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More Thoughts About The Mission of Reviewing Theatre in SF Weekly

April 5, 2007

Since yesterday, I have ordered my thoughts regarding the mission of the Stage section of SF Weekly, as I see it, in a more detailed manner.

The friend who voiced his concerns regarding the way we choose shows to review in the Weekly thought that a theatre critic's mission should be "to sift through the mediocre to bad theatre to find the true gems and then use your voice in the newspaper to direct audiences in that direction."

This is a noble idea in some ways, especially if you consider the role that good writing about the theatre can play in attracting new audiences to see shows or bringing people back who used to enjoy live performance but have since realized that they have better things to do with their time and money. As my friend put it in his email: "I very firmly believe audiences don't go to theatre as much because they see a lot of crap and have lost faith in the medium."

But here are the reasons why I do not think SF Weekly's mission should echo my friend's:

1. We have a duty to cover the broad range of theatre companies in the Bay Area. We cannot be seen to favor any single company or we lose our credibility as an independent voice. So no matter how great the work of, say, Campo Santo, or SF Playhouse, or Berkeley Rep usually is, we cannot simply keep covering this company's shows if it means that the work of other groups never gets covered. That being said, regardless of whether I review a show or not, I often go and see productions by groups whose work interests me. If something is particularly good and hasn't been scheduled for review, it will show up in my Theatre Alert, or I may end up mentioning it in my column further along the line. It's true that certain companies, especially A.C.T., get quite a bit of coverage in the paper compared to other organizations. The reason for this is that A.C.T. is San Francisco's flagship theatre and so there's a case to be made for keeping readers informed about this company's work consistenly. But I admit that it might be time to rethink coverage of this particular organization, especially given the fact that I write for an alternative weekly. We don't have to play by the same rules as The Chronicle.

2. We are not cheerleaders. This is the work of the PR representative. We are as much here to tell people about really great shows as we are to tell them to avoid wasting their time on something. Similarly, we have a duty to the theatre community to tell them both when they are getting things right and when they need to rethink what they're doing. We are as much theatre watchdogs as we are fans.

3. We cannot simply change our minds about reviewing a show at the last minute just because we've seen something that we think is so wonderful that it should take precedence over a scheduled production. There's a little wiggle room built in to the schedule for changes in particularly extreme circumstances (e.g. a reviewer realizes he or she needs to see another show other than the scheduled one in order to meet his or her deadline.) But in general, calling up a theatre company to request press tickets, failing to show up to see the performance, and then proceeding to write a review about something else entirely is both unprofessional and rude.

4. If SF Weekly only published positive reviews, here's what would happen:
i) The Stage section would be empty some weeks and there wouldn't be enough room to fit everything in in others.
ii) No one would read us anymore. If everything that appears in the paper is a rave, then why should anyone trust our opinions?

In an ideal world, we'd have more space and we'd publish more reviews, so we'd be able to present readers with a fuller overview of the theatre scene in the Bay Area. Good shows would be less likely to get overlooked that way. Then again, we'd end up publishing just as many negative reviews too. One thing I would like to add to the paper each week is a "Not to be Missed" list of the top three top five productions. This would be a simple and succinct way of highlighting the best productions in town regardless of whether they've been reviewed or not. Perhaps I'll put the idea to my boss.

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