Here’s my surprised look …

Creative Loafing theater critic Mark Leib mentions in this week’s column about how area artistic directors should essentially “look and learn” from USF’s set for The Birthday Party (one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite playwrights):

This is one of the most impressive stage environments I’ve seen in years in the Bay area; I wish the artistic directors of our professional theaters would come, look and learn. Pinter’s stage directions ask only for a living room; Kellan has given us that and much more. It’s a bold choice.

I’ve seen him trash every theater on this side of the bridge and a few on the other side of the bridge for their sets. I think the only theater I haven’t seen him cream over a set is American Stage. I believe once upon a time he mentioned that a certain set of ours was “out of the budget bin at Home Depot.”

One of the most maddening aspect of dealing with critics is their inability, or outright refusal, to consider the realities of producing.

We’ve been criticized by him specifically on many occasions for less-than-superior technical design, and for the most part we swallow it because we frankly don’t operate with the budgets that we need to do a lot of the things we’d like to eventually do.

Rights to plays certainly aren’t cheap, and they’re getting more expensive with every show we do. In some cases we’ve paid a full 25% of our gross potential to even be able to do a show. We’re still trying to pay our artists more and more as we work towards a living wage. Keep in mind I don’t even get paid for what I do. I’m a glorified volunteer in my position as producing artistic director for this company. We’re doing everything we can, and we’re always working to top ourselves – to keep moving uphill.

We also tend to choose scripts that don’t require enormous or complicated sets. Some shows we choose knowing we won’t hardly have a set at all. Look at This is How it Goes. The Tribune called it “actors theater at it’s best” and the Times said it was “good old-fashioned black-box theater,” but it was only Mark who wished director Ami Corley “had more to work with” than Brian Smallheer’s bare stage with a few furniture pieces that got moved on and off.

Was it not clear enough that the lack of a set, and having a few pieces of furniture move on and off was a choice? Seems the other two critics got it. The script calls for a nowhere bare space. We were true to the script. When looking for a show we could do in rep with Books – we needed that. Yet we get beat up for it in an otherwise great review.

We’re not going to produce Amadeus unless we can do it justice, or at the very least come up with a overall production concept that would make it work in a tech-light fashion.

Theater only needs actors, space and audience to make it what it is. That’s all. We work in a shoebox, and the space itself even limits what can be done. Put all that in a blender with the fact that we all pretty much share the same tiny pool of set designers, and it’s a challenge. Our TD and I have been looking for two years to find someone to help us design sets who’s also ok with building – which is part of the deal with the budgets we have.

This is NOT sour grapes – I’m really glad USF got a great review of the show and I genuinely hope folks go see it. I like the play a lot as well as several of the artists involved, and USF is after all where I got my BA. Couldn’t he have given credit where credit is due about how great their set was without taking a pot shot at the rest of us? What does that comment accomplish?

USF doesn’t have to worry about attendance, or where their next check is coming from, or a thousand other things. It’s one of biggest draws to settling into university theater – you can have fun with the money doing interesting theater in the construct of higher learning. You have giant scene and costume shops, storage facilities, slave student labor to build and paint and hang … you get the idea. There’s more in it for them as an institution of learning to also go above and beyond – there’s more of an educational opportunity there for the students to be a part of. USF always had exceptional sets, I’m not surprised this one is incredible.

I think Mark should spend more time in a local theater learning more (or at least reminding himself a bit) of what a real day’s work is like working on a shoe-string budget. You either produce to the best of your ability and find work that suits your strengths, or you sit around and talk about producing while the world passes you by.

Believe me, if I could spend $5,000 – $15,000 on one of our sets while paying our actors a living wage and still keep tickets at an affordable cost for the average person – I’d be thrilled to. I don’t know an artistic director who wouldn’t. But at present, in order for us to have those things we’d probably be charging $75 a ticket – which no one in Tampa is paying for anything unless it’s grown men in tights beating the crap out of each other or it involved a falling chandelier or a green witch.

In the meantime, we’ll produce shows we know don’t depend on a helicopter flying in or 35 actors wearing period costumes. Give us time, and give us some meaningful financial support. You’d be surprised what we’re capable of.

