I love theatre. Always have. Even before I discovered actual plays, I spent a good portion of my childhood making up scenes and playing pretend as I ran wild around my grandparents’ yard and outbuildings. There were lots of strange pieces of farm equipment for me to climb on and old buildings for me to explore, and I loved creating mysteries to solve and adventures to have.
I’ve taken a few turns on the stage; my first role ever was part of some Bowbells United Methodist Church performance I barely remember, except that I was supposed to have a broken leg and had to limp around on crutches; my cast was just a white knee sock pulled all the way up with names written on it with colorful markers. In high school I took every opportunity possible to participate in drama for both competition and pleasure, though those opportunities were sadly few.
Since high school I haven’t been nearly as active in creating theatre. After my divorce, I decided to rediscover some of the things I loved that I had let fall by the wayside, including acting and singing. I joined the cast of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog as a member of the chorus and then later that year played Sylvia St. Croix in Ruthless! The Musical. I’ve also had the pleasure to play Jeanette Burmeister in The Full Monty and take a couple stabs at directing with my theatre gal pal Amy D (Thelma to my Louise), assisting her with Moon Over Buffalo and co-directing with her on The Dixie Swim Club.
Talking about theatre is also something I love to do, and as I was expanding this site it seemed only natural to include that in my vision for what the World of Champagne could be. I don’t think of myself as a “theatre critic;” that title feels stuffy and pretentious and way too judge-y for me, as if I should be sitting in the back row with my nose upturned or staring over the top of my glasses like a parent who is disappointed with the shenanigans of a trying child. That’s not me. When the lights come up, I’m the child and I’m caught up in the magic.
True, there are some shows that are…less magical than others, and I am not afraid to be critical of a production’s weak spots. But forgetting the warts and the missteps, what underlies everything is the joy of seeing creative works come to life. My goal is never to discourage anyone from seeing a production or supporting their local theatres; if anything, we need more support, and if people aren’t satisfied with the quality of the shows they are seeing then maybe they should think about what they can do to help make improvements. That’s the “community” part of community theatre; if you can’t write a check, you can audition for a role or pick up a paintbrush or hammer. There have been productions that were absolutely cringe-worthy, but I always aim to make my reviews as positive and constructive as possible. Even if I hated it, I know that lots of people put their hearts and their souls and their blood into bringing that production into being, and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean anything. I was one person in one seat during one performance.
That’s another reason why I don’t like the title critic: in our culture, sometimes critics are seen as (or put themselves forward as) authorities. That somehow if this one person saw a show or a movie and says that it’s terrible, then it must be terrible. But that’s not what it means at all (art is wonderfully and frustratingly subjective). It just means it was terrible for them, and maybe if you have the exact same life experiences and perspectives as that one person, then maybe it will be terrible for you too. But maybe it will be amazing for you. Maybe you will see something in it that that critic missed. Maybe you will see something that an actor brings to their part, and that small element will kindle something inside you. You might laugh or cry or get mad, and what if you’d taken the critic’s advice and not shown up and missed that opportunity to feel something, deeply? I don’t want to be responsible for that.
This is probably the point where you’re starting to wonder what all of this has to do with censorship. I’m getting there; I just wanted to set you up with some of the warm and fuzzy before I got out the knives.
I recently attended the Empire Theatre Company’s production of The Falsettos. I would love to tell you more about that, but I can’t…at least, not now. After the show, I was informed by the director that it is written into their contract that they aren’t allowed to have the show reviewed, under threat of having the production closed down. That was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard, and also one of the most offensive.
When I think of censorship, I think of sour-faced old white people getting together to burn books because they don’t believe independent, thinking people should have a right to decide for themselves what sort of social issues and complex subjects they want to be exposed to, or to have their children exposed to. I think of angry rednecks smashing Dixie Chicks cds because lead singer Natalie Maines dared to have an opinion about the president instead of just putting on her little show and leaving the “heavy lifting” to the menfolk. It’s all about telling you what you should read and consume, what you should think. It’s about shutting down dialogue, and ultimately trying to force the censor’s perspective on others.
This type of censorship is something else entirely. Book-burning and cd-smashing is aggressive; this is simply intellectual cowardice. The authors and rights owners aren’t reacting to any actual sentiment about their creation, but about potential reactions, about thoughts and ideas and arguments that haven’t even been articulated yet. Their feelings must be tender indeed to require such extreme protection from any possible offense. If your house of cards can be so easily scattered by one person sitting in one seat during one performance, then how can you hope for it to last? Art that doesn’t inspire dialogue and debate is quickly lost and forgotten. Shows come, they play for a short time, and they close; what keeps them alive is the memories we have and the ways we talk about them and share them and discuss them.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
And if you want only glowing, laudatory things to be written about your plays, then write better plays. Write better songs. Make better movies. Put more energy and love and attention into the crafting of your works than into the policing of its reception once it has been produced. And once you’ve finished them, put them out into the world remembering that damn subjectivity and just be open to whatever dialogues may ensue. The actors and musicians, directors and tech crews who labor on these productions deserve to have their efforts acknowledged and discussed, and to curtail this dialogue to protect one’s vanity is petty, moronic, and deeply injurious to the arts themselves. I abhor censorship in any form, but when it comes from within the art rather than without, it seems doubly loathsome.
If anyone is really that scared about a possible bad review, maybe they should contribute to a new conversation: one about what role the critic plays in our consumption of arts and media. If you make all of your decisions about what to see and support based on the recommendations of critics, you are cutting yourself off from all kinds of fantastic experiences and new ways to experiencing the world. If something speaks to you or looks interesting, go see it. If some critic didn’t like it, don’t pass it up – go see it, and then go back to their review and post your thoughts! Maybe you’ll agree and you can commiserate in the comments sections about how terrible you thought it was. Or maybe you’ll be inspired and you can give your perspective, make your case for why it was transformative. Maybe it won’t strongly move you one way or the other. But whether filled with love, hate, or indifference, you’ve broadened your experience of the world. You are richer for having taken part.
For now, I am choosing not to review the ETC production of The Falsettos, and am posting this article instead. I have so much respect for the cast and crew of the The Falsettos, many of whom are longtime friends, and it would be a shame for people not to have the opportunity to experience this production because the rights holder decided to get their knickers in a twist about some drag-queen-theatre-critic-gone-rogue. But “not now” doesn’t mean “not ever,” and I may choose to post a review in the future once the production has closed. I haven’t decided yet. But I was not solicited by ETC to write a review (or to write this piece, for that matter); I paid for my ticket* and as a paying theatre patron I reserve my right to say whatever the hell I please about the experience.
And if the authors and rights holders for this production or any other don’t like it, they can take all of their anger and frustration and angst and put it toward the quality of their next production because this one person in one seat during one performance is fresh out of fucks to give.
* Technically my mother paid for the ticket, as she was in town visiting and decided to treat us to a delightful evening at the theatre. But the important point is that the ticket was paid for, not comped.
Tags: Anne Lamott, Censorship, Champagne Dreams Productions, Dixie Chicks, Dr. Horrible, Dr. Horribles Sing Along Blog, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Falsettos, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jeanette Burmeister, Miss Jaye, Moon Over Buffalo, Ruthless, Ruthless! The Musical, Sylvia St. Croix, The Dixie Swim Club, The Full Monty, theater, Theater Criticism, theatre, Theatre Critic, World of Champagne