Margaret Hair: When to be critical

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Margaret Hair

Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com.

— For the preview story of "Godspell" in this week's 4 Points, I got the chance to remember what high school drama productions are like.

Well, at least a little.

"Godspell" is an independent community theater show and doesn't have anything to do with Steamboat Springs High School, but most of its cast is in that age range.

But the amount of energy and work that goes into any kind of community theater (high school, college or town) is about the same. Mostly, it's completely insane. And almost always, it's underappreciated.

As I was leaving one of the rehearsals, director Michael Brumbaugh asked if I would like to come to opening night and write a review of it - if I liked the show, that is. This is the kind of thing some arts writers might not want to hear.

Actually, I'm all for this philosophy: Reviewing community theater (or a local art show, symphony, opera, anything) is great, but only if you're not going to trash it.

That idea comes from a desire to support those who make local art by focusing on the effort itself. And my acceptance of this philosophy came about six years ago, when a freelance theater reviewer ripped apart a volunteer, community production of Cole Porter's "Bells Are Ringing."

The review was heartless. For a show that cost $8 a ticket - and for which no one involved saw a penny - this part-time critic tore apart our actors, our orchestra (of which I was a part), our set, our staging : everything, really.

It might be that I'm blowing it up in my mind as being worse than it was. But I'm pretty sure this woman lacked a soul.

With any kind of public art pursuit, you're putting your work out there to be judged. That's understood. But at some point, to foster art, anyone viewing it has to decide how much judgment is really necessary.

You can't say that a performance is flawless if it obviously wasn't - really, you shouldn't say a performance is flawless, ever, because that wouldn't be true.

You also can't say that a performance is a complete waste of time (exceptions are for concerts with exorbitantly high ticket prices), because the only thing that supports is the critic's inner vindictiveness.

My reason for walking that line, especially with young or volunteer performers, is that few critics understand what goes into some of these productions.

For example, a few of my college roommates were living in the woods near an outdoor theater about this time last year, trying to survive tech week for a production of Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

No one knew that they were doing this, and the critic who reviewed the show definitely had no idea that its producers had been up for days in a row trying to pull the production together (in retrospect, building a multi-platform set on a stage that had a floor made of sand probably was a bad idea).

But that's the kind of mania on which volunteer theater thrives.

And it's why, even if every community production I ever go to in this town is terrible, I won't tell anyone.

Comments

id04sp 6 years, 11 months ago

I have witnessed some absolutely atrocious performances in community theater in various places, including Steamboat Springs.

The worst performance I've ever seen was a community theater production of "The Nutcracker" in a small town in California in which the featured ballerina's (a local dance instructor) thighs were approximately the same diameter as her male partner's waist. No kidding. What was she thinking? During the "Pas de Deux," in which the ballerina made several running starts into a leap which ended in the male partner's arms, the sounds of "thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . UNNNH!" were clearly audible above the sound of the orchestra. I think the guy was wearing one of those little back brace lifty things in addition to his dance belt (a dancer's jock strap, which was clearly visible under his tights . . . . shiver . . ). We gave a standing ovation at the end of the piece, but it was for the "catcher." Holy cow . . .

All you people who wasted your time in school learning to become mediocre performers should put on your shows for fun, but leave us out of it. Do it because you love it, and enjoy it, but don't put us through it. Here's a hint; if you cannot get a commercial sponsor to pay for your performance in return for promoting his product, service or business, you probably don't want to submit yourselves to the ridicule that will result from appearing on the stage.

Take a look at the commercially successful performers you see on TV, and in Las Vegas, and in River Dance, and in "A Chorus Line," and realize that we want to see very talented people who are also very visually appealing if we're going to shell out $50 to $100 for a ticket to the show.

A friend of mine has a brother who played in various local bands and had a great voice. He composed some songs, made a demo, and contacted an agent. The honest, commercial evaluation of his talent was that there was nothing in his performance that set him apart from the crowd, and frankly, that nobody was going to pay to watch a fat man sing.

