We Should Review Community Theatre....Honestly
- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
There is, and as far as I have been able to determine, always has been a problem with reviews of community theater productions. While the quality of the productions under scrutiny can vary widely from very, very good to very, very bad, community theater reviews always seem to err on the side of caution, which, in general, tends to produce an essay that tries hard, often too hard, to be nice.
The fault lies in the nature of an often unspoken relationship between the media that publishes such reviews and the community it serves. Appearing in a local newspaper, or sometimes as commentary on a local radio station, community theater reviews (not all, but many) proceed from the assumption that since the local performers and production staff are unpaid, it's unfair to measure the performance with the same yardstick used to assess a more professional offering, which is nonsense.
While local theater companies operate under obviously tighter budget constraints, there is no single aspect of a theatrical production that is defined by the amount of money that can be thrown at it. I've witnessed productions that were mounted with the aid of millions of dollars on Broadway that worked better in community theater productions with far less to spend. Equus comes to mind. I've seen professional productions of it on Broadway (most recently with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Alan Strang), and a variety of regional, professional theater productions and none were as effective as a community theater production of it that I witnessed in a 50-seat, small-old-schoolhouse in Reading, Massachusetts.
In a way, local theater reviews are hampered by a mindset, which asks the question, "Well, what can you expect?"
It's community theater, right? Local, unpaid performers and staff can't be expected to create a product with anywhere near the level of professionalism exhibited by companies that do this sort of a thing for a living.
This is nonsense, too; a particularly insidious form of nonsense, because it can affect the local performers and staff who mount local productions and end up believing that there's no way they can do professional work, and after all (they think), it's really just about being involved.
No one is expecting professional work, so why bother trying to achieve it?
Enter your local theater reviewer, who, bearing all of this in mind, tries to be nice. Makes comments about a particularly good individual performance, or the good lighting, or whatever it takes to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and (not) mess with Mr. In-Between."
God forbid that a reviewer should note that a particular performer appeared to have no idea what he or she was doing, or that a trumpet player in the band couldn't hit a lot of the notes he was expected to, or that the production, in general, failed, fundamentally, to deliver the promise of a given script. Ignore the fact that a performer in a minor role appeared incapable of paying attention to what was going on around him/her unless, and until he/she had lines to deliver. And above all, never say "bad," "awful," or "horrendous" because the fragile egos of the people on and back stage will be incapable of dealing with it; might even write a nasty Letter to the Editor saying "How dare you?"
This equation does far more disservice to a community than the mere fact of a bad production, because it has a way of lowering expectations, on both sides of the proscenium arch. A local theatre patron reads a "nice" review, goes to the see the show, and assumes because the reviewer knew what he/she was talking about, that what they're witnessing is a good production, even if, in truth, they end up bored out of their skulls, anxious to get back out on the street and check for messages on their cell phones. And while the performers get to bask in the glow of the nice things said, they move onto the next production, secure in the knowledge that they're doing good work, when, perhaps, they're not.
Recently, having witnessed a particularly bad, horrendous and just awful production of a play, I was surprised by a local writer's nice, even glowing review. It wasn't even a play. It was an evening of original material sketch comedy, with trivia questions (???!!) thrown into the middle of it, presumably to keep the audience engaged, because there was very little else going on with the ability to do that. Opinions are, of course, like certain body parts. Everybody's got them, but I saw at least half a dozen people texting during the production. Oh, they courteously had the ringtones and alerts silenced, forgetting that the glowing screen reflected on their faces was just about as rude as any noise their phone could make. And my wife, who is just generally much easier to please, called it the "worst production (she) had ever seen in (her) life."
Misguided attempts to be "nice" are only part of the problem. Another component of this issue is incompetence on the part of the reviewer. Locally-based reviewers are often pressed into service with little or no background in theater, or understanding of what makes a production work, or not work, as the case may be. Such inexperience manifests itself in a review that criticizes the ingredients of a theatrical 'meal,' without ever comprehending the important, central role of the 'cook,' known as the director.
It is a critical subtlety of the art form and any attempt to write about it; that a production stands or falls on the merits of the person at the helm. In film, as proposed by the French, this is known as the "auteur" theory, stating that a film's director is the "author" of the piece; that what makes it pleasurable or not is directly attributable to the director. The theory holds, I submit, to theatrical work, as well, which is where the assumption that there's some essential difference, related to expectations, between professional and community theater work breaks down.
A good stage director has to do two essential things - cast well, and assure that the basic conventions of any staged production are met. In so doing, a good stage director can direct less-than-professional performers to understand that acting is not just about learning lines and navigating the stage without bumping into furniture. A good stage director will be able to assess the production capabilities of the group with which he/she works and tailor the production design to those capabilities (this has to start with a company's awareness of what it can and can't do when it comes to selecting a play to produce). Given those essential tasks, there is no reason why a director, and through him/her, the performers and staff associated with a production, cannot produce a highly professional show.
An understanding of this clears the path to a journalist's keyboard, allowing him/her to assess the quality of a production without fear that a less-than-nice review will somehow damage the value of the effort that was put into it. If you're ever tempted, or asked to write a theater review about a community theater production, you'll do both the theater folk and your community a great service if you're brutally honest. Employ the above-mentioned triad of negative words if a given production has earned them. It'll have a way of improving the work that you see, and elevating your community's awareness of the best that theater has to offer.
Photo: Salina Community Theatre, Salina, KS