May 27, 2020

Review disheartening

It’s not usually considered good form for a director of a theatrical production to respond to the local theater critic’s review. The old adage, “It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they spell your name correctly!” is the policy that I usually follow.

Indeed, my name is not that easy to spell and it appeared five times and was correctly spelled, in Judy Harrison’s review (BDN, Dec. 15) of the Maine Masque’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.” Yet, this review systematically devalued, misinterpreted and summarily dismissed our hard work. Thus, I respond on behalf of the students, parents and our sometimes sold-out audiences, who greatly enjoyed our production and are disheartened by this review.

I do not believe, nor do I wish to suggest, that Harrison or any other Bangor Daily News reviewer who has negatively reviewed a Maine Masque production over the years has any sinister motivation. I believe, for now, that the real problem is that she and the BDN may not understand the mission of educational theatre. I don’t necessarily blame them, though. Perhaps it’s our fault that we haven’t effectively communicated our approach to theatre. I will go so far as to say, however, that it seems that the editors seem to not understand the distress that they cause by publishing those negative and inaccurate reviews.

The review seems to suggest that we shouldn’t attempt challenging plays. First of all, that is exactly what we should do for our students. “Bette and Boo” is well within the range of our students’ acting abilities. Our outside professional adjudicator praised the production (as is usually the case), and many members of the audience were emotionally touched at the end of the play and thought it was an excellent production. Nevertheless, the BDN’s discouraging coverage seeks to stultify the diversity of theatrical entertainments in the area. Does the newspaper want us to do the shows that the high school, community theatre, or other local theatre groups, do?

Further, we are not above doing an escapist or commercially popular musical or play, but, as an educational institution, we also need to do plays (and attempt experimental play production approaches) that challenge our students and the community. I would suggest that instead of the conservative approach to what a production is or is not, the BDN should become more liberal and encourage different productions, or else all theatres will be doing, say, “Hello Dolly!” next year… and the year after, and the year after that, as well. At this time, let me add, that I respect all of the other local theater groups and their contributions to local performance (my daughter was in the community theater’s “Oklahoma!”), but we are not they! We have an entirely different mission to fulfill.

I would also suggest that the BDN might reconsider its approach to covering UMaine theater performances. If the newspaper would devote some time and space to pre-show features, rather than sticking to its apparent policy of only reporting on performances by reviewing them, it would serve to increase local interest in the arts. Out-of-town publications and local television news organizations have shown a great willingness to cover our performances through feature stories.

We, and those members of the community who enjoy theatre, greatly appreciate and benefit from it. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that I think that the BDN isn’t interested in supporting us. I assume, like all good newspapers, it would like to be supportive of the local arts. However, it certainly needs to listen to the community and be less judgmental.

Finally, I would like to say that nobody is above criticism, that’s why we have American College Theatre Festival respondents critique our productions. As an educational institution, we do not look at any of our shows as complete successes or failures. They are vehicles for learning, something for which this newspaper has not given us proper credit. As a theatre critic for professional theater (The New England Theatre Journal), I understand the value of good criticism, and that one can’t critique new dramas with old tools. Therefore, one book I might recommend to the BDN is Richard H. Palmer’s “The Critic’s Canon: Standards of Theatrical Reviewing in America.” In it, the word “encourages” is used quite frequently.

Tom Mikotowicz is the director of the Maine Masque.

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