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August 20, 2009


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the star system sucks, I'll give you that.
Most times, I'll read TOC reviews that are 2 or 1 star (like this week), but see there is also a couple of moments of priase in there. I think theatre-goers are more likely to balance out the good and the bad WORDS, but it's hard to even see the words below a 1 star review.

However, the point of your post, the blind support of theatre "just cuz" --- I'm glad that you called bullshit. (And side note, good for you for not PUNCHING the un-named theatre admin in the face, the nerve of people) And I speak as someone who has been there with TOC - put my heart and soul into producing or SM'ing a show and had it get a lukewarm TOC review. Case in point, "Metaluna" is one of the best theatrical experiences of my life, I loved every minute of that show and was entertained all the way up until the final curtain call. You gave it 3 stars in TOC. Your review by no means diminished MY experience with the show, and it didn't keep audiences away by any means.
However, I completely respect your review - did you lie? no. Do I agree? no, but that is the whole crux of CRITICISM.
I feel that theatres who think their show will be "universally liked" or should be given kudos for "all the effort" are nuts.
If you think you've created art that is immune to criticism, you need to soak your head a bit. No art is perfect.


I think the stars are silly.

Every show is a different experience for each individual that sees it, works on it, performs in it, etc. Any avid theatre-goer who also reads reviews will eventually figure out which reviewers have sensibilities most akin to their own - and that is who they will go to for opinions.

There are as many different kinds of theatre as there are theatre companies, and as they say, one person's trash is another's treasure... it holds true. Some people hate musicals; some people love minimalism; some people just don't get those wacky experimental non-linear things; just as many people feel the opposite.

Theatre is not, and cannot be, about making the 'perfect' show that everyone will love; it's about creating the best art you can and hoping that there is an audience with whom it resonates. As an audience member, it's about seeking out and experiencing something that you connect with.

We must remember that a critic's job is to give an OPINION, which any person may or may not agree with. [Opinions are like a**holes, everybody's got one.] If we are going to use reviews, we have to decide for ourselves whose views are most like our own in order to make the most of our theatre-going time/money.


I don't know how you're supporting and encouraging theatre if you act like a cheerleader for a show that isn't very good. And Chris Jones is very supportive of good theatre. It was his blog where I first read about David Cromer and Our Town. His rave is what made me want to see it when it came to New York. I trust his opinion. And if you're a mindless cheerleader, you lose that trust. So yeah, I agree with your take - you have to be honest. Otherwise you're not doing the audience or the theater company any favors. And you lose whatever authority you have with the readers.


I think as with any profession that a few bad apples have made it harder for you and your more honorable brethren to maintain this (correct) argument.

I agree that no critic should feel compelled to "support" bad theatre. At the same time, no critic should feel carte blanche to trash good theatre for reasons that are transparently your own. I think we all can name a couple of critics who are more interested in their ability to cleverly skewer something than they are in their capacity to "cultivate" (not "support,") the art form. Such critics make your life, and Jones', harder.

Not that this is what happened here. I just want it mentioned in the discussion.


This really isn't directed toward you. You and Jones are usually objective and respectful. But...

I'm going to talk about the elephant.

This is delicious. Somebody criticizes a critic and the critics can't handle the criticism. Hurts, don't it?

Your job is to be "primarily a servant of the general readership" and to give them your honest opinion thereby supporting and furthering Chicago theatre? Bullshit. A critic's job is to produce ad revenue. Critics are like human crossword puzzles. Reviews exist so people buy the publication or click on the site to kill time on the train.

Does that hurt? God that felt good.

My job is to express as much truth as possible, to risk everything in my heart and damn the consequences. Also total bullshit. My job is to make enough money to keep going. So I need critics. So I hate them. So I kiss their asses. So I fight with myself about catering and pandering. Everybody loses.

How do we stop hurting each other? We all bring passion to the table. That sounds like common ground to me. Try something.

Critics: lose the sense of entitlement. Don't be sarcastic. Ever. We don't owe you jack. You're criticizing something you do not do. Yes, you DO have the responsibility to show some respect. Why do you think everyone hates you?

Playwrights: Fuck the critics. Criticize the critics. Criticize the shit out of them. Why is this taboo? If you are a pretentious self-important jerk with an agenda you deserve a beating. That goes for everybody. Double for me.

And for the sake of Jesus, help the little guy.

