There are with out a doubt, subjects that can be defined as “best” and… not best. Science, cuisine, and the Minnesota Twins are some starters; you can reasonably say that there’s a difference between what constitutes good and bad. For many things, however, the line is distinctly less obvious and the difference between what’s good and bad often comes down to one person’s opinion. “Everyone’s a critic” rings painfully true for artists, who often feel as if their entire life’s work can be made or broken depending on whether or not the critic was able to find adequate parking or hasn’t fallen ill from an under cooked fish.
An artist will devote countless hours on a project, plumbing the depths of the human condition, often at the expense of their own pleasures. DaVinci once said that “art is never finished, only abandoned” and as an actor I get that. Weeks go by and you’re still tinkering with the artwork, knowing that at some point you’re going to have to let it fly into the stage lights of opening night. It’s hard to do that, especially when you know there are people actually getting paid to sit in the darkness to judge you on all of that devotion. You hope they are able to see not just the one tree, but the whole forest.
Exposing yourself like that is, in short, a leap of faith. Yes, the critic is there to do this job but as for power? I believe we give the critic only as much power as we let them. The simple question is, “who do we do it for?” To serve ourselves in the hope that a “good” review will grant us the keys to a sort of acting El Dorado, or to show audiences a glimpse of their own forgotten humanity? In my short career I’ve come to learn that by focusing on the former you lose sight of the latter, leading to a weak foundation that will eventually crumble in on itself.
This of course it not to say that I hate reviews and critics, quite the contrary. I value a good review that sheds light on a production and I’ll even copy and paste a specific one onto my website; I won’t even go so far as to call reviewers a “necessary evil”. No, they’re not evil, but I can see how a disgruntled performer could go there.
All of this then is to ask the question, what constitutes good theatre? Who determines what “the best” theatre is? The reviewers, the audiences, the artists themselves? All of them are intrinsic to the welfare of the art and have a voice. Inevitably those voices clash and no more so than during big “oo-lah-lah” events such as the Tony Awards where suddenly anyone who has seen a play, any play, speaks out about the nominees and not always in the most positive light.
These are the same people who annually disparage the Oscars for not amounting to a hill of beans. Why should we care about an awards show that rewards bloated and stale Broadway? Because I believe, for better or worse, this the face of the industry; practically the only thing Joe the Plumber might think of when someone says “theatre”, and dang it, if Joe the Plumber thinks anything about theatre at all then we’re off to a good start. Of course we artists sticking it out here in the hinterlands know that the American theatre is so much richer than what the Tony’s represent but it pays to be informed about what’s happening in New York, no matter your position. So I would recommend not forgetting to take your grain of salt and just appreciate the fact that Theatre gets its day in the mainstream sun for at least one night a year.
So “The Best”. Can we define it? Can we spot it in a line up? Sometimes absolutely, but more often than not we’re just comparing apples to oranges; whether it’s the critic or some institution like the Tony Awards. I say we as the artists raise our voices a little more in solidarity and less in sniping at each other and then we can enjoy the big oo-lah-lah events as the giant self-celebratory parties they ought to be.