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GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?

Author’s Note: The reactions noted below should not be attributed to the cast and crew of CCT’s production of “The Music Man.” These reactions existed mostly in the form of online responses from people not associated with the show.

By Lou Hare

Recently, a review of Countryside Community Theatre’s recent production of “The Music Man,” written by Tristan Tapscott, circulated

GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?

Lou Hare

online. Unlike your typical review of most Community Theatre productions, the review was pointed and, well, critical. And a lot of people lost their shit. The responses online range from the typical disagreement to a point that seems to rear its head anytime someone writes a negative review of a non-professional production.

“These reviews are too harsh!”

“These are volunteers!”

“You shouldn’t hold amateur actors to professional standards!”

The overall point that gets made is that Community Theatre is just that: people from the community volunteering their time and effort to put on a show for that same community. As such, it feels like lobbing critiques at said efforts is mean-spirited and misguided. It’s literally the only avenue I can think of where volunteers can be publicly derided for their efforts. No one goes to a local Food Bank and breaks down the speed of how the workers load the boxes. Further, since community theatre is an entry-point for many young actors, negative reviews might discourage young amateurs into honing their craft to become professionals.

And you know what? They’re right. But…

GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?If a reviewer, whose job it is to watch a show and give their opinion, sees a show that doesn’t work for them, what should they do about it? Lie? Sugar-coat it? Forego writing anything at all? From the responses negative reviews typically get, it would appear that many in the community theatre world would prefer that a reviewer say something nice or don’t say anything at all. But that presents a whole other issue: if community theatre reviews are always positive, what’s the point? This gets to the heart of the issue: who is the community theatre review for? Is the public reading these and using them as actual recommendations as to what show to give their time and money to? Or are they merely publicity efforts, letting the people know that the show exists in the first place? Which brings us back to the original point: how should one review a show with all of these competing factors? How do they marry their personal opinions and integrity with the realities of publicly criticizing people who aren’t getting paid to be dragged in public?

The answer? Maybe we just…don’t.

GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?As I stated earlier, I find it hard to disagree with those who get angry at negative reviews at Community Theatre. I also see where the reviewer is coming from. If you didn’t like a show, you should be able to say so without being accused of bullying. When reading Mr. Tapscott’s review of “The Music Man,” this internal conflict leaps off the page. The review itself is defensive, as if Mr. Tapscott is well aware of the backlash he’s about to face and trying to diffuse the situation while also being honest about his feelings towards the production. If every reviewer feels the need to contort themselves to avoid upsetting those named, why bother writing a negative review at all? But on the other hand, if every review of community theatre were just overtly positive while glossing over any issues one may had, what point does that serve?

Perhaps it’s time to admit that reviews of community theatre productions have outlived their usefulness. With that in mind, let’s take a new approach. In the past, reviews were seen as a way to discern whether or not the public should spend its time and money on a show. While this should absolutely apply to professional productions, it hasn’t applied to community theatre for as long as I can remember.

Considering that the overwhelming majority of reviews of community theatre productions are positive, it seems unlikely that reviews have served this purpose for a very long time. The truth is, most community theatres rely on reviews as promotional tools, building awareness of the show. The problem with that is that it assumes the reviewer is a willing participant. When said reviewer doesn’t like the show, it feels like

GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?

a betrayal (it should be pointed out that many local reviewers, like Mr. Tapscott, are also participants in the local theatre community, which adds another layer of awkwardness when the reviewer doesn’t like a show). So perhaps the answer is that instead of relying on reviews to promote awareness, we provide more feature-style articles and content focusing on the volunteers behind these productions. It serves the purpose that local reviews have (building awareness), honors the time and dedication of the people putting on the shows while avoiding the public scrutiny that seems unfair to put on a volunteer. Now, I’m well aware that many local outlets do this already. But perhaps dialing up these efforts serves the same purpose as reviews do while avoiding hostilities amongst people within their own communities.

This won’t solve everything, but after seeing the cycle that we go through every time a reviewer dares to say anything other than a full-throated endorsement, it’s clear that community theatre reviews are no longer functional tools towards promoting local theatre. But we should absolutely be promoting local theatre so that they remain a vibrant part of our community, whether every show is a home-run or not. Of course, if we fully-funded community theatres so audiences could see these shows for free, promotion of the shows wouldn’t be such a vital mission. But that’s the topic of another article…

Lou Hare is a longtime actor in the Quad-Cities theatrical community. He has received both good and bad reviews.

GUEST COLUMN: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Reviewing Community Theatre?

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