An Opinion Piece By Spencer Stewart
Mr. Stewart has objected to many aspects of our specific review of Miami Theater Center’s recent production of The Seven Year Itch (To read it, click here) and has views about the value of criticism in general. We felt that the in our commitment to dialogue, we should publish with his permission his thoughts unedited and verbatim.
Being married to the Artistic Director of the Miami Theater Center has given me a lot of experience with critics and the impact they have on artists and creatives. The frequently offered advice to ignore critics sounds simple enough. But that glib advice ignores the painful feelings that arise when unkind criticism strikes the heart like a poison dart. It takes great courage to put our creations on display. How many of us have the guts to stand up and sing in front of a crowd? How many have the guts to put our art on display? How many of us have the guts to read poetry in front of people? And so when an artist takes the stage and delivers a performance, that act of creation, requires great courage. And there sit the critics, in the stands, in free seats, with their pens and their notebooks. Safe. Unexposed. Free to write the harshest of criticisms with no fear of repercussions because they cannot get sued for expressing negative opinions.
And positive reviews are equally distracting. How many people soar on the wings of public approval only to crash to the depth of despair when the clamor disappears? Positive reviews are the rush of a heroine addiction, and when we pursue that rush, we become junkies to public opinion and our art loses its edge and originality. When we allow ourselves to attach to the approval of others only misery can follow.
I have watched Stephanie Ansin, who truly is a brilliant, original and courageous artist, work to deal with critics. She will produce a play, and then the reviews will come in. She will say, I’m not going to read them, but sometimes the critics are so eager to get their opinions in front of her that they actually email them. Most recently, Bill Hirschman who wrote a particularly scathing and unrestrained review of MTC’s The Seven Year Itch went so far as to email his review to Stephanie’s personal email at 9:00 in the evening saying “I didn’t want to blindside you.” It’s hard to ignore the critics when they stick their opinions right in your face. (Thanks Bill, next time, just blindside us)
And even if they do not email their reviews, we know they are out there. We can resist reading them, but as long as we are curious, as long as we have some part of us that attaches to the opinion of others, the urge to “just go check” will remain. We can exercise restraint, but restraint has to be perfect, and the urge is relentless. It only takes one minute of inattention, or one inadvertent glance, and the poison dart strikes.
And so I am writing this for the artists, but also for all of us. Because we all receive reviews in our jobs, in our homes, in our lives. The opinions and approval of others–judgment–exists everywhere. I hope this will help.
The Reviews of The Seven Year Itch
And so then came The Seven Year Itch, which received four wildly divergent reviews. Many of Stephanie’s productions receive mixed reviews. Sometimes I wonder if the critics were even watching the same show. But nothing compares to what has been published about Miami Theater Center’s production of The Seven Year Itch. Four reviews have been published. Two are positive and two are negative. Most of the venom in the negative reviews was directed toward Aaron Glickman, who very bravely, after ten years off stage, accepted the lead role of Richard Sherman, and toward Stephanie Ansin, for her decision to cast him in that role. I will cut the excerpts from the positive reviews and the negative reviews and let them speak for themselves.
First the Negative:
In his vitriolic and truly mean spirited review, Bill Hirschman of floridatheateronstage.com trashes Aaron Glickman’s performance in the lead role of Richard Sherman, and even goes so far as to suggest that Chaz Mena should have been cast in that role instead. Mr. Hirschman says:
[W]hy with all the solid actors available (including Chaz Mena who has a small role in this outing) why saddle the very difficult central role on Aaron Glickman (a lovely man, we’re sure) who is either unequal to the role or has been directed to play it with all the comic finesse of Hot Tub Time Machine 2….Glickman’s Richard is a sweaty, slobbering, boorish, arrested development creep whom no woman would come within ten feet of, let alone kiss, let alone sleep with, let alone marry.
See Hirschman Review here
Notice the thinly disguised sarcasm and personal attack: “(a lovely man, we’re sure).” What is the point of that? Also, I wonder if Mr. Hirschman even saw Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Is he making a comparison or just trying to be pithy by taking a gratuitous pot shot at someone else’s art as well? But I digress…
From Roger Martin of Broadwayworld.com
Director Stephanie Ansin has also “reimagined” the art of casting, giving the lead role of Richard Sherman (he’s on stage for almost all of the two hour show) to Aaron Glickman, MTC board secretary and local businessman. According to his bio he last acted some ten years ago and did not have extensive stage experience at that time.
I applaud Glickman for accepting the challenge. It takes guts to essay such a role. But the inevitable happens. Embarrassment follows.
[Chaz] Mena and [Betsy] Graver have small roles; how much greater would be the show were they playing the leads?
See Roger Martin Review here
Imagine waking up after giving your best performance to read that. How would you feel? Imagine if you had been off stage for ten years, and then spent eight hours a day, six days a week for seven weeks to prepare for a role, and then after two grueling hours on stage giving the best you have, that’s the review you get. Imagine how it feels when the next Thursday comes around and it’s time to take the stage with the very kind and talented Betsy Graver, when the “experts” have opined that he does not even deserve to be on the stage. Betsy Graver, who actually is a lovely person, brilliantly fills the role of Helen Sherman. Would it really make sense to switch her with Diana Garle? Please hold these thoughts in the back of your mind as we go on to the positive reviews.
