Every year about this time, this happens. This is the week wherein we start to see holiday offerings. But, to my surprise, not all the shows starting here in early November are Christmas shows. There are actually two Thanksgiving-themed productions on the docket this week. I’d like to take a moment to look at those two pieces before we move on to my other main topic which you’ll find under the subhead below. First… Preview thoughts about Thanksgiving shows. The two shows that are on the chart are “Pilgrim’s Progress” at A Red Orchid Theatre, and “The Thanksgiving Circumcision” at MCL Chicago.
The first is not surprisingly a tale of family squabbles over the turkey, spiced with a bit of homages to great American playwrights of the last century. It’s supposedly tense and hilarious in the same way that a real family Thanksgiving can be. The show runs until December 13th, which is a good two weeks after Turkey Day. As you may know, Thanksgiving is one of the two most stressful holidays on the American calendar. Adult interaction with family is difficult and often painful. But, as you probably also know, comedy can be defined as other people’s pain. And this is one of those shows that explores that profundity.
Now, MCL Chicago’s Thanksgiving show is one that pokes fun at tradition. Traditions collide when a couple whose female member is Jewish has a baby 8 days before the feast and football holiday. So, there’s a bris on the schedule. The non-Jewish husband and his family aren’t quite okay with the upcoming proceedings. Hilarity ensues. Not unlike all the shows at MCL Chicago, the production is a musical comedy. As one of the show’s stars mentions in her online bio, it’s a show about “Jews, gentiles, and genitals.” That’s about all one has to say, really.
Informing the Critic
Okay, so… today’s topic grew out of a discussion that I had back in September at a retreat of Chicago directors hosted by DirectorsLabChicago. The event itself was exciting and will hopefully have been very useful to the team that runs the Lab. But, it was a discussion over lunch that inspired the following thoughts. Basically, it came up that I’m not only a director, but also a critic. And there was talk about balancing the two, how to be fair, and a bunch of other things. But more than anything, another director’s concern about critics struck me. He said that he wishes that reviewers would take their noses out of their notepads, stop writing, and just experience the shows in their entirety. He contends that the writing reviewer is a distracted reviewer and that doesn’t treat the critiqued work fairly. Now, there are critics in town who take copious notes during a performance, and I imagine part of that is habit, or a need for memory assists. There are others who don’t take any notes at all. I can’t say why any given reviewer does what they do. But, I can talk to why I sometimes take notes during a show. Normally I don’t. Once upon a time I took a notebook with me to every show, but I found that I normally walked away with a blank page with the play’s title at the top, rather than anything useful. However, upon occasion I want to get the wording exactly right, or want to look something up later, and that act of writing down a thought in the moment is the best way for me to make sure I don’t miss being able to write the best (meaning, highest quality) review that I can for that specific show.
So… I can’t change the long-term habits of some critics. But, I can tell you what makes my job easier. It comes down to helping me help you. I am essentially an expert in some things (I’m not the only one who thinks so!), but I’m not an expert in all things. No human being can be. If you want me to know everything about your play, tell me. And how do you do that? Put together a press kit. At every play I go to, I am given two things: a ticket and a press kit. Actually, a lot of smaller theatres don’t even give me a ticket. So, there I am walking into the theatre with the ubiquitous red folder (sometimes actually a black folder) with a program and a press release contained therein. Prior to the lights coming up, I flip through whatever is in the folder — partly to kill time, partly to inform myself. Sadly, what I normally find inside is an exact copy of the press release that I was e-mailed about a month earlier. Perhaps there is a set of captions for the photos that I may or may not use with my article. What’s missing is anything that tells me about the background of the play.
By way of illustration, I want to use a recent play as an example: “The Terrible” at The Den Theatre, presented by The New Colony. I reviewed the play for Newcity Magazine. At least four other critics wrote reviews of the show, according to the aggregation link on Theatre In Chicago. Now, granted, there may have been more writers who covered their opening. After all, my own review isn’t on that list (there’s some sort of nebulous history there about theatreinchicago.com only linking to Newcity’s reviews periodically… not going into that right now). Anyway… here’s the point: This is a play that does two things at the most basic level. If we don’t look at any of the review-able aspects of the play, and only focus on what it is about, we find that it is a play that represents a modernized version of Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning, and her potential after-life in a “No Exit”-esque realm of Hell/Purgatory. That’s it. Here’s the thing: of those four other reviews, including one by the biggest name in reviewing here in the town, all four made mention of the similarities between Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterwork about Hell being other people. Good. They all proved that they have a basic understanding of the western theatre canon. However, each and every one of them neglected to mention that the main character’s suicide matches that of the English poet, from the stones in the pockets, the drowning, the final poem, and the letter. It wasn’t even thinly veiled. So, half of the concept of the show wasn’t even caught by the reviewers. I could complain about how this is really a comment on the sad state of their education in the humanities (especially the one who is one of Woolf’s countrymen), but when it comes down to it, I only caught it myself because a good friend of mine was in an opera a few years ago about Woolf and her death (I reviewed that one, too).
So, what would have made this egregious omission a non-issue? If we had been given something in the press kit that gave a little info on Woolf’s life and death. Perhaps some info on “No Exit” would have been useful too. The last time I read that play was back in undergrad about 20 years ago. And then, maybe a statement of the playwright’s mission and the director’s concept. How about a copy of the script? Any of these things would have made my job easier, and clearly would have helped the others as well.
Now, I don’t intend to pick on the press agent that hosted that evening. He is not unlike most of the folks who are doing that same job here in town. What I do want to do is call out two folks who go a step or two beyond the rest when it comes to providing the materials that guarantee that I do not write about their clients in an ignorant haze. First, John Olson who is both a freelance publicist and also in charge of the publicity at the Raven Theatre. John puts together the best press kit in town. There’s normally a thick packet of informative documents which include supporting materials and reference articles which can make my writing more fully articulate about the issues within whatever work I’m seeing that evening. My second round of kudos goes to James Juliano and his staff at Shout! (although I’m excited about them, the exclamation point is theirs, not mine). When I want to quote a line exactly, and I don’t want to get it wrong, I can call him up and get a copy of the script, or at least the segment I need. That means that I’m able to watch the play without the interruption of writing down the quote while in the theatre. And that, I think, goes a long way to addressing directly the concerns of that director at the retreat.
Basically, if you as a theatre artist want me to be more fully immersed in your show, eliminate my reasons for having to look down and away. Educate your audience, especially those members of the audience who will be trying to explain your show to others. We aren’t in this business to crap on your work. We are trying to champion theatre to our readers. We want to send people to see good shows, and we can better inform them when we are better informed.
Just some thoughts.
- “I would do anything. I would go anywhere.” Sing it Smokey!
- As of the moment I’m writing this, there are 26 days left in November.
- I consider this birthday my “Meaning of Life” birthday, since I’ll be turning 42.
- Normally I put a bit of random trivia here… Instead, I’m posting a Random Trivia Generator: http://www.randomtriviagenerator.com/
- Here’s the first photo that comes up when you google “pumpkin fedora”