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The Little Man

January 23, 2008

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a Berkeley theatre director who told me, in no uncertain terms, that the only review that matters to him is the one that appears in The San Francisco Chronicle. Other reviews, he said, don't count for much. Getting a positive write-up in the Chron makes all the difference between filling his venue to capacity and playing so half-filled houses.

The director is not alone in his opinion. Time and time again, I hear the same thing. As a theatre critic for another publication in San Francisco, this news ought to make me feel a bit sad. Actually, it doesn't really have that effect on me, as I don't derive any satisfaction as a writer about the performing arts in knowing that I might be responsible for making or breaking a show. My strategy is altogether different.

But what's scary about the power of the Little Man isn't the fact that theatre audiences and companies are pinning all their responses on the words of one critic -- in this case, the Chron's Robert Hurwitt. For better or for worse, the Chronicle is the local paper of record, so that's no surprise. In The Bay Area, Mr. Hurwitt fulfills the same function as Ben Brantley of the New York Times or Chris Jones at The Chicago Tribune.

The alarming thing is that the Little Man distracts readers from the critic's words. What the reviewer has to say about a show in his 500 or so words is barely of consequence (except perhaps, in the case of an enthusiastic response, as a tagline to be pulled out and used on publicity posters and ads by the production company): it's the noxious "Little Man" icon that appears in the corner of all the Chron's arts reviews that seems to carry all the weight. As another theatre director friend told me over the weekend, "The Little Man has to be jumping out of his seat to really sell tickets." Apparently, the Man clapping or leaning forwards makes little impact. If he's doing anything less salutary, houses remain half-full or worse.

Like a ventriloquist's dummy, the Little Man has become the "voice" of the theatre critic. The critic himself has become a servant to his mannequin. This is happening all over the country, not just here in the Bay Area and, frankly, it's a problem.

For one thing, the reliance on the Little Man icon (or the "thumbs up / down" or whatever a media outlet uses to denote the degree of a production's success or failure) makes readers and theatre companies lazy. The theatre is a visual medium in some ways, but it's main currency is language. If an inane symbol, rather than words, comes to represent the art form, then the art form suffers.

The primary function of a review, in my opinion, isn't to sell tickets. It's to engage both audiences (potential as well as ones who've already seen the production) and theatre makers in discussion. It's about making people make connections between art and the world and helping them to see possibilities beyond the status quo. A theatre review is no different than a good essay or opinion piece in a publication. It should be informative and well-written and feisty.

There are other, secondary functions too, of course. One is to encourage people to get out and see a good play or musical. Another is to entertain readers with beautiful, witty prose and/or teach them something about the arts and maybe even society at large. A third is to provide a written record that exists long after the ephemeral performance event has ceased to exist itself.

It would be a good thing if theatre audiences could look beyond the Little Man. If I were the editor of The Chron, I would do away with the bastard completely. But I think we won't start to see a change in the importance of this symbol until theatre makers alter their attitude and see that the media isn't only there to sell tickets or, god forbid, keep people away from a show.

It's time to take a stand against the Little Man. Why don't theatre makers write letters to the Chronicle asking for an end to the symbol? Or perhaps they could run talk-back sessions with audiences asking for viewers' responses to the symbol (and reviews in general). These sessions could be used both to obtain feedback about how reviews are being received as well as a means to educate audiences about reading reviews in different ways. Dare I say it, but there are other theatre critics in town (both professional and amateur) who can offer penetrating responses to theatre without having to speak through a ventriloquist's dummy.

For more background on the Little Man, read this article about the icon's 50th birthday.


  • I don't think Hurwitt and the other Chron critics like The Little Man any better than theatre companies do. They'd rather people read what they wrote. Management, on the other hand, has a vested interest in preserving The Little Man as a cultural icon, so as far as they're concerned the more often he's used the better. I don't think we'll be seeing him go anytime soon.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 24, 2008 at 10:05 AM  

  • Hi Guy
    Thanks for weighing in. Yep, the critics don't like the Little Man either that's for sure. When you speak about Management, are you talking about the newspaper's management or theatre company management?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 24, 2008 at 10:18 AM  

  • Newspaper management. Cute, pervasive mascots are good for brand recognition.

    I imagine theatre company management in general don't like The Little Man, except when they get him jumping out of the chair.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 24, 2008 at 10:29 AM  

  • my impression is that theatre companies have a love-hate relationship with the icon.
    i guess the media has to hold on to every tiny vestige of uniqueness that it can these days...

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 24, 2008 at 10:34 AM  

  • Lets face it, most theatre companies hate it when the man is not jumping out of his seat. And they love it when he is. Why? Because it sells tickets. Every theatre wants to fill its seats. Every theatre wants to come out of a production in the black. Let's not forget, its a business.

    Theater in the bay area would crumble without the Chronicle Seat man icon. As stated by your director friend: Getting a positive write-up in the Chron makes all the difference between filling his venue to capacity and playing so half-filled houses.

    We can all sit and speculate about the value of theatre, how it is supposed to bring people together, its communal values and such, but the fact of the matter is, this art form exists in a capitalistic society and must conform to capitalistic standards.

    Some will hate me for saying that, and I suppose that many of the people who read the words of Chloe Veltman will vehemently crucify me for saying such.

