (lula) orders them to do something, you bet your ass they do it. It’s akin to the maid in Ionesco’s ‘The Lesson’. She allows him to behave in a bad way, because she is the masses. These notes are things you would consider if you had studied the script before seeing the play. (as a critic would do)

    I’m sorry for the length of this, but young theater voices must be heard. A friend of mine in New York, who is a director, said she is disappointed that so many of the high-brows in the NYC theater world (she is only 23) want plays to be realistic dramas, or advert in their abstraction. We must remember that many plays were allegories, and if we think of this history we can safely assume that Baraka begins his play by coaxing you with realism, and horrifying you with an allegorical rage.

    If you find what I have written interesting, please respond. All the best.

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