Amateur is to lover as critic is to?

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I know Sally Potter mostly as the director of Orlando, a film I admire and enjoy every time I see it (even though I'm much more addicted to the book [Here is a site purporting, in a way that seems logical, to be Potter's notes on adapting Virginia Woolf's most popular book.]).

But it turns out, gasp, Potter has other films! And not only that, she's directing a production of Carmen for the English National Opera (are they taking a cue from Peter Gelb at the Met?). Yesterday in The Guardian, she wrote about the process of directing on the stage. I like the entire essay, but here is something that struck me in particular:

My early life was punctuated by a role as family member dutifully attending performances in adult education institutes, or in small halls, where the cast often seemed to outnumber the public, which made those of us in the audience feel as if we were being watched, rather than the other way round.

Meanwhile, on the tiny stage, the singers - including my mother, with her lovely, sensitive voice - would display all their varied levels of technical ability. But they always had something in common; they adored what they were doing. They were, literally, amateurs; lovers.

Through my enforced viewing of these shows, I came to appreciate a quality particular to amateur productions; people trying really, really hard. Reaching for something they could not always yet achieve. There are two possible responses to such a show of bravery and passion: helpless laughter, or tears of admiration and compassion for the condition of human longing. Gradually, over the years, my response moved from the former to the latter, and I made a secret vow that, while I would always be working as hard as I could towards excellence, I would try never to hide behind technical polish. Raw and vulnerable love for the form had to lie somewhere at the heart of every endeavour.

Being a theater critic, which sometimes (perhaps often) involves telling people you like and admire that perhaps they didn't do such a great job, that their performance didn't achieve, well, it can be challenging. I know they love their jobs and their massive amounts of volunteer time in the theater. I honor that.

But as someone who has to tell an audience if they should pay for a production, I have to look beyond that "raw and vulnerable love" — while not taking it as read — and give my considered opinion. It's the same for books. I angered (considerably) a local author by not heaping praise on the book that person wrote. But it's not my job to praise and celebrate anything a local person paints/writes/performs in/directs/films/plays on stage.

It's my job to give an analysis of its merits. Sometimes that makes for rocky small-town relationships, but my hope is, especially with theater criticism, to spur on Eugene's performance groups and get them working harder and smarter. I don't accept that just because people are good people (and they are) and have good intentions (and they do) and work their butts off (ditto) that the product will be superb or that I should just bow down and say how lovely it all is.

For one thing, who would trust me? It'd be like, "Hey, Suzi loved this play! She says it rocks! I'll shell out the bucks. OH wait, it kind of sucks." And then when a truly meritorious performance came up, I'd be like the boy who cried "Wolf!" — no one would pay any attention to my review (and if the actors read the reviews and had any kind of honesty, they wouldn't trust me either — which just isn't helpful to them as performers).

So there you have it. An acknowledgement of Sally Potter's fascinating position — and my (unexpected by me) explanation of why and how I come to my reviews. Back to copy editing now.

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