Anatomy of a Theatrical Review: Does a Theatre Critic Have to Criticize?

I never set out to be a theatre critic. It just kind of happened.

I always displayed some talent for putting words together in a way that people found entertaining. I was even offered a journalism scholarship at University of Southern California (USC).

However, I had been acting professionally since the age of nine and didn’t really see myself doing anything else. Any writing I figured to do was as a playwright or screenwriter – something related to my acting work. So, rather than go to USC, I pursued a degree in the entertainment field at a fine arts college.

Life can take some unexpected turns sometimes.

At one point I started writing magazine articles and then books. Apparently, some people thought I did okay at it, because over the years I ended up being published by some of the most respected publishers in the world including CMP Media, Cahners, Reed Elsevier, Miller Freeman, Business News Publishing, Chartwell Communications, and James Informational Media.

At the same time, I was a reasonably successful actor, with additional credits as a director and script writer. By sheer chance, I was offered an opportunity to combine the pursuits and write theatre reviews. It’s not my only interest, but it’s one a rewarding one.

How I approach writing theatre reviews now is far different than when I first started years ago. And I think those changes are overwhelmingly good ones.

IT’S ALL ABOUT CHANGE

There are certain people who never change. They embrace their faults and go through life expecting everyone else to accommodate them.

There are others who do change for the better. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. It requires an open mind, the ability to question and research, and an understanding that we are all fallible and can make improvements if we set our minds to it.

When I was in my early 20s, I wrote entertainment reviews for a theatrical website. While I praised elements that worked, I was convinced that it was my sacred duty to point out everything that was wrong with a production.

I hurt a lot of people’s feelings unnecessarily, and I now regret that. I thought I was upholding the professional standards of the theatrical arena. I wholeheartedly believed that because the name of the position was “theatre critic”, I therefore, had to be critical.

Thinking you’re doing the right thing doesn’t make it the right thing. The fact is, I was an asshole.

My being a bit of a dick wasn’t restricted to just how I wrote theatrical reviews. In general, I was very opinionated and convinced that my position was always right.

That’s not to say I was always a prick. I volunteered with worthy causes, raised money for charities, mentored young actors looking to get in the business, and did other such things to try to give back and show appreciation for my status in life. But in a lot of ways, I wasn’t the best person. I know now that I made a lot of mistakes.

HITTING THE BREAKING POINT

Sometimes it takes a huge life event to inspire a person to make changes in themselves. That’s what happened to me.

In 2008 I had what is called a “psychotic break”. I was hallucinating and hearing voices – screaming at people who weren’t there. I was wildly manic and spouting crazy conspiracy theories that showed a clear detachment from reality. I was convinced people were out to get me. I was also convinced that the world would be better off without me and that I should kill myself. Had you seen it unfold, it would have been severely traumatizing for you. It was worse than any depiction of a mental breakdown you have ever seen in any film.

It was scary for me and those who witnessed the event while it was happening. It took over a dozen police officers to subdue me. I wasn’t being violent. I have never been violent. But the police knew I was a threat to my own safety and needed to be taken to a hospital. It took so many officers to put me in the ambulance because they didn’t want to hurt me. They could recognize that I wasn’t in a rational or sane state of mind.

I was put in a mental hospital. Once I was medicated and receiving psychological therapy, I learned that I had been suffering from mental illness since childhood. I was severely psychologically abused throughout my life and was sexually molested on several occasions. Throw in a couple concussion for good measure. On top of that, we discovered that mental illness is apparent in my family tree. Realistically, psychologists believe my damaged mind was the product of both being abused and having a genetic predisposition.

RISE TO THE CHALLENGE

What defines a person is more than the bad things that happen to them, it’s how they respond to those challenges that determines what the history books will say about them.

When I became disabled, I could have just sat around and felt sorry for myself. I could have gone on continuing to be an asshole. But I saw this as being given a second chance at life. I took an inventory of who I had been – for the first time honestly recognizing all my faults. Then, I set about changing them.

I decided that if I was going to be disabled, I was going to show the world what a disabled person is still capable of.

I work religiously with a team of professional supports to try each day to become a better person. But while these pros can assist and help guide me, in the end I’m the one who has to do the work. And I have embraced that.

In 2016 I returned to performing, accepting the opportunity to star as Randal P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Being embraced by thunderous applause each night made me feel great. And I knew that I wanted to be the kind of person who gives that kind of feeling to others. I want to make people feel proud of their accomplishments the way the audiences were making me feel proud of my comeback performance. I want to make people feel happy.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Making people happy…being a positive influence…that’s the mentality that I brought to the table when I began writing entertainment reviews for Chicago’s Northwest Herald in 2017. I set out to be a champion of the arts. I set out to celebrate the people involved in putting on a show while providing an informational service to the people reading the reviews to see if they want to buy tickets.

Honesty is important. So, I vowed that I would never lie and say a bad production was good or a terrible performer was great. However, that doesn’t mean I need to concentrate so much on flaws.

Sure, there may be some questionable casting or a less than magnificent set. If it needs to be pointed out, I will – but politely.

Actors, directors, set designers, costumers – all the people involved in putting on a play – are just that: people. They have feelings. It is not my job to hurt their feelings. Even criticism can be done in a way that doesn’t emotionally injure anyone.

Whether it’s in how I write reviews or just how I live my life, my preference now is to focus as much energy as I can on the positives. When I leave this world, I want to leave trail of happiness in my wake. And do you know what? It’s self-rewarding too! When I hear or see that I have made someone else happy, that makes me happy.

Based upon the popularity of my NW Herald reviews, I have had the opportunity to publish reviews with other newspapers and websites, including my blog The Life and Times of Rikki Lee Travolta. No matter who I write for, I show respect for the people who are giving their time and talents to entertain me.

Do you want to know what else I do? I try to fill my reviews with pull quotes – statements of earned praise that individual artists or companies can use to help promote their work. Not only do I want the talented artists I review to be proud of their efforts because of the deserved praise they receive, I also want them to be able to easily share those words with their friends, fans, and family so they too can be proud.

I’m probably not the best writer in the world and in the acting arena I’ve never won a Tony award, but in both pursuits, I will continue to try to touch people’s lives for the better. With my theatre reviews that join those two worlds, I hope I make a difference. I certainly try to.

If there’s one thing that Robin Williams taught us, it is that if you have the chance to make someone smile, do it.

Peace. Love. Trust.

If you appreciate the nature of my words here, I ask that you take just a moment to share this article with your social media of choice. Follow me on Facebook (/rikki.travolta) and Twitter (@RikkiLeeTV)

One comment

  1. Great writing, Rikki Lee…and a brave commentary. Thanks for honestly sharing your back story…I myself prefer the label “theater reviewer”. I always remember two things when I write my reviews: an obligation to the paying audience and a recognition of the dedication and hard work of cast and crew. And If I have a problem with a show, I state it’s my opinion…

    Like

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