Try something.

Zev Valancy



You hit the nail on the head. Our job is to support good theatre.

I've had issues with Chris Jones' work in the past, and will probably continue to do so. There are certainly valid criticisms to be made of him. But the idea expressed in the quote at the start of this post are utter horseshit.

I've written negative reviews, an I've worked on shows that have gotten unfairly nasty responses. Neither is fun, but that's part of the game.

And Steve, critics are owed only one thing, and it's the same thing owed to the entire audience: a good show. And as for sarcasm: often it's use is hurtful and unnecessary, but talk to ten audience members after a show, and I bet you'll find lots of it. Critics happen to have a forum to disseminate it, but they're hardly alone in employing it.


Zev, I dunno if we owe the critics a good show. We definitely owe the audience one. The audience paid.

And it's precisely because critics have a (powerful)forum that they shouldn't use sarcasm. Perhaps sarcasm is the wrong word/concept...Shouldn't be nasty as you said? Not quite right either...


Steve, I think what you're referring to is the practice of being nasty for its own sake- to say something cutting mostly because it's a witty, poisonous bon mot that you can't resist. What can I say? Nobody's perfect. A poisonous review can be a lot of fun to read...as long as your name doesn't come up. There is an art to theatrical criticism, and part of it, like it or not, includes finding the perfectly vicious turn of phrase that will make the reader guffaw, in addition to making one's distaste for a production clear. Speaking as someone who's written theatre reviews in the past, though, the times that I've gotten really nasty are when I've had an absolutely terrible time and consider it to the be the result of laziness and sloppiness on the part of the cast and/or crew...where they clearly weren't trying, so why did anyone bother? The fact is, a critic is responsible to describe his true feelings about a piece he saw, in the most engaging fashion possible. For a piece that was really mediocre, sometimes keeping a description of it engaging requires a dash of venom.


Criticism is in itself a performance is it not?



As a theatre critic, I've got to agree with you. I'm fair game for criticism. I wish I got more. That would at least start a conversation about what theatre is and and what it should be, something sadly lacking in the city where I work.

But I do have one request. Don't just criticize me when I slam something you love, which makes up 99% of the comments I do get. Criticize me when I praise something you hate. And support me when we agree. A one-dimensional discussion does no one any good.

And I do have to disagree with you on one point. My purpose is not just to generate ad revenue. No one will see those ads unless they read my reviews and they won't read my reviews unless they find them useful in helping them decide what shows to see.

So, yes, my main function is to serve my readership.

Anne Nicholson Weber

Readers might be interested in the podcast interview I did with Chris Jones, Tony Adler and Kerry Reid just about a year ago. It includes some pretty interesting discussion about how they see the role of the critic.




Will do, Todd. Sorry to disparage critics so. Felt good though.

One last thing. Kris, why are you stuck with the star system? If it sucks and everybody hates it and it hurts people, why use it? That's just the way it is? Why?

Is it just a constraint of the job? Did readers demand it come back?

mark cuchina

kris, considering your recent and ignorant review of spring awakening, because clearly that show is flawless, timeout's eternal humping of all-things steppenwolf, regardless of merit (except carter's way for some reason), repetitive dismissing of all things goodman, transparent snark without constructive feedback, and on and on and on, i really don't care what your opinion of what a critic should be is.

people going to see transformers know what they're going to see. if they don't, then they're as ignorant as you are. you review transformers differently than you review the time traveler's wife. you review it in the context of the genre it represents. it's blow-em-up action popcord-fodder that people don't go to think about. it's escapism. was it well-paced escapism? ebert pointed out that it was overlong, which he should. did the explosions and transformations come too quickly to be appreciated, etc. then again...do you know the source material it was based on? how exactly was transformers 2 really shitting on the memory of the t.v. show? they're cars...that tuen into robots. there's something to be said for mindless fun. would pointing out that something like transformers or g.i. joe was mindless really accurately assess its merits? no. it would just make you look like you weren't in on the joke...or the obvious. you'd state that anyone looking to really get lost in a film should avoid it, but if you can shut off your mind and drool for two hours you'll love it. you speak to your AUDIENCE and tell them the time they can expect, not to what your own pretensions say, then leave it up to them to decide what kind of night out they'd like. that's what it means to support theatre in a community. theatre of all kinds for all kinds of people.

