It all started with a huge mistake. Actually, I wouldn’t realize what a huge mistake it was until later. At first it seemed like the most professional and ethical thing I could do. The thing? Reviewing a show written by a dear friend of mine.
This was fairly early in my career (both generally and in this particular city) and so I felt that in order to REALLY show how objective, unwooable, immune to outside influences and principled I could be, I needed to do it. To sharpen my pencil and critically examine one of my closest friend’s labor of love.
It was fine, he said. Have at it, he said. And he meant it. Not that his seemingly laissez-faire, progressive attitude helped me much when, midway through his play, I knew I was going to have to give it a pan.
Long story short, I was true to my less than complimentary thoughts and reviewed it as I saw fit. And I was nauseous for about a full week after. I’m sure my friend felt the same way. At least I assume that’s why we didn’t speak for what felt like an eternity but was, in reality, probably only a couple of weeks.
Thankfully our lines of communication once again opened after the allotted guilt/anger period and we today remain thick as thieves. But the lesson I learned from this episode haunts me still. Like Jacob Marley warning Scrooge about the chains one forges in life, I too have heeded the exhortations and have been changed for good.
Under no circumstances should a critic review a friend’s play, I now firmly believe. Sure, but that was the obvious lesson. My epiphany went further than that. I walked away with a much deeper and, I believe, irreproachable set of principles. Under no circumstances EVER become friendly with anyone whose work you think you one day might want or need to review. It puts one in a potentially awkward position, it unnecessarily stresses friendships and most importantly, it leaves readers wondering what your motives are, whether you deliver a pan, a rave or something in between. It’s the motive one that I worry about most as reputation and credibility are things we, as critics, cannot afford to even come close to tarnishing.
(*Full disclosure, there has been one case in Houston where I have dined with an occasional theater maker who is a mutual friend of another journalist I’m close with. But it this instance, I have made it very clear to that artist that I will recuse myself should her work ever find its way on stage here in future.)
This ‘no theater friends’ principle is something I’ve adhered to for a long while now and so I was thrilled when a critic colleague, whom I like personally and respect professionally, recently decided to write about it. In his article entitled, Why it’s a bad idea for theatre critics to be friends with anyone who’s in the biz, (https://goo.gl/PsYM5u), NOW Magazine Editor/Writer Glen Sumi describes his own reasoning for why critics shouldn’t rub sociable shoulders with theater makers. Undeterred by other critics in his market who are not only friends with theater people, but have directed and even married them, Sumi lays out his own thoughtfully professional reasons for wanting to steer clear of these kind of conflicts.
I loved the article and said so loudly to all who would listen on social media and in earshot range. But I also felt that it didn’t go far enough. You see, laying out standards for how a critic behaves and who they befriend before a show is only half the battle. It’s also what we do post production that can give off the wrong impression and compromise a critic’s integrity.
Thou shalt not attend an opening night party where it is customary to socialize with the creative team and partake in free food and drink if thou are reviewing said show or will be reviewing one of their shows in future. Like an 11th Commandment meant just for critics, it’s a code of conduct I’ve assigned myself. It’s also a principle I’ve been recently talking about with my critic friends in Houston.
Not that everyone is happy to hear of my beliefs. Some critics feel that attendance at the after party is a kind of reward or thank you for their work. To them I counter that the free tickets (with the added bonus of a plus one) is the ‘reward’ for their work whereas the party is a thank you exclusively for the company’s patrons, friends and family. We should not as critics be scarfing down shrimp platters or draining wine bottles paid for by the companies we write about. Plus there’s always the threat of having to make pleasant small talk with folks that you may be going home to write unfavorably about. To my mind it’s bad manners at best and questionably unethical at worst.
Other critics argue that the opening eve party is a great place to chat to theater makers, gather insight and even score a nifty scoop or two. This holds a little more weight with me, but still I would argue that a party atmosphere where friendly socializing is going on is not the place for these discussions. You want insight from an actor/director/playwright? Book an interview. Don’t wait until they (and potentially you) are a tad tipsy or just post-show high and spilling beans. Critics should be professionals, not cocktail party buddies.
However, before anyone thinks I’m espousing a complete and impenetrable friendship firewall between critic and artist I’m happy to say that I have several close relationships with people in the theater. Friendships that have given me incredible insight into the struggles, challenges and issues that directors, actors, writers and designers face. Friendships that have absolutely sharpened my eye, deepened my knowledge and made me a better critic.
But here’s the thing. These theater artist friends of mine live nowhere near my reviewing area. Most of them aren’t even in the same country as I am. Some relationships were forged after leaving a city to go write elsewhere and some I’ve actively sought out as sounding boards to help me get a better understanding of their craft. After all, who wants a critic that doesn’t intimately appreciate how uniquely creative a projection designer needs to be or all the ways a director shapes a show or how an actor feels when they land a role in a play they know isn’t very good and so on. Yes we can read about these things or study them in school, but there’s no greater insight than hearing it from the horse’s mouth. And insight for us who judge is a priceless commodity.
Now I know that my stance is by no means the consensus among critics. I’ve been told that my principles are overly strict, isolating and just plain silly. After all, we are all part of the same ecosystem and surely we can co-exist as friends, understanding that each has a job to do. And if that works for other critics, I will respectfully agree to disagree and conclude that everyone must conduct their own ethical policing as they see fit. I just know what works for me and what lets me sleep at night.
My purpose for writing this was not necessarily to change anyone’s mind or wag a finger at those that behave differently than I do. But rather to disclose the way I work. And as always to start a conversation.
I’ve always believed that my reviews aren’t verdicts, but rather the start of a discussion. I hope this ‘review’ of my own process does the same.