My name is Russell, and I’m the class of 2017. I’ve spent most of my time at Wesleyan involved in the arts community, particularly in theater – I have written and directed a few shows at Wesleyan (some of which have been reviewed by you folks), am a Second Stage staff member, and have seen almost every piece of theater produced on campus since coming here freshman year.
I love great theater, bad theater and everything in between. I checked out your Devil’s Advocate piece on “Murder on the Beantown Express” today, and after shrugging it off, the negative tone of the thing left an impact. So I’m gonna work through my issues out loud here, and maybe we can both get something out of this.
Theater reviews are an odd business at Wesleyan. Most reviewers know the creator of the show they’re reviewing, or at least somebody working on it, and that lack of distance typically results in a list of niceties. I’m not particularly sure how the Argus qualifies the language writers use between previews (which typically feature interviews with some of the production’s creators or audience members) or reviews like your own. The writers of both insert themselves into their own descriptions of the play, placing an emphasis on what struck them about the piece.
Yet most reviews read that tone as an obligation, serving as a sort of advertiser for the show, their quotes ripe to flood Facebook coupled with team members reminding students to grab their tickets on time. Only a couple Argus reviews over the past year even mention something in the production that fell flat for the viewer – it’s all “spectacular production,” “magically enticing,” “captures the essence of romance with more grace and humanity than most plays are capable of.” The amount of praise the Argus showers on student theater is lovely to read as someone who helps produce some of that theater – it also renders criticism a difficult task, the curve skewed so far north that any nitpick or shift in tone comes across as hostile.
This is why it was particularly surprising to see an article that spent a thousand words taking a dump on one show. Did Hugo Kessler ’19 piss in your cereal this morning? In responding to Hannah Reale’s generally positive reaction to the show last week, you must have gone out of your way to tear apart the play’s plot and jokes and get your thoughts displayed on a public forum. A lot of the cruelty in your piece comes from assuming a good deal of Kessler’s intent as a writer: you say you realized early on that this play would be written by someone who believed they were funny and decided to write a play that highlights that humor. I’d argue the same of your review, which you open citing a pre-school production you watched when you were seven years old, placing its technical quality as superior to a play produced by young adults. Really? Do you have any idea how much time and energy goes into a team of students completing a full-scale production?
I’m not writing to particularly defend ‘Beantown’ – I thought the show was fine, buoyed by the strong cast and Kessler’s ability to keep things the rhythm of things going (save for an ill-advised finale). I’m writing to address this issue of overdosing on negative criticism when your arts section has failed to reach a balance between the two. Again, most pieces of Wesleyan theater are not negatively reviewed – I couldn’t find a single one written this calendar year. And in my time here, not a single production has received two reviews from your section, the latter of which published with the intention of completely rescinding the first writer’s response (as well as the quotes she pulled from audience members).
It feels rather cruel, a response not intended for the creators of “Beantown” or the audience who watched it, but for yourself. You do throw in a half-hearted “prove me wrong next time, kiddo!” at the end there, a strangely condescending note that implies the creator should work to live up to your standards an arts editor for their school paper. We live in an arts community where students (incredibly) get to produce their own thing – whatever twisted idea crosses their minds – and with enough time and people, they can have it presented to the entire school. It’s a community of directors, writers, performers and designers who may be striving to fine-tune their craft and continually produce better theater – in this sense, criticism is the most helpful thing you can give, because creators WILL listen and their future work will address those issues in some way.
Yet I can say as a member of this community that you have to criticize well. Writing and publishing a critique cannot be for yourself – it has to in order to push our community forward. If you cannot wrestle a play or its creators on their own terms, your negative take will fail to open up a broader discussion about the issues you see present in the work. Your take on the show – effusive, or terrible – will be worthless. You have the unique ability at Wesleyan to write criticism on artists who will read your work, process your thoughts, and offer counterpoints. So why not engage them as a fellow student?