how will theatre respond to the fact that something like transformers 2 was the number 1 movie in america for weeks? that's a better question, and if it's not tackled by responsible critics there won't be many people left reading these reviews anyway.

mark cuchina

one last thing i'll say. something i'll give chris jones, and not you. a reviewer's job, again "supporting theatre" is to give constructive feedback to the company itself, because you should WANT them to do better. if not this show, then the next. so, tell them what can be improved in terms of the way they approach a production. jones' review of high fidelity had those constructive views. yours wouldn't. given the way timeout treats the goodman, there's nothing constructive there. it's snark and nastiness to make yourself feel more hip.

the ONE thing i'll give you that you said, and probably applies to the original debate, is that the stars are what spark the nastiness. i'm sure if jones' article had given the production 3 stars, there wouldn't have been as many complaints. and that's a problem in the system, which you did address and i'll give you credit for. see? i can be fair, when it's merited.


"because clearly that show is flawless"

Completely aside from your comments to Kris, how am I supposed to take you seriously when you offer this sort of blind certainty as fact?

mark cuchina

clearly you missed the sarcasm in that line.

Kris Vire

Mark, I think what you consider "telling them what can be improved next time" might be the same thing that Chris's commenter Allison interprets, negatively, as "talking about what you WANTED to see, instead of what you saw." Paraphrasing you both, of course. Which is to say, critics' (and all theatergoers') opinions are subjective, as is the way they're read.

mark cuchina

interesting. no sarcasm there. that got me thinking. subjective, yes. but should a critic also have a responsibility to the public at large to find room for objectivity as well? while one may subjectively find the play not for them, might there still be a market for such a piece? just because you didn't like it doesn't mean it's bad theatre. you're not asking EVERYONE to shell out money for a piece they may not like. just tell us what kind of an evening out we can expect and let us make the decision. like with transformers.

as a critic, the objective part being for high fidelity that if you can get past the fact that it's not the book or the movie and the original was clearly a transparent and failed attempt to appeal to a crowd not usually going to musicals, will you like what's left? jones told us that it was a vast improvement on the original but he didn't really say how. it's not a thinking man's musical, or anything really trying to push the artform forward, but is it fun, you know? some things are just fun.

and with respect to your not rising to the occasion of my own snarkiness, i will say i'm sorry for using words like "igorant" and making personal attacks. that wasn't cool of me. still disagree with your spring awakening review, but i don't need to be a jackass about it, you know?

mark cuchina

i am honestly interested in your response to that, if you've got the time.

mark cuchina

ah, wait, wait, wait. i didn't actually enter fully into what you said. the whole negative not talking about what you WANTED to see. here's my opinion - there's a difference between what you WANTED to see, i.e. here's my interpretation of this play/this character should've delved deeper into the X or Y part of his character's psyche/i would've costumed it less gaudily, etc. (because then you're playing director) THAN what you WANT to see improved as in the chemistry between two leads when its absent/sound or sight-line problems/and how this play was produced or fits into a company's overall mission statement, etc, which is more along the lines of my own interpretation of what "supporting local theatre" means and should mean. constructive feedback to the company, not here's how i would've directed the play. help the company grow so next time it's a slam dunk. and a critic should WANT that. in a community, each piece is both a singular piece and a part of the makeup of the community as well. where do i go to scratch my political theatre itch? where can i find new and innovative musicals. where can i go to escape my week and just have fun?

obviously we've gone way beyond anyone's original review and are more debating the job of a critic, which i think is a good and necessary discussion. i know texts are toneless, but i'm really open and looking for a little back-and-forth.


Ah yes. Missed it completely. I take half-fault, as sarcasm remains one of those tones that inherently translates poorly to the written word.

I have to ask if the ultimate end to a theatre criticism that skews towards objectivity is the irrelevance of the form at all. I tend to think it goes without saying that any work of art has an audience, which is why things that many, many people find vile--say, an adult film featuring simulated abuse and torture--still nets sales.

Should every review end with the sentence "But you may feel differently"? I thought this was assumed.

