The Tools of My Tirade

It's become a little embarrassing, frankly. I find myself answering the same handful of disgruntled questions, time and again, about how and why I dare to work as a theater critic. My favorite entreaties include "Why are you so mean?" (Because I can be) and "Don't you care that theater people pour their hearts and souls into every production?" (Not particularly). Mostly people want to know how I could have possibly liked or disliked a particular show, or want to accuse me of having a personal vendetta against theater folk, because I reportedly do nothing but gripe about the shows I see.

I am paid to whine, so I can hardly ask that people quit their own complaining. But I'm frankly embarrassed by the assertion that a show is "good" just because you liked it, and bored with trying to convince you that although I find theater people absolutely terrifying off the stage, I have nothing against them when they're attempting to emote while on it. Here, in the hope of inviting some new and different grievances, is a random collection of responses to my least favorite banalities.

There’s no such thing as a wrong opinion. You'd think this was a point too obvious to even mention, but judging from some of the mail I get, you'd be wrong. People write all the time to say they saw the same show I saw and, because they liked it and I didn't, I don't know what I'm talking about. Welcome back to fourth grade!

I'm always too embarrassed to respond to these notes, because, well, what am I going to say? That the opinion that my opinion is "wrong" is, um, wrong? Honestly, the only difference between your opinion and my opinion is that I get paid for mine. Which is precisely how I like it.

A theater critic is not a theater publicist. Thespians often complain that critics aren't proactive enough in their reviews, that instead of finding fault with a production, we should focus on what was good about it, period. These are the same people who refer to their cats as their "children" and think the world is run by a big, invisible man in the sky. Seriously, I'm not here to promote your show; I'm not here to "support the theater community." And I'm definitely not here to play Polyanna with your shitty production of Man of La Mancha; I'm here to tell readers what I thought of it. You want a positive review? Do your job right, and you'll get one.

I do not always only give bad reviews. And I have the clips to prove it.

There’s no such thing as Theater Critic School. I love it when people question a theater critic's credentials, as if there's a special course of study for folks who want to make their living commenting on plays and musicals. True, Chris Curcio (who reviews theater for KBAQ 89.5 FM) doesn't have a degree in Play Reviewing, but I have yet to read an opinion of his that I didn't find sincere and well-founded. That's because Chris — and every other critic worth his or her salt — uses something called critical thinking, which employs clear, precise, and purposeful commentary to present an informed opinion. Critical thinking is taught at most institutes of higher learning, but editors don't require that critics have a degree in it. And I have yet to hear of a class called "How to Write About Musicals You Wish You Hadn't Seen 101." Questioning a critic's credentials just makes you look like a poor sport. We got hired because we have opinions, know where the modifiers go, and are willing to watch housewives and algebra teachers attempt Fiddler on the Roof twice a year.

Just because your mother/brother/boyfriend is in the play doesn’t mean it’s "good." Pretty much every piece of hate mail I get is from someone who's related to (or at least currently bedding) someone associated with a show I've just panned. Let me bottom-line this for you: If your kid or your husband got a bad review, it's probably because he can't act. Just because you love someone doesn't mean they're talented. Don't believe me? Go back and watch your video of little Janie's third-grade Christmas pageant. Of course she's magnificent in it; a star in the making. But see all those other, less-talented tykes tripping over their shoes? They're your loved one, from my perspective.

No, I don’t care about hurting the actor’s/director’s/costume designer’s feelings. Possibly you were out shopping for hats the day it was announced in Theater School that a drama critic is not your mommy. I'm not thinking about how the thirtysomething leading man is going to feel when he reads that I think he's too old to be playing Tony in West Side Story. It never occurs to me that the costume designer might wind up in a fetal position on the floor when she reads what I thought of the spray-painted bed sheets she tried to pass off as evening gowns. I'm a critic, not a nursemaid.

No, my review of your show is not "personal." If it were, I'd have included things like "And I heard the playwright was fired from his last job, where someone from human resources had to tell him he had really terrible B.O., and that he cheated on his ex-wife with his current wife, which is kind of awful." All of which is true, but you didn't see it in my review of that guy's play, did you? People are forever telling me that my reviews are too "personal" or that I have something against the actors or director. These contentions always appear in letters that include nasty personal comments about me. Go figure.

No, I’m not working as a theater critic because I secretly want to be an actor. Trust me on this one: The only thing I have less of than acting talent is a desire to appear on the stage. Of course, from the looks of things around here, a lack of talent shouldn't stop me from pursuing a theatrical career, but I'm just not interested in having one. All that memorizing of words written by someone else seems like a drag. And once I got up there under the lights, I'd suck worse than most of the actors I criticize, I assure you.

No, my present mood does not impact my opinion of your work. I didn't tell readers you shouldn't be allowed to appear on the stage ever again because I had gas on opening night. I wrote that because you're a crummy actor. And I didn't criticize your play because I'm a sad, lonely person. I criticized your play because that's what I do for a living. I'm a theater critic. And you're a Theater Person. So quit your damn whining and get back to work. This time, make it shine. We'll both be happier, I promise.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela