Public Editor

Arts critics and their readers don’t always agree

Updated: 2013-12-08T23:35:36Z

By DEREK DONOVAN

The Kansas City Star

Judging by the feedback I hear, readers are keenly interested in reviews of the theater, concerts and movies playing in the Kansas City area. But that certainly doesn’t mean they always agree with The Kansas City Star’s critics.

One of the most common complaints I hear is about which performances are chosen for review. There are hundreds of shows every month, so obviously every one can’t be covered.

That means there will always be people who miss out on entertainment they’ve enjoyed. Editors weigh a variety of factors in allocating space and time for reviews. Some of the considerations include the relative popularity of the show, and whether Kansas City audiences have had the chance to see it in the recent past.

For example, some big pop and country stars make frequent visits to major cities. If The Star reviewed one artist’s last appearance, and this time around there’s another major show the same night from someone who hasn’t visited before, it would most likely make sense to visit the act that hasn’t been here before.

There’s also a consumer angle to arts reviews when a show isn’t just a single-night event. A critic’s assessment of a piece of theater that runs for three weeks might help ticket-buyers decide whether or not to spend their money and time on a production, for example.

But that’s hardly to say readers always agree with the critics. I can’t count how many times through the years I’ve spoken to people who have asked if The Star’s reviewers were at the same show they attended.

One such emailer last week had an opinion diametrically opposed to the one theater critic Robert Trussell expressed in his mixed review of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

“You should not have used your power of words to keep people away from the funniest, most delightful play I've seen in years and I've seen a lot,” she wrote to Trussell, copying me.

I asked Trussell for his take. “Reactions to critical opinions in print fall into two broad categories,” he told me. “Those who are personally offended by a negative review of a show they liked, and validation if they happen to agree with either a negative or positive review.

“I understand both reactions because that's exactly how I feel if I read a negative review of a book I enjoyed. By the same token, I thoroughly enjoy a negative review of a bad movie.”

Pop music critic Timothy Finn offered similar thoughts, with one insight I hadn’t considered: “I'll get some negative feedback if I don't express the same enthusiasm for a show that someone else feels. That can happen when I'm seeing a band or performer for the fourth or fifth time and I'll hear from someone seeing them for the first time, when the anticipation and excitement level are high.”

Part of the reason that a bad review of something we’ve enjoyed stings is that the critic’s negative take feels like personal criticism — as if it’s saying we just aren’t smart enough to get why the show was inferior.

That’s an impulse we should all resist. While what makes a good critic is a demonstrated breadth of knowledge and level of taste, at the end of the day a lot of any review is unavoidably subjective.

Critics offer guidance and expertise. But every viewer brings a unique set of eyes and ears to the theater. Sometimes, reviewers and their readers have to agree to disagree.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/KCStarPublic.

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