Posts Tagged ‘Critic’

My Inner Critic, My Friend

This piece was originally published in July, 2014, and recent conversations with friends prompted me to post it again.

Clearing out stacks of old boxes recently, I re-discovered my old theatrical reviews. The crumbling newspaper clippings instantly transported me back to the ’70s and 80’s, those 25 years I worked as a professional actress.

Ann Sachs, Frank Langella. DRACULA 1978. © Martha Swope

Ann Sachs and Frank Langella in DRACULA on Broadway in 1978. © Martha Swope

Re-reading the notices, I marveled that every production was still with me. But something was missing: I had no memory of the good reviews. One flattering phrase after another felt as if I was reading love letters I’d never seen before! Yet I knew that for at least one fleeting moment once-upon-a-time, I had treasured every word. 

The bad reviews? (Those from… how shall I say, the “Outer Critics”?) felt as if they’d been on CNN this morning!

Partial amnesia regarding reviews is one of many occupational hazards of being a performer. Most actors, especially early in their careers, tend to believe the good OR the bad, but not both. With me, unfortunately, the bad always came out ahead. I’ve been hard on myself for as long as I can remember, and the negative reviews sounded as familiar as the ones I had always drafted for myself.

Many years ago, when the whole routine had become rather depressing, my dear husband suggested that I create my own system to evaluate my work. He said “It’ll give you feedback you can trust.”

So… before and during rehearsals for my next job, I kept track of everything I was worried about:

1. Belief that I was miscast
2. Working with a new dialect
3. Tension with the director
4. Physical costume challenges
5. Too much or too little chemistry with my leading man

The list went on and on, and as I tried to invent ways of becoming comfortable with my crazy-making stuff, my “Inner Critic” introduced herself to me. Note: I tend to refer to her in the third person, as if she is real.

S-l-o-w-l-y, she and I began to build benchmarks based on habits and pitfalls I had supposedly learned to manage: 

1. Ease (or lack thereof) getting off book
2. Number of crying jags (joyful)
3. Number of crying jags (furious)
4. Sore throats, rashes, headaches, mystery pains
5. Degree of neurosis during tech rehearsals

Truth be told, my Inner Critic IS real, and over the years she has become a trusted part of myself. 

In the mid-1990s I was thinking about shifting the focus of my work… doing something other than performing.  Almost everyone I knew was shocked that I might “walk away” from my career; many tried to talk me out of it. My Inner Critic was with me, however,  and we weighed the points of my colleagues, friends and family. Ultimately we took a leap into the unknown side-by-side. That was when I knew that she was a friend for life.

So… as I was recently rifling through those boxes, reading my old reviews and was catapulted back into believing the bad ones, I wondered where the hell she was!?

But not for long. As expected, she made her entrance just in time to set me straight.
 
She’s on my shoulder now. And I’m deeply grateful she is here.

_______________________________________________________

Critic* \’krɪ-tɪk\ noun 
1   a: one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique
      b: one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances  
2  one given to harsh or captious judgments
*From Merriam-Webster® An Encyclopedia Britannica Company 

On CRITICS, CRITICISM and READING REVIEWS

 
critics-corner-promo-01-4_3

The definition of the word CRITIC, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, seems simple and sensible. To me, however, it’s the most complicated of the 8 roles of Theatrical Intelligence.

CRITIC:  from the Greek κριτικός (kri-ti-kós), Latin criticus (noun) “able to discern”.
1: one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique
2: one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances
3: one given to harsh or captious judgment
 
CRITICISM: ˈkri-təˌsi-zə(noun) the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature:
1. expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes: “he ignored the criticisms of his friends”.
2. analysis and judgment of a literary or artistic work: “methods of criticism supported by literary theories”.

When I speak about the roles of Theatrical Intelligence, I always introduce the Critic last. Why?  It’s the final role in the collaborative sequence, and… well, I want to delay the inevitable groans: “No-o-o! How could you? Critics? What do they know?!”   

It’s tricky to think of critics as part of the collaborative art form that is the theatre. They are in a position to champion or kill a play, a performance, or an entire production. They don’t work directly with the other 7 roles, so it doesn’t feel like collaborators. But they are. In fact (depending on the phase of development) their objectivity is essential to the success of the project. 

Many years ago when I worked as an actor, I remembered every bad review I ever received. Verbatim. Everyone did. It seemed to be an occupational hazard to remember the awful ones and forget the raves. My theory for this (and I’m not alone) is that no one can be as harsh a critic about me as I am about myself, so whatever is written by a critic is already imprinted on my brain.