Pollyanna (actually Ed)

Mark, the line you're trying to draw is from my perspective an artificial one. If a concept is light years from actually making sense or honoring the intentions of the original text, a critic should say so. If the costumes are hideous, and better, or at least more neutral, costumes would have made the play less of an eyesore, the critic should say so. If there are important themes that an actor or a production has completely ignored, a critic ought to be able to point it out. I think that a critic has the responsibility to be boosterish of theatre in general, but not to be unfailingly supportive of every effort no matter how poor it is. Frankly I've seen shows that were so misguided that I really don't care if the artists involved never put up a show again (don't worry- they did). Perhaps a critic might think about what different individuals might enjoy a show they hated- but sometimes the answer to that is just "Nobody. This show is terrible and I need to protect the public from it." What can you say in response to an irredeemably shitty show, other than a variation on "it sucked. no more like that, please!" I hope that the Chicago theatre scene in general flourishes, but for a plant to flourish sometimes you gotta prune a diseased branch or two. Being blunt about that (when you honestly feel that way) is a critic's job. A good recent example in my opinion: Chris Jones' review of Earth: TTFN. As Kris said, a critic's primary responsibility is to give an accurate picture *from his point of view* to his readership- anything useful the theatre company in question takes away is a pleasant but tertiary benefit. Honestly I think that a critic making suggestions in their reviews in any sort of genuine hope that a theatre company will take the advice is a path to frustration and madness. Although they might benefit from it, what theatre company do *you* know that would actually follow advice from a critic in a review?

When Chicago theatre is good, it can be very very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. Let's not pretend otherwise.

The funny thing about this comment as I reread it is that if you actually asked me what I thought of most shows I've seen, I probably would try to come up with at least one thing constructive to say, even if overall I didn't care for it. But in the abstract I reserve the right to call something completely worthless if that was the truth as I saw it.

mark cuchina

you know, Bilal, you make an excellent point. one of the best and most frustrating things about art in general is how difficult it is to define and, consequently to critique. i'm not calling for full objectivity and watered down reviews, and you're totally right when you say that it is assumed that all reviews finish with "in my opinion," however, if you're in a theatre where everyone around you seems to be loving it, calling it a "meh" night of theatre seems to be ignoring something important.

in truth, i think doing away with the star system would be a great idea. i think kris might agree too. it would cause the reader to engage more with the review itself. people in shows put a lot of stock in those stars, and while a review may be positive in many areas, most people don't really get jazzed about a review under 3 stars. i'm not really saying much new with this. i just wanted to say i appreciated your point.

Kris Vire

To piggyback on what Bilal and Ed have said, Mark, my philosophy (I really do expend a lot of thought on this stuff) is that I'm not tailoring my review for the show's audience, I'm writing for my audience, or TOC's audience. I think the people who bother to read theater reviews probably tend to read them in more than one outlet, and eventually get a sense of which critics line up with their own taste. I've had more than one reader tell me they find my reviews line up the closest with their own tastes. The same is true, obviously, for Chris Jones, and Kerry Reid, Tony Adler, Catey Sullivan, Larry Bommer, etc. Implied in any of our reviews, I think, is both Bilal's "But you may feel differently" and its corollary, "If your taste is similar to mine, you may feel this way." (EDITED TO ADD: those readers who follow Ebert and those who follow Harry Knowles are similarly self-selecting.)

There are probably 30 or 40 critics who regularly review theater in Chicago in the print publications alone. If you put all of us in the same house at the same show and asked us to try to write an "objective" review, I bet you'd still get a wide range of responses. That's why I always smile a little when I hear comments along the lines of, "I don't know what show this reviewer is talking about, but it wasn't the one I saw"—no, it wasn't, because we all come at it from our own indelible, human points of view.

Kris Vire

I started writing that last comment before Mark's most recent came in, so I'll just add that yes, people in shows put a lot of stock in those stars. I wish they wouldn't, and I'd rather not have to use them. But readers say they like the shorthand. Even Hedy Weiss has her "highly recommended," "somewhat recommended," "not recommended" labels, and the Reader has its seemingly hard-to-earn backwards "R" (I feel like I read a lot of positive reviews in the Reader that don't get the "recommended" icon).

Even if we didn't assign stars/labels/grades ourselves, sites like the incredibly useful theatreinchicago.com and NYC's incredibly useful Critic-O-Meter assign values to reviews, just like the incredibly useful Rotten Tomatoes does for film reviews. I don't know that there's a way around it.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

    Any opinion expressed here is solely that of the author or commenter. No opinion expressed here can be assumed to represent the opinion of Time Out Chicago magazine.

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