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.