|RAHS production of The Crucible, May 2012|
The experience put me to thinking about the difficulty of evaluating the quality of shows you see or participate in. A person has little choice but to assume that their own experience of the production is highly biased, and the various sources of information about the show are equally biased. As an example, I have seen Billy Elliot twice. When I saw it on Broadway a few years back I was pretty unimpressed and generally felt like the show didn't hang together very well. The next summer I had a chance to see a touring production in Minneapolis for free, so I did, and I really enjoyed it a great deal. Were these two performances vastly different? Was my own circumstance and attitude vastly different for these two viewings? Where in the intersection of performance and viewing does the evaluation of quality lie?
One of the things about directing in the high school is that parents pretty much universally think that everything we do is fabulous...unless its non-traditional. As long as they understand it, they will think their kids are great. It is not an environment in which you can expect objective critique from the audience. I have heard them rave about shows that...well, you get the idea. Community theater does have some of the same elements...though there is a higher likelihood that when the public responds favorably that it does indicate some level of quality.
Of course, at which point does the enjoyment of the audience become less significant in the evaluation of quality? In the summer of 2011 I did a production titled Nineteen Cows Leaving Beirut that evoked a significant number of negative reviews. Our favorite was the audience member who likened it to having a, "lobotomy by jackhammer." The show was explicitly and intentionally harsh in its exploration of the ways in which the modern high school is like the book 1984. Despite the audience response there were many elements of the show of which I was quite proud.
When I performed in Lend Me A Tenor I had lots of friends offer compliments, but that's not real meaningful. I felt okay about the performance, but how do you really know? This is part of why actors can sometimes be pretty sensitive about feedback...it is entirely subjective and a bit capricious.
Having said all that, there are some simple, identifiable and fairly objective markers for quality that are largely universal. Directors here at ITF will usually agree when a student actor, "doesn't understand the words they are saying." This is indicative of a flat delivery that comes from knowing the words, but not really understanding their import. A show that has poor cue pickup and pacing is also generally acknowledged as having been, "slow". In circumstances where you are not in the show, but are simply part of a community of audience members, there is a shared understanding of quality that can be identified. When the feedback comes from audience to performer, however, that reliability is gone. People rarely want to tell a friend or the child of a friend, "you didn't seem to understand what you were saying." ;-)
Ultimately, one must trust one's own markers for success, and I was lucky enough to have a number of shows at Roseville of which I felt quite proud. The Crucible was one of those and I have much gratitude for the gifts that the students involved brought to the production.
The next several plays we will see are shows that I either have never seen, or in a couple of instances have never even heard of. Should be fun!