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March 8, 2008

Why theater reviews need more than six paragraphs

John Stoehr

fiddlerphoto-2_resized.jpgI don't know Carol Furtwangler, but I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. She's the Post and Courier's theater critic (in Charleston, S.C.) and she turns reviews around on a regular basis. Problem is, she doesn't have much room to do a proper job.

For Fiddler on the Roof, a production that opened Friday and that was the first time the Charleston Stage Company had collaborated with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, her review got six paragraphs. By the time she'd finished with the requisite exposition, there was little inch-count to make a sound judgment.

I know what this is like. When I was a daily reporter, I wrote reviews that we shoehorned into the smallest of spaces. Aware of space restrictions, and cynical about being cut even further by insensitive copy editors, I wrote tight without much nuance, even if that meant veering into hyperbole.

In Furtwangler's case, she leads by saying Fiddler on the Roof was "a triumphant production," but doesn't expound. Inference does the work for her: The very fact that Charleston Stage did this big, ambitious, and expensive project with the CSO made it triumphant. The next five graphs of the review were devoted to who did what and when -- in other words, the exposition.

I have to give the P&C credit: It devotes space to the arts. I spent years writing overnight reviews that ended up near the obituaries. That's pretty disheartening. Though Furtwangler's reviews are small, at least they are present. And they are present on page 2A -- a great endorsement for the arts.

Still, why not more? Furtwangler's review had to compete with wire copy from the Associated Press, stories on J.K. Rowling's suing of a Potter fan and Frank Sinatra Jr. getting a star on the Walk of Fame (with a large picture that takes up a lot of space). From a editorial perspective, one has to weigh the value of copy. For my money, the local theater review is the most valuable. The other stuff can be found elsewhere, but a newspaper can't buy a local theater review from the wires. That's unique and therefore the most valuable.

I could talk about how daily newspapers don't get it (that it's not enough to put material out there; that they must also engage readers in order to keep them), but I think the P&C does a pretty good job. Like I said, at least the arts are present in the paper. Other publications are doing away with them altogether.

The problem with tight space is this: Furtlanger wasn't able to be accurate. It is indeed a triumph of sorts for a city's professional orchestra to accompany a city's largest professional theater company. But that isn't enough.

I attended the opening of Fiddler. The show was not triumphant. I would say that it could have been triumphant, that it had all the ingredients for triumph, but it was far from that for one key reason: John Fennell, the lead actor (pictured).

Aside from a passel of debits (uneven pacing, stalled momentum, that dreaded sound problem that continues to plague Charleston Stage shows) and bevy of credits (great costumes, a terrific dream scene, and touching chemistry between actors, especially between Tevye and Golda), Fennell just couldn't sing well.

Maybe he was sick, I don't know. But his singing voice was bad. His acting was superb. He was very, very funny. But his singing? Not good. With his character playing a central role in the story, and with the CSO providing the music to which this central role sang, the collaboration was hardly triumphant.

I would give this show a mixed review. (So did CP critic Kinsey Labberton. She noted the sound problems and Fennell's lackluster performance. She also asked why choose Fiddler when a historic collaboration between two major arts groups in Charleston was an opportunity to be really daring. A fair observation.)

Because it's the obligation of the critic to explain himself when leveling a mixed review, he or she requires space. Without that, you're stuck giving a mere thumbs up or thumbs down. If Furtwangler wants to try her hand with the City Paper, we'd give her the space she needs. She's welcome to call me anytime.

Like I said, I think we'd have a lot to talk about.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at March 8, 2008 1:48 PM


You've got all the space you want on this blog but your only description of the guy's singing is that he was "bad." and then you elaborate: "not good." that sounds like classic "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" reviewing to me. I mean, how was he bad? can you really objectively call something bad, and are we just supposed to trust you without knowing why you're saying that? it sounds like the pot calling kettles black. I mean, you are pretending to be criticizing Furtwagnler's newspaper, but you're really criticizing her writing. a lot of the best critics don't have much more space than that I don't think, and they manage to say something substantial.

Posted by: John Turnbull at March 11, 2008 1:49 PM

John, it seems to me that the problem doesn't lie in the length of the review -- though one would hope for more space, of course, for context -- but in the use of space for exposition. With something as well-known as Fiddler, why in the world waste any time on plot summary? I think it's almost criminal. Admittedly, I've come to that point of view gradually, but in the past year I've tried to remove plot summaries almost entirely from my reviews. This leaves room for context and for evaluation. Of course, some reviewers prefer to place the evaluation in the review as they write about the plot ("Mark [the excellent, mobile Jose Carrigas] must make a momentous decision" etc.). Especially with plays in which revealing the plot would detract from the audience's enjoyment, or on the other hand plays like Romeo and Juliet, why, why, why give more than a sentence to expository writing about the piece itself? The New Yorker regularly does a lovely job of evaluating books in its "Briefs" section; NYT reviewers sometimes have less space than they might desire for concert or theater reviews; and that's not even counting the Guardian's hilarious and deadly accurate "digested reads." Thus it's not entirely length that makes a difference in writing evaluations of the event.

I also think that some dailies in smaller markets (and probably larger markets for that matter) provide friendly coverage and mention every actor, a complete waste of space with such a tiny news(review)hole. Certainly that's a problem here. I try, and I've talked with my freelancers about this, not to feel the need for that paragraph in which I mention the 12 actors not yet discussed in the review (which seems to be Furtwangler's tendency, or possibly her marching orders, depending on the editorial stance of the paper).

Your thoughts?


Posted by: Suzi Steffen at March 12, 2008 10:21 PM