One of the most sacred of all bovines close to the hearts of the purple beret-wearing theatuh crowd is the belief that if a theatre critic leaves a show before the end, they should not write a review of it.
First, on the logic of continuing to consume something when what’s on offer isn’t any good.
The idea that you should continue to watch a crap show because it might get better is like asking a restaurant patron to keep eating because, yes, the soup sucks, but really we’re just about to knock your socks off with the primi! Or maybe you should keep buying AMC Gremlins because, really, the engineers are just about to nail this thing!
Let’s get real here, folks. Apply this nonsensical principle to any – ANY – other facet of your life, and see how it holds up. Do you continue to shop at a store with horrible service because it might get better? Do you continue to read through a botched resume because it might get better? Do you continue to use Comcast because it might bet better?
No. You don’t. Why?
Because life is short.
Understanding how this works is the important piece here. It’s because humans are smart, and the smallest detail of any environment or experience (good or bad) is a proxy for the total experience on offer. It takes mere seconds to read the key signals. That’s all you need. If you walk into your hotel room and the place is a mess – you’re gone. If the rental car rep is amazing, all of a sudden you have a great feeling about the company. If it is literally impossible to empty your water glass at Higgins without a waiter whipping over to refill it instantly, that tells you something – everything – about the place. It’s a small sign of the values and standards in force. And if a play starts and continues with bad dialogue, Guffmanesque acting or implausible plot from the word go, you instantly know you’re in the hands of hacks. And chances are, that’s not going to get better in act 2.
Life is WAY too short for bad theatre.
So the idea that you can’t properly assess something based on an initial verdict or small sampling of the overall product is not what humans know to be true. We do it all the time.
Next, the idea that you shouldn’t have a published critical opinion unless you have seen the whole enchilada.
Ah yes – you can’t form a proper critical judgement of the precious artistic value of “the work” unless you have seen the whole thing, right? This is simply wrong and appeals mainly to the subsidized artistes being reviewed. The audience, whose time and money are precious, know pretty quickly if they like something. In seconds or minutes. In the first two minutes of THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh, you know you have a keeper. The same is true on the opposite end of the scale for many, many plays. You know IMMEDIATELY the play sucks. You know NOW – not later.
If a critic has the sense to bail when a show sucks, that is the single most valuable piece of information I can have in a review! We admire critics who have opinions, even when they are not the ones the artistes may want to hear. We long for real judgements – not prefab non reviews where every show “shines” and is “heart wrenching”, or where the gutsy geriatric arts bloggers heartily and highly recommend EVERY SINGLE SHOW THEY HAVE EVER SEEN. EVER.
What we look for in a critic is taste, discernment and judgement. The whole “judge not lest ye be judged” thing? They were not talking about theatre criticism. In the theatre, we want to know not just what happened – but how it was. Was it any good? If all the critic can do is recite what happened, that’s not telling the audience what they want to know.
Now yes, fine gradations of quality may require you to see the whole thing. You might need to know how something ends to properly assess the story or know the difference between 3 and 4 stars. But if something is godawful bad from minute one (and I’ll spare you the list of where you could have that very experience right now in Portland if you so desired!), you know RIGHT THEN AND THERE that it’s bad. Done. Think about it. If you were a good writer – why would you lead with bad writing before transitioning to the good stuff later? You wouldn’t.
And the proper response from theatregoer and critic alike is to bail – right then and there if you’re feeling burly. Or maybe at intermission if you don’t want to interrupt. But if it sucks – get out of there. And if you’re a critic, tell us about it.
That’s what Christopher Frizzelle did at The Stranger last week. And look at the shit storm in the comments section. Warning: If you’re a lifelong Portlander, you may never have known anyone to actually read let alone reply to a theatre review. But it does happen.
And if you’re one of those up in arms about reviewing after bailing, ask yourself this: Would you go just as nuclear if the critic cut at half time and wrote a wild rave?
If not – what you’re really upset about is that the review is negative. Not that it was written on the basis of an incomplete consideration of the material.