Reviewer or Critic?

A couple weeks ago in class we had a conversation about the difference between someone who reviews theater and someone who critiques it.  The consensus was that a reviewer is someone who writes about  a play towards the beginning of its run in order to give a yay or nay on whether someone should see the production.  A critic writes about a play either during or in many cases after a run of a show and discusses themes, points of interest, and thought provoking choices. Basically, one requires an informed opinion and the other requires analytical thinking skills. A reviewer is a consumer’s guide and a critic is an artistic guide.  Neither is necessary, but both are valuable.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it recently. There’s someone named Tate McDaniel who decided about a year ago that he wanted to serve as critic for the student run theater groups on campus, Boston University Stage Troupe, and BU on Broadway.  You can check out his mission statement and his work here. The thing is, McDaniel claims to be a critic, but I’m not sure he is a critic or a reviewer. He posts his commentary after the show has closed, yet he rarely uses any kind of critical thinking skills.  He spends a deal of time criticizing the actors and technicians, saying what worked or didn’t work (what he liked or did not like). The problem here is that he puts everything on a scale of good and bad. Instead of digging into the thematic content and its relationship with choices made, he stays totally on the surface. He might as well make one list of things he liked and another list of things he didn’t like. Furthermore, McDaniel often tries to pass observation off as critique, leaving the reader thinking something along the lines of “well… yes…that was the point…” Every post lacks the substance we as readers and theater makers and theatergoers are craving.  essentially, McDaniel writes mediocre reviews after the show has already happened, proving them worthless. That is not to say, however, that he himself is a worthless writer.  He just needs to decide what he wants to write and aim for improvement.  If he wants to be a critic, he should try to be a critic, exploring into the text and the performance past “good” and “bad” and into the realm of themes, context, and voice. If he wants to be a reviewer, he needs to clarify his opinions and post his thoughts earlier so that they actually have an impact.  Right now, his work doesn’t know what it wants to be, so the biggest impact it has is that it ends up causing commotion and hurting feelings instead of enlightening pieces of theater.

I am frustrated with McDaniel not because he is harsh, but because he lacks form and a willingness to learn.  Stage Troupe’s motto is “Learning By Doing.” That means that every time we put on another play, it is a learning experience and we’re committed to making it a learning experience. McDaniel seems to ignore that motto both in terms of our work and his own. I don’t do theater to be superior. I do it because of the personal and communal growth. McDaniel seems to Review theater to be superior.  That might be okay if we was superior. But he’s not. His writing is more amateur than (at least the same level of amateur) our theatrical attempts. Yes, we thrive for professionalism, but we know that we’re not professionals. McDaniel says that he does not consider himself professional, but his air of superiority seems to say otherwise. This superiority becomes unbearable when you realize that he does not do his research. There are many instances where he criticizes a choice that was actually written into the script. A lot of times he does not like the actual script and content of a piece and takes it out on the artists. Perhaps they could have done it a little differently, but a lot of times that’s not possible.  (To read one of these instances and a string of rebuttals, read his Equus Review) Honestly, there’s no excuse for any critic, amateur or otherwise, not to do basic research into production history and context.

So Tate, if you’re reading this right now, I want you to understand something. You have such potential to be a valuable part of the extracurricular BU theater community.  Don’t waste it by refusing to grow. Don’t waste it by living in a a vague world that is between critic and reviewer. Let’s continue learning by doing together, shall we?


3 comments on “Reviewer or Critic?

  1. To be fair to Tate, his opinions are his own and his reviews don’t need to adhere to your or your class’ definition of what a review or critique is. He doesn’t analyze thematic points likely because that’s not what interests him or his goals and yes, his writings reveal a general lack of knowledge. He’s communicating what he liked and didn’t like and giving reasons why in as valid a way as any friend or family member does so in seeing a show (he’s probably a little more honest). He does so in an amateurish way, much like Stage Troupe is an amateur theatre group, and thus is wrong (or seems wrong) often and likewise is right (or seems right) depending on the views of the reader.

    Stage Troupe, OnBroadway and Wandering Minds would do well to have more people reviewing or critiquing their works. This doesn’t invalidate Tate’s writings, rather it should serve to inspire more people to do so. Members of these groups should try their hands at writing reviews. A few years back, Ryan McPhee (a member of both Stage Troupe and OnBroadway) wrote reviews for the BU Arts Initiative which were largely watered down and mostly congratulatory, given the fact that he personally knew most of the people involved with the productions. That’s what makes it difficult, but if more “theatre people” wrote critiques, I would hope they’d be filled with creative insight into themes, purpose and other comments that would help theatre makers improve. It seems the best people to give critique would be those who have a better understanding of what goes into the student productions at BU.

    The point is that I agree theatre groups at BU should have better reviewers and better critique. If Tate wanted to change the way he did it, all the better, but the actual lack of better discussion is mostly due to people not speaking up about the work they see. This is where your issue should lie. Maybe you or someone else in your group can help lead by example? “Learning by doing” and teaching by showing. Tate’s reviews are lackluster and formulaic, but if it makes any member of Stage Troupe or OnBroadway think about their work, even if it’s just “he’s SO wrong about that,” then it’s doing something. Hopefully more people will add their voices and generate healthy debate and discussion about theatre on campus that’s not limited to behind the scenes of these productions.

