Berkshire Critic Larry Murray Seven
It's a Wrap
By: Larry Murray and Charles Giuliano - Mar 12, 2011
Charles Giuliano Can you be a bit more specific about the new media. What are the available strategies for on line critics and commentators seeking to initiate critical discourse? This started out as a dialogue about on line journalism and whether it is respected. Perhaps we can break down that broad umbrella term. Is there a difference between the writing of individuals who report on and review performances and the concept of criticism? For most critics the primary focus is why they do or do not like a show. They offer consumer advice on seeing the show.
Having worked on both sides of the fence how do you see the role of the critic?
Larry Murray I think the word "critic" contains an inherent bias and is perhaps a vestige of a time long gone. Back in the days where there was just print, no radio, television or internet, the "critic" had a role as intermediary between the artist and public. People were more reliant on experts to help them figure out what was worth their attention. People have more self confidence inter choices these days, so I think the role of critic has changed greatly. I prefer to think of myself as an observer, and that what I write is more like a report of what was on stage. Our readers can make their own judgments based on the facts.
All of us try to be more attuned to what the public is interested in, especially what goes into the decision to buy tickets. But we are in communications, not sales.
My approach is informed by the time spent with major arts organizations like the Boston Ballet, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Arts Boston (an audience development organization). Earlier, I cut my teeth on Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, the Boston Opera Players and the Pocket Mime Theatre, where it was more than just PR or fundraising. It was survival. There was never enough money or visibility for them, so I expanded my reach by serving on lots of boards and grant making panels. Hands on is the best teacher.
Putting something worthy on stage is hard work. As you mentioned earlier, our colleague Peter Bergman (The Advocate and Berkshire Bright Focus.com) has seen an astounding number of productions in his lifetime, but what people don't know is that he has been on the front lines of theatrical production as well. So has Gail Burns (Gail Sez.com) All three of us have paid our dues and know the collaborative nature of theatre from the first reading to dress rehearsal and opening night. The process for dance and symphonic music is not that much different either.
For the past few years I have begun writing about all this via Arts America, Berkshire Fine Arts and now Berkshire on Stage. I think I bring a unique perspective to arts reporting, just as you do. This is reflected in the different approaches to previews and interviews that each writer has.
CG The critic often seems intent on marketing what they are reporting on. The three minute TV reviews of Boston’s Joyce Kulhawik often ended with a kick line like “run don’t walk to see the Nutcracker at the Wang Center.” Followed with a bit of happy talk with the anchor. Of course those hypebytes sell far more tickets than an in depth review by superb writers like Carolyn Clay in the Boston Phoenix. Theatre companies love to extract gush lines and phrases for their ads.
Publicist Charles Cohen of the Charles Playhouse was the master of the pull out quote. The late Elliot Norton, the dean of Boston’s critics, would pan a show with a line like “An incredible bore.” Cohen would run an ad that said “Incredible” Elliot Norton, the Record American. Charles was fun and clever and managed to breathe life into shows that were D.O.A. on opening night.
LM I remember Charles well, we crossed swords, though over what is long forgotten. We often used to laugh at his chutzpah and legerdemain with those outrageous ads and publicity stunts. But some of us were also very upset at his tactics and lapses of ethics. He made more promises than he could ever keep. While he was a charming character, he sometimes gave us flacks a dubious reputation with the hacks.
CG There is a bit of cat and mouse between the role of the critic and that of a publicist. At times the borders are blurred. Of course there are times when critics are perceived as having a vendetta against theatres. Ben Sack of Sack Theatres famously banned the Globe’s Kevin Kelly and TV critic, Pat Collins, from his chain of Boston movie houses. The two critics flew to New York for movie openings. Eventually Sack relented.
LM Ben Sack got his comeuppance when Alan Friedberg, who was VP of Sack Theatres. He pulled a coup d'état and unseated the big guy taking over the chain and removing Sack's name. Alan was a lawyer, and manipulator. The chain declined on his watch which tells you something.He never cared much for critics either.
What do you think is needed to be a good critic?
CG The designation critic evokes a depth of analysis and understanding of the work in question and media in general. It does not demand prior knowledge of the work in question but grounding in the process of critical thinking is crucial. The intent is to guide the reader through the work.
At another level are scholars who write for magazines and journals. The New Yorker, for example, appears to sit on the cusp between journalism and the academy. Those who cover the arts for daily and weekly newspapers are critics. Their pieces are generally shorter. Now and then they might write a longer, more in depth piece.
Lengthy features are written by scholars who are invited to popularize their views in the New Yorker. Normally scholars write for journals with small and specific audiences or books with small editions and limited readership. In an ideal world one would like to read journalism capable of combining an accessible, populist style, with in depth critical thinking and well researched scholarship. The reality is that most of what we read is flawed in one or another aspect. Newspaper critics, and blog reviewers, for the most part, are content to convey biased information to the reader. At times this is couched as advocacy. If you follow certain writers with any consistency you get to know their prejudices. That filters the value of their information and insights. It is a kind of built in disclaimer. We know that so and so likes this or that. Or is an advocate for some or another special interest or fringe position. Of course when it is obvious that’s a bore. But even with that bias it is better to read a reviewer who has an opinion than one who does not. There is nothing more turgid and time consuming than reading bland, generic prose.