So, ok. The money thing is a giant sore spot with me. That’s no secret. It’s not like we have a fat bankroll that we like to piss away. Beat us up for that if that ever happens. Knock yourself out.

We save everything, we reuse everything. We beg, borrow and steal all we can. And we are in no way the only local theater company that’s in this position. I think there are far more productive ways to go about handling things than the way he often chooses to regard the incredibly difficult work we all do. Again, it’s hard enough to get people into a theater. We all make a choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

On a side note, I’m starting to be surprised by how much traffic this thing is getting, and how many google searches are performed for “Blogsite Theater.” Thanks for reading.



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9 Responses

  1. I think one problem with being a critic – and I hold this for all critics, theater, film, etc. – is that I think they eventually reach a jading point. You see so many shows that are either so great or so bad, that it’s very easy for everything else to fall in between into shades of gray. Thus, when something like a set does stand out after you’ve seen countless other sets that weren’t as notable, it gets blown out of proportion.

    In short, critics have a shelf life. They get bored. And it isn’t their problem that theater companies apparently can’t muster the desire or be bothered to keep his attention.

    Look at what critics with less experience are saying. Then look at what critics who’ve been doing it for ages are saying, and more importantly how they say it. This isn’t a job where experience necessarily dictates increased job performance. Sure, I’ve seen critics get second winds. But more often than not, those are sporadic and temporary, and then they just go back to passing winds.

    The careful, or at lease concerned critic, will maintain that balance and keep the jadedness in check. If not, the veteran critic just become a sort of tired guidance counselor, who has spent his life telling other people what to do or not do with their lives (or productions in this case) and through it all, the more he does it, the more he’s basing it on theory with no actual living to back it up.

    As far as Leib specifically goes…. I don’t know the piece, nor have I seen USF’s production. However, for someone who allegedly writes scripts and for someone who obsessively analyzes them on paper versus what is done on stage, you’d think there’s be a little more respect for the setting that the playwright requests in terms of set.

    Again, only going on his article, it is a “surreal set, a combination cottage, primal cave, monument and dreamscape, with various odd pieces flying up into space.” And yet in the same paragraph, “Pinter’s stage directions ask only for a living room.”

    This may not apply to this specific instance, but generally, if I’m the writer and specifically request a simple set, and the production brings in something like the Circus Circus scene out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I might get a little pissed off. Taking artistic liberties is one thing. It’s encouraged in this field, but there is a line. I wouldn’t necessarily applaud open season for a set designer any more than I’d throw kudos at a costumer for putting Willy Loman in a sad clown outfit out of some desperate artistic symbolism. Of all people, you’d think Leib – the guy who requests a copy of every script before he sees the show – would know that LaBute wants a bare-nothing set for a show that Jobsite is producing in – hey, look at that – a black box theater.

    I won’t even get into budgets and costs, especially with a critic who has whined because Jobsite wouldn’t comp his ticket, and he’d have to get reimbursed the whopping $15 by his employer. So when I hear about requests and demands about what every local theater company should be doing, it goes straight to the ground file. For that, and many other reasons like it, the credibility just ain’t there.

    The bottom line: he’s bored. He may have reached the point where any little thing can be magnificent or wretched, because he’s written so much about the subject already, he’s forcing himself into coming up with something else, to compete against what he’s already said. And, he’s comparing it against far more and higher standards than anyone who isn’t a scholar, critic or artist will ever know.

  2. He made a similar statement when we did “The Shape of Things” at the Gorilla… if he truly does request the play in order to read it before seeing the show, then my question is “Does he actually read it?”. He has proven time and again within his reviews that my question is a valid one. Everyone is entitled to their opinion… but a critic should make theirs based on facts, what is presented and achieved or not achieved… what constitutes the other 90% of his reviews? Amy

  3. Thanks Shawn, Amy and Brian (even though you commented on the wrong post – d’oh!) for the feedback.

    I also notice PoHo over at Blurbex linked to this story over here, so I’ll be curious if this thing gets a few more comments.

    I think discussion about the relationship between critic and artist is very important. I did a bit of work here in this area in school, and one of the things that sticks most in my mind is a comment by G. Wilson Knight ( in his book The Wheel of Fire. Essentially, he comments that anyone who enters an environment with a critical eye will automatically find faults that aren’t inherently there. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

    Mark himself wrote a column not too long ago about what it was like being a critic, which unfortunately I can’t find in their archives right now (if someone else finds it – let me know). I think he’s well aware of the ups and downs of the industry, and believe it or not at the end of the day I really believe he has his heart in the right place and really does want to see the scene here blossom. And I think to a degree it colors his criticism. Like a few professors I’ve had over the years, there’s no problem in gushing over success and no hesitation to lay the hammer down when things aren’t up to expectation.

    Anyone in the critical spotlight simply cannot live and die by the opinion of a critic. I’ll bring out the old Bob Fosse saw once more that “you’re never that good, and you’re never that bad.”

    Sure, we all love a good review and I certainly don’t have a problem trotting out critical commendations of our work and passing them around the public. If it’s going to help put an ass in a seat, I’m all over it.

    I remember being told over and over again as I was in school that you never responded to a critique, and you never wrote/called/confronted a critic about their opinions as it was unprofessional. That’s a load of crap, frankly.

    I simply can’t fathom how anyone who does anything that draws a critic – who devotes time, energy and resources to whatever it is they do – has to just sit around and silently allow someone else to publicly go at their work. I have a great friend who says you shouldn’t get into an argument with anyone who buys ink by the gallon, but I’ll again say bullsh*t.

    Which is never to say that I think it’s ok to get into arguments over anyone about a subjective opinion. I do stay away from that, because in those cases a critic is just doing their job. I’ve never made a public statement about any critique I’ve ever had where a critic didn’t enjoy my performance or direction or whatever I contributed to that show.

    I’m not sure the relationship between critic and artist will ever be anything less than uncomfortable. I am very intrigued though by how all this will change in information age.

    Nationally, studies show that critics just don’t have the power they once did and that preview press/features/interviews and the like often have more of an effect on sales than a good or bad review.

    You also have blogs, where anyone can see a show, talk about it and instantly be a part of that viral marketing for the production. Or where artists can directly and openly talk about their work, demystify the whole thing and yes – even take on critics. Hey wait, that almost sounds familiar …

    Since I still can’t find that column Mark wrote about being a critic, here’s an interview with another critic along the same lines:

    Shawn, I agree that getting jaded has to be a job hazard every critic faces, and no one really talks about.

    Good stuff.

  4. I’m a former critic and editor of a national theatre magazine. I’ve worked with PTG-Florida and Tony Randall’s Actor’s Theatre, and I’ve written about dozens of shows for different media organizations, and there are only two words that come to mind whenever I read a Leib review: “Snob,” and “Thug.” He does random drive-bys whenever his lunch doesn’t agree with him, and regards most of the theatres in the area — even the ones he offtimes praises — as below him. His review reek of the very snobbery that limits the profile of the arts in Tampa Bay, and forces the mainstream audience to relegate live theatre as an “acquired taste,” or something that old folks go to on Sunday afternoons to get the meatload buffer at the Francis Wilson.

    He’s a snob, and a thug, and a piss-poor reviewer, and one of the reasons why the arts struggle in this town. Period.

  5. I don’t have no beef in this. I will add this.

    David, I’m sure you heard the stories about School of Night. They used former Tribune critic Porter Anderson’s negative reviews for marketing. They spray-painted a quote from a bad review onto the set of Talk Radio and placed it on flyers.

    Talk Radio was one of the best local productions I saw.

  6. I’d imagine that Shawn is right and critics would have to get jaded. Even as just an audience member I’ve gotten jaded from the amount of theater I’ve seen.

    In opposition to Reid though, the more theater I see, the less I give a damn about sets. Well not entirely true, I care about the set being appropriate and that can be anything from a bare stage to something ostentatious that cost as much as my house. I’ve seen good cheap sets and bad cheap sets, and good expensive sets and bad expensive sets.

