Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Importance of Hype in an Ephemeral Industry

I was talking with a friend last night about some of the ethical quandaries I feel as a blogger who regularly writes about plays she attends.

As I get increasingly involved in the San Francisco theater, I am increasingly reluctant to write negative reviews. It just seems cowardly to congratulate someone to their face and then lambaste them online. And I don't think the solution is necessarily to lambaste them to their faces, either.

So my general policy is that if I disliked a show or felt "meh" about it, I won't blog about it. But then, in and of itself, doesn't the fact of my not-blogging imply that I disliked the show? Couldn't an astute reader of my blog read between the lines of my unwritten posts and figure out my implied criticism?

As for the plays that I like and recommend and blog about: If I have a generally positive/enthusiastic opinion of a play, I'll gladly write a blog post to praise it. And yet, maybe there were still some elements of the play or production that I disliked -- but I am not willing to discuss them in print, for the above-mentioned reasons. So I gloss over those elements in my review. The result is a blog post that doesn't tell the full story.

And then, I feel like that is a problem because theater is such an ephemeral art form. When a production is over, the only evidence that remains is the script, the production photos, the reviews and articles that people have written about it, and people's memories of the show (which are notoriously unreliable).

Therefore, if you are dishonest in a theater review, you are basically rewriting history. Let's say you didn't really like one of the actors in a show, but you're unwilling to single that person out and critique their performance on your blog, so you write "All of the actors are great!" Months or years from now, someone will read your review and believe what you said, because there is no other evidence to contradict it. What was a lie (a white lie, told for the sake of saving face) becomes the truth.

So, this is my ethical quandary: because the theater is an ephemeral art form, I believe that people who write about it are obliged to be as honest as possible. Hell, I even feel guilty when I write a review that doesn't include every single thought I had about the production, because I think it's unfair for those thoughts to be lost to history. And yet, because I am a theater practitioner, I am also obliged to be polite and politic -- frankly, I don't want to become known as a critic with a waspish wit and a poison pen. I want to be a booster for the theater and my friends' contributions to it, and I'd like them to do the same for me, should they ever be in a position to do so! And I feel these two ethical obligations clashing with each other all the time.

I explained this to my friend, and she said "Now I know why you theater people are so big on hype."


"Because no one is able to see every show -- so, as you said, when it's over, all that's left are things like reviews and photos -- and hype. And you have to believe the hype, because you have nothing to compare it with; the show is over and you can't see it for yourself."

It's so true. People say that Hollywood is built on hype, but sooner or later, a movie gets made, it premieres, and it stays in that form for decades to come. Film critics who were not even born at the time the movie came out can watch it, form their own opinions, add to the critical conversation/consensus, evaluate and reevaluate the movie. The same goes for literature and recorded music.

People who write about theater do not have that luxury. That's why I feel it is so important to write about theater, and also why it throws me into ethical dilemmas.

1 comment:

Dr.J said...

Happy World Theater Day! not that I know why it is today, I have read something about an International Theater Institute and your dear Cocteau writing a message for the first such day back in 1962. In Spain, playwrights used to celebrate Ramón María del Valle Inclán putting a white scarf around the neck of his statue in Madrid, do you know Valle in the US?
I think you should be very tough when writing about other people plays so when your own works get bad reviews you can blame it on your critics and not on your plays, ja, ja...