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Other People's Opinion Syndrome

April 23, 2009

Other People's Opinion Syndrome (OPOS for short) is a common complaint among arts lovers. OPOS is the problem of letting yourself be swayed or influenced by what people are saying about a particular work of art before you go and experience it for yourself. Inevitably, our impressions of a film or piece of theatre, music, dance or exhibition can't help but be affected by the expectations that we've built up in our minds based on other people's reactions to the work of art. If we hear an artwork is absolutely unmissable, we often end up feeling disappointed; if everyone tells us to avoid experiencing a piece like the plague and we end up going along anyway, we can sometimes be pleasantly surprised.

Critics don't generally have to deal with OPOS because they tend to experience new work when it's fresh out of the gate. In many respects, their words become the bedrock of OPOS.

But my position is slightly different. Because I work as a theatre critic for a weekly publication so don't have to file a review overnight, and have a great aversion to opening night performances for a variety of reasons (which you can read about here if you're interested) I tend to experience plays and other events later in their runs than my colleagues. Even if I make a point of ignoring all reviews until I go to see a show, sometimes it's impossible not to find out what people are saying about it before I pitch up at the theatre.

I was away from the Bay Area in Europe for two weeks before going to see War Music at the American Conservatory Theater last week and was hence able to come at the production unblemished by OPOS. But this is rare. In the case of Lloyd Suh's new play at the Magic Theatre, American Hwangap (a still from which is pictured above) this wasn't the case. By the time I went to the theatre to check out the show last night, no less than three local critics had shared their opinions verbally with me in passing, and I had also read a short review of the play in my own paper which had been assigned to another critic in my absence.

I find myself having to deal with OPOS all the time, so I've tried to develop strategies to take in the opinions I hear and read while minimizing their influence. I actually love finding out what other people think of works of art, even if I haven't experienced them already, which is why I occasionally sneak a peak at reviews prematurely and occasionally strike up conversations with regular theatregoers and critics about their thoughts on a particular show when I still haven't made it out to see it for myself. I just try to remember that I often disagree with what my fellow critics (and others) think which helps me to approach the theatre-going experience with, I hope, fewer preconceptions. It's taken me years to develop this skill, however, and I can't claim to have mastered it fully yet.

Last night's performance of American Hwangap was particularly interesting with regards to OPOS because the opinions were so divided on the subject of Suh's domestic drama about a Korean man's return to the U.S. to celebrate his 60th birthday party (or "Hwangap" in Korean parlance) with his estranged ex-wife and grown-up children.

Two critics, whom I ran into at another play last weekend and a downtown restaurant respectively, had told me they loved it. A third critic critic, whom I bumped into at an art exhibition yesterday, said she hated it. The review I read by critic number four was lukewarm. It was fascinating to hear such diverse viewpoints. I came to the conclusion that anything which sparked this amount of controversy was bound to be worthwhile. I also came to the conclusion that I couldn't come to any conclusion about the play until I had seen it for myself.

Though I didn't detest Suh's drama as much as my art exhibition colleague did, I didn't like it nearly as much as the two critics who gave it the thumbs up. I probably felt even a little less engaged by the production than the review I'd read of the show in SF Weekly. The characters repeated their positions incessantly, the play had no subtext to speak of, the humor was canned, the performances seemed as one-dimensional as the writing and I didn't personally buy any of the reconciliation scenes. The play is only 80 minutes long, but I was bored after about 20.

OPOS is an insidious thing. It seeps into and informs our view of art almost unconsciously. But it isn't all-powerful. With a bit of practice, I believe it's possible to hear different viewpoints on a work of art and then go and experience it for yourself without letting OPOS spoil the experience.


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