Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sticking a gun in a critic's face

The Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical "Assassins" ends with the cast standing in a straight line at the apron of the stage, pointing guns at the audience. Because Carolina Actors Studio Theatre is small, I found myself three feet from the guy playing John Wilkes Booth (the estimable Samuel Crawford). He fixed me with an unswerving gaze before the lights went out, then pointed his firearm at the ceiling and let it off.

I've been on the other side of the footlights often enough to smile at the aptness of the metaphor. I've heard of one obnoxious critic being shoved by an unhappy actor and another getting a plate of pasta and sauce dumped on his head. If anyone has emptied a loaded pistol into a reviewer, I haven't heard. But that doesn't mean the temptation isn't there.

Critics and performers have had a contentious relationship since the first caveman made fun of somebody's narrative of a mastodon hunt. Occasionally, we may enlighten the subjects of our reviews; more often, we probably  inflate or deflate egos without changing anyone's opinion of his own work. I spend most of my time discussing choices that artists make, letting readers (and the people onstage) decide whether those choices make a desirable effect.

And I keep my distance from folks I cover. Charlotte may be the 20th largest city in America, but it remains a small town artistically. I write about people one weekend and see them in the supermarket the next. Actors and directors attend each other's shows -- we have a supportive theater community -- and I may be sitting behind someone I've recently praised, panned or overlooked. Perhaps that's true to a lesser degree even in New York or London, as I'd guess it must be.

Critics deal with this situation in different ways. I've known one who ate with, drank with and even dated performers, believing that closeness didn't necessarily compromise impartiality. Some maintain an absolute, even frosty distance. I usually smile, speak politely but briefly if I meet theater folk or musicians or dancers, then move on. (When I hosted a tribute to retired icon Gladys Lavitan last year, another veteran actor told me, 'I thought you didn't like us. But that's not true at all.")

In any other job, I'd hang out with performers in my spare time. But I don't know how any critic can be chummy with people he covers and judge their work accurately: Who can remain detached, however well-meaning he may be, when a friend's heart is on the line? So performers and I go separate ways, intersecting in the dark when their art is on the line instead.