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Thumbs up or down? Why we write reviews

News Tribune file photos / graphic

It's been more than 20 years, but Brian Matuszak is still drawing on a critique of his Rubber Chicken Theater team written by a former News Tribune reviewer.

"The instrument has not been invented yet that can detect the comedy in that sketch," Matuszak recited from memory. "I have it on my Facebook page."

He said the words, offered up by Dominic Papatola about one of the company's comedy revues, is one of the best lines he has ever read.

In 2017, the News Tribune reviewed about 105 events, including local theater, concerts, comedy, opera, symphony, ballet and albums. While they don't get nearly the clicks of articles about the Husky Refinery fire or the local curlers winning a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, readers, art consumers and critics consider a well-conceived review — whether it's a cheer or a jeer — to be one of value, they said.

Beverly Godfrey, features editor at the News Tribune, described reviews as a service to potential audiences.

"I want them to know whether they might want to spend their time and money on a show," she said. "Beyond that, I also hope the arts community appreciates the feedback, and I hope that people who already saw the show will enjoy comparing their own opinion to the reviewer's."

REVIEWS: WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR

Papatola started his career as a critic about 30 years ago at the Twin Cities Reader, then took a job at the News Tribune. He currently reviews theater for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, though the newspaper biz is no longer his day job.

Why we review, he said, goes back to a bigger question: Why do we do art?

"Art is probably the most important way that we understand ourselves, each other, our community and complex ideas," he said.

And these days, in a time he calls the "Netflix death spiral" because of the constant stream of content — reviews are potentially more important than they were in the pre-Yelp period.

"Our world is moving faster and faster, and we're more polarized and tribal," Papatola said. "We find fewer and fewer excuses to talk about anything. (Reviews) are an opportunity to stop and let it marinade and understand how art helps us understand ourselves."

Tony Bennett, a musician who reviews music for the News Tribune, is a longtime reader of reviews — whether it's a Pitchfork piece or a customer critique on Amazon.

"Life would go on if no one ever said what they thought about anything," Bennett said. "It's a good thing for art to be considered in the public square. It keeps people talking about stuff, and it keeps things flowing a bit."

Bennett wouldn't be convinced to buy a Kanye album based on a bunch of positive reviews, he said, but he might check out a band that wasn't on his radar.

When it comes to the local market, artist Sarah Lawrence's patronage isn't swayed by reviews. She usually bases her decision on how many friends are in the cast. But in a larger market:

"I think a really exciting review for a new production at the Minnesota Opera, I'd drive down for it," Lawrence said. "A bad one might convince me to stay home."

HOW DO WE REVIEW

Lawrence, co-director of Lyric Opera of the North and a professional opera singer who has performed around the country, said she likes a review that goes beyond the soloist and also talks about the ensemble and set design. She wants a sense of what is going on at that performance — a pure response to an experience.

"Not just talking about the technical aspect of solo dancers or somebody's bass guitar — about what it's like to be there," she said. "I love it when a review takes into consideration the response of everyone around. That is, to me, the magic of live performance."

Matuszak likes a reviewer who has done their homework, he said.

"They can talk about the show or the playwright or the script itself — so I can know a little bit of background going in," he said.

Papatola said the critic's role is to represent the artist to the audience and the audience to the artist. "Sometimes these two entities don't communicate effectively," he said.

Bennett recalled that once, in a review about his band The Dames, the writer "rambled on and on" about Beck.

"It was like, 'Does he think we sound like Beck?'" Bennett said. "We were perplexed. It taught me a lesson about how to be a writer: Talk about the thing you're talking about. Don't talk about yourself."

REVIEWS OF REVIEWS

Papatola reported that back in the day, he would get lots of letters, phone calls, reviews torn out of the newspaper and angrily responded to in red. Occasionally, an actor or director would call him. These days, he might stumble on a chat board or Facebook page with a response to his writing.

"Which I think is unfortunate," he said. "I always liked those exchanges, especially if someone was really angry. There was a possibility I was wrong or didn't think of something. I can listen to that and think, 'Maybe you have a point.'"

While he hasn't lived in Duluth for more than 20 years, Papatola's name still has cachet in the local theater scene. He said back then, he tried to be entertaining, informative and provocative.

"I hope that I sort of postulated a way of doing the work that's worthwhile," he said. "If people are still talking about it, I think that means I did something right. The role of the critic is to engender conversation."

Bennett said he gets hate mail — but not a lot.

"It's usually when you've got a local or regional musician who is really self-serious and super devoted to presenting themselves in a commercial manner," Bennett said. "When you tell them they stink, they don't like to hear that. Neither do their parents or their cousins who double as their fan base."

Also touchy about critiques: KISS and its army.

THE KISS INCIDENT

To date, Bennett is the writer behind the News Tribune's most-read review. Number one, with 21,669 clicks through Monday, is his take on a 2016 KISS concert at Amsoil Arena.

"The band, seemingly, now exists solely as a capitalistic money-farming machine who lends their likenesses to virtually any product that can be adorned with their made-up visages, including coffins, arena football teams, and knives," Bennett wrote. "All that said, when you're standing in the crowd, the lights go down, and the band emerges in a fusillade of pyro and blinding flashes and drops the undeniable anthem 'Detroit Rock City,' it's hard to not crack a smile."

Bennett wrote about the theater of the show — but also the aging characters, the bizarre moments, and the politics. His loudest feedback came from KISS's own Paul Stanley, who referred to Bennett as a "miserable (a-word)" on Twitter. Then the band's fans piled on.

"I thought it was a positive review of the KISS concert," said Bennett, who grew up listening to KISS and even created fan art of the band when he was a kid. "When you read a lot of criticism and reviews, it's an accepted fact that KISS is 'Scooby-Doo.' It's a piece of candy. You're not supposed to take KISS seriously. I don't even think KISS takes KISS seriously."

That's where he was wrong.

"I thought people in the audience thought that," Bennett added. "That's the thing that surprised me. There are people who think they're in the KISS army. They think they're soldiers."

The second-most read review was Bennett's take on Bret Michaels' April concert at Black Bear, which generated two letters to the editor — one pro-review, one con. None of the feedback would affect his work, Bennett said.

"You're either telling the truth or you're not," he said.

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