Like it or not, performers are selling sex. Character actors merely provide context for the good-looking leads. Commercially successful movies, TV shows and stage plays all feature good looking people. That's what we want to see, even if we look like Wilfred Brimley or Jason Alexander in real life. There are "real" looking people all around us who we can see for free.

You'll find that the way a lot of people get on the public stage is by PRODUCING their own shows, which means, they have their own MONEY to spend to put on the show. There's no reason for the general public to support local theater just because it's "local."

I think it's nice that the Pilot does not tear people apart unless they do something to deserve it (like criminal activity), but do us a favor and don't promote that which is truly horrid to behold just because it's a "local production."

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paststudent 6 years, 11 months ago

Hmm, I thing Ms. Hair needs to realize that you can critique without bashing. There is a way to be respectful and still acknowledge shortcomings. By doing this, it creates awareness to the community and can also bring positive change to the artists performing. If something she saw wasn't up to snuff, let the artists know your feelings. They want to get better at the craft, so let them have it.

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corduroy 6 years, 11 months ago

id04sp Have you ever been to one of Michael's shows as director? You are seriously underestimating our local talent if you honestly think they aren't amazing performers I'll be at Godspell next weekend. Tickets are only $20 (or if you get 5 or more of you together $15) It's not just about supporting local performers, its also about supporting a local theater, which does more than just plays.

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id04sp 6 years, 11 months ago

My comments were intended to address Margaret's write up, not the show.

I've seen some great high school kids in shows. I really think that's where the community theater efforts belong.

Back in my high school days I appeared in a couple of shows and even had the lead in a musical as a senior. We made enough to purchase a new curtain for the stage and presented it to the school as a gift.

Sometimes when I write about these issues, people think I don't know what it takes on the performer's side. Wrong-o, Shakespeare breath! I know exactly what it takes for an 18 year old kid to get up and sing in front of 1000 people.

My experience with Steamboat adult performer productions has been, how you say it, less than enjoyable?

The kids, on the other hand, are great. They deserve 100% credit for all they do. It's just that when college comes along, they should major in something that will prepare them to make a living, and the community is doing them a disservice by letting them think that performing for a living is an option.

My leading lady in the senior play did, in fact, go to New York and appeared in the theater. You never heard of her, however, and I can't find a single credit under her name.

According to U. S. Census data for 1999 occupations and employment, only 1.4% of the nation's 82,000,000+ workers held jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation. Average annual salaries were around $32,000.00. 14,000,000+ people worked in manufacturing and made 22% more in average annual salaries. Get the point? Planning for a career in the arts, entertainment and recreation is a fast track to a lifetime of economic hardship.

So, yeah, go see the show and enjoy it. Maybe I'll see you there. I'm the old fat guy with the scowl .

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Matthew Stoddard 6 years, 11 months ago

Margaret- If you are reading this thread, review the show and be honest about it. I've been performing onstage for decades in this town and I appreciate real reviews, not just a write up. If it's critical, we take it with a grain of salt and strive to do better. We also know what sells our shows. (Hey- nobody ever said the Ski Town Prod. shows were Emmy material, but folks still buy up those seats!! We just want people to enjoy the show!!!)

Be honest with us and we'll do our best for every show you see. In the past, certain writers couldn't write a proper review since the Performing Arts weren't exactly in their field of interest, unless it was a bar band.

While I'm not doing Godspell this time around (been there, done that 1994), I've worked with not only Michael Brumbaugh in "Arsenic and Old Lace" last year and we had a great show, but I've worked with a few of the actors involved. Cody Poirot is an amazing young performer and Michelle Hess has a beautiful voice. Just remember: this is community theater, not professional theater. These actors do this for their love of the arts, not for money. They go to school, work however many jobs and still put on a heck of a show.

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paststudent 6 years, 11 months ago

Thanks Matt! My words exactly. I've done theater in Steamboat on and off for about 4 years, so I feel the same.

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