Tuesday, August 21, 2007

criticism & brass-knuckles

"The hardest part of being a writer is not the long hours of learning the craft, but learning how to survive the dark nights of the soul." –Charles Baxter
I’m ready to talk about this now and then I'll be done with it. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s the Chris Jones piece in the Chicago Tribune.

Done? Good.

Critics are an important part of the theatre ecosystem. Critics do not exist to give hand-jobs to theatre artists. They are there for the ticket-buying audience, and if there are adequate pull-quotes, for the marketing machine, but that's a by-product. There are good critics and there are bad critics; they are human beings who are nudged by personal prejudice and, sometimes, wicked snark. Critics are also, hopefully, educated, well-informed, and thoughtful theatre-lovers. And sometimes theatre criticism is actually (gasp!) helpful to the audience, the artist, and the archives.

Then there are critics who are not helpful. Like, really really not helpful at all. Like really go-fuck-yourself on a light-pole at the corner of Clark & Belmont not helpful. No doubt writers/actors/directors have a love-hate relationship with critics.

I read reviews of other people’s work and I read reviews of my plays. When writers say “I don’t read reviews” I say hogwash, ya bullshitter. And those who really really don’t read their reviews probably should, if only to know why people are overcompensating with faux cheerfulness when they run into you on the street after a string of bad reviews. It’s irresponsible to be ignorant of what’s being published about your work. On the other hand, are you being responsible to your writing and art to avoid a review? Maybe, if you’re insecure about your writing in the first place.

Here’s the rub for any theatre artist who claims reviews don’t matter: in an industry where monetary rewards are slim to none, the reward is: 1) the audience and the work itself, 2) the people you meet and enjoy working with, and... – oh crap – 3) praise (and maybe a hand-job).

And if you're an artist who doesn't agree with # 3, I'm not calling you a liar... but I am skeptical.

So when a critic, who has the power to dole praise in a large public forum, decides to break a mop handle in your asshole instead, it hurts. A lot. And if the initial torque doesn’t get you, the splinters will. (Jesus am I really talking about splinters in assholes? I need an editor.)

I don’t think anybody could forecast the critical whomping of The Butcher of Baraboo in NYC. It wasn’t a bad production – it wasn’t perfect – but it wasn’t bad. I was fortunate to be working with some high-profile talent who were also lovely people -- maybe that high-profile-ness opened the play up for a clobbering I may or may not have gotten a little further off the beaten path. Or maybe the critics just really hated it. I don’t know. Being in the thick of it, it’s difficult to get a handle of the why’s and how’s, and the assumptions that people are making who haven’t seen the NY production are disconcerting. I’m not a director nor am I a critic. I'm not taking blame nor am I dishing it out. My Polaroid perspective is going to take a couple years to develop. All I know is what I felt, and what I felt is that the big brother NYC critics held me down on the floor, dangled a warm bubbly loogie over my face, and instead of sucking it back between their lips, let it drop between my eyes.

I went from the highest of highs on a wine-soaked opening night to as low as a young, vulnerable, hungover Midwestern gal could plummet, just short of wallowing in broken crack vials in a Harlem gutter. I was stuck in NYC for the week following the reviews. No ticket back to Chicago, not yet. I went to my agent’s office to talk about the reviews. Those in the office who had seen the production were shocked by the vitriol of the critical notices. There was a stunned sense of “are you okay?”, as if I had crawled bruised and bloody from a twenty-car pile-up. I’m not fucking kidding when I say getting mugged at gunpoint on the streets of Chicago in 2004 was easier than the cold critical reception in NYC. There were production elements I thought might be tagged as flaws. But to read the reviews, you might think these essays of ire were revenge for the time I killed a critic’s brother.

From this point, to quote novelist Charles Baxter in his essay from Letters to a Fiction Writer on the subject of rejection, “I fell down very far into several intellectual and spiritual and emotional abysses, many of them inter-connected.”

I may have had one whiskey-soaked conversation with a bartender calling a certain critic at a certain newspaper a “scummy fuck.” I walked around the streets of New York with a great pressure behind my eyeballs, sat on subway trains that flew past my destination, and wondered what the hell just happened to me. I wanted to get in fights. I looked into purchasing brass knuckles. Who was I kidding? I’m a 5’5” blonde chick who bruises easily. Mostly, I kept it all to myself and I wanted to go home.

The reason I was stuck in NYC was my family was flying to town to see the show. So they came and I tried to be, well, a decent human being. But they had read the reviews too and knew me well enough to know I was miserable. They gave me some space to be grumpy. I’m thankful they let me be while the black bile percolated in my gut. It’s true that I had “womanly pains” on one of those mornings, but it was a great excuse to stay in bed at the hotel and watch a 5 hour marathon of “Celebrity Fit Club” on VH1.

Here were some of the responses to my situation. They are from well-meaning people who I respect and admire:

-you’re young
-reviews don’t matter
-critics don’t know anything
-some of those critics are angry men with small penises
-you’re young
-you’re young
-you’re young… you’ll get over it

It really doesn’t matter how young, how inexperienced I may be. I can’t digest a current situation in retrospect until retrospect takes its sweet time rolling around. I know, you’re trying to make me feel better. Thank you. I appreciate the thought. You’re going to have to let me sting for a couple weeks (or month) and let me sit on my inflatable donut while the splinters work their way out of my asshole.

I returned to Chicago. I was STILL grumpy but getting better. I met with Ed Sobel at Steppenwolf to talk about what happened in NYC and he made a new commission official. It meant a whole lot that he had my back and didn’t want me to feel discouraged by my jaunt in NYC. This was followed by some news that Actors Theatre of Louisville and Yale Rep wanted to do some work with me, and of course, getting back in the swing of things with my friends at Theatre Seven and our production.

You gotta keep moving, like a sleeping fish or a sleeping dolphin or I can’t remember what aquatic animals need to keep moving when they’re asleep or they suffocate and die – I don’t feel like going to Wikipedia for a definitive answer – but holy crap, you can learn a lot from fish! I have to keep moving despite the ocean of attention and critical scrutiny.

At my lunch interview with Chris Jones, he asked me whether or not this whole experience made me…well I can’t remember exactly the term he used…but if it made me doubtful of things, or my career, or what I was doing. Well… No. And yes. But mostly no. I’m surprised I have a career at all. I'm unbelievably lucky.

What was so wonderful (now, I know, in retrospect) about working on my play Diversey Harbor with Theatre Seven is that there were no expectations of what it would or could be. Nobody knew who we were. Diversey Harbor was a melancholy monologue play I wrote in my pajamas, and we were just another small company renting another storefront theatre; I was busy cleaning the theatre’s bathrooms and pushing the “GO” button on the light-board. Critics came to review it and it was a warm and welcome reception into the Chicago theatre community. If only it happened that way every time.

I’m uncomfortable with personal interviews so I tried to turn the tables and get some info out of Chris Jones regarding criticism. He said, “Everything you write has a human cost. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it.”

All right. Fair enough.

At dinner tonight, my sister, who graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told me: “Never talk to journalists.”

Really? (pause) ... even if they buy me lunch?

I don’t think all this is going to change things too much. I only know one way to write, and it’s programmed like binary code into the joints of my typing fingers. I’m grateful that people care about me and what I’m doing; if they didn’t, I’d just be another cantankerous 5’5” blonde chick with brass knuckles.