Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"A Highly Developed Set of Ethics"

I was once fired from a job—long ago, I might add. During our exit interview, I asked the reasons for my dismissal. After waffling around about this and that (the truth was a higher-up just didn’t like me), my new boss said, in a frustrated tone, “let’s just say you have a highly developed set of ethics.”

I will always treasure that comment.

I was a theatre critic for The Seattle Weekly and Backstage Magazine from 1995-2000. I really don’t miss it all that much. Poorly paid, flattered by some artists and hated by others, a punch-line to half the theatre jokes out there, being a critic had few positive aspects aside from the free tickets. But I do actually miss working in a profession with some ethics. Aside from don’t punch your co-workers and don’t steal from the petty cash, a lot of jobs out there really don’t have a professional code of conduct. Theatre criticism has a whole host of rules, formal and informal, that a critic is supposed to follow—particularly if, like me, you’re also simultaneously a theatre artist.

While some of these rules came from my editors, others I developed on my own. Here’s a few of them:

  • If you receive cash or a production from a company, you don’t review their shows. (I set this as a one-year ban and wonder if it should have been longer.)

  • You try to get your facts right. If you get them wrong, you print a correction.

  • You don’t puff your friends, and you don’t disparage your enemies—you write about the work. If you can’t do that, you don’t review the show.

  • You don’t nominate your own work for awards. (Yes, I actually knew a critic who did this.)

  • You don’t “get back” at companies that don’t produce you or artists who publicly criticize you. (I remember the discomfort of being evoked by name from the stage of the Re-bar during Dan Savage’s production of The Misanthrope. Being insulted in rhyming verse in public was an unwelcome novelty—but the show was undeniably good. After I gave the show a positive review, I got a call from the company letting me know that after they’d read it, they’d subbed in another critic’s name instead.)

  • When you have lunch with the artistic director at The Rep to discuss the new season, you don’t turn the conversation into a pitch meeting for a play you’ve just written. (The boon and curse of being a critic: access to everyone, artistic respect from no one.)

  • You don’t leave halfway through a show and not acknowledge it in your review, if you write one. (While I never took the same relish in doing this as Brendan Kiley over at The Stranger clearly does, I’ll admit that when I was a critic I did do this a couple of times. And I would do it again: those shows were horrible.)

But the greatest ethical requirement of a critic is that she or he gives a truthful reaction to what they’ve just seen. If you love it, even if you personally dislike the playwright, you praise it. And if you hate it, even if the company is a wonderful group of artists who’ve flattered you and bought you drinks, you say so.

One of the phone calls I treasure most during my time as a critic was from Kevin Joyce, who at the time was still with UMO Ensemble. Despite this being one of my favorite theatre companies ever, I’d just given their latest show a lacerating review. He told me that he’d just read the review, completely agreed with it, and thanked me.

Theatre artists give critics a lot of stick, mostly because we fear their opinion of our work and the effect that might have. But while theatre criticism might not necessarily be an art, it is an ethical profession. So to every critic out there who takes ethics seriously: thank you. Even if I disagree with your opinion, particularly of my work, I respect you working a job that asks you to behave in a morally responsible way. It’s not always easy hanging onto a set of ethics in the modern world.

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