LM I like it when the tastes and preferences of writers are right there, up front. The most important quality these days is "authenticity" which can manifest itself as snarky commentary, or genuine rapture. If you read particular critics you come to have a feeling for their concerns and point of view. All writers tend to reach a readership of like minded individuals.
You are very knowledgeable in far more areas than me, for example the visual arts, jazz and rock. I am more limited to classical music and, oddly, bluegrass. I have a following in the LGBT community and often write about that aspect in works that I cover or preview. If a play has a lesbian character why keep it a secret? The gay commmunity could be potential ticket buyers, or fascinated by the subject. It may also turn some people off. Better that than upsetting them halfway through the first act.
It's part of who I am, and part of helping people make an informed decision about seeing a play. Frankly, one of my objectives is to develop that voice and audience in the Berkshires.
CG The academy has trained a generation of artists, curators and critics in the patois which we describe as art speak. Conveying lucid ideas through accessible writing is certainly not the point. The text assumes that we have a similar education in contemporary philosophy and its resultant lexicon. This is the kind of short hand of semiotics that navigates us through the mind field of their cultural apparatus.
Of course that this reaches only a handful of the devout makes little or no difference. It is not about communication but rather conflates to seeking tenure and status in the academy. It is the publish or perish route to prestige and chaired positions in the best universities.
It is relevanty in the sense that academic critical thinking adjusts the level of the bar that we attempt to jump over. There is a trickle down impact as it influences programming and what we get to see. It influences what is presented at American Repertory Theatre, Jacob's Pillow, or Mass MoCA to give just a few examples. Now and then you might find something that is actually interesting but that is not the point.
LM While there are some highbrow aspects to what those companies are doing, there is also a very strong populist streak, aimed very intentionally at the infamous "younger" demographic. Some of what Diane Paulus is doing at ART - in the Oberon space - is little more than staged rock shows in a barely disguised club setup.
That is not to say there isn't some Shakespeare or classic Greek play in the mix, somewhere, but it is more of a thread for an evening's entertainment than an intellectual discourse.
I happen to love everything she is doing, and nobody has been more successful at revitalizing traditional theatre for a multi-tasking world. Whether that is ultimately good, or a permanent change remains to be seen. As Kate Maguire likes to say, it's important to create "theatre that matters."
CG Actually I wish that our Berkshire theatre companies were more avant-garde. It would be nice now and then if they actually tried something that was tough and experimental. Berkshire Theatre Festival deserves some credit. They have given us Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame. But that stopped being avant-garde a generation ago. They also presented that kakkamanie version of Macbeth and the sukiyaki method or whatever the heck it was. You were very involved with the Beckett productions at BTF and interviewed Randy Harrison who performed the famous Lucky speech in Godot and was confined to a trash can in Endgame. You also wrote about the Suzuki Method in the BTF production of Macbeth. Can you tell is more about those insights?
LM I don't think any of the Berkshire groups are doing truly experimental work. It's mostly new works, but more about that in a minute.
As to the Suzuki Macbeth, I was struck by the BTF's staging which was initially puzzling. I was given the privilege of attending a rehearsal, but it wasn't until the work was actually on stage that I really saw it. The actors moved swiftly around like giant chess pieces. They acted with little gesticulation and minimal inflection. Their mouths moved. Little else did. Then everyone would rearrange themselves for the next scene. And sort of freeze.
It puzzled me, and I never saw any program notes about this Macbeth being done using the Suzuki method. Eric Hill is one of the great American masters of this form. As it dawned on me that it was being done, perhaps as an experiment to see if anyone caught on, it made sense to me. So I wrote about it that way. I had a lot of flack from that review, too.
I think if they had explained this very different approach to Shakespeare, their audiences and critics might have been more fully appreciated and applauded. It was like a Kurosawa Macbeth. Absolutely faithful to Shakespeare, but in a staging style that added another dimension of interest.
CG Why I am not all that excited about Guys and Dolls opening the season at Barrington Stage? When they announced it seemed that they had a lock by opening with a perennial favorite. Indeed ticket sales have been incredible. But now the Colonial will have Randy Harrison in Tommy just up the street. How do you see the impact of having two hit musicals opening the season in Pittsfield?
LM I see it as brilliant because of the synergy it creates. When you have one antique store in a distant town, you think twice before making the trip. But put two or more antique shops in one locale and it becomes a "destination". In the Berkshires we actually have four great theatre companies in one compact area. Guys and Dolls and Tommy are both crowd pleasers, as is the zany, screwball You Can't Take it With You at Williamstown and Romeo and Juliet in Lenox.
