Friday, August 13, 2010

Rewind the Tape

Stephen J. Gould was fond of pointing out that if you were to rewind the tape of evolution and play it again, there is little chance that humans would make the scene. If this poisonous slug had been eaten by that bird rather than this mammalian ancestor, or if that asteroid had collided with earth a few kilometers to the West, well, it might have been a canid rather than a hominid that achieved hyper-intelligence and world domination, or maybe even a reptile, who knows? Of course, if you believe in physical determinism, in physical causes leading to consequential physical effects, then a universe in a certain state of molecular position and motion four billion years ago should play itself out the exact same way no matter how many times you rewound the tape, so long as everything was literally the same each time you started. But this is not a friendly thought to us conscious entities, laboring under the illusion of free will, so we will leave it.

The point? I am fairly confidant that Gould’s notion, whether or not it is true of biological evolution writ large, is definitely true of the Fringe, and the main reason is the reviewers. Reviewers have the power to kill a great show and they have the power to uplift a mediocre one, perhaps even to give a mediocre show enough buoyancy and confidence to make it great (provided the problem was with the performance and not the material). I thought ENRON was one of the best plays I had seen in years when I watched it in London last fall, and yet its transfer to New York this Spring was scuttled by bad reviews.

Maybe a bad review for ENRON coming from a publication headquartered so close to Wall Street is akin to a bad review of the Rap Guide to Evolution coming from the Discovery Institute, but here in Edinburgh it’s much harder to dismiss reviews as ideological, mainly because they seem so arbitrary. The Scotsman gave Gyles Brandreth five stars, while Fest magazine panned him with one star (no question which review is going on the poster). Rachel Rose Reid was faulted in a three star review for misspelling the name of her show on the ticket (even though it was a box-office mistake). I haven’t seen her show yet, but come on. Yesterday we watched Jonno Katz perform his amazing show “Cactus, The Seduction”, the same day as his four star “Hot Show” review came out in the Scotsman. Kate Copstick raves about Jonno in the review, praising him up and down, while every other critic had been underwhelmed (I’m with her).

So if reviews are arbitrary, then what’s the point? Like so many areas of science, the truth emerges from a meta-analysis. One publication might give one star while another gives five, but a survey of five or six review will show which of those is the outlier. I have only seen about five shows so far at the Fringe (Mark Watson was brilliant tonight, and the Barber Shoppera were sublime on Saturday), but with such a cacophony of performers competing for my attention, it’s reviews, cumulative reviews, both in the form of publications and conversational buzz, that draw my attention to one show over another. Because let’s face it, time is short, and every choice is a sacrifice. So take heart, little neglected talents struggling for recognition at the Fringe. It might seem as arbitrary as a random person’s uninformed opinion, but opinions add up over time, just like other forms of data; it just usually takes longer than we hope, a lot longer. People still reject the truth of evolution, so you shouldn't be surprised if they don't appreciate your talents. Shame about ENRON though. That show would have been good medicine for New York.

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