Volunteers, children deserve benefit of doubt in reviews

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

Two weeks ago in my review of a Youth Performing Arts musical, while complaining about the sound system I named individual performers.

In a letter to the editor last week, Jessica Larson of Minneapolis wrote, “It is abhorrent that the author would publicly criticize the performance of a student. It is our job to encourage our youth to be confident, take risks, try new things and express themselves.”

Of course, she’s right. The review should not have been so harsh.

There’s no manual at the Forest Lake Times on how to cover these events. Larson’s letter to the editor could be an instruction guide. I wish I had read it when I started.

Or I could have listened to my dad: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Or my brother, Jim: “You can think whatever you want, but you don’t have to say it.”

When I started writing reviews for the Forest Lake Times, I asked my superiors about whether to include criticism. I was encouraged to be honest.

But after writing each review, I deleted the paragraphs about performances that were less than stellar. In the conflict between giving an accurate picture on the one hand, and encouraging these brave souls who entertain us on the other, I came down on the side of supporting the performers.

There was more to be lost than gained from total honesty. If someone attended the play and discovered lackluster dancing or singing with less-than-perfect pitch, and I had failed to warn them, so what?

Until this time. What was different? I think it was the number of times I wrote in my notes, “TOO LOUD.” I wanted to warn the public that this show, which had many things to like, also had a plot that was hard to follow, coupled with (and partly caused by) a problem understanding the words.

People who are still speaking to me have suggested that if a sound system is flawed, the sound engineers may try compensating for lack of clarity by turning up the volume. That may have happened here.

I was also told that what one individual experiences, sound-wise, may depend almost entirely on where that person is sitting. Someone in a different pew may hear every word.

In the rush of getting the newspaper assembled on Tuesday, finishing all the stories on city government, school board, local interest, press releases and upcoming events, there’s not a lot of time to dwell on one story. But flags should have been raised, and they were.

I asked two coworkers to read the review. One suggested that I stick to one spelling of “Mayzie.” The other, my editor, had me change the headline so that it was clear the story was an opinion. No one said I should delete the criticism, tone it down, or take out the names.

But these people are the same age as some of my kids. I’m old enough to know better.

If the purpose of a review is to give the potential audience an idea of whether they will enjoy a show, it makes sense to tell the whole story. Including only the praise gives an inaccurate picture and makes readers lose their trust in the reviewer.

For a professional group of paid performers charging admission to a show, that level of honesty is appropriate. For a group of teenagers coached by adult volunteers giving a free performance in a church, it is not.

I apologize if I hurt someone’s feelings.

To prevent this from happening again, I could continue promoting these events but not review them. Or I could be gentler, more subtle, and not name names.

Either way, I have learned my lesson. In the future, no young or volunteer performer need worry whether I will be in the audience.

I may instead share my performance notes with the director, or make a donation to the sound system fund.

  • Lady of the Lake

    Recently, my daughter shared this observation regarding some of her law school classmates: they literally fall apart when a professor is hard on them. She wondered what was going to happen to them after graduation, when they may be practicing law before a judge who shreds them to pieces.

    Such is a consequence of raising children inside a bubble, insulated from all the bumps and bruises of life. While many, including Ms. Bailey, may have thought her theater review was too honest and unnecessarily harsh…the real world is a lot harsher and full of lies.