Once, a notoriously mean-spirited critic compared a performance of mine to an electric blender. Yes, you read that right. My friends thought it was a hilarious achievement and therefore a wonderful notice, but I thought I’d never get over it. 

Recently I decided to re-read my theatrical notices, figuring that 20 years would give me enough distance to gain some objectivity. It did. I admit that the blender paragraph still stung a bit, but most revealing was that I had no memory of the good reviews. It was as if  I was reading love letters that I’d never received, yet I knew I’d read every one of them. Selective amnesia. A theatrical phenomenon.

The insightful quotations below are from ten stellar theatre critics who reflect on their profession:  

Brooks AtkinsonBrooks Atkinson (1894 – 1984)

1. “There is no joy so great as that of reporting that a good play has come to town.”

********

*********

Pauline Kael (Chris Carroll)Pauline Kael (1919 – 2001)

2. “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

****************

***************

Walter KerrWalter Kerr (1919 – 1996)

3. “It is not a reviewer’s business to “sell” plays, but surely it is a playwright’s business not to write plays in such a way that the barest, most gingerly mention of the plot material in a review will kill the play dead on the spot.”

*************************

**************************

 

KennethTynanKenneth Tynan (1927 – 1980)

4. “A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.

********************

********************

 

Wendy RosenfieldWendy Rosenfield  (Born 1969)

5. “I don’t believe arts criticism is itself art. But that doesn’t mean it is without its own merits… criticism (and even reviews, if you choose to make that distinction) offers a record of how our civilization responded to the arts. Theater critics are not theater artists, but we are recorded proof that theater mattered, and for me, that’s more than enough.”

*********************

*********************

 

Jason Zinoman 2Jason Zinoman (Born 1975)

6. “To be a good critic, you need to hustle and be curious and scrap and think harder in a short period of time than anyone else about these plays. You need to be stubborn in your convictions and firm in the idea that the crowd is not always right.”

**************************

**************************

 

Robert HurwittRobert Hurwitt (Born 1942)

7. I subscribe strongly to the idea that all criticism should be constructive. You’re not in the business of tearing people down. Part of your responsibility as a critic is being a consumer advocate. You have to make judgments as to whether a show is something people want to spend their money on.”

************************

************************

 

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde (1854 –1900)

8. “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.”

**********************

*********************  

 

Andy WarholAndy Warhol (1928 – 1987)

9. “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

**********************

**********************

 

Frank RichFrank Rich (Born 1949)

10. “The most wonderful street in the universe is Broadway. It is a world within itself. High and low, rich and poor, pass along at a rate peculiar to New York, and positively bewildering to a stranger.” 

**********************
**********************

These critics are collaborators. And I think I may just love every one of them.

*********************

*********************

Photo Credits: Thumbs Up/Down: USA Today Design; Atkinson:ONB/Wein; Kael: Chris Carroll; Kerr: The New York Times; Tynan: Stuart Heydinger/The Observer; Rosenfield: Ms. Rosenfield;  Hurwitt: San Francisco Chronicle; Zinoman: Splitsider; Wilde: Napoleon Sarony; Warhol: Susan Greenwood/Getty Images; Rich: CNBC

 

When You’re Feeling Creatively Stuck…

An earlier version of this post was published as “What Role Were You Born to Play?” in June 2009.

Behind the stage door, great wisdom lives...

When you’re feeling creatively stuck, it’s time to identify those inborn talents of your youth – the ones that went into hiding as you morphed into an adult – and rediscover your Theatrical Intelligence. 

Try this:

Think back to your childhood. Remember the neighborhood where you grew up? 

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and inhale the smell of that long ago place. If the neighborhood isn’t quite clear for some reason, or if you moved around a lot, breathe in a moment or two of shared secrets with your closest friend…

As you’re breathing, ask yourself: Was there a time when you and your friends decided to put together an event of some kind?  A gymnastics demonstration? A neighborhood circus with performances by your pets? Maybe a swimming show with a lemonade stand? Whatever it was, your part in this event made you really proud.

Write down what you remember. I’m willing to bet that your actions resemble one or more of The 8 Roles of Theatrical Intelligence, listed below:

1.    The WRITER: You had an idea and wrote it down. You understood the concept: tell the audience, tell them again, and tell them that you told them; with humor, drama and clarity.

