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How To Design A Reviewing Schedule

April 4, 2007

A theatre-going friend of mine here in San Francisco wrote to me the other day in frustration at the shows I picked to cover in the paper's Stage section this month. He specifically wanted to know why it is that we failed to schedule SF Playhouse's deeply brilliant Jesus Hopped The A Train when it was clearly superior to so many other plays on the roster for April. "When you actually know there is a great show out there, shouldn't it be your mission to do everything you can to get it covered, even it means not seeing another scheduled show?" he asked.

My policy, as far as figuring out which shows to pick for coverage out of the couple of hundred that open on Bay Area stages each month, is based on one main principle: That we try to be as diverse and undiscriminating as possible. This means sending reviewers out to cover productions by companies whose work is usually great AND productions by companies whose work tends to disappoint. The point of doing this is to keep the faith -- for one day, the very theatre troupe whose productions so often receive negative reviews might suddenly create a gem. Things change all the time.

Beyond that, my editor imposes a bunch of other guidelines. Though I don't necessarily agree with these, I understand the thinking behind them. The rules include:

1) 75% of the shows picked should be San Francisco shows (as opposed to productions produced by companies in other parts of the Bay Area.) SF Weekly has this policy because its umbrella company, Village Voice Media, also owns papers in other parts of the Bay, with theatre critics who cover those shows. I find this rule particularly frustrating as there are so many great companies outside of the city whose work I would like to cover.

2) Shows picked for review should have a run of at least two weeks and shouldn't be covered on their closing weekend. We're a weekly publication which means we have long deadlines. I personally don't have an issue with covering a show on its closing weekend. If it's good, people will make time to get to see it before it closes. But I don't make up the rules.

3) Even though the section I write for is broadly called "Stage," shows reviewed generally need to fall under the category of theatre as opposed to dance or standup comedy. I find these categories to be extremely arbitrary and frustrating, but, again, I don't make up the rules. I, for one, would love to see dance reviewed in the section (at best, I can sneak in a physical theatre piece) and comedy for that matter.

So, to respond to my friend's issue, I would say that we need to keep covering a broad range of work, and if that means missing a great production by SF Playhouse because we've reviewed, at length, the company's two previous shows, then so be it. I'll also add that as critics, one of our jobs is to maintain standards. Telling the companies and the public about theatre experiences that aren't up to snuff and explaining with wit and delicacy, exactly why, is an important job. We are not cheerleaders. We are not here just to cover good shows. We're here to give a sense of the whole scene, in all its lurid colors.

Sometimes, because it's impossible to really know if a production is going to be good or bad before you see it (by which time you're usually committed to writing about it,) it's tricky to get the balance right. My colleague's issue came back to haunt me last night after spending another disappointing evening at A.C.T. At the end of the day, I'm flying blind. I just hope that the reviewing choices I make while putting together the schedule each month reflect, as best as possible, the wide variety of work being produced around here.

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