The Critical Series: Critic, Audiences, Idiots, Genius

Can a reviewer be expected to give honest critical feedback while simultaneously cheerleading the artistic community?

This question has come up on the Fresno Beehive twice: the issue of the critic’s–in both cases, Donald Munro’s– poor review being taken to task for not being supportive enough of local artistic endeavors. The topic coming up once every two years is a blip in the back of our minds; coming up twice in a few weeks? That makes it an issue.

So let’s talk about it. What is this man’s role in our complicated and enmeshed artistic world?

Our attitude, if were honest, comes down to this: When Donald hates us, he’s an idiot. When he loves us, he’s a GENIUS! When he hates us, “he doesn’t get it” and has “missed the point”. When he loves us, he’s “really perceptive” and “sensitive”.

That’s the emotional truth of it, anyway. He’s the only paid theatrical reviewer in town and has the largest podium. And emotionally, we have to have a way to accept the compliment or defend our egos.

What he writes counts. It does. Anyone who has followed the bottom line of multiple shows in Fresno knows that a show with a positive review gets better ticket sales and sees new people in the audience. At a poorly reviewed show, the numbers drop off and plateau earlier. Occasionally, the odd show garners a passionate resistance force against a bad review and people get to talking about it. That can definitely help ticket sales. But those shows don’t happen most of the time.

But the producers of shows cannot blame Munro for poor ticket sales, or else they’d have to give him credit for great ticket sales when they have a hit. Producers have to create a greater, more diverse marketing strategy that still encourages people to see the show, no matter what Munro says. That’s their responsibility, not Munro’s. He’s not our marketing supervisor. But marketing is just one part of the equation.

Can you support something and criticise it at the same time? Yes, to a certain extent you can. Ask any really passionate fan about their favorite musician, actor or director. Most of them will have complaints about some of their choices as well as praise. Real fans want their favorites to achieve the most they possibly can under the circumstances, but man, do they have some major opinions about when they fell flat on their face!

Is Donald Munro our biggest fan? Maybe. Obviously, I don’t know the inner-workings of his soul. Previewing and REviewing our work is his livelihood, though, which means he does have some investment in the health of our artistic community. When it comes to theatrical institutions like GCP, Children’s Musical Theaterworks, Fresno City College and Fresno State, and running festivals like Woodward Shakespeare and Fresno Filmworks, he’s been around them long enough to establish a firm hold of what they’re capable of achieving– and being honest when he believes they haven’t lived up to their potential. Someone has to do that.

With new independent companies (of which my own New Ensemble is one of a bumper crop here in Fresno), he has to follow our offerings as closely as possible (we have to allow him to do so, by the way, through clear, professional communication) and offer opinions to a world largely ignorant of our existence about what to expect from us and whether the risk of going out of your way for us is worth it. Someone has to do that.

And here’s the newsflash, my artist friends: We don’t always live up to our potential. And we don’t always communicate well. And we’re not always worth the trip to the storefront with no air conditioning. We’re not always knocking it out of the park. We’re just not.  So, someone has to keep us grounded.

I say, “Someone has to. . .” because so often we don’t engage our audiences to do this. In many ways, Munro’s is the only voice we court. How often do we email our ticket buyers and point them to a feedback form? How often do we see a regular ticket holder at another event and ask about their overall experience at our last show? How often do we really form an advisory board of a variety of audience members and ask for their opinion about the types of shows we’re creating? We have to invite the audience in before they’ll speak for us.

Because if you want to counteract The Don’s power, that’s what we have to do. We have to engage the bloggers, the Beehive commenters, our Facebook followers, the e-newsletter subscribers: we have to UNIONIZE OUR AUDIENCES and get them to add their voice to the mix.

Another thing we have to do is engage each other as artists. A little peer-to-peer criticism won’t kill us and, in fact, gaining a sense of perspective will likely help us grow. When you hear what worked and what didn’t from someone else who is a practitioner and who, hopefully, has been where you are, we can begin to put Munro’s reviews (both the good and bad) into perspective. And, trust me, the act of giving criticism to your peers in an appropriate and generous way will help you to become more aware of the critic’s point of view. Just be certain to adhere to a few peer-to-peer best practices along the way!

Most arts writers in America, though, are in Munro’s Catch-22.  Promote or criticize? They help promote by writing advance material on our shows. We need them for that. The cost, though, is always that review. That’s the deal. You always have the option of doing without his advanced copy on the Beehive and in Seven, in exchange for NOT coming to review your show.

Not the deal you like? Well, my recommendation is to do everything you can to make certain your work is as unquestionably good as it can be. Then, whatever the review is, you know you did your best. If you know your audiences are enjoying your show, encourage them to comment on the Beehive review, write letters to the editor, do whatever they can to speak for what they liked and what they support.

Ultimately, our best cheerleaders are our audiences, not our critics. So we’d do well to develop that audience relationship as well as we can.

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