Friday, August 12, 2005

Don't Piss off the Critic

For the first many years we lived here, I worked doing publicity for most of the theatre groups in town. And, if I do say so myself, I was a pretty good publicist. One thing that was very important to me was developing a good relationship with the local critic (who was also the entertainment editor). I recognized that working with the critic was better than entering into an adversarial position with her.

When a new editor was hired, I made an appointment to take her to lunch and get to know her face to face, and to ask what I could do, as a publicist, to make her job easier. Generally speaking, she was usually very fair and kind to the groups I represented. And I always thanked her when she went out of her way to give us special publicity.

I often wish there was somebody like me doing publicity for a lot of the groups I deal with now. Not wanting to blow my own horn, but sometimes getting cooperation to get publicity for somebody's show is like pulling teeth, and involves several phone calls or e-mails and frustration waiting until the very last minute until the person wanting the publicity finally comes through with a photo or a date or another piece of information (like information on the cast members). I am, on the one hand, sympathetic with their busy schedules and the fact that the performance itself takes precedence, but by the same token, without publicity, the best show in the world isn't going to be successful if nobody knows it's there.

From having worked at the theatre end of it, I know how frustrating it is to see a review of your show, with which you disagree, in the paper. I certainly saw that many times with The Lamplighters. Maybe the critic had a bad day. Or maybe what you think is a wonderful scene or terrific actors just don't appeal to the critic. Everybody looks at a production in a different way, filtered through their own individual likes and dislikes or previous experience.

But the problem with reviews is that they are pretty much unarguable. If you send an irate letter to the newspaper, you run the risk of two things happening. First, people who don't generally read reviews may take a negative view of your show from the anger in your letter to the editor; and second, you piss off the critic, who gave his/her sincere opinion and is only going to find the public complaint as an unjustifiable personal attack.

What happens when you piss off a, for that when I find you doing another show, I may not soft-pedal my criticism. I would never, ever write something untrue to get back at someone who had attacked me in public. But, by the same token, there are lots of ways that you can write a criticism of something. You can be blatantly honest ("so and so should know better than to..." or "this show was deadly dull and dragged terribly" or "the orchestra was terribly out of tune") or you can be more gentle ("there was some problem with..." "the energy was down opening night, but I'm sure it will pick up as the cast gets more shows under their belts." or "there were a few problems with the orchestra on opening night which I'm sure will work themselves out as the run progresses.")

In dealing with community theatre, where people are amateurs and doing it for the love of it, I tend to be more gentle than blunt, but if someone has pissed me off, I'm less likely to spend a lot of time trying to decide how I can say "this was lousy" in a gentle way and more likely to just write exactly what I feel in the first place.

So the watchword is: don't piss off the critic. It won't unwrite the review you object to, and the critic will remember your attack and not worry about being gentle the next time you put on a show.

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