Of course we are excited to finally see Harrison in a singing role. It will be his first in the Berkshires, and he has a large following among younger theatre goers.
Twenty and thirty-somethings will have more than just Randy Harrison to pull them here. Finn Wittrick stars as Romeo at Shakespeare & Company about the same time. He is a very popular regular on All My Children. If I were planning a week in the Berkshires I would try to see all four of these shows. They each have their niche audiences too.
CG Here in the Berkshires I really miss our years as subscribers to American Repertory Theatre. When I was in grad school I had a gig running the concession stand at ART. Doug Schwalbe was the artistic director before Robert Brustein left Yale for Harvard. There was an interim period under Robert Woodruff and now a new era with Diane Paulus who has taken ART in a different direction. I really wish there was more of that avant-garde sensibility in Berkshire theatre.
LM We are playing with quicksand when we try to encourage our local equity companies to be more experimental, especially on the main stage. They have to build their programs on a model that is sustainable, and the audience for the avant-garde is very limited in terms of box office. New shows can be hits. But really cutting edge shows are rarely able to do much box office.
The Last Goodbye at Williamstown was a rock update of Romeo and Juliet that had lines of people waiting before each performance for a chance at a returned ticket. It was updated, but based on proven music by Jeff Buckley. It was in the smaller Nikos so the rush for tickets didn't help a lot.
You have to admire WTF for their risk taking, and it panned out on that one. But one or two shows with great reviews and poor ticket sales could sink a company. As the theatre promoter Sol Hurok said: "When the audience doesn't want to come, there's no stopping them."
When Julie Boyd at Barrington Stage, Tony Simotes of Shakespeare & Company, Kate Maguire of Colonial/ BTF and Jenny Gersten of Williamstown Theatre Festival make their choices, they have to fit within a budget set by their boards. Each production requires fundraising to make it possible. So the artistic director has to please not only the public, but keep to a budget and find an angel. The last thing they worry about is what someone like me will think of their choices.
Nevertheless, Boyd has the Musical Theatre Lab and Bill Finn for the new works. Maguire uses the Unicorn for introducing new plays and directors. Gersten and Williamstown have the Nikos Theatre, and Shakespeare & Company has the Bernstein Theatre, the Rose Footprint and the great outdoors.
CG But what about the far out, cutting edge experimental works?
LM That takes technical resources. Mass MoCA continually presents its idea of experimental work, and it is sometimes remarkable. But the investment and facilities are at EMPAC at RPI in Troy, New York. which is why their Experimental Media Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) concert hall and theater are a wonder to behold, as is the building it operates in.
If you want a glimpse of the future of the performing arts, it is there - mixed with the latest technology. I think it accomplishes what Mass MoCA set out to do. Some of the things artists at Mass MoCA have done fall just short of self-indulgent masturbation. Sometimes the goal seems to be to impress the audience with a flimsy idea rather than to provoke them with a real insight. Fatal mistake. So they win some, and lose others. MoCA also has its share of successes, especially in the performing arts. The Wilco Solid Sound Festival and their novel dance parties for example. To this observer, some of what they present is just what is hot in Brooklyn at the moment, especially the comedians and club music. That is just following a trend, not setting one.
I am a big fan of EMPAC since their facilities are first class, and you can see perfectly from every seat. MoCA has a long way to go on that score. When I went to see An Evening in the Old Marketplace, all the seats were flat on the floor which made seeing difficult. I understand it was because the staff complained they didn't like rearranging the seats in the flex space. It was too much work. Well, what the hell did they spend the money on risers for, and who is in charge, anyway. One might conclude that the audience's experience of a work is of secondary importance to them. Short term thinking always undermines long term growth.
If you want to get beyond the normal comfort level, there is Stacy Klein's Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA which is a living laboratory for theatre innovation. Hardly anyone has heard of it, and it is a long drive, but what it does is important, and the audience has a great time sharing in each year's unique offerings.
As to the technology, the one thing I have noticed is how fleeting everything is. Once everyone flocked to the chat rooms, then the forums and news groups; at least until everyone found My Space, which was pretty much abandoned like last year's "in" club in favor of Facebook. Or Twitter. These days it might be just plain texting with friends. Blogging is still big but there are many more of us than most people can handle. Some blogs struggle to find readers and give up. You and I have the advantage of consistency, a history and a degree of objectivity, and the awareness that we are writing for the reader, not for ourselves.
Most of the cultural organizations now have staff that work the social media, do the tweeting and wall writing, and most of the theatre companies have someone with a video camera who shoots advance stories for their own blogs, and for embedding by others. Part of their appeal to the intimacy of their approach - they present themselves as real people and talk to their ticket buyers one on one. You and I are part of that mix, because we extend their family of supporters to include our own readers and ticket buyers. Our reviews and interviews add authenticity as well, and together I believe we make the arts more interesting and accessible to the general public.
We are one voice among many, and that is the whole idea.