Monday, August 28, 2006

To Review or Not to Review: When is a Workshop a Musical?

Dramatists Guild of America is protesting Chicago critic’s reviews of eight musicals-in-progress: "Workshopping a new musical provides an opportunity for writers to evaluate their work as it evolves, protected from the consequences of critical appraisal. This security allows writers to take chances, to be bold, maybe even to embarrass themselves."




Follow Spot said...

To follow-up my own post:

So, is it ever acceptable to review a workshop performance, assuming it is so noted? (Could it be possible for a published review to be a part of the development process?)

And is it ever acceptable to review a production without seeing a complete performance, if so noted? (and I'm not just talking about simple manners or respect for artists, but the matter of the review itself)

What say you all?

jeff said...

I think as long as a show is still in workshop, any reviews official or otherwise should be kept within the walls of the production. I would equate this to test screenings of movies. Sometimes reviews of screenings come out and tank a movie before it is ever released (The Village), and I think the same could happpen with theatrical reviews. Regardless of how much "it's-only-a-workshop" you put in front of the review, because it's still a review.

Hype can be good, though. Snakes on a Plane anyone?

The second one is a bit more tricky to me. My initial take is no, but then again if you reviewing the community-college-gender-race-swap production of "All My Sons", and up until intermission it's been eye cancer, then much better can it really get. BUT, if you left at intermission of a show like "Valparaiso", then you would be doing the show a serious disservice, because the two acts are completely different, and you are introduced to two new actors/characters as well that you would have no basis to judge the show as a whole.

I hope some of that made sense; felt a bit rambly to me...


Anonymous said...

I think it's acceptable to write stories about shows in workshop productions--the process, what the piece is about, who are the players involved--and, in doing so, it's probably acceptable to say "this part looked really promising" or "this part seemed to drag and need work" as long as the writer is very clear that the piece is in progress. It's completely fair to review new work presented as a full production--yuh takes yuh chances, yuh gets yuh lumps. But doing a full-fledged review of a workshop piece is rather like ripping open the womb and going, "hmm, the baby's looking kinda ugly."

As to reviewing a show without seeing the entire thing, I don't think that's fair. For good or ill, I think a reviewer doing their job should commit to the full ride...even if the ship is clearly going to the bottom. Besides, it makes for good war stories later in the barroom.

miles said...

Wow, I had a lot of reactions to this. First, it seems more likely that the reviewer destroyed her own career with that move than the careers of any of the playwrights she reviewed. Honestly, what's up with the paper that sent her on that assignment AND gave her ONE day to review EIGHT shows? I mean, that arrangement would reduce anyone's inclination to be patient and forgiving and stick around.

Obviously, if a theatre has very explicitly asked that a workshop not be reviewed, you're violating an important tacit understanding that should exist between practitioner and reviewer; a respect based in the belief that both artist and critic intend to serve audiences and theatre alike by being truthful and fair. But that's not really answering the question.

Yes! If it's okay with the theatre a workshop can be "reviewed." But the review itself has to be a workshop. It has to say, "A work doesn't exist yet on which I can form an opinion, but here's what is and isn't working for me at this point and I look forward to either liking or hating this play when it becomes available for opinion formation. When workshopping a new play feedback is obviously good, and as jeff pointed out, there's no such thing as bad publicity. I think audiences tend to be very interested in the process and would not necessarily avoid a show that endured some criticism in workshop form. So, in an ideal world, yes, "reviewing" a workshop would be fine as long as the critic is mindful of the "in-process" nature.

As far as walking out on productions go, well, it's always obviously not a nice thing to do, but let's be honest with ourselves, how many productions that you've HATED got enough better to change your opinion. I say, if a production is absolutely terrible, yes, it is possible to write a review that will fairly reflect a production's quality. BUT if an actor or actors appear later in the play that you haven't seen, you should stay because they could be the best thing in the show and something positive can be salvaged. that is what i think.


jeff said...

