February 12, 2007
John Lahr lecture notesJoe Nickell
Below are notes, provided by Bridgette Redman (Thanks Bridgette!), from the lecture by New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, given at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. We're hoping to eventually get an audio link posted for the lecture; but in the meantime, there's plenty to chew on here.
The #1 problem of drama criticism is that you see yourselves as reporters. No. You are storytellers. You tell the story of what the play is about and what you think about it.
The real drama of critical experience is not a thumb up or down. Judgment is a part of it, but the narrative challenge is the mind of the critic meeting the mind of the playwright. The critic should state the case for the play better than the playwright.
The challenge is one of vocabulary. You have to have a big word horde of critical language, a rich vernacular about different spheres of the art. Build it up--keep words, phrases, jokes, funny things you hear. Store it up. Every time you hear a great line, put it down. Keep a notebook. Filled with notes and information for yourself.
Certain ideas start to secrete. It puts your unconscious mind to work. It's an important way of building up. Write down notes in advance of seeing a show. You're then more receptive, you're ready for a conversation. You've prepared yourself.
When you have a pad in hand, you're not watching the stage. Get a script so that you are fully present for the event. Some critics are in the seats, but they're not there. Read the experience, not the person's words. Operate in an arena of intuition. Be litmus paper. IF you are not open and receptive, if your critiquing isn't an act of generosity and love, why are you there? What is your function?
Tell the story of community and where you are. You are there to interpret. Take this thing and place it in a larger context.
The plot is not the play. It's a codified experience of a fiction that allows the author to speak, so figure out what it is really about. It's where the drama of the playwright and critic come together.
The playwright will mention what the play is about in the first 40 seconds. A good playwright will tell you the theme. It happens in Hamlet, The Seagull, The Lute.
Bring the event to the reader. Put together the text and the subtext and create for the reader the sense of the expedition the playwright has gone on. Get people into the theater to learn something.
We are all members of the audience. Be as responsive and responsible as possible. Be more informed and communicate that information back to the audience.
Broaden your experience of the theater. Words are not the only language of theater. We are intellectual entertainers. Play with the play, enter it, enjoy it and critique it. Give the reader a sense of a theatrical dimension in it. Your job is to animate this memory. Give the illusion of what you've seen.
There is not an objective point of view.
Theater is important even if it isn't being seen by the masses. Where else do you get stories told by individuals to other individuals? Other stories are told by corporations to pick your pocket. The theater is where people are saying what they really feel.
There are reasons people don't come to the theater. The whole point of terrorism is to make people afraid of groups.
You mediate between individual voices and get its argument out.
I disagree with everything Mary McCarthy writes. But she writes well. Her interests are lofty. She makes an argument alive. I don't agree with her, but I admire her expression.
Polish your expressiveness. It's not your reporting skills; it's what resonates with you. The theater isn't so much a beat as the thing you use to express what you feel. Use theater to express who you are.
I hate the condescension critics get. They are all figures of fun in literature. I prefer the metaphor of the gaze of the mother and child. The gaze is the power of critics and the problem of critics. If it isn't lovable, clearn, and free of excess baggage, then it isn't properly nurturing.
Unlike film, theater happens in real time. It's different every night. You are a living response to it. Where's the record when it is done? The record is down to the review. The review has great importance to the art form. It has an historical as well as a personal import. That's why it is sad that the writing isn't better.
How do you put the play in the larger context?
Not every play needs to be reviewed. Seeing 100 shows a year is deadening. It hampers criticism. I find my tolerance for being bored is in direct proportion to my age. It pisses me off when they waste valuable hours of what's left of my life. I'll leave. If you know you're not liking it, why stay? It kills your palette. You have to stay fresh. Don't see everything.
Critics need to know more.
Some critics aren't psychologically aware. Theater is psychology translated to behavior. It's all the psychology of individualism, the losing of the self.
You have to be involved in shows. Make sure you can get to where you can see shows--New York, Chicago, or London.
Story. Drama. Word horde.
You want a sentence to pop, to empower, to get a lot of interest. It's simply syntax. The verb, subject, noun predicate. The closer you can get them together and end on the point, the better the sentence will be. Put clauses before the subject. Let the sentence fall on the idea you want to hit. Make it a straight, powerful drive to the idea.
Try to identify a way of speaking.
It's weird to have regular readers. You become intellectual wallpaper. They get used to your tone and attitude. You have to really be honorable. Write to them. People are waiting for you to explain what they don't get. If you do criticism correctly, you're creating.
Criticism is a life without risk. You must come to the theater with an open and humble heart.
It's not a play without an audience. The echo from the audience is a part of the play.
Try to think against perceived opinions and yield different ideas. So much of the story we're told is never tested. Come at it from a different angle. Change your questions and see what answers you get.
In the future, they'll look at our songs, stories, and styles. Insist on joy. Explore the concept that culture is threatened. Do your job better than you know how to do it.
Posted by Joe Nickell at February 12, 2007 4:08 PM
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