The Preview Review & Reviewing the Reviewers: A Review

The Preview Review & Reviewing the Reviewers: A Review

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz was a blogger guest of Primary Stages’ preview of Hunting and Gathering and he seems to have written a preview review. Anyway it walks somewhat like a review and quacks somewhat like a review but I think we will all need to await the Back Stage National Theatre Editor’s ruling on the exact nature of this duck. Leonard Jacobs promised to bring the issue before the Supreme Court when George Hunka transgressed on 100 Saints in his preview review back in August. So we’ll have to see if Justice Jacobs pursues Adam with the same virulent energy with which he hunted down George. (I also saw the preview production with a blogger’s comp. I’ll write my own “non-review” of my experience if I can sneak it beneath the noses of my various self-censors.)

The intersection of criticism and blogging was looked at recently by Time Out New York and Time Out Chicago has followed suit. I also have been thinking and writing around this blogger v. critic issue recently for the upcoming New York Theater Review.

Many if not most blogs are closer to transcribed talk than crafted writing. But the bloggers who were non-writers before the blogosphere often will try to imitate “the reviewer” when talking about a performance. Meanwhile, the mainstream press reviewers newly entering the blogosphere often try to affect an informality, subjectivity, or bravado persona that is alien to their writing for print. The writer can be just as clumsy as the talker in these attempts at impersonation and transformation.

In business or box office terms, marketing people know that bad reviews can sometimes be countered by good word-of-mouth, a factor over which they never had much control. But the blogosphere appears to give substance to such spectral elements as word-of-mouth or “the buzz” of a show. PR people and others involved in producing theatre are beginning to experiment with the blog posts as addendum to print reviews. In offering certain bloggers free admittance to productions in expectation of a blog post, producers are attempting to exploit what they see as the new public relations frontier.

The blogosphere throws these two different styles of discourse into the same Ultimate Fighting PR amphitheater. Where the writer (reviewer) has a developed proficiency at broadcasting an opinion or argument, the talker (word-of-mouth representative) is proficient at commenting and finding holes in the argument. The blogger has developed a whole genre of writing out of this “letter to the editor” or contra-review mode of theatre talk. There are more reviews of reviews than actual reviews of productions in blogs. And one of the fortes of this theatre talk is the argumentum ad hominem where the primary critique is on the biases or other failings of the specific mainstream print reviewer.

Real and imagined tiers of authority exist not just between online and print publications, but also among the various MSM publications and their reviewers. So it’s an interesting development that some reviewers have also begun writing these contra-review blog posts about their peers. Reviewers reviewing reviewers is a rare event in print and likely a big to-do when it does occur. Since most mainstream reviewers are still not actively participating in the blogosphere, many are likely not even aware of these critiques. Others may be aware but don’t deign to answer… as yet. No need for the majors at the New Yorker or Times to concern themselves with contra-reviews from their minors, especially as they appear only in the low rent blogosphere.

At the core of these debates are basic questions concerning both the autonomy of writing (blogging) and the independence of so-called independent theatre. Critics and editors determine what artists are featured or reviewed. These critiques as always have a direct effect on box office and the representation of artist/producers of independent theatre. With reviewers and editors from MSM now entering the blogosphere, a new phase of self-censorship has begun. If the artist is submitting his art or theatre project to the MSM editor for consideration for feature or review, how vigorously and honestly can he also argue against a wrongheaded blog post by that same reviewer or editor? Meanwhile, the critic may be questioning himself along the same lines as Time Out Chicago theatre critic Chris Piatt is in his smart essay Theatre in the Blogosphere in the Chicago entertainment trade paper Performink.

These days, though, the thoughts on most arts journalists’ minds aren’t, “What did I think of the play, and what did my colleagues think,” but rather, “What does this blogger think about me?”….

The psychological grip these bloggers and their commenting minions hold on journalists can’t be underestimated. If you merely read what was printed about Chicago theatre this year, you only got the text. If you read the blogs, you also got the vital, constantly shifting subtext, postings that drilled their way into journalists’ psyches and leaked into their coverage….

