My Turn: A free ticket, a pittance, and vilification

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2001

Juneau is a thriving arts community: a non-profit community theater, a lyric opera, a community orchestra, a youth choir, five museums, four libraries, three bookstores, three specialty bookstores, four movie venues, a dance troupe, historical societies, musicians, artists, poets; folk fest fund-raisers, gallery openings, open mikes and arts in the parks, in addition to Alaska's largest professional theater, all packed into a town that elsewhere couldn't support half of our craft shows.

There is plenty to see and do, even after the tourists go home. Too much, in fact, for anyone employed to see it all (and too expensive for anyone not employed to afford to see any of it.)

Which is where, theoretically, I come in.

The relationship between the critic and his readers may be tempestuous. Either someone will express gratitude for alerting them to an intriguing show they wouldn't have otherwise seen (in which case I get credit for something I was only peripherally involved in - after all, my art form is the review, not the play itself) or else I am harangued by harpies: "You obviously didn't see the same play the rest of the audience saw!"

Of course I didn't. While theater is a communal experience - like a football game, like church - aesthetic response is idiosyncratic. Of course I didn't see the same play you did - you haven't been flipping through the script for the past month, researching the playwright's oeuvre, staging impossible versions in your head.

(And by the way, your niece the lead still speaks too much through her nose, not enough from her tum-tum.)

That's my job: obsess on the text (the play), the context (how the director orients her interpretation of the text broadly in space and time), and the subtext (which are the things the play is about in addition or opposition to its literal interpretation.)

And then, within the confines of a 500-word review that's due bright and early tomorrow morning, entertainingly and enlighteningly stitch together a quick sketch that gives an informed if inflamed review. For which I receive a free ticket, a modest stipend, and societal vilification.

It's not a bad deal, all told. (Spyder Robinson nailed it when he said, "Reviews are written on horseback.")

Pardon, please, an anecdote drawn from film. I was in Minneapolis for the opening night of "Eyes Wide Shut."

The man to my left was watching a film by Kubrick, and laughing with the joy of recognition at the Kubrick's self-referential asides and directorial trademarks. The woman to my left was watching a film about the marital difficulties of characters played by Kidman and Cruise. The person to her left was watching a film about a man's brush with a secret society, and the way the universe can arbitrarily wrench your assumed control of your life from your sweaty palms in a moment. I was watching a film about voyeurism, consensus trance, and the importance of perspective to the art of criticism, (as well as being aware of the other films those around me were watching.)

To a not insignificant extent, everyone is watching his or her own movie. It is unlikely our opinions will coincide exactly on what constitutes an aesthetically engaging, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying theater experience, but I will try to state my biases clearly. (For instance, I harbor an irrational abhorrence of Chekov.)

Critics are having a bad year. First there was the David Manning scandal (fake critic), followed by the Caren Lipson scandal (fake fan). Blockbusters like Shrek are (correctly) panned, while an overly long and befuddled AI is fawned over. The Seattle Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Boston Globe all have cut back on their book review sections. And, with the advent of the Internet, anyone who can type (and quite a few who can't) can call him or herself a critic. Critics are increasingly seen as out of touch, irrelevant, expendable.

It would be amusing to think that quality will win out, but then we'd all own Apples and watch movies on Betamax, wouldn't we?

Melville's old observation "There are hardly five critics in America; and several of them are asleep," still holds today.

I wish that other guy would wake up.

MD Christenson pledges "to be fully alive to the implications of what the artist is trying to do" this season. If you don't agree with his tirades and diatribes, the editor would like to hear from you. He can be contacted at Michael Christenson, who will undoubtedly be less eager to hear from you, may be contacted at

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