Everyone's a Critic
by Seth Rogovoy
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(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 29, 2004) – It always puzzles me when irate fans begin a “hang-the-critic” letter-to-the-editor with the opening line, “[Fill in name of critic here] couldn’t possibly have been at the same concert I was at.” Not only does it puzzle me, but the similarity in language and form among these letters makes me wonder if there is an “irate fan letter” template that comes with Microsoft Word.
What makes people think that everyone who attends a concert is going to have the exact same impression of it? Different people like different movies; different people like different foods. Just because someone else didn’t like a concert they liked, is that a reason for anyone to take it personally?
Although part of a reviewer’s duty is to report on an event – what it looked like, sounded like, and felt like to be there – his primary role is NOT to report on whether or not the majority of people had a good time, or whether or not they clapped, danced, or gave the performers a standing ovation.
When was the last time you went to a concert, or any performance for that matter, where the vast majority of the audience hated it, didn’t clap, or walked out in disgust? It never happens. Audiences are by nature self-selecting groups. They go to a particular show because they are inclined to like it even before they’ve heard it – because they are fans. And especially after investing sums that can easily run into the triple digits in an era when a pair of concert tickets plus fees and refreshments can easily run that high, people are determined to have a good time no matter what. And they don’t need some critic to tell them they shouldn’t have enjoyed themselves.
Which is precisely the point. A negative review of a performance shouldn’t and isn’t intended to negate a good time enjoyed by those who were there. This assumes far too much power or influence for the critic. The suggestion that a negative review could ruin the enjoyment of concertgoers after the fact is more of an insult to them than to the critic. Aren’t their feelings strong enough to withstand the barbs and arrows of a single scribe?
A review is by definition NOT the response of the average audience member. A review is the critical response of a professional, experienced concertgoer (or theatergoer or dancegoer), one who attends far more concerts than the average person, and not in order to be entertained but to review, to report, and to critique – to put the event into some sort of greater context above and beyond the particulars of the show, and to assess it NOT as an isolated performance (in contrast to how it is primarily experienced by the vast majority of paying attendees) but as one in a series of events.
So next time you read a negative review by a critic of a show you attended and enjoyed, don’t jump to the conclusion that the reviewer couldn’t possibly have been at the same show. Consider for a minute the possibility that his experience of the show was merely different from yours.
And then, if you’re still puzzled by his response, sign up for a three-part, review-writing workshop I’m leading next month: “Everyone’s a Critic,” at the new Workshop Playhouse, at 329A Stockbridge Rd. (Route 7), behind Aegean Breeze in Great Barrington. In the workshop -- running three Tuesday mornings in a row from 10 to noon beginning August 17 -- we will read, dissect and discuss published reviews toward establishing criteria for what a well-written review should be. Then participants will have the chance to go off and try their own hands at writing newspaper-style reviews of cultural events, and in turn share them in a workshop-style setting. For more information or to register for the workshop call 413-644-8850 or visit www.workshopplayhouse.com.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 29, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]