    My own preference is for minimal sets with just the actors and their effort and sweat and emotions as the focus. Not to say that I don’t enjoy green witches or falling chandeliers either.

  7. Michael, I’m all about “reclaiming” a bad review and using it when it suits you. I’ve even seen a few other local companies do that since. I can’t recall if we’ve ever directly done that or not, which means we probably haven’t.

    While never around for the Porter Anderson years, the stories are just downright legendary. Talk about someone who apparently really got their jollies in taking people down … Hell, I’d even take the guy back sight unseen if it meant the Trib would have a dedicated theater writer again.

  8. Sigh… Can’t let that second anonymous post go. Sorry in advance.

    I know Mark Leib both personally and professionally. Have for years. He can be a snob in his reviews, but he absolutely is NOT a “thug”, nor is he a bad critic. And I firmly disagree that he’s a reason TB arts suffer (a ridiculous and irresponsible comment; grow up).

    I’ve both agreed and disagreed wholeheartedly with Leib over the years. And in regards to these comments, I’ll agree most closely with Shawn: Leib’s problem has far more to do with jadedness; a very common seen-it-all mentality. Does that make him a bad person? No. Does it mean he should step aside and let a fresh voice take the reins of the CL theater column? Possibly. But that’s not our decision, is it?

    I do feel the need to point out to that blogger, in case you haven’t been in the Bay area long enough, that Leib has given many stellar reviews to Jobsite shows, and justifiably so. He’s also given them various Best of the Bay awards over the years.

    Not exactly the mark of a man who wants to single-handedly destroy the local theater scene…

  9. Anonymous 10:57am – thanks for the comment.

    I’ll agree with you also in the fact that I don’t think Mark (or anyone writing locally, to be honest) is actively trying to destroy or savage any local theater movement. In my mind, critics have a huge responsibility, and aren’t always perfect stewards of that as can be evidenced in some of the attitudes expressed in reviews or ways certain critics go about handling things. Just as local theaters shoulder a tremendous responsibility that they don’t always perfectly hold up.

    You’re also right that he’s given us a fair share of kudos, and in recent years an amount of adulation that frankly continues to surprise me. I’ve often said we’ve long-cherished the sorta punk-rock iconoclastic mystique we arose out of.

    I’d like to go back to an earlier comment though I made about being reminded of certain professors I had in both my BA and MFA training – when you’re hot you can do little wrong and when you’re in the doghouse you’re certain you’ll stay there. The judgments – in either direction – often appear mind-bogglingly severe. And this is not a phenomenon unique to Jobsite. I’ve seen him lavish praise so thickly on actors like Brian Shea or Jack Holloway, only to have them crash down to earth in a latter review where it seems the wings have been stripped off and paradise has been truly lost. I hope the flowery nature of my own language there helps illustrate the polarity at which some critics operate at.

    This should also prove the point that he’s not out for destruction. I think he wants greatness, he wants to be wowed and there is a desire within him to see this area’s theater get better and better. Just like the professor wants the student to rise above.

    I still wish I could find that damn column he wrote about being a critic and what he looks for and expects. He did a pretty good job of explaining himself, even I don’t agree with everything he had to say.

    I still have a lot of issues with certain aspects of Mark’s reviews (particularly in regards to stating his opinion as fact “You won’t find it funny” when audience reaction on the night he reviewed said otherwise,the lack of responsibility he feels he has to his reader, and the amount of space he spends on what amounts to dramaturgical analysis), but I know he’s had his fair share of issues with the way I’ve assembled or since run this company.

    Maybe over enough time we’ll both see more eye to eye. I’m not going to let it get personal. We’re both doing our jobs. I’ll still write him and his editor when I feel like he’s crossed a line, or muse on this blog to reactions he’s had. It helps me sleep better at night, and maybe the dialogue back and forth keeps us both a little more honest in our respective work.

    The Creative Loafing audience, we believe, parallels Jobsite’s audience. We fight a battle every day in trying to get people, especially the younger demographic, into the theater. I know that we have one of the youngest audience bases in the region, but it’s important to us to continue to grow on that. I think we all just a want a fair shake in trying to reach those people.

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