In short, this year the main topic of conversation about theatre was the conversation itself, an argument about an argument that resulted in a ferment no one outside the scene could give a hoot about. (I acknowledge this not as a finger pointer but as an active participant, albeit at the mandate of my employers.)

Yet, despite its (at least for now) comparatively small readership, everyone in power fears the blogosphere for a different reason. Journalists can be scrutinized without sanction and—their source of real terror—their social station could eventually be taken by unpaid, untrained writers. Meanwhile, theatres and artists fear bloggers their P.R. machines can’t control. In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873.

At the core of blogging is self-censorship, but the comfort zone has as much to do with the writer as the reader. At the crux of the negotiation within ourselves is the private v. public dilemma of how we represent “who we are” in this new digital medium and how it impacts on the relationships to our theatre peers. The theatre blogosphere is a social network as much as a space for writing/reading. If we alienate a reader we can also be alienating a potential theatre peer, perhaps even the reviewer and partial author of our public representation.

When these contra-reviews occur among peers at the same tier level, high drama ensues. Regardless of whether one considers the exchanges high or low entertainment, the spectacle of these debates among artist/critics is undeniable. The silent audience of bloggers that surrounds these spectacles is deafening. But the No-Snark Marks are self-deceiving in pretending that it’s all too unsavory for the hallowed halls of their blog discussions. Issues such as bloggers writing “preview reviews” present important and complex dilemmas that need debate. Those who would retreat from such discussions do so in a self-censorship more storied than just refined manners.

8 thoughts on “The Preview Review & Reviewing the Reviewers: A Review

  1. Are we really harping on this dead horse again (to mix a metaphor or two)? Hunka’s “100 Saints” got flak first and foremost for his walking out at intermission (and still reviewing the show), and for his style of writing, which was a lengthy look at the playwright’s show. I think part of it also had to do with Hunka’s reputation as a former NYT freelance critic.

    Adam’s a comic playwright, and his entire piece on “Hunting and Gathering” is not only closer to “transcribed talk” than “crafted writing” but filled with generalities — there’s nothing specific, just a sense of Adam’s reaction to the play. (“Basically it follows four different characters who are linked to each other in different ways.” Could it be more vague?)

    Finally, Jacobs seemed to be most upset about the way in which reviewing a show still in transition (read: previews) could hurt the artist — as you mention about critics being worried about how the blogger perceives them, so can artists be affected by an early comment, well-grounded or not. Art’s sort of fragile. That’s another thing that Adam doesn’t do in his comments on the show . . .


  2. Mac Attack, Always been some McNick there, no doubt. You do some things just for the challenge or thrill. You get your ass kicked. But it’s not fear of getting beat up again that keeps you sitting on the porch playing the blues all day.
    (click here)
    The thrill is gone
    The thrill is gone away
    The thrill is gone baby
    The thrill is gone away
    You know you done me wrong baby
    And you’ll be sorry someday

    The thrill is gone
    It’s gone away from me
    The thrill is gone baby
    The thrill is gone away from me
    Although I’ll still live on
    But so lonely I’ll be

    The thrill is gone
    It’s gone away for good
    Oh, the thrill is gone baby
    Baby its gone away for good
    Someday I know I’ll be over it all baby
    Just like I know a man should

    You know I’m free, free now baby
    I’m free from your spell
    I’m free, free now
    I’m free from your spell
    And now that it’s over
    All I can do is wish you well

  3. I appreciate that! But please keep me out of this! It’s just a flame war begging to happen, you anti-intellectual, elitist Nazis!

  4. Thanks Ralph. I hadn’t read the Freeman post. Yeah, that’s right on.

    I hate reviews. You know what I mean. I hate them except when they provide a good pull-quote for my PR. I love reviews.

    Aaron, you and Leonard write a lot of reviews. So I guess the theatrosphere needs to appoint you both to that Supreme Court deciding on whether this or that, is or is not, a review. Don’t worry about third trimester definitions or anything like that, just use Justice Stewart’s method of ruling on pornography “I know it when I see it.” I’m sure all bloggers will defer to your authority. Me, as you know, could give a rat sass.

    No dead horse here. Theatres’ “management” will continue to give bloggers comps to preview productions and bloggers writing about previews presents a dilemma.

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