2.    The ACTOR: You performed. You lived moment-to-moment. You understood that timing is everything, and that theatre isn’t larger than life – it is AS LARGE as life!

3.    The DIRECTOR: You “saw” the ideas as if they already existed, then staged it to please the audience. Your friends placed their trust in you because you gave them positive feedback about their strengths, and you made them feel good about themselves.

4.    The PRODUCER: You thought up the whole event, assigned your buddies the tasks that matched their strengths, sold the idea to everyone in the neighborhood and got them to pay for tickets. You invited everyone you saw, and one restaurant owner was so enthusiastic he threw an after-show party at your request.

5.   The DESIGNER: You envisioned the environment for the event. You drew it with vivid strokes and it took on a life of its own. You told your friends what to build, what to wear and why they had to wear it in spite of their objections (and they thanked you for it afterwards!)

6.    The STAGE MANAGER: You knew that your best buddy’s vision could be built. You crafted the schedule as to what had to be done by when, so your friends would have a chance to practice. You arranged parking places for bikes, strollers, cars, and managed the traffic and access to rest rooms.

7.   The TECHNICIAN: You made calculations from your friend’s drawings, found the right person to donate materials and stayed up all night building the set. You finished on time, and with no budget. When people got nervous and asked “What’s happening?” you replied “Workin’ on it!”

8.    The CRITIC: You recognized problems from the get-go, and knew that if the project had been approached from a different perspective it would have worked better. But heck, it was fun, and set the precedent for the next time. You wrote a flattering article for the Neighborhood News, in which you had instigated the “Kids’ Column”.

Do any of these roles sound familiar?

As kids, chances are that we played at least two roles with complete abandon. And as we morphed into grown-ups, many of us ended up playing a role that didn’t quite fit.

  1. What was the role (or roles) that you played?
  2. Are you currently playing one of them in your daily life?
  3. If not, when did it (or they) go underground?
  4. What was it about the event that made it so unforgettable?
  5. Can you imagine experiencing it again?

The goal of Theatrical Intelligence is to IDENTIFY the roles that gave you such joy and freedom as a child, TAP INTO that creative pulse you’ve been craving, and USE IT in your daily life.

Once you’ve experienced that pulse, it will keep on beating. Hold it close to you. Unexpected opportunity awaits.

 

Theatrical Lingo

Theatrical lingo, much like theatrical logic, works sort of like a secret code. “BREAK A LEG” in theatre jargon, for instance, means “Good Luck!” The term refers to the “break or bend of the leg” while taking a bow or curtsy. It’s as if the felicitation says “Great success tonight, with many curtain calls!”

A few favorite examples of this imaginative (sometimes loony) lingo are listed below:

Frank Rich and I share a laugh...

GHOST LIGHT: Theatrical superstition says that if an empty theatre is left completely dark, a ghost will take up residence. That’s the reason a single ghost light is left burning center stage in every theatre in America, after everyone has gone home. I’ve often wondered if the light is to keep the ghosts out, or to welcome them in. Probably both.

The light also serves as a practical safety measure in case someone wanders near the edge of the stage without knowing that an orchestra pit looms below, awaiting their potentially hazardous fall.

The fact that I cherish most about ghost lights, however, is that each one is carefully crafted by a stagehand. And like snowflakes, no two are alike. 

Frank Rich’s memoir, Ghost Light, is required reading for anyone serious about the theatre. (Is it necessary to disclose that Mr. Rich modeled the definitions of Writer and Critic for me decades ago? Well, anyway, he did. And he continues to inspire me with his Theatrical Intelligence in our changing world.)  He and I had a good laugh recently on the stage of Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre (see photo above): the usual clear filament bulb had been exchanged for a CFL – a compact fluorescent, or “green” bulb!  Less traditional perhaps, but a good superstition is hard to kill.

GEORGE SPELVIN: A fictitious theatrical name. Actors use this pseudonym to remain anonymous or to avoid their name appearing twice in the program if they’re playing more than one role. Sometimes the name is used when a character mentioned in the text never appears onstage; by crediting the role to “George (or Giorgio, Georgina, Georgette) Spelvin”, the audience isn’t tipped off that the character never shows up. Occasionally Actors Equity members working under a Non-Union contract (alas!) use the name to avoid penalties associated with Non-Union work.

VOMITORY: In a thrust or arena theatre, a vomitory is a ramped or stepped tunnel, giving performers access to the stage from beneath the seating area (see photo, right, of Arena Stage in Washington, DC). The term probably originated from the days of Roman amphitheatres, when those who were thrown to the lions managed to escape to tunnels under the arena, vomiting along the way. (Gross enough for you?)