Now for the Positive
Let’s start with Christine Dolen, theater critic for the Miami Herald, which I’m sure anyone would agree is a big step up the food chain from the blogs published by Mr. Hirschman and Mr. Martin. Ms. Dolen says this about Aaron Glickman’s performance:
Glickman, publisher of SocialMiami.com, returns to the acting career he left behind when he came home from Los Angeles a decade ago. Sherman is the play’s focal point, and Glickman adroitly plays an average guy who’s wondering, as Peggy Lee put it, “Is that all there is?” His Sherman is kind of a mess, physically and emotionally, and though he goes where no married man should, Glickman’s amiability, precise comedic tone and sometimes manic energy make the audience hang in through his misadventures.”
See Miami Herald Review here
And another positive review comes from Michelle Solomon of Miami Art Zine. She says:
Director Stephanie Ansin has created a mash-up of both the stage play and the film in a very original, witty and imaginative “The Seven Year Itch” at the Miami Theater Center. . . .Glickman’s family man is frazzled, frenetic, and bumbling – sometimes channeling a bit of John Belushi. Perfectly cast, he is charged with a number of monologues and alone time on stage, seamlessly captivating the audience and showing a range of emotions. (emphasis added)
See miamiartzine.com here
For the record, I saw the show three times, and enjoyed it every time. I happen to know that Aaron Glickman was charged with displaying “Sexo-masochistic excitement bordering on hysteria.” Which are the words the psychiatrist in the play used to describe his demeanor. And so he was directed to act as though he were on the verge of histeria. Hence the “manic energy” that Ms. Dolen correctly recognized. So in this case, it is my opinion that the two positive reviews more accurately portrayed the artistic value of the play, while the two negative reviews seem to me to be inartfully articulated hatchet jobs. But my point is not to argue about whether the play was good or whether it was bad.
My desire is to point to how to handle criticism.
Remember that Reviews and Judgments are Subjective
The opinions expressed by these four critics, and by critics in general, differ so much from one another because of the very nature of opinions. Opinions about art are subjective–they say as much about the person who offers them as they say about the performance itself. Here are four opinions of exactly the same actor in exactly the same play written by four different professional critics who all review theater in the exact same geographic location.
A friend of mine made an observation I would like to share. When we have negative feelings toward someone else, it is usually something in ourselves that we are reacting to. When we see something we do not like in another person, it triggers us, because we see what we do not like about ourselves, and so we attack. Why do you think Mr. Hirschman and Mr. Martin had such strong negative reactions to Mr. Glickman’s portrayal of Richard Sherman? Why, instead of simply being bored or unimpressed, did they speak so harshly and even demand that someone else be placed in the role? Well I personally do not know the answer to that question because I have never inhabited the psyches of Bill Hirschman or Roger Martin. But consider Mr. Hirschman’s statement that “Glickman’s Richard is a sweaty, slobbering, boorish, arrested development creep whom no woman would come within ten feet of, let alone kiss, let alone sleep with, let alone marry.” Before I said something like that about another person’s work, I would look in the mirror and ask myself how I would feel if someone said that about me. I would also ask myself if I was not spitting on my own reflection.
Two intelligent and articulate women both complemented Mr. Glickman’s performance. Is that because they were able to look at it more objectively? Ms. Dolen and Ms Solomon presumably do not identify with the “sweaty slobbering arrested development creep” that Mr. Hirschman sees. So question… who is really the sweaty slobbering arrested development creep? Is it Mr. Glickman or Mr. Hirschman?
We are all entitled to our own opinions, but to unleash a mean spirited rant and personal attack is simply unprofessional and unhelpful to the Theater, to the actor, and to the public.
Make Art For Those Who Appreciate It, Not for the Haters.
Hedda Gabler, which MTC produced last fall, also received wildly divergent reviews. After reading a particularly negative and offensive review, again from Mr. Martin, Ms. Ansin asked rhetorically “if they don’t even understand what I’m doing, then why am I even doing it?” I responded “that’s a good question. Why are you doing it?” She paused for a minute and said “I’m doing it for the people in the room with me. I’m doing it for the actors and all the others that I collaborate with. And we all work together to make the best performance we can for those who appreciate it.” The art is created for the benefit of the artists and for those who appreciate the art. Not for those who mock.
Similarly, sometimes I post something I find uplifting and inspiring on Facebook or in social media. I am quite sure that some people do not agree, and that others are offended. Sometimes I am mocked. I wear bracelets on my arms that have a deep spiritual meaning to me, and sometimes people make fun of them. They call them “wonder woman bracelets.” I smile and say exactly, they stop bullets, the bullets of criticism and mockery that would otherwise hit my heart. I am sure that many people have removed me from their feeds. That’s ok. Because sometimes I get a message that says “Thanks for posting this, I really needed to hear that today.” And so I post freely. I try to share everything that inspires and uplifts me, and I do it to inspire and uplift others who can benefit from it.
