Critical Mass

And then came the reviews…

I’ve decided I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that “Princess Ida” was reviewed by three representatives from the local media.

I’ve passed along some of the many compliments we’ve received from individual audience members, I’ve reported the standing ovations, and I’ve even previously provided a link to one of the reviews — all positive assessments of our work.  It is standard practice everywhere to proudly display positive reviews and to pretend negative reviews do not exist.

Maybe that’s as it should be.  But if this blog serves as a glimpse into the inner workings of theatrical production, or even as merely an outlet for the deranged musings of one particular director, I suppose I owe it to you to share the full gamut of the critical reaction to “Princess Ida.”

I won’t address nor argue with specifics in any of the reviews.  We put our work out there and let it stand for itself.  Unbiased, educated, thoughtful critique is an important part of the convoluted and undulating process that is live theater.  In that spirit, I think it’s best to honor the opinions of the critics — good or bad, founded in fact or fiction — and to leave it at that.

However I do have some thoughts to share which deal both with reviews in general and with some prickly issues that have been raised this year and in years past.

With your permission, I’ll start by saying that many years go by in which Savoyards’ productions are completely ignored by the local media.  During my nine-year tenure with the Durham Savoyards, we have been reviewed once by the Durham Herald-Sun (good); twice by the Raleigh News and Observer (one good, one bad); three times by Classical Voice of North Carolina (all good); and three times by the Independent Weekly (two good, one bad).  So, regardless of their individual opinions, I am pleased we have attracted the attention of not only one, but three critics with this year’s production.  And I hope they will return next year as well.

It seems an ill-formed notion has evolved that the Savoyards and their audience are an insular, self-enabling group which exists of and for itself; and that our annual productions are perhaps not worthy of coverage in the media.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  While its mission of producing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan could be called narrow (I would say “focused”), the Savoyards’ inclusion of a wide section of the community is exceedingly generous.  Auditions are open to the public and attract many new artists each year.  And attendance at the annual productions continues to grow steadily — a truly remarkable phenomenon in a largely transient community (a large percentage of the population having recently moved to the area or just about to leave); and a clear indicator that there is a resilient demand for such an organization and for the works it produces.

Each Savoyards’ production involves the direct contribution of well over a hundred community members: including cast, orchestra, directors, accompanists, designers, technicians, production staff and running crew.  And, while we usually present only one fully-staged production per year, that annual weekend of performances is widely advertised and consistently draws thousands of audience members from all over the state, and beyond.

I mention this because I’ve noticed a trend in reviews over the years.  If a critic enjoys a production it’s all well and good.  However, if a critic doesn’t enjoy a production, rather than simply offering his or her critique, they will often fall back on accusations of insularity and on questioning the value and merits of the organization itself.

Focused?  Yes.

Insular?  Not so much.

Comparisons to regional and touring professional companies are understandable — and welcomed.   We are keenly aware that we are an amateur group sharing an audience with top-notch local professional companies as well as with the frequent national touring productions which come to the area.  So the barre is high.

While the Durham Savoyards is indeed a community theater, we believe that work worth doing is worth doing well.  We also know that encouraging new talents and fostering a home-grown, hands-on respect for the arts is just as important a mission as presenting top-quality work.

Each cast includes folks who are stepping onstage for the first time, voice and performance students from area universities, well-heeled local veterans, and those who are about to embark on professional careers.  I think that’s an exciting, necessary and valuable place to be.  Veterans and novices work side by side, and lessons are learned all around….. professionalism, curiosity, humility, responsibility, grace, commitment, diligence, wonder, generosity, patience — as well as all the myriad nuances associated with the mindset of creating theater out of love for the art form and respect for the craft.

Community Theater?  Yes, and proudly so.

Furthermore, as Director, I expect and constantly push for the best in design, performance and all technical aspects of Savoyards productions.  And the cast, orchestra and production team push right along with me.

The Durham Savoyards has become known for producing innovative and challenging interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, while constantly remaining faithful to both the music and the text.  It’s a delicate balance.  Believe me, I know.  I read all the letters and emails (and reviews).  On the one hand we may be scrutinized by “purists” who believe there is a regimented style and a set of conventions to which all Gilbert and Sullivan works should adhere.  And, on the other, we may be ignored completely by those who think the Victorian-era works of Gilbert and Sullivan are obsolete.

I am proud to say that, while some “purists” have been harsh in their critiques, many have gone out of their way to confess that we’ve convinced them to see the works in a new light.  I’m also proud of the many new G&S fans we’ve attracted with our bold interpretations; and of the fact that our reviews (when we get reviews) are consistently peppered with phrases such as “innovative and resourceful,” “musically sure-footed,” “breathed new life,” “fresh new approach,” “brilliantly re-imagined,” “witty, efficient direction,” “clever,” “irreverent,” “refreshing,” “in good hands,” and “blows away many of the musty layers that have encrusted (the show) over time.”

Honoring the work while challenging the status quo?  Always.

It’s a risky business putting a live performance out there for public review. And, no matter how assiduously we may rehearse and prepare, the vagaries of live performance dictate that every performance is a gauntlet which must be run in front of an audience.  Mistakes happen.  There are technical glitches.  There are personal errors.  There are off nights.  Sometimes the theater gods smile on us and sometimes they don’t. But, in the end, all we can do is work hard, stand by our work, and accept the reactions it provokes.

Human?  All too.

While we can’t please all the people all the time (and what true artist would try?),  we can always perform to the absolute best of our ability.  And we can push the envelope in new and exciting ways which, even if not always applauded, must be respected.

Having given you a full dose of my thoughts on the matter, I should also say that I realize critics are human too.  They each have their own prejudices and predilections.  They each have biases, bad associations and tender weaknesses.  And, quite like every other person on the planet, what they just ate, how much sleep they’ve missed lately, where they happened to sit, and how their love life is treating them (among a thousand other things) will directly affect how they view and critique any individual performance.

So we pray the critics will happen to attend our best performance, when everything is working in our favor.  But, more than anything, we pray they’ll have had a delightful and not-too-spicy dinner; they’ll be well-rested; they’ll not have to endure the annoyance of sitting beside a lout, a shrew, nor a ninny during the performance; and that somebody out there loves them as much as they undoubtedly deserve.

(By the way, we ardently and equally hope the same for each and every person in our audience.)

That was a long prologue.

Links to the reviews are just a few sentences away.

You may like to know that the first two reviewers attended the exact same performance, which was our discounted Preview Performance.  No reviewers attended the official Opening Night nor the Saturday performance.  And the third reviewer attended our final performance, which was a Sunday matinee.

Kate Dobbs Ariail writing for the Classical Voice of North Carolina.

Byron Woods writing for The Independent Weekly.

Robert McDowell writing for Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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One Response to Critical Mass

  1. Sonja Foust says:

    Well said, as always!

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