Back in the day, as a self-employed novice professional theater critic, I had nobody to give me performance reviews–except for the folks who I wrote about and the folks I wrote for.
Reaction from fellow audience members was encouraging right from the start. What surprised (and delighted) me was that actual real theater professionals were also reading what I wrote, and were occasionally taking time to let me know that they liked what I was doing.
Barry Edelstein sent me a wonderfully kind note after my review of his revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Roundabout (1997). This was only a few months after nytheatre.com started, so the encouragement of a professional like Barry went a long way toward making me think I might be on the right track.
Upbeat reviews often make people happy, and over the years a number of them have been gracious enough to thank me. (See the Jay Evans note, for example.) Dev Janki, who originated the role of Fakir in Side Show (1997), emailed me: “BY THE WAY… I posted your review on our call board weeks ago!! WE LOVE YOU!!”
Wow, that made me feel good.
But–and this is something important I learned about my own craft, from my own experience as reviewee–praise isn’t really enough. What we all really seek is validation, that sense of being understood as well as valued. I soon discovered that connecting with work in that deeper way was my true objective. And I found out, from time to time, that I was accomplishing it.
Bill C. Davis wrote this to me after my review of Avow (2000): “It’s as if you interpreted a dream. You understood and you were eloquent and clear.” Love that imagery of reviewing as dream-interpretation!
Karen Sunde, on my review of her play How His Bride Came to Abraham (2003): “You captured what I long to convey, and so gracefully…. Thank you for your understanding.”
On the rare occasion of a review of non-professional theater (a production of Barnum by community theater in Brooklyn), director Phill Greeland wrote: “Positive mentions aside, we were almost more fond of the fact that you communicated ‘who we are’ so beautifully.” I liked that.
On March 18, 2005, I got two emails. One was from Glyn O’Malley the (late) author of a play about the Israeli-Palestinian situation called Paradise, who wrote: “You have been the only NYC critic thus far who has done so without political bias; who reviewed the play and my production on its own merits and ‘got’ what I set out to do.”
The other was from Richard Willis, one of the actors in Aquila Theatre Company’s update of Aristophanes’ The Wasps, entitled A Very Naughty Greek Play. He said, in part: “Reviews have been mixed for the latest Aquila show in New York City, but unbelievably this is the only one that mentions the political content, which seems to be a sign of the times in this country… this reviewer grasps exactly what we were trying to do.”
That was a good day.
Morgan Jenness, one of contemporary theater’s staunchest supporters, forwarded a note she got from one of the players in Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge (2009):
Okay. I know we’re not supposed to care about reviews, but wow! What an astonishing pleasure when a critic actually does their job of entering into the world of the creative artist–as opposed to putting their own agenda on what they think that work should be–and communicating effectively to their readers. Hurray.
These are words reviewers must live by.
Of all the comments I have ever received, none has made me prouder or happier than this one, which Kirk Bromley forwarded to me after I published my review of his very difficult play it has no title (2009). The comment itself was from composer John Gideon, one of Kirk’s longtime collaborators. He wrote:
That Martin is one insightful dude.
I always like reading his reviews because he always manages to tell me what the show we’re doing is about.
I could not ask for anything more.