MY FIRST REVIEW of a play was more than 50 years ago. For my college newspaper, I gave my opinion of the then-new Broadway musical Hair (which I adored).

My most recent review was a play that, for our purposes here, shall remain nameless because I didn’t like it at all. I gave it a very good review.

Confused? Let me explain.

I think of myself as a theatrical matchmaker — meaning that when I see a show, I don’t care if I love it or hate it. I’m just interested in getting the right people to see the show they would like.

Some years back, I attended a musical that was starting out in New Jersey. Producers hoped it would then move to New York. At the time, I was reviewing for The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s leading newspaper and the ninth-biggest paper in the country. At the risk of sounding immodest, my review counted more than any other review in the state, but that was because of the circulation, not because of me. If I’d traded places with the lowest-selling paper in New Jersey, everyone would pay attention to my successor’s opinions and would no longer give a whit about what I wrote.

But I had the power to help or hinder this new musical from moving to much greener pastures. I thought it was silly and sophomoric. However, the audience was having a wonderful time. At every show I review, I make a point of turning around several times to see how the audience is responding. Wives often drag husbands to the theatre, and if they’re asleep, that’s not a good sign. But here both men and women were laughing heartedly and steadily.

I wrote, “People were throwing their heads back in laughter so much that today they’re probably all going to have to be fitted with whiplash collars.” As a result, producers came to this small Jersey town, saw the potential in the show, and moved it New York, where it ran for years and years and years. If I had given my actual opinion of the show, it most likely would have died without a New York chance.

Peter Filichia works with up-and-coming arts journalists during the Thespian Criticworks program at the 2018 International Thespian Festival.
Peter Filichia works with up-and-coming arts journalists during the Thespian Criticworks program at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Another example: Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., is an African American theatre. It mounted a play about six people in their 20s who go to a singles bar looking for love. Two wound up together; two didn’t; two might. The humor was of the sitcom variety, and I didn’t crack a smile all night long. But, even then, I was far from twentysomething. I never went to places such as this, because I’d already been with the same woman for decades and had no need to.

The audience certainly went for it, though, and I reported that. I also wrote, “Single people out there: Get down to Crossroads, for you’re going to see people going through the same problems you’ve been enduring, and you’ll feel much better about yourself and your troubles. And because the play has an intermission, who knows who you might meet in the lobby. You might not even be single much longer.”

On the strength of that review, the play had to be extended by weeks. Lord knows if some marriages, children, and, all right, divorces resulted from that piece. Had I said what I really thought, it would have probably played to half-empty houses and brought far less pleasure to far fewer people.

Critics, then, can give permission for theatregoers to like shows. People come into the playhouse in a better mood after reading a favorable review. The performers onstage feel better about themselves, and this good feeling spreads from actors to attendees and back again.

I once got a phone call from a brand-new theatre company’s press agent asking if I’d come see its show the following Friday. The person gasped in surprise when I said yes. But I know that if a big newspaper — not me, mind you, but a big newspaper — reviews a theatre’s productions, that troupe will have an easier time getting grants. So I said yes, I’d be there the following Friday.

The day came, and I got another call from that press agent begging me not to attend after all, hoping I could come on Saturday so they’d have an extra night to perfect the show. I offered to attend on Sunday to give everyone even more time. My offer was gratefully accepted.

On Sunday, I could see they were still not ready. But I could see they were getting there. So, I reviewed the show I knew they’d be able to perform by Tuesday.

If I were a film or TV critic, I’d review what I actually saw. But live theatre performances change and (usually) improve when the actors get more shows under their belts. I’m sure they were terrific by the time the following weekend came when most people would be attending. A theatre review can be obsolete by the time a new audience attends.

What critics should remember is that we go to the theatre all the time. Seriously, I attended 401 shows last season. (Bless those matinees!) And because critics go to the theatre night after night after night, we can easily get bored or burnt out. But The Broadway League did a survey and found that HEAVY-attending theatregoers go FOUR times a year. As a result, they’re more likely to be pleased than the rest of us. We’ve seen it all; we’ve heard it all; they haven’t.

Learn more about Thespian Criticworks and other Next Generation Works programs online

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