WHAT MAKES CRITICS SHUN 'THE PROCESS'?

Wouldn't it be great if drama critics got involved in the process? Not necessarily.

"The process" is resident-theater jargon for doing theater, with particular reference to doing new plays. Wouldn't it be wonderful, theater people often ask, if the critic could forget about being a critic for a while and actually sit in on the process by which a new script becomes a play--even contribute to the process? It would put the critic in closer touch with the realities of contemporary theater, and it would give the playwright the benefit of the critic's wisdom, if he had any.

The Mark Taper Forum made a practical effort to do just this in the fall. Artistic Director Gordon Davidson sent out a letter asking local critics not to review the six plays in the Taper's monthlong New Theatre for Now festival. Instead, they were invited to "participate" in the festival by attending rehearsals, meeting with the playwrights and Taper staff members, monitoring post-play audience discussions, maybe even conducting them.

"It is our aim to help you further understand, in whatever ways possible, the process by which theatrical events are built," Davidson wrote, adding the kicker--that there would be a tuition fee. "Because the public has agreed to pay for tickets to be part of this journey, we must ask that the press do the same."

This last proved particularly effective in keeping most of the local theater press away from the festival entirely. Some who did come scolded Davidson for having the chutzpah to tell them how to write their stories, plus charging for it. This reviewer agreed to "report" on the plays-in-progress without "reviewing" them, and stayed behind for most of the post-play audience discussions, but declined to get any more involved.

Why are critics so uptight about this?

Well, not all of them are. George Bernard Shaw, Harold Clurman and Walter Kerr are three critics who took part in the creative life of the theater with no detriment to their copy. Colleague Sylvie Drake has done a stint with the Denver Center Theatre, with no detriment to hers. Still, some of us have problems with the idea of getting too involved with "the process," especially on our own turf.

No one denies the benefits, in terms of what the critic learns about theater making and (just as interesting) about theater makers. Half of what I know about the theater I've picked up on the back porch of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where I've been able to spend some time every summer for the last dozen years. I've worked on new scripts with Houston's Chocolate Bayou Theatre. Last year, the Oregon Stage Company of Portland did a script of mine--that is where you really learn something.

One of the things you learn is that the theater process is an end in itself, psychologically. This is one of the deceptive things about it. Once it's decided to do a show, nobody sits around discussing whether it's worth doing. That's been settled. Now the thing is to do it as well as possible, and everybody pitches in, more unselfishly than you might think.

The result can be a gratifying experience, entirely apart from the quality of the play. "If only we didn't have to open this," I once heard an actress sigh after a rehearsal where the camaraderie of the company was, indeed, palpable. She was quite right. When the audience came in, the magic went away. But it had been there, in that rehearsal hall, and when she thought of that play, that was what she would remember.

This is seductive stuff, especially for an outsider. To feel that you are a member of the circle appeals to the orphan in you. To feel that you are contributing to the magic the circle is brewing appeals to the artist in you. As to the quality of the brew, you obviously hope people will like it. But making it is the real delight.

One begins to see why actors will pay for the chance of being in a show. It's not just for the exposure. It's for the joy of the work. But the joy of the work is a separate thing from the value of the work--which is what criticism is about.

It's easy for the "involved" critic to lose sight of this. I once sat in on a college production of "The Sea Gull" from auditions to final performance, rejoicing in how the actors grew from rehearsal to rehearsal. You had to love those kids, especially if you knew the other demands on their time. It took a friend on opening night to point out to me, correctly, that this was just another college production of "The Sea Gull."

If we are agreed that objectivity is something the critic should strive for, impossible dream that it is, then he's got no business sitting in on rehearsals for a show he's going to review--and certainly no business giving advice on it. The last has particular application to new scripts.

Let's say I'm working as guest dramaturge on a New Theatre for Now production of a new script called "Titus Andronicus" by a young actor named William Shakespeare. I tell Bill (we are friends immediately) that I like the vigor of the play, but the amount of bloodletting is almost ludicrous. Why not cut the part where the daughter's hands get chopped off?

No, says Bill, I need that image. But he agrees to tone down the business about chopping people into meat pies. Fine, I say, thinking I've helped him make it a better play. In a sense, "Titus Andronicus" is our play now, Bill's and mine.

Or perhaps we have a fight about the script: That can be part of the process, too. Or maybe I come away thinking that Bill Shakespeare is a terrific writer and a definite creep. Whatever my experience, I'm not going to be able to filter it out of my opening night review of "Titus," and probably the rest of Bill Shakespeare's plays as well, should he write any more.

In fact, I have worked on scripts elsewhere that did turn out to have, as they say, a life--and I found them not easy to review when they came to town. (Rule 1: Always acknowledge that you once had an affair with this play.) I'll do it again, however. I'll even do a discreet amount of hustling for a really remarkable new script. It's ridiculous for critics to be completely above the battle. If we can help, we should. It also gives us a better sense of what the battle is.

But, in general, I need to come to the play free of entangling alliances so I can truly know what I think of it. That is what I'm paid for--and not by the theater. Readers don't want critics to be so understanding of "the process" that they begin to act as propagandists for a particular theater, or for the theater in general. What the reader as a potential audience member wants to know is: What does this show have to offer? Should I bother?

For the audience has a process, too. It involves putting down money in the hope that the next two or three hours will be more interesting than what would have happened at home--whether live or on TV. The critic, as a professional witness, has to talk about that, not about the terrific journey this play has made since rehearsals started. Did it go anywhere tonight?

The critic has a process too, starting with the fairly inchoate signal of "yes" or "no" or "maybe" that he carries out of the theater and ending with as precise a description of his experience with the play as he can manage in the assigned time. If an occasional immersion in the theater-making process helps him to be quicker in knowing what happened last night, and sharper in passing it on to the reader, then it is helpful. But for this reviewer, the immersion can only be once in a while and mustn't be on home ground. The guy who carries the score card can get in real trouble when he starts to think of himself as one of the players.

The theater process is an end in itself, psychologically. This is one of the deceptive things about it. Once it's decided to do a show, the thing is to do it as well as possible, and everybody pitches in. The result can be a gratifying experience, entirely apart from the quality of the play.

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