I do want to add that, although she put in the "full disclosure" line, it was burried in the text, and under a headline that gave no indication that the performances were workshops, and as I was reading it, the first time I jumped straight to the next header, totally skipping over the disclosure. My fault for being a lazy reader, but I'd bet I'm not the only one. Kind of like skimming a review to see if your name made it and then reading the whole thing.

Or maybe I'm just selfish...

La Foi said...

My feeling is, if you're advertising a production and inviting the public, even if it is in workshop form, why would you deprive yourself of hearing that feedback in a public forum? Isn't that what critique is for? Isn't that why you're doing a workshop performance to begin with?

Now, I know some (maybe most) critics just want to see the play once and either rip it to shreds or pronounce it genius. But staging a workshop production and inviting critique helps break down these barriers.

This reminds me of an article I read in the Guardian, a review of a show by Shunt, in which the critic went back to see the show as it evolved over several months, and wrote about how it changed. It was a fascinating article and really got at the heart of the show and the group's process. Aha, I found the link, here's the article:,,1694329,00.html

jeff said...

"...why would you deprive yourself of hearing that feedback in a public forum?"

In a workshop setting, it should be the choice of the theatre, not the reviewer, to allow publication. Ms Weiss, according to the DG, reviewed the shows "in violation of the express wishes of the theatre." Not cool in my book.

La Foi said...

That's true, if they specifically asked not to be reviewed, their wishes should have been heeded.

It just seems funny to me, that they would be going out of their way to say DON'T REVIEW THIS SHOW, when usually theatre artists are fighting so hard (especially in Portland) for any measly coverage they can get. Maybe they're on to something: if we all start saying in big capital letters that we do NOT want our show reviewed, maybe critics will start coming out in force.

Ben Waterhouse said...

There's no way to write a complete, fair review if you don't watch the whole show. I've been to very few--maybe two--productions that had no redeeming value whatsoever. One was in middle school.

As for reviewing a workshop--would you review a book from a draft? A bronze sculpture from the wax figure? A film from the rushes? I would be flattered if an artist asked me to see a work in progress to offer input, or to inform a later review, but printing anything beyond "so-and-so's project looks promising" would be dishonest.

Follow Spot said...

And now for even more interesting discussion of the theatre critic's role, including blogging (courtesy of

Bloggers Versus The Critic
The Philadelphia Inquirer got a new theatre critic - Toby Zinman - this year. Some in the city's theatre community have grown to hate her work, so they set up a blog to air compaints. 'We Love Toby! The Blog' is an ascerbic rebuttal to reviews the bloggers don't like. The blog is sometimes savage, but Zinman says she doesn't read it...

Philadelphia Magazine 08/28/06

Anonymous said...

The saga has hit the NYT.

Anonymous said...

As a working critic (books and films, now; I've done theater in the past, but not in Portland) as well as an actor, the issue of whether and how workshops can be covered by the press is an interesting one, but it's simply not an issue here. The theaters concerned were explicit about not wanting the journalist to review their works in progress, and she violated that understanding. It was dishonest, unethical, and just plain foul. Even if they had wanted to be covered, she shouldn't have written about them in that way. I'm sure not a few historic musicals and dramas looked fairly pathetic in development.

As someone else said, shows are rarely so bad that they require savaging. My opinion is that a critic who routinely takes that route is either a bad writer or has mistaken him- or herself for an entertainer instead of a journalist. National acts can and should be savaged when they deserve it, because 1) they should be held to a higher standard, 2) they mostly couldn't care less if a local critic thinks they aren't up to snuff (and are often sufficiently experienced and professional to be able to agree with him), and 3) they don't have to stick around to take the consequences -- good and bad -- from their friends and continue trying to work locally.

Suit each piece of writing to the task. When they're lousy, go gentle on community theater folks, coolly subtle on the local sem-pros, and let the guns blaze on the big-budget interlopers. WHEN THEY'RE LOUSY.