Stephanie Ansin, who I love so deeply and know so well, is truly a sensitive creative genius. Living with her is like living in a fairy world full of magic where everything is possible. The ideas that flow out of her mind seem to come from a never ending stream of creativity that flows into her from a divine channel. That she has the courage to create plays like Everybody Drinks the Same Water, The Red Thread, Hedda Gabler, Three Sisters, and The Seven Year Itch astonishes me. Especially when she is faced with so much venomous criticism. But she does it for the artists. She does it for the actors. She does it for the people who come to the play and leave with their minds expanded. She is learning that the negative reviews will come, and that they say far more about the reviewer than about her work, and she is learning to move forward in the face of the critics. It has not been an easy journey.
Stephanie Ansin, and MTC have created many plays for young audiences, and MTC has raised money to bus in over 200,000 Miami Dade Public School elementary students to see them. Some of these kids have written that the trip to the theater was the first time they ever left their neighborhoods. They write truly touching and insightful letters explaining how they have been impacted by the theater. But what did the critics say about Everybody Drinks the Same Water? The reviews were mixed, but here is a particularly harsh excerpt from John Thomason of The Miami New Times:
As for the story itself, there is nothing engaging for adults and very little for children, which is the seemingly targeted demographic. The play runs 70 minutes, has enough material for about 15 minutes, and feels something like two hours. The actors, most of them capable of great work, have been scrubbed of distinction, and they become little more than sluggish line-readers for a monotonous script.
Miami New Times Review of Water Here
Here, on the other hand, is what the kids had to say, and this is just the excerpt Stephanie had at hand. She has received countless letters:
5) When I compare both The Red Thread and Everybody Drinks the Same Water, I prefer Everybody Drinks the Same Water because of the setting and the designs, and the teamwork to figure out who poisoned the water. Oh my God! This play was a fantastic and super cool play. I don’t know where to start. The designs were very cool, and the characters made the show as I should say very realistic and attractive. But, there is one character that I admire, Fatima, because the way she expresses her feelings makes me want to take her place.
6) When I was at The Red Thread it felt like I was in China for real and all the actors played their part real good. And I love the ninjas so they caught my eyes. And the part on the bridge and how the girl almost fell. I thought she was going to fall. Oh, I loved the background, especially the cave.
7) When I watched Everybody Drinks the Same Water, it took me to an out of this world place. I like how the play took place in Spain. I also liked how the special effects beamed down on my face. And it was amazing how I saw the crew put on their best.
Look at the impact the art had on these kids! They were so moved and touched. But if Stephanie listened to the asinine comments of John Thomason, or if she had let fear stop her from producing the play, those kids would never have had that experience. So it really gets back to the magic rule we all learned in 5th grade. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. That really works well.
Good Theater is Not Supposed to be Easy
Theater is not necessarily supposed to be easy or pleasurable. Sometimes it’s purpose is to expose us to ourselves, to push our buttons and pull our triggers. The Seven Year Itch certainly caused a lot of discomfort for a lot of people in the audience. I am sure any couple who had dealt with infidelity in their own relationship would have a very hard time sitting through that performance, and they would very likely criticize the play. They would say it was awful. Unbearable. Insufferable. They would say it would have been so much nicer if someone lighter and funnier had played the part of Richard Sherman, or that it would have been better if it had been gutted by sensors to remove offensive parts as the movie version was.
The theater is to develop actors, to create a community of people who are dedicated to the arts and who support the development of artists. It is to give opportunity to people like Fernando Calzadilla and Diana Garle and Aaron Glickman. It is to give opportunity to the numerous emerging artists who have had the opportunity to present original works in the Sandbox. And it is for all of those people to work together in community to deliver the best art they can to the audience and to the supporters of the theater. To them we offer our deepest gratitude. To Mr. Hirschman, may you be always treated with kindness so you can in turn share kindness with others.
And So How Does This Apply to the Rest of Us?
So what can we learn from this? Well for one, there certainly is no shortage of critics in this world. They tell us we cannot sing, we cannot paint, we cannot draw, we cannot write poetry, we cannot take good pictures. This starts in childhood, and before long, we lose our courage to share what we actually can do. It is my hope that you, dear reader, realize that YOU CAN SING, you can dance, you can draw, you can play guitar, you can act. You can do anything you want to do. And you can do it exactly as well as you can do it. No better, no worse. Do you see what that means? We all have exactly the talent we were given by God, and it is our duty to express that talent. It is our duty to ignore the critics and produce.
So if someone offers a kind word, thank them for the encouragement, but do not rely on it for your justification in producing your art. Produce your art for those who appreciate it, even if only your mother appreciates it. Heck. Go sing a song to your mother. She will love it.
And if some blow hard says something horrible about your art, well have compassion, because they really are just hating themselves, and perhaps wishing that they had the courage to take the stage.
And to Mr. Glickman I would like to say this. I personally thought you were hilarious. I personally thought your performance was spot on. Thank you for having the courage to present it to me, because I enjoyed it all three times. The same to everyone else involved in this excellent rendition of The Seven Year Itch.