Arts reviewing, storytelling, and why I run away from talkbacks

Arts reviewing, storytelling, and why I run away from talkbacks

Last night I had the privilege of attending one of Laurie Van Wieren’s locally famed 9×22 Dance Labs at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. As per usual in the monthly series (named for the dimensions of the modest stage), three dance artists presented their work, and each performance was followed by a conversation with the audience, moderated by Van Wieren. The trio Mad King Thomas discussed how moving to separate cities has impacted their process; Penelope Freeh talked about the relationship between her dancers Alejandra Iannone and Brittany Keefe; and the duo who go by the name ROXANNE fielded questions about their decision to bring dogs into their piece.

It was fun and it was fascinating, but to be quite honest, it didn’t change my personal feeling about talkbacks: I tend to flee them. Part of the reason for that is simply the awkwardness and—especially when in a crowd that’s less savvy than the insider-heavy 9×22 audience—the predictability of the format, and another reason is that I like to give a piece some space to settle before interacting with the artists as people. (Even as a kid, I hated it when actors would be waiting in the lobby to greet audience members.) It’s also, though, because—as a critic—talkbacks sometimes give me more information than I really want to know.

Last night’s onstage conversations made me think of a question posed by Levi Weinhagen, a theater artist and writer, in a Facebook group associated with the upcoming Superscript conference: “What’s the difference between arts criticism and helping artists tell their stories?” The dance lab helped me crystallize my answer to that question: telling artists’ stories is one thing, but criticism is another. Criticism is telling my stories—my stories about my experiences with artists’ work.

By the time each dance ended last night, I’d begun reacting to the piece and started to develop some sense of what I might have written about it if I’d been approaching it as a critic. Once each post-performance conversation began, I considered whether what I was learning would affect what I’d have written about the dance—and the answer, in each case, was that of course it would have. In many ways, I would have been better-informed, but what I’d have written would have veered away from criticism and towards the telling of artists’ stories. It would have included more information about the artists’ processes, and less about the experience of actually sitting there watching the work unfold.

I’m not a purist about this—that’s unworkable, and, at some point, a strict tell-me-nothing approach would actually become unprofessional. (Not that that’s ever stopped me.) I read program notes, which I consider to be essentially part of the performance, being as they’re actively distributed to every audience member entering the venue. I bring with me, of course, whatever I know of artists’ previous work, and I’ll sometimes read published interviews to clarify questions about a piece’s development—though I usually wait until after I’ve at least drafted a review before I do so.

I acknowledge that this approach can become problematic. The biggest mess I’ve stepped in by failing to understand how a piece was developed came when I reviewed the Guthrie Theater’s 2010 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I complained about the overbearing use of sound effects and blamed the director and sound designer, only to have commenters point out that the use of offstage sound effects was in the script—so I should have been blaming Tennessee Williams.

Okay, that was embarrassing for me not to have known. I added a note of apology and correction to the review—but reflecting further on the production, in a sense I stuck to my guns. The sound effects were overbearing in that show, and later productions I’ve seen have used much more subtle effects or even bucked the script and omitted them completely, as I suggested at the time that I might have done if I were the director. (Too bad Tennessee Williams wasn’t around to write sarcastically, as one playwright did in an e-mail after I panned his show, “I’m sorry my play wasn’t as good as the better, cooler play you wrote in an imaginary alternate universe.”)

So no, it’s not feasible or desirable to write a review that’s ignorant of relevant details regarding a work’s development—but “relevant” is a matter of debate, and what defines criticism is its independence from an artist’s take on what a piece means. A review obviously shouldn’t be factually inaccurate, but if I opine that a sound effect is cheesy and distracting, that’s my description of my experience, and neither the director nor the sound designer nor the playwright—no, not even Tennessee Williams—can tell me I’m wrong.

I’ll often begin a review with a personal story, to accentuate the fact that fundamentally, a review is about my experience with a piece. Criticism can’t replace the telling of artists’ stories—whether through other forms of arts journalism or by the artists themselves—but it can provide a different kind of value, join a different kind of conversation.

After I see a movie—and after I write a review, if I’m going to—the first thing I do isn’t to read an interview with the director, but to read what The New Yorker and The New York Times critics had to say about the film. I’m typically less interested in how a work came to be than with the place it has, once it’s completed, in the public conversation about art. That’s a different kind of conversation than the telling of an artist’s story, or a conversation about artistic process: it’s a conversation about the points at which art intersects our lives, the points at which ideas and emotions are passed from the artists to the public.

Jay Gabler