Anonymous said...

"go gentle on community theater folks, coolly subtle on the local sem-pros, and let the guns blaze on the big-budget interlopers."

So, we need a Special Olympics-style classification system for reviews? Are we going to give out blue, white and red ribbons to realy good efforts? Bulls#!t. If you put something out for scrutiny, be prepared to deal with whatever the response, good or bad; regardless of

Anonymous said...

...regardless of who you represent or how much money you have.

Follow Spot said...

More from Chicago:

Anonymous said...

Seems like the sum total of the offense here was writing a BAD review.

Estragon: Crritic!

Vladimir: Oh!

Anonymous said...

> So, we need a Special Olympics-style classification
> system for reviews? Are we going to give out blue,
> white and red ribbons to realy good efforts? Bulls#!t.
> If you put something out for scrutiny, be prepared to
> deal with whatever the response, good or bad;
> regardless of who you represent or how much
> money you have.

Nobody "needs" anything. I merely offered my operating principles, which -- having operated on both sides of the pen, or keyboard -- have worked for me.

Part of what informs this approach is the knowledge that there are different audiences -- or markets -- involved across the spectrum of theaters. Not that many PCS season ticket holders regularly attend productions at the Sandy or New Rose theaters, a fact which is reflected in the kind of productions each offers, and since the critic's PRIMARY job is to inform the public -- that is, the consumer of this product -- I believe that will inevitably inform his or her approach to it . . . which leads to the loose formula I described above.

jeff said...

Anon 7:53, I'm curious: if you put on kid gloves when you review certain theatres, a) are you being totally honest in your reviews and b)what happens the day that you stop lobbing soft pitches, and really spell out your opinion, good or bad? Will your opinion be less credible for being less forthcoming initially?


La Foi said...

It doesn't sound to me like Anonymous Reviewer dude is talking about lobbing softballs. Don't we all take differing circumstances into account when we see something? I know I approach a film differently if was made with a tiny budget by independent artists, not because I'm treating them with kid gloves, but because I'm a lot harder on a film that got made with a budget of $15 million and a staff the size of Utah. They have all the resources in the world so there's really no excuse for bungling it up, in my opinion.

The same goes for theatre, in my mind... theatres with bigger budgets and more resources should be held to higher (maybe a better word is tougher) standards, whatever their artistic choices, and the smaller theatres who are trying to make something out of nothing and breaking their backs should be cut a little slack. Not given a free pass, mind you... just appreciated for the circumstances in which they work. Anyway, I usually like the work that comes out of "less" resources, whether it's an independent film or an off-the-radar performance piece, better anyway.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it's a matter of "context" not "Special Olympics."

rufus said...

I certainly do expect high-quality performances, direction, scripts, production values, customer service, reservation systems, etc. from theatre companies that are able to spend the money it takes to retain educated persons of skill, talent and experience to present their shows. Would I hold a company of fresh faces operating on a shoestring budget to the same standard? Of course not. Neither would I expect a 23-year old to write the great American novel, a first-time cook to pull off a perfect Thanksgiving meal, a surgical intern to invent a new transplant procedure. But I would fully support all of these entities' current accomplishments and desire to improve and innovate. Back to theatre specifically, I've seen shows at small, young theatres that thrilled me -- not because any individual element of production was outstanding but because the commitment and energy brought to stage was enchanting and captivating. It's that special "something," that I think all theatrical productions strive to create, that I tell my friends about when I recommend the show.

As far as reviewing a workshop performance: it seems acceptable if welcomed by the performance company and if the fact that workshops often result in changes is made perfectly clear to the reading audience. But no reviews of workshops if not approved by the company -- because then the reviewer may become a part of the creative process, in a way that pressures the actual creators (playwright, performance company)to alter their vision based on possible future box office sales.

And no don't leave at intermission, if you're going to review -- stick around for the whole show.

I just wish people would simply go to the theatre on a regular basis and make up their own freakin' minds!

