Setting our Sightlines on local theatre

Upon starting as A&E editor in August, we put the call out to readers to tell us what they’d like more of in the Xpress arts section. “More theatre reviews” was a frequent answer. The prospect was complicated somewhat by print deadlines and short runs — that is, could we print a quality review in time for our readers to actually see the play? Also, could we write reviews that were critical (though hopefully, constructively so) in a small town?

Asheville and the surrounding area boast a wide variety of theatre companies.

Sightlines is our answer, and our attempt to enliven and enrich the local theatre community. It’s online now at www.mountainx.com/theatre, a Web project developed from a conversation with Asheville-based playwright and performer John Crutchfield.

“The first and most obvious benefit is to help create and foster an informed, loyal, and critically sophisticated audience for theatre in Asheville — which turns the heat up on the artists themselves to create high-quality, relevant and challenging work,” Crutchfield says.

Adds Steven Samuels, another contributor,“This project can help to expand the dialogue, heighten interest, and thwart the great deadener of art: complacency.”

Sightlines will involve a group of dedicated reviewers writing up shows as near to opening night as possible and posting them at www.mountainx.com. Crutchfield will be a primary contributor; along with Samuels, a playwright, teacher, critic and editor; Lucia Del Vecchio, a playwright, performer and writer; and Jamie Shell, an avid theatergoer and blogger. We hope our readers will join in the conversation by posting thoughts and comments, and generating a lively (and respectful) dialogue.

What do we think makes a good review?

“A good review challenges artists and audiences to expect more of themselves and each other,” Samuels writes. “It champions the art rather than an entity. If helps to establish standards, and then to raise them.”

Crutchfield offers his ideas: “What Goethe said about criticism in general applies certainly to reviewers in particular: You have to answer three questions: What is the artist trying to do? How well does the artist succeed in doing it? And is it worth doing? Obviously, these questions have to be dealt with in the right order. Evaluating the merit of a work of art before you understand what the artist is trying to do puts you in the position of the man who junks his John Deere harvester because it won't fit in the Bojangles drive-thru.”

We’ve attempted to put together a group of reviewers with different interests. Crutchfield, for example, is most interested in experimental and interdisciplinary performance; Shell loves musicals. Our arts writer, Alli Marshall, will also be contributing, along with others from time to time.

And we approach Sightlines bearing in mind that one of the reviewer’s duties is to serve the particular community he or she writes for and about, as Crutchfield explains. “The best reviewers have a distinctive voice, and however cranky that voice may be, its ultimate purpose has to be both to enrich the community's appreciation for its artists, and to encourage the artists themselves to strive for excellence in their work.”

There’s a wealth and diversity of regional theatre that Xpress hopes to support with this project.

“Theater in Asheville seems poised not only for internal growth but to make a noise in the outside world,” Samuels says. “Informed critical attention now may advance that potential and help spread the word.”

Send ideas and suggestions for Sightlines to ae@mountainx.com.

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6 thoughts on “Setting our Sightlines on local theatre

  1. BGCauble

    An Asheville theatre critic should in no way be involved in any type of acting, directing, writing, producing, etc. on a local stage. How can we even begin to believe the reviews when many of the participants will be their friends or fellow directors, or they will want to produce or perform in something at NC Stage sometime in the future, so better not write a bad review about anyone connected there. This is all way too incestuous. If you want to act, write, direct and produce and still write theatre reviews for the local paper, do it in Greenville, Knoxville. Anywhere but Asheville. Shame on you all. Where are the ethics?

  2. Rebecca Sulock

    Whew! Here’s my lengthy response to your concern, which was certainly an issue we’ve discussed.

    But before casting shame upon us all, you might read the dozen reviews we’ve posted — alongside which run the biographies of our contributors, in the interest of disclosure.

    We’re open about who we are and what we are doing. We also recognize our approach won’t please everyone. Our reviewers plan to avoid shows with which they have a direct or potential conflict. Still, it’s a risk; how will the players in such a small sphere react to a review that points out possible faults? You’ll find that some of the Sightlines reviews have indeed not been of the standard sort to which it seems Asheville has been accustomed.