    Theater is dying why? Because it tries to hold on to the old ideals of what "theatre" and its "community" is supposed to be. It is snobby, aristocratic and "too intelligent" to "pander" to the masses.

    If no one goes to see theatre, what is the point??? And less and less people are going to see theatre.

    All theaters COVET the valuable Chronicle man jumping out of his seat. All of them dream of the day their production will be deemed so honorable.

    Chloe, you write for a noble cause But if theaters don't get off their asses and do more than rely on the little man to bring in theatre goers, FORGET ABOUT IT. Theater has absolutely dropped the ball on doing what it needs to do to bring in viewers.

    Because of that, because of their laziness, because of their unwillingness to venture into the 21st century in a capitalistic society, they have become DEPENDENT on the Chronicle to fill their seats. I have talked to theaters outside of the jurisdiction of Chronicle coverage that dream of getting Hurwitt to their production. How ridiculous is that?

    You say: "The theatre is a visual medium in some ways, but it's main currency is language...".

    The visual impact of theatre cannot be demeaned in such a way. The main currency of radio is language. The main currency of a script is language. When you take a script and put it on stage, it is to bring the visual element to life. No one sits in a theatre with their eyes closed to watch a play. The visual has a HUGE influence on what a person thinks, feels and perceives.

    I wonder about the validity of your primary reasons for writing reviews. You say it is to engage both audience and theatre makers in conversation. Firstly, if no one sees a production, there is not much to talk about, no matter poignant your review may be. Secondly, the idea behind reviews has always been (from an audiences perspective) to decide if they want to go see a show, buy a CD, go to see a particular movie, etc, etc.
    Your primary reason may be to write reviews to stimulate conversation between product producer and consumer. But from the consumer standpoint, the review is a piece of information that helps decide a course of action. Then maybe later will it be used as a source of discussion.

    Stay Cool As Hell!

    By Blogger Unknown, At January 24, 2008 at 8:24 PM  

  • Guy is right. It's been said that the critics and the theaters don't like the little man (good luck finding someone to admit that). But the management likes the little man and his LM power. If you were to ask around, I believe a study has been done quantifying how each position translates into dollar amounts/audience attendance. The other question I have is - who assigns the LM? Is it the editor or the critic? I think you can see the problem with the editor applying his subjective interpretation on top of a critic's review.

    By Blogger E. Hunter Spreen, At January 24, 2008 at 8:33 PM  

  • Michael
    Just because we live in a "capitalist society", doesn't mean we need to conform to what you see as its mores. However, I do agree with what you say about the primacy of the visual in theatre. Honestly, I don't know why I wrote that the language is more important than the visual in theatre, because clearly it isn't and I've never thought that. I think I just expressed myself sloppily: I suppose I think that language carries more weight on the stage than it tends to do on screen. That's all. I think the linguistic and visual elements are equally crucial in fact.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 25, 2008 at 8:56 AM  

  • e. hunter
    i think a study has been done on the $$ value of the Little Man. Maybe Theatre Bay Area was responsible? As for who assigns the icon, I'm guessing it's the reviewer. I don't think the editor would be able to do it in good conscience, having not experienced the art work being reviewed.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 25, 2008 at 8:58 AM  

  • Mercifully, the Chicago Tribune doesn't use stars or any other sort of icon in its theater reviews (movies are another kettle of fish), and neither does the Sun-Times or the Reader. Time Out Chicago does -- they go all the way to six stars, which is even more ludicrous. (I think the only way a show gets six stars is if the critic actually receives sexual favors from the cast -- which is to say, no show ever has, as far as I can recall.)

    Still, I don't see anyone here clamoring for more papers to use the shorthand, and I think that may be healthier for the overall theater ecology here. Now, the theaters of course love it if a show is on the "recommended" list at the papers, but that's a bit different than trying to assess the subjective merits of a work of art through the inanity of stars or cartoon men.

    Charlie Varon did a short sketch years ago about a gang of radical arts activists in the Bay Area kidnapping the Little Man and holding him hostage. He had some great line about "When last seen, the Little Man was slumped backward in his chair, a black hood over his head and his arms bound to his sides."


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 27, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

  • A couple of issues here:

    The Chicago Reader does use a "Recommended" and a "Critic's Choice" system for singling out shows and for its weekly listings.

    For better or worse, the Chicago Sun-Times does have a four category rating system for theatre, dance, and continuing music performances -- Not Recommended, Somewhat Recommended, Recommended, and Highly Recommended.

    And I certainly had no idea that the Chicago Tribune was "the paper of record" in Chicago nor that Chris Jones was our city's Ben Brantley.

    Andrew Patner
    Critic-at-Large, 98.7WFMT Radio Chicago and
    Contributuing Critic, Chicago Sun-Times

    By Blogger Andrew Patner, At March 9, 2008 at 11:59 AM  

  • I don't believe that there are any critics in town that can offer penetrating responses to theatre with or without a dummy. The only art form less relevant than theatre is its critical analysis. Until we can generate revolutionary work that is seen by young revolutionary audiences it doesn't really matter what impact the little man has. A government has to be torn down and rebuilt for any real change to take effect. Perhaps this is the case with the arthritic bones of the American non-profit theatre; and perhaps the little man should sit back and catch some Z's in the meantime.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 11, 2008 at 12:03 PM  

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