Same As It Ever Was (The Inevitable Mediocrity of Small Town Media Criticism)

Broken Pencil

Broken Pencil
Throughout my early theatrical career in Utica, NY, one arts writer dominated the conversation. I’m talking about the early 1990s, before the Internet hit big, with attendant social media and blogs. Jonas Kover wrote for the Utica Observer-Dispatch newspaper, composing simplistic paragraphs that often consisted of single sentences. As a theater critic, Kover seemed incapable of analysis beyond a rudimentary description of the plot, what the performers wore, what they sang, along with some perfunctory judgment. It wasn’t exactly thumbs-up or -down, because the verdict rarely tracked with the essay that preceded it. On the positive side, Kover provided my excuse whenever a telephone salesperson would try to get me to subscribe. I said I’d think about it if the newspaper ever got a real critic.

I only met Jonas Kover once, although I frequently saw him at shows I was doing lighting for. That one time, a director had invited the critic to a meeting before we embarked on a season of Summerstage theater. The director introduced the designers (notes were not taken), and when it was my turn Kover asked, “So, are there going to be special lighting effects in these shows?” I said no, but it was my intention that the audience would be able to see all of the action on stage. “Humpf,” said the critic. When I designed lights for my first show at Players of Utica, Kover acknowledged the result by writing, “The band was bathed in a deep red light.” He wasn’t wrong – I’d positioned two 10″ scoops over the band, gelled Roscolux #27, the reddest you can get. (With stand lights to cut the crimson, the players looked sharp, oh yes they did.)

Last winter, I had a few discussions with parties interested in running the Moss Island Sounds blog on their sites. Well, they thought they were interested. In both cases, the conversation stopped once I asked what I could expect out of the arrangement? During the discussions, one editor suggested I should refrain from “insulting” my fellow arts writers (that editor would surely regard the previous 300 words, and the next 900, as an extended insult.) Still, friends have insisted I should write for the newspaper. Their point is that even in our social media age, the local paper has unrivaled credibility. The public trusts what it reads in the newspaper. The public shouldn’t.

Arts criticism at the local level is weaker than ever. Most coverage of the arts in Mohawk Valley publications (the Greater Utica area) is pulled from larger market sources. Local events seem to be covered by whomever can be convinced to sit through a show and write about it later. The writers are probably advised to be “nice.” (If nobody was ever fired for buying IBM, then no local arts critic was ever fired for praising shit.) Still, what an honor to be published in the newspaper! That attitude is surely part of the problem.

In the October 9, 2015 edition of the Rome Daily Sentinel, Jen DeVincenzo wrote about The Drowsy Chaperone, a show I’d designed lights for. I thought her opening (single sentence) paragraph was good: “The audience is welcomed like an old friend with Rome Community Theater’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone.” It went downhill from there. “While the beginning was a little stilted at times (likely due to opening night jitters) things picked up nicely by the second act.” Why mention that? It references nothing in the rest of the essay; it’s criticism tempered by a hypothetical explanation, just filling space. DeVincenzo then mentioned Every. Single. Member. of the principal cast, finally running out of inspiration: “Notable performances were given by Rusty Ritzel as the overwhelmed best man George, Emily Inman as the adorable and ditzy showgirl Kitty, Frederick Rapp as the enterprising producer Feldzeig, Tim Huey and Jane Sylvester as baking (and dancing) gangsters, and Jean Gudaitis as feisty pilot Trix.” Seriously? I love this cast, and I won’t review a show I’ve worked on, but I saw the same performance DeVincenzo did. Those actors don’t belong in the same sentence, let alone with the generic lead-off “notable performances.” (If I’d written about the night in question, Inman would have led my review for her inspired comic timing and facial expressions. She’s very good, and other members of the cast have been even better on other nights. But I have no idea why anybody would lump them all together, especially for the performance under consideration, except to be “nice,” or perhaps lazy.) DeVincenzo concludes: “Overall, it was an enjoyable night at the theater.” I’d say the article was just a bit of community reporting (or journaling) except the Sentinel did, in fact, bill it as a review.

I thought DeVincenzo’s Drowsy Chaperone review was weak until I read Paul Boehlert’s review of Players of Utica’s Promises, Promises in the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Again, I attended the same performance as the critic (unless he attended two nights in a row, his printed review misremembered the night he was there. I’ll also take the opportunity to note that Boehlert wrote a favorable review of a show I appeared in at Players, God of Carnage, April 2015.) The first half of Boehlert’s latest piece is in the grand Kover tradition: plot recap, and a description of the set (inexplicably, Boehlert credited the wrong designer, favoring Art Felshaw over Richard Stoodley, despite the program’s insistence that Stoodley did the actual design and build, based on an original idea by Felshaw.) Here is the extent of Boehlert’s critical judgment on the performance itself: “Some of the voices were a little thin at times Friday but the acting, and the appeal, never faltered.” (What does that even mean? Is there some small newspaper media criticism style sheet that insists any negative remark be tempered by a second remark that nullifies the first?) I agreed with Boehlert that Hana Meyers gave a “tour de force performance,” although I wished he’d come up with a better reason (and a more intelligent compliment) than “the lady is something of a Broadway belter.” Sigh. At least the appeal never faltered.

I don’t have a problem with “nice.” What I really want out of a review is “I saw this, I felt this, and THIS IS WHY.” Criticism needs to be more than reporting, more than a PR opportunity for the theater group, more than pap for the incurious masses. The Drowsy Chaperone was at the same time better and worse than Jen DeVincenzo described. It was a crazily, even heroically ambitious show, not entirely successful. By contrast, Promises, Promises didn’t risk anything at all, and Paul Boehlert ignored its obvious major failing (the tech was abysmal). DeVincenzo’s and Boehlert’s reviews were essentially interchangeable, for all intents and purposes. Generally positive, a single tepid criticism that was explained away, and readers of both might feel the shows were equally worth their time.

Actually, The Drowsy Chaperone and Promises, Promises were both worth seeing, in the same way almost all theater is worth seeing. Both had moments of bliss, great jokes or songs, moments of joyful, transcendent performance. A review shouldn’t be a consumer recommendation – it should stand on its own as an artistic statement in its own right. The Rome Sentinel and the Utica Observer-Dispatch don’t seem to share my sentiment. Same as it ever was.