    Many of our A&E;contributors write about scenes and topics with which they are involved to varying degrees; some write about people they know well. One could argue it would be better to use a writer who wasn’t so familiar; one could also argue it makes better sense to send someone who knows the backstory. Freelancers frequently pitch stories about their favorite bands. Does writing from a fan’s perspective make a better or worse story than writing by someone who’s never heard the music? Hmm, but I digress. Still it’s something I think about, especially coming from years as an investigative reporter.

    This project moves beyond a traditional newspaper model of hiring one critic deigned an impartial expert, a model that brushes aside some fundamental aspects of human beings: That we all have intrinsic biases, and writing is subjective, regardless of how it’s labeled. Particularly arts writing. As newspapers across the country shed staff, that old approach seems to be waning. What will replace it? A more collaborative approach, developed by people who are highly interested in the subject material? Perhaps, we’ll see. New media and social networking technology are exploding the old models, and we’re all interested to see where things go. We believe our readers are savvy enough to move forward with us as we try a different approach.

  3. BGCauble

    I am very familiar with how new media and old media work, but I digress.

    Stories written by fans/freelancers, for example, about a band playing at a local club, are not reviews. They are more accurately called publicity pieces intended to pull people into the show; they are not an opinion as to the quality of the music. A theatre review is certainly publicity, but it should also speak to us about quality – or the lack thereof.

    And, yes, shame on you. As a former (perhaps the word “former” is important here) investigative reporter, you should understand how important it is to maintain your objectivity when getting to the crux of the story. A reviewer should have the same objectivity as well as knowledge of the subject being reviewed. As a reader, I like knowing I’m not getting a slanted review.

    I have seen Crutchfield and Darren Marshall together on stage in at least one show. No conflict? You must be using a new definition of the word I don’t know about yet.

    I did read some of the reviews and they were wonderfully written. However, once I realized some of the connections – and yes, conflicts – they became, yet again, nothing more than mere publicity about the shows.

    I applaud you for trying to get new voices and minds involved, but I’m not sure the “new media” is the way to go in this instance. After all, the “new media” is about how anyone and everyone is now a writer even if they just picked up a computer today. The Internet has, unfortunately, turned everyone into instant experts. Forget about the guy who has 25 years writing and publishing experience. (New media is also about publishing primarily on the Internet, and we know that’s not going to happen with Mountain Xpress anytime soon since there’s not enough financial support – you all aren’t as far away from traditional as you’d like everyone to believe.) Your chosen writers possess lovely language skills, offer thoughtful insights and have the depth and experience to write about theatre. Just don’t label what they write “reviews”. Some of them seem to be way too involved with the people or companies they are writing about and that is just wrong. For both old media and new.

  4. John Crutchfield

    While there’s nothing inherently absurd about the suggestion that someone might write a theatre review (or help an old lady cross the street, for that matter) out of some “ulterior” motive, it certainly implies a rather low opinion of human nature– one I’m glad I don’t share. I would urge anyone who harbors that prejudice to read the reviews posted so far; if they appear motivated by anything other than the reviewer’s sincere desire to call it like he or she sees it, then substitute “nonsense” for “review,” and go thy merry ways. But on a side note: the suggestion that NCStage would hire someone on a mutual back-scratching basis really is pretty silly. NCStage is a business, and to all appearances a darn successful one. Though I’m not privy to their management decisions, I think it safe to assume those decisions are made on the basis of one criterion alone: Who is the best person we can get for the job? An unscrupulous reviewer’s flatteries would have as little effect in this regard as his or her calumnies. Not only is that sort of game simply beneath a successful professional theatre like NCStage, they just don’t have the time for it.

  5. Informed Observer

    Lets not forget the theatres in the surrounding region. For instance community theatres like HART have produced works of merit. Also, theatres such as Flat Rock Playhouse, Parkway Playhouse, and SART produce professional productions that are of high quality and deserve attention from these upcoming reviews as well.

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