    • Hi William. You bring up a couple interesting points here. Before I really address them I want to clarify that these definitions of reviewer and critic are standard throughout the arts community. You’re right in that McDaniel doesn’t have to adhere to them. But nonetheless, this definition extends past this class and into the “real” world.
      Its interesting that you bring up that his likes and dislikes are kind of like the more honest versions of what the typical friend/ family member thinks when leaving a show. You’re right. The thing is, when we read a review, we want to put a little more trust in them than the average person. They can’t be too far removed from the average person (or else we wouldn’t understand them) but at the same time, they need to be a little elevated. We want to trust that they have a solid amount of foundation knowledge. We don’t see a show (even a nonprofessional one) because we think random people from off the street are just going to be talented. We see it because there seems to be some kind of credibility (the one exception might be children’s shows). Similarly, we don’t trust any old person to write a review. We trust someone who has somehow established himself. McDaniel has asserted that he likes to review (that’s good!) but he loses credibility every time he fails to do a minimal layer of research.
      I very much agree with you in that the heart of the matter is that we don’t have enough open discussion. Ryan wrote some pretty lame reviews. I’m not gonna lie, it was nice to be validated though. The problem with someone in one of our groups writing reviews is that the people who create theater are so incredibly close. I’m sure that’s why Ryan’s reviews were mostly just congratulatory. A lot of my friends have told me I should critique Stage Troupe shows. I feel uncomfortable doing so because I feel so close to the process. Ideally we’d get someone who had a foundation in theater but wasn’t super involved in the extracurricular groups to take the lead here and then invite us into the conversation. That’s part of the reason McDaniel’s reviews are disappointing. He’s not involved in the groups (so he can be objective) but he also lacks foundation knowledge and familiarity with process. He’s so close to something we want but he falls short, stirring disappointment.
      My question for you is this: when McDaniel makes someone think “he’s SO wrong,” what exactly is he doing? And furthermore, what is he doing when his work brings about the comment “I don’t think he got it” (something that I think I hear people say much more often than the former comment)? Also, have you thought about sharing your thoughts in the form of criticism? You clearly have a strong opinion about the nature of discussion here in addition to a very sensible way of stating your ideas. If its something you’re interested in, I’d definitely be interested in what you had to say.
      If you have more to say, feel free to respond here, or if you’d prefer to have this conversation in private my email is abioshins@gmail.com

      • That’s a fair point re: definitions, but I’m also glad you got my meaning behind it!

        It is disappointing that Tate doesn’t delve very deeply into the backgrounds of the shows and he doesn’t explore what the director’s and actors’ intentions are, that’s certainly true. If he did, I imagine he’d gain a great deal of credibility in your eyes. It seems like the problem is that it’s difficult to have it both ways…someone who understands theatre and someone who isn’t immersed in the close-knit community that the extracurricular groups create.

        In answer to your first question, I believe that the existence of Tate’s reviews must be doing something (if they were not, you would not have posted this blog). I can’t pretend to have knowledge of the general responses to his reviews, but in the case of having a reaction of “he’s SO wrong,” doesn’t that mean he’s sparking some debate? Artists crave some kind of acknowledgement. If they disagree so strongly, that either means they’re defensive about their work (they secretly agree and don’t want to hear it; they don’t agree and/or are in denial) or they reasonably believe he’s wrong (due to his lack of foundation/understanding; due to his misinterpretation). Obviously these aren’t all-encompassing answers, but my point is that the fact these reviews are available for you and the rest of your group to read and, presumably, discuss amongst yourselves, means that he’s opening up the door for 1) you all to retroactively discuss your work with his critique as a starting point, frame, or point of debate and 2) for other outsiders or possibly members of your group to consider reviewing as well.

        If the response becomes “I don’t think he got it,” then the solution becomes more problematic. I’ll ask this: As someone who is clearly passionate about theatre, how do you explain your work, your life, to people who don’t get it in daily conversation? It can be difficult, I know, because when you love something and someone else doesn’t understand it the way you do, it becomes sort of like explaining music to a deaf person when you don’t know sign language. If you can have a satisfactory discussion, then how can you translate that conversation into maybe having a healthy talk with Tate, since he’s the only reviewer out there? I understand the frustration comes from Tate having marketed himself as a theater critic and his being inadequate in delivering on that promise. There’s no question of that and I won’t argue, though I will say he does state his mission as one of “feedback” (I personally read the penultimate paragraph as a lot of flourish and nonsense so he can ignite some people’s anger or annoyance and preemtively shelter from it).

        Tate stirs disappointment in your community. You say members of your group have asked you to write critiques and you are uncomfortable doing so given your proximity. That’s understandable. So what can be done to help? Tate could be reached out to, and you all can fix what you have, a member of your group can step up and, if necessary, “be the bad guy,” or you can find someone else qualified, maybe someone in the CFA or COM (or somewhere else entirely!), to fill the void.

        I have jotted notes and responses down after the shows I’ve seen because I do that with almost everything I watch, but I won’t pretend to be the guy you’re looking for. Just speaking up because I noticed the comments on that review and I’ve been watching some Stage Troupe shows for a few years and thought I could help the discourse.

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