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Theatre Salon Blues

November 15, 2011

The theatre salons that I've been running every few months for the past seven years or so with a cohort of friends from the performing arts world in San Francisco often surprise me -- in a good way. We come up with a theme after a protracted debate, figure out the logistics at the eleventh hour and worry if anyone's going to show. Amazingly, things always turn out better than I think they will. We get around 50 people, we have a mostly engaging discussion about some aspect of the performing arts, we reconnect with colleagues and make new acquaintances. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

Last Sunday's effort, however, left me feeling a little disappointed. The topic at hand was "criticism" and we conceived of the term in the broadest sense -- we wanted to explore not just the traditional relationship between theatre artists and sanctioned  members of the media who review the artists' work, but the level of critique that goes on (or fails to go on) within the arts-making community itself.

Given the fact that Bay Area arts people are notorious for being nicey-nicey even when the work sucks, this is a prescient topic. However, as the evening evolved I became more and more dispirited. I wasn't sure at the time what was bugging me beyond the fact that I felt tired .

But since then, I think I've figured out at least in part the problem with Sunday night's Salon: People seemed to pay lip service to the idea of true critical engagement ("We need to stand up for ourselves!" "Only if we're honest about each others' work can we improve!" "We owe this to our audiences!" etc) without getting into specifics about how the really important critical conversations might actually take place in an environment that doesn't really support critical discourse.

If I had thought of this at the time, I would have tried to steer the conversation in a more productive direction.

Perhaps this blogpost can serve as an opener to a new discussion then: What needs to happen in the (Bay Area) arts scene in order for people within the community to be able to have frank and constructive discussions about the work being produced?


  • Though I think i had a better time overall than you, Chloe, I'm in agreement. I was disappointed that we spent so much time rehashing well worn territory of the artists/critic relationship, and so little on criticism between colleagues, regardless of their job title. I thought it was telling that the turn out for this Salon was a bit leaner than past Salons. We are afraid of criticism. We all want to deal with it, but just can't shove ourselves over the line it seems.

    That criticism is a two-way street -- by that I mean an exchange between at least two people -- makes it complicated, I'm finding, since if I just push my own how-to-engage-critically agenda on a colleague after one of their performances or my own, it may simply not work if they don't want to handle things my way.

    And visa versa. Despite the increased urgency I feel around this subject, I now find I actually want to say less after performances, and to only speak when spoken to. If someone asks me a question, I'll answer it, now more honestly than I once would. If they don't ask, I don't want to have to say anything, nea OR yea, and I so resent the post-show social politics that dictate non-critical exchanges like "Great job," or that if one doesn't stick around and say something to a colleague then surely one must have hated it, etc etc. Maybe I went home because the show was long and I needed to get up early the next day, regardless of whether I enjoyed it or not.

    I'm also getting better at calling people on their poop when I really do want to hear what they thought and I can sense they're being evasive because they perhaps didn't like what I'd done and don't wish to say so. I ask the questions and put myself out there first, sometimes even saying "If you didn't like it, that's fine, tell me why." The hope is that they'll trust I actually mean it. I figure if I lead the critical discussion around my own work, maybe it will actually happen and be of use to me and to anyone involved in the conversation. (And sometimes I don't want to hear what someone thinks, for whatever reason, so I don't ask.)

    By this thinking, then, I'm not the one to lead the discussion around anyone else's work. That's their job. And the critics and reviewers, I think, are less discussion-leaders in this sense than something else, also of value -- advocates, ambassadors, provocateurs, contextualizers, educators, and artists in their own right whose art is articulation of a kind other than that of the artists themselves.

    Anyway. Now I think we should do another Salon on criticism, this time about how this salon was so timid. Clearly it needs to be pushed if we actually hope for anything critical to come of it.

    Mark J

    By Anonymous Mark Jackson, At November 15, 2011 at 11:32 AM  

  • hey mark
    thanks for weighing in.
    i agree - maybe we need to have another salon devoted to this topic but maybe let's invite fewer people, do it over dinner and really focus in with some tough questions.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 15, 2011 at 11:50 AM  

  • Yes-
    there should be another salon on the same subject.

    I'm not sure we got past throwing books at each other enough to realize many of us have eaten the same books and are ready to talk about our digestion of them. In other words, in order for there to be a proper group for a salon there must be a mutual respect amongst each member of the group. And a good idea of each other's work and approach would also take the group many paragraphs beyond what it was a few nights ago.

    It would be helpful to be able to begin a thought with "For example..." For example Chloe, for example, when you wrote about Mark's play American Suicide you mentioned something I, having also seen the show, might have written myself had I been reviewing it. And , by the way, I had many conversations with myriad people about Mark's show and your criticism of it and...

    You get the idea.

    If we are going to connect the dots as a group we should each have a good idea what those dots are. There is often a reference to a show or review we have not seen or read. This is problematic. We could solve this for the sake of a better, deeper, conversation if, somehow, we all saw the same show on the same night or all read the same review of the same show or some combination thereof that would put the group on the same planet. How were the stars from there? You were there too, what did you think?

    I respect you both and have a good idea of your work because I have read it and seen it through the years. Therefore, one could argue, I could be of value to you both in conversation of your work and related works. I look forward to this in the future.

    The group we had that night was combination of knowns and unknowns. Before an animal in the wild will show any vulnerability to another, there must be an instinctual trust. And this does not come easy. I suppose the wine does help. We could do more.

    Just some thoughts quickly wrought whilst milky children nip at my socks,

    steve morgan haskell

    PS honored to be a part of this conversation as long as it lasts

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 18, 2011 at 7:57 PM  

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