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October 25, 2007

Is grief a conflict?

Bridgette Redman

Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.

It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.

The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.

A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.

As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?

Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?

So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).

That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at October 25, 2007 11:45 AM

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My condolences about your loss. How sad.

Regarding your post --Unless you're friends with the folks on stage or too depressed to concentrate, I don't think there's any real conflict here.

Our experiences outside of theater in the real world are what help us understand what is happening on stage. Unless we are able to draw on real-life experiences of grief, young love, overweening ambition and the rest, how can we possibly judge whether a playwright or an actor is being faithful to human experience?

Conversely, a playwright or an actor may help purify our own subjective, personal experiences. A story well-told may help us get some distance and perspective on what we are really feeling.

Posted by: gary panetta at October 25, 2007 2:39 PM

Sorry for your loss. Critics are just folks like other members of the audience who come with their bad days to escape through the theatre or a grand opera or symphony orchestra. The arts help us sort out our lives so saying you are worried, grieving, joyful, in love, puts you on even ground with other audience members. I recall attending a play quite autobiographical about the playwright's divorce. My companion was recently divorced. I thought the play I was reviewing was self-indulgent. She found it justified her feelings. Who would have been the better reviewer?

Posted by: Tim Christison at October 26, 2007 8:32 AM

300 word limit?
Sorry, that's not the topic you were asking about, of course. But going to the NEA Institute in Classical Music etc. a couple of weeks ago, I learned exactly how lucky I am with the space I have/allot for myself. The other arts editor and I, who are often the writers as well as the planners, simply say, "We need a page of books, half a page of theater, half page of viz arts," etc. etc. and usually, we get what we want.

Now, on to your content. Why wouldn't you include your reaction? (Especially if you note that a recent loss might have made you more sensitive to the moment you mention.)

I think the arts pages are places that readers go for emotional fulfillment much more than they do when they read news. Nothing against news -- I write that as well -- but generally, even at a lefty alt-weekly, the arts pages have more opinions, and more satisfactory acknowledgement of human emotions, in them. If I wrote a review without my reaction, I think that would be weird (though if I weren't somewhat self-reflexive about it, that would also be a sort of lie of omission).

Sometimes I temper my writing if someone I went to the show with feels the opposite way. But it's my voice that will bring people to read my reviews, and my ability to analyze both the intellectual and the emotional appeals of the work (along with an understanding of the difference between great acting and a great script, between good lighting and upstaging, etc. etc. etc.) -- and I try not to stifle that voice unnecessarily.

On the other hand, at the classical music institute, we reviewed the Cleveland Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2. A good friend of mine was killed in a hit-and-run accident just after the symphony concluded, but I didn't find out about that until after I'd turned in the review. I suspect it would have been a very different review had I gotten the news earlier. Less intellect, more heart. I think that would have been risky given my workshop group (a very intellectual group; hello to any of you smarties reading this), but it would have been equally valid.

It occurs to me that I should stop writing all of my theory about theater reviewing here and go write it into my NEA Theater fellowship app. I so appreciate this blog for bringing up these issues and for the opportunity to "talk" with other arts journalists trying to do the right thing in a variety of ways. We need community.

Posted by: Suzi at November 1, 2007 3:26 PM

Gary and Tim: Thank you both for your condolences. You are both correct--our real-life experiences are part of what make us good judges. It's that qualification that can't really be put on a resume by informs us of all the judgments that we make.

Likely my reservations were self-indulgent, but I'm glad that I had them because they gave me the opportunity to read what you had to say.

Posted by: Bridgette at November 2, 2007 12:35 PM

Yes, that word limit is pretty painful, isn't it? Looking back on some of my reviews, I'm grateful that I had it because of how tightly and focused it forced me to write. However, I always hate that limit when I'm writing a review because there is always so much that I have to leave out.

You raise an interesting point about our providing a space for readers to get emotional fulfillment. It's given me something to think about because I tend to try to stay as emotionally detached as possible when I'm writing a review. Yes, I'll discuss emotions that were evoked by the performance (intentionally or otherwise) but it's rare that I'll disclose in a review things that are personal to me and that I don't think would be shared by others.

Some of this, I suppose, comes from reading and poorly reacting to reviews that I thought were overly self-indulgent--to the point that they paid far more attention to the state of mind of the reviewer than of the performance under review. I don't ever want the reviews I write to be about me, though I don't mind them being about my reaction or, obviously, my opinion.

Good luck with your application! They're really wonderful programs, aren't they? I was so very impressed with the theater program--it was outstanding.

Thanks for stopping by!


Posted by: Bridgette at November 2, 2007 12:51 PM

Sorry, too busy to be on here enough. Good point in the "I don't ever want my theater reviews to be about me" bit. It's an odd thing: Reviews ARE about us, our opinions, and yet if they're too much about us in personal ways, that's a problem. Thanks for your response.

Damn, I need to finish that application. You know, "comment on the state of American Theater" takes a lot of thought. Add that to the regular workload? Stressful. But worth it, I'm sure. I hope!

Posted by: Suzi at November 6, 2007 4:41 PM