Arena Stage's Fichandler © Nic Lehoux

Theatrical lingo includes hundreds of colorful terms, and just as many off-color ones. Please share your favorite in the Comment section above.

If you’re the first to come up with one I’ve never heard of, you’ll be my guest at a Broadway show!

 

What Role Were You Born To Play?

Recently I’ve re-connected with some old friends who cannot wait to retire. They’re ready to do what they’ve “always loved doing” because for one reason or another, they didn’t end up doing it in their regular work.

If you are stuck in a job you don’t like, tapping into your Theatrical Intelligence can help. Identifying your inborn talent(s) that may have gone underground in your adult life, can get you unstuck.

Try this:

Think back to your childhood. Remember the neighborhood where you grew up?  Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and inhale the smell of that long ago place. If the neighborhood isn’t clear, or you moved around a lot, picture a time when you shared secrets with your closest friend…

Was there a time when you and your friends decided to put together an event of some kind?  A gymnastics demonstration? A neighborhood circus with performances by your pets? Maybe a swimming show with a lemonade stand? Whatever it was, YOUR part in this event made you really proud.

Write down what you remember. I’m willing to bet it resembles one or more of The 8 Roles of Theatrical Intelligence:

1.    The WRITER: You had an idea and wrote it down. You understood the concept: tell the audience, tell them again, and tell them that you told them; with humor, drama and clarity.

2.    The ACTOR: You performed. You lived moment-to-moment. You understood that timing is everything, and that theatre isn’t larger than life – it is AS LARGE as life!

3.    The DIRECTOR: You “saw” the ideas as if they already existed, then staged it to please the audience. Your friends placed their trust in you because you gave them positive feedback about their strengths, and you made them feel good about themselves.

4.    The PRODUCER: You thought up the whole event, assigned your buddies the tasks that matched their strengths, sold the idea to everyone in the neighborhood and got them to pay for tickets. You invited everyone you saw, and one restaurant owner was so enthusiastic he threw an after-show party at your request.

5.   The DESIGNER: You envisioned the environment for the event. You drew it with vivid strokes and it took on a life of its own. You told your friends what to build, what to wear and why they had to wear it in spite of their objections (and they thanked you for it afterwards!)

6.    The STAGE MANAGER: You knew that your best buddy’s vision could be built. You crafted the schedule as to what had to be done by when, so your friends would have a chance to practice. You arranged parking places for bikes, strollers, cars, and managed the traffic and access to rest rooms.

7.   The TECHNICIAN: You made calculations from your friend’s drawings, found the right person to donate materials and stayed up all night building the set.  You finished on time, and with no budget. When people got nervous and asked “What’s happening?” you replied “Workin’ on it!”

8.    The CRITIC: You recognized problems from the get-go, and knew that if it had been approached from a different perspective it would have worked better. But heck, it was fun, and set the precedent for the next time. You wrote a flattering article for the Neighborhood News, in which you had instigated the “Kids’ Column”.

Do any of these roles sound familiar? Even at an early age your Theatrical Intelligence was at work.

What made your event so unforgettable? What worked?

You wanted everyone to talk about the event all week! That is the first of The 6 Principles of Theatrical Intelligence:

1. Everyone shares the same goal.

Next, everyone would’ve been mortified if no one showed up, if one of the pets didn’t cooperate, or if the setting wasn’t finished. Embarrassment doesn’t begin to describe it! That’s the second principle:

2. Everyone shares the risk.

What else worked? Everyone worked together and beat the deadline!  Third principle:

3. Collaboration rules!

The 4th principle takes over (sometimes against all odds) when a show is being developed:

4. The work matters.

Chances are that you experienced 4 of The 6 Principles before you were 8 years old.

(The 5th and 6th principles occur when there’s a more sophisticated level of production: 5. Failure is your friend, and the fastest way to learn. 6. Success comes with the courage to step into the unknown. We’ll take those on later.)

I believe that every one of you was born with Theatrical Intelligence. As a kid, chances are that you played at least two roles with complete abandon. And as you morphed into a grown-up, you may have ended up playing a role that didn’t quite fit. It happens to many of us.

What was the role you were born to play?

Are you currently playing it?

If not, when did it go underground?

How will you get it back?

The goal of Theatrical Intelligence is to IDENTIFY the role(s) that gave you such joy and freedom as a child, and put them to USE in your daily life.