Rumors of a Review

Instead of a review of Rumors, by Theatre Huntsville, which opened last night (ticket info here), you’re getting another commentary article, aimed at the theatre folks out there.

“Wait a minute!  The show opened, and this is the Huntsville Theatre REVIEWS page, so where’s the review?!?” 

Well, unfortunately, there won’t be one.  At least not today.  I’m not in town to SEE the show, so I can’t write a review of it.  I am human, and need a family vacation occasionally.

I tried to get someone to fill in for me for a couple weeks.  There are some theatre people in the area whom I have gotten to know a bit, and whose opinions I trust, and I reached out to a few of them (not all) to see if they were interested.  No dice.  Not one of them would touch it, and all for the exact same reason–the people up onstage this weekend are their friends, and they don’t want to take the chance of hurting anyone’s feelings.

I get it.  There’s this weird love-hate thing with reviewers.  We want the reviews, and we don’t want them.  I understand that, some time ago, the city paid some people to write reviews, but they were all-positive publicity pieces, and the theatre community kind of grumbled that they weren’t “real reviews”.  The reality is, we want REAL reviews, but…only if they’re going to say nice things.  If that makes any sense.

“You obviously never want to work in this town again.”

I have actually been told that.  As someone who considers himself an actor and director first, the possibility of never getting to be onstage in Huntsville again, simply sucks.

So why am I doing this?  I am friends with some of the people onstage this weekend, so why am I willing to take the chance of pissing people off?

Because it’s important.

Look at it this way.  If a 2nd grade math teacher gives every kid in class a 100% with a smiley face and a pat on the head, regardless of whether the answers were right, would the kids get any better at addition?  If a sports coach never actually shows the players what they are doing wrong on the field, is that team ever going to win any games?  If a piano teacher never corrects finger positions, would the student ever be able to play Beethoven well?  You get my point–in order to improve, SOMEONE has to point out what could be better.

Nobody is perfect.  If all we hear is positive feedback 100% of the time, either we ARE perfect, and in the wrong line of work (true, for some folks out there); or THEY don’t know what we should be doing either (very possible); or they simply don’t want to hurt our feelings (almost certainly true).  Regardless of the reason, we won’t improve.  Even De Niro has had acting coaches.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, whether we WANT to improve.  It’s very possible we don’t, and that would be fine.

So let’s change the question a bit…why do you do community theatre?

Do you do community theatre purely as a way to have some fun and entertain family and friends?  Do you just want to hang out with your theatre buddies, and “put on a show”?  If that’s why you do community theatre, then I say, “good for you!  Go for it.  Have fun.  Knock yourself out.”  There is absolutely nothing wrong with just doing a show for the fun of it, and letting the chips fall where they may.  Your friends and family will show up, and they will clap and cheer.

People who do shows purely for those reasons tend to get a bit upset about reviews with anything negative to say.  And they would be correct.  It’s just amateur community theatre, and everyone’s a volunteer, so it’s a bit mean for me to show up and say bad things.   true.

Let me be absolutely clear–if any theatre company ever contacts me and asks me to NOT review a show, I will comply.  If your group is in the “just for fun” crowd, then I won’t waste my time and yours writing a review.  If you only care what your family and close friends think, and it’s no big deal whether masses of crowds show up to see your shows, then don’t read the reviews.  If you are just having fun, then don’t risk the chance that the review may ruin it for you.

Yes, seriously.  Here is a reviewer telling people to NOT read his reviews, and I’m very serious about that.  If you are in that group (and it’s totally fine, if you are), you can stop reading this website.

On the other hand, if you would actually like to do GOOD theatre, then maybe the reviews can be helpful.  Here’s the deal–you can’t rely on the reactions of your family and friends.  Your mom is always going to tell you that you were absolutely perfect–that’s her JOB.  If you want a serious assessment of your skills at something, your family and friends are not the place to look.

So where can we get some constructive criticism?  What about other theatre folks?  Generally, no.  The theatre community IS YOUR CIRCLE OF FRIENDS.  They don’t want to hurt your feelings, any more than your non-theatre friends.  In fact, they are even less likely to be negative, because they know how sensitive it can be–they have been in your precise shoes.  That’s how it works:  “If you tell me I’m great, I’ll tell you you’re great.”  And the group hug continues, never actually getting anywhere.

And that gets to why no one wanted to step into my shoes this weekend.  They are IN that circle of friends, and don’t want to break that unspoken pact of only saying good things to each other.  Oh, the theatre pros can tell when a show misses the mark; they just won’t say anything.

I’ve had several experienced theatre people thank me privately for my reviews.  They know SOMEONE needs to be doing it, but just don’t want to be the ones.  I get it.  I don’t blame them at all.

There is a reason why professional reviewers (which I am not) are NOT part of the theatre community.  Reviewers are people too, and THEY don’t like to say unkind things about friends, so they avoid becoming friendly with anyone they will be reviewing.  Which is a shame.  It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it’s human nature.

Well, what about strangers?  Can we maybe get good feedback from our regular theatre-goers?  Well, generally no.  The community of folks who attend theatre events is pretty much devoid of absolute jerks (thankfully), which means none of them wants to walk up to a complete stranger they’ve watched for three hours and tell them how they screwed up.  They’ll smile and shake hands, and tell us how wonderful we were.

As most theatre folks know, you CAN generally tell what the audience really felt about a show by watching attendance numbers.  If the audience gets bigger as the run continues, then obviously the positive word-of-mouth got out there.  Or the reverse, of course.  If they didn’t like the show, those same folks who smiled and shook your hands, and thanked you for the wonderful evening, have zero problems telling their friends to NOT go to the show.  So, it IS possible to get a vague feeling of whether the show is working or not, based on audience sizes during the run, but that doesn’t tell us WHY, or what SPECIFICALLY is good or could have been better.  So while attendance rates are great for general thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessments, they don’t help us get better.

So, if we really care about putting on the best shows possible, and we need some REAL feedback…we have to ignore the positive comments from family and friends, and we have to ignore those smiling handshakes from strangers.  What’s left?

Well, me.  And people like me.  People who actually DO know theatre, and can help identify what worked and why, and what could have been better, and why.  The problem is that most people like me are actually DOING theatre, which means they’re in that circle of friends.  It’s a shame that we can’t even allow our theatre pros to give us constructive criticism, without us holding it against them forever, but we’re all human, so it’s understandable.

I would much rather be doing theatre myself, but that’s just not going to happen all that much right now, so this is how I can help.  I’m not saying I’m god’s gift to the theatre.  There are a number of folks in the area who are just as qualified to write theatre reviews as I am, but they aren’t.  Right now, it’s just me–one person with an opinion.  But if theatre in our area is going to get better, someone needs to provide an educated commentary of the shows, and those opinions HAVE to include the “needs improvement” parts, or it becomes meaningless.

Don’t get me wrong.  Looking over what I’ve written above, one may get the impression that I think theatre here sucks, and everyone needs to shape up, but that’s not my feeling at all.  I LOVE going to see the shows.  The talent is absolutely here in the Huntsville area for some incredible, quality productions.  I’ve seen it, and it’s a beautiful thing when it happens.

FYI, I will make every effort to review both Rumors and In the Heights next weekend (keep eyes on this page Saturday evening/Sunday).  It will be a bit late to help ticket sales for the former, but it’s the best I can do.

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