Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sarah Ruhl, reviews, and indie theater

Sarah Ruhl recently had an article in The New York Times, explaining why she chose not to have her latest play, Melancholy Play, reviewed.

Her reasons were: The low budget, which she reported as being $50,000, although further donations from True Love as well as in kind donations such as a piano and rehearsal space were not included in that total.  The small number of performances, which do not allow for previews.  The fact that the musicians will only be playing once or twice in rehearsal before performances begin.  The fact that the ambition of the piece far outstripped its resources.

Her column in turn caused some outrage among many downtown indie theater folks.  To us in the indie theater scene, a budget upwards of $50,000 is luxurious, especially when tied to an organization willing to do much of the work to support the show.  The number of performances is standard, and we feel lucky when we can eek one or two previews into the performance schedule.  We can never afford to pay musicians for more than one or two rehearsals.  And our ambitions always far, far outstrip our resources.

We could refuse reviewers.  But that would mean our work would be unseen, unmarked.  Reviews lead to audience, lead to grants, lead to recognition, lead to the small amounts of money we receive for our companies.  Most of us do not have the luxury of refusing reviewers.  So instead many of us are desperate for more reviews, no matter whether we have been given the time and resources to present the work in its ideal state.  Recently, my shows have received reviews in a relatively reliable fashion, and I am grateful for that.  Many of the reviews have been good.  But anytime I receive a bad review it comes with a measure of terror the reviewers will stop coming.

Honestly, for my own part, even if I didn’t need reviews for practical reasons, I would choose to have the reviewers come.  Theater is an ephemeral art, a fact that I (sometimes reluctantly) accept, or even (sometimes defiantly) embrace.  But I do want that record, that memory, that manifestation that an audience member came, thought about the play, and recorded his or her thoughts.  Whatever the thoughts might be.

And they might be anything.  Over time, I have realized that the standard for reviewers is not their taste in theater or their perception, it is their ability to express themselves.  Reviews are written mediums, and reviewers are, above all else, writers of a certain genre, the genre that in less fallow times was more grandly called criticism.  The reviewers do have the experience of having seen other shows, they are not theater novices.  But there are many who match their experience.  So reading a review allows one to open up an audience member’s brain and hear their opinions as they spill out.  Those opinions may be wise, or they may be foolish.   But because the reviewer has a venue to express those thoughts, they do have influence.

A friend of mine recently complained that theater reviewers do not know how to write about music.  It is true, most are untrained in music.  That is not a requirement for the job.  As for me, I often lament that they do not note the circumstances of creation.  A show created on a $20,000 budget is usually judged by the same standard as a show that cost $200,000.  Sometimes, I want to grab a reviewer by the lapels and say, look, can’t you see, it was a miracle, I just created a miracle for you.  With no budget and no time, in a circumstance in which others (such as Sarah Ruhl) would not dare to be reviewed, I have created Art.  I have given it to you whole, and I have called it finished, because I must.  Yes, talk about the good and the bad, what you enjoyed and what made you squirm.  But talk about the fact that the circumstances in which I, in which all my fellow indie theater artists create, are impossible and absurd. 

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from Ralph Lewis, from Peculiar Works.  He told me, with most indie shows, you can see the potential of what it could be, given more time and money.  But, he said, you manage to finish your work, you manage to realize the creation.  Reviewers take heed!  Talk about that.

But it is not their job to say talk about that.  And perhaps, for that reason, it is wise for Sarah Ruhl to keep them away.  She recognizes the fact that the reviewers can look at one, unfinished performance, and say the play has failed.  And that label can stay with the play for years.  Sometimes forever.

But as for me, out of necessity but also out of desire, I will continue to present work, continue to invite reviewers, and continue to call it a finished work.  It never is, of course.  But then, it always is.  Once you present, once a single audience member watches it, for that person, it is finished.  And for that person, one must strive to have completed it. 

Plays are never finished, as the saying goes, only abandoned.  You will find my next play abandoned once more on the doorstep of The New York Times.  I hope they don’t mistake it for the trash.