Anonymous said...

La Foi and the "Context" comment covered it, for the most part. But let me answer you directly:

> Anon 7:53, I'm curious: if you
> put on kid gloves when you
> review certain theatres, a) are
> you being totally honest in your
> reviews and b)what happens the
> day that you stop lobbing soft
> pitches, and really spell out
> your opinion, good or bad? Will
> your opinion be less credible
> for being less forthcoming
> initially?

I just don't see it as using kid gloves; rather, it's writing skillfully, with a modicum of respect for the players' -- and readers' -- intelligence and dignity. In one sense, I'm always honest; I try to describe what I saw, what I think the ensemble was trying to accomplish and how well they achieved their goals. In another, I may never be (come on, who ever is "totally honest"?): especially with local groups, I may know more about the cast and production that it would be fair to reveal in a review, or that readers ought to know.

I also don't see being subtle or considerate as dishonesty or "lobbing soft pitches." If you write a tepid review, or praise only certain things (e.g., set design or music) while ignoring others (e.g., the acting), a discerning reader will get the message.

Heh. And if you write mostly calm and respectful reviews, the day you have a reason to come out with guns blazing, it's gonna have an effect!

As for the ongoing story of the Chicago reviewer, it seems she may have a little more wiggle room from her perspective than the theaters might have wanted others to believe; perhaps they did want her to write about their works in progress, but to call the results a review, or a fair forecast of the end product -- when the work is unfinished and she didn't watch any of them to the end -- is, at best, being generous.

Ben Waterhouse said...

I see this also as a money issue. Most of us aren't so loaded that we can plunk down forty bucks every weekend, and seeing a show can be a considerable investment. So I hold companies that charge over $20 to a much higher standard than companies that charge $10-$20.

Anonymous said...

I think the artistic bar is the artistic bar, regardless of budget.

Now the tone of the review however might be contextualized based on the producer's realities....

Follow Spot said...

And the final act, via

Drama Guild Prez Concedes To Critic
John Weidman, president of the Dramatists Guild of America has apologized to Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss over her negative reviews of a workshop. "It now turns out that what I was told was untrue. That Weiss believed that the managers of Stages 2006 would be neither surprised nor distressed if she reviewed the eight presentations in question is now clear. I asserted otherwise. For that I apologize." Chicago Sun-Times 09/07/06

Anonymous said...

I think that if it's open to the public, it's open to public dialogue.

Anonymous said...

> I think that if it's open to the public, it's open to public dialogue.

Okay, but do you think it's ethical -- or even fair -- to "review" something if you didn't stay to see the whole thing? I could see doing that, once in a great while, with a finished production that is obviously so awful or under-rehearsed that it is clearly a waste of one's time, but to do it to a whole series of works in progress just seems wrong to me. It's a little like judging the entire artpiece from an examination of one limb of the sculpture or a corner of the canvas . . . while the artist is still working on it.

jeff said...

"I think that if it's open to the public, it's open to public dialogue."

I would agree, as long as it IS a dialogue; a review is a monologue. If Followspot posted a crituque of a workshop here but didn't allow comments, that would be unfair. But as long as people are allowed to add their two cents to the mix, I think a critical eye can be helpful to the workshop process (as long as you have permission from the workshoppers and make it available to them...). I had earlier said "keeping it within the walls of the prioduction", and I still believe that the bottom line is permission; if you know something is a workshop, you should obtain permission before casting a public-eye critique on it.


Ben Waterhouse said...

Even if it's a waste of time, you gotta stick it out. I sat through all of Radiant Theatre's laughably bad production of The Who's Tommy because it would have been disrespectful to leave. My wife wasn't happy about that one, but it's a theater writer's duty to stay through the whole thing. Journalists in any other field would be rightfully chastised for writing about an event--say, a trial--that they hadn't seen through to completion.

DMV said...

If you've ever wondered why a 2-act play is being presented without an intermission ... (KIDDING ... sorta)