Just over a year ago, I realized that we were going to be in this for a long-ish haul. And that meant no live theater.
Searching for some piece of a silver lining in this dark cloud, I decided to seek out as much shot-from-the-stage theater as I could. I shared that in a blog post, which turned out to be hugely (relatively) popular. For a while, I updated it, eventually giving up as other, more resourceful resources outdid my work.
Long before the pandemic, I was a fan of such streaming theater productions. No, they aren’t the same as being there. But I looked at it from another angle: It was a lot better than not being there. And it meant I didn’t have to be in the right place at the right time (with the right amount of cash) to see the show. The nature of theater is “Poof, it’s gone.” With recorded theater, though, at least some sense of it remained. And often that sense proved a helluva lot more engaging and/or entertaining than what the movie world offered.
To be clear, I’m talking here about shows deliberately recorded for out-of-the-theater consumption, not one-night-only network TV gimmick shows. I’m talking about classic Sondheim shows for PBS and the Stratford Festival’s Shakespeare productions shot for airing in movie theaters. And about less-expected options, like the Jason Alexander-starring comedy “The Portuguese Kid” and the only-available-in-the-NYC-area “Uncle Vanya” with the incomparable Jay O. Sanders. Actors who rehearsed the roles, played the roles, and presented them without the benefit of “Cut, take 17” and an editor who could piece together a performance out of scraps.
More. More. More.
As the pandemic wore on, some theater companies that no longer had the possible of producing live-with-an-audience work, began exploring other ways to share stories.
I was thrilled.
Some produced the equivalent of short films. Cool.
Some offered straight-up readings. Challenging, but okay.
Some embraced Zoom as a storytelling element and presented stories that take place there Thank you, playwright Richard Nelson, who quickly mastered the form with additions to his Apple Family play cycle.
Some did full theater productions, only with the audience replaced with cameras to record and share the work.
They are all doing what creators are supposed to do: Create.
I just watched one of the latter.
It was, to put it bluntly, not good.
And, no, I’m not going to tell you what it was.
I value arts criticism. Hell, I’ve been writing arts criticism since college and did it practically full-time for a decade. I’m still an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). And I will still comment on arts and entertainment here and on social media (@louharry).
But not this one.
In the beforetimes, if I saw a production that seemed misguided or that didn’t satisfy or that pandered or that otherwise didn’t engage, I would have had no trouble writing honestly about my experience with the work.
But right now, I can’t find the headspace that would allow me to write about a well-meaning but weak and obvious play given a well-meaning but weak and obvious production by a company struggling to figure out how to navigate unprecedented times.
I could simply ignore the quality of the work and praise its mere existence. But misleading readers isn’t my style.
Other critics have figured out how to deal with this dilemma. ATCA has a panel discussion coming up on this very topic (Info here).
And I’m not encouraging other arts journalists to follow my path. I don’t think it’s long-range healthy for an arts journalist to adapt an “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” attitude about the subject.
But when it comes to struggling regional theater right now, I’m leaning in that direction.
Trust me: If I see something I can get behind, I’ll be spreading the word as wide as I can. For instance, you can catch the Goodman Theatre’s refreshing, wonderfully acted production of Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation” (photo above by Liz Lauren) for free through March 28. Get info here.
But, for now, when I see something I can’t comfortable recommend, mum will have to be the word.
Until better days.
Or, you know, until someone pays me to write arts reviews again.
A boy can dream…