12 of US's most influential theatre critics talk about their towns, changing roles

Time Out NY theater editor David Cote, Nov 2011 issue of American Theatre magazine

Whenever I told friends that I was writing about 12 of the most influential theatre critics in America, I made sure to pause for the laugh. Are there a dozen out there? In this atomized age of Twitter and Facebook, with media outlets shedding arts staffers and shredding budgets, what constitutes influence? How was this list compiled?  Not scientifically, to be sure. But these 12 journalists made the cut for specific reasons: years on the beat, quality of writing, reach of their voice through syndication, and, lastly, understanding of the field. Another criterion is quite blunt: Many of them are "last man or woman standing" in their communities; after they retire or take a buyout, it's unclear if some blogger or junior critic will step up to fill the void. As such, they form a vital phalanx of critical opinion that chronicles and weighs work that national media outlets are content to ignore. Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, who edited the book Under the Copper Beech: Conversations with American Theater Critics, sees vital opportunities for the next generation of theatre critics -- so long as we regard the practice of criticism as something worthy of subsidy. "This is a time for people to be entrepreneurial about theatre criticism," says Jenkins. "There is probably a role for nonprofit arts criticism in America, funded on a not-for-profit model. We're a huge, spread-out country, but theatre criticism is a small business. We all know who all the theatre critics are."

And if you didn't know who they are, read on.

  • Don AuCoin, 55, Chief Theatre Critic, The Boston Globe, Years on beat: 1
    Misha Berson, 61, Theatre Critic, The Seattle Times, Years on beat: 20

    Christine Dolen, 61, Theatre Critic and Blogger, The Miami Herald, Years on beat: 32
  • Robert Faires, 53, Arts Editor, The Austin Chronicle, Years on beat: 18
  • Robert Hurwitt, 70, Theatre Critic, The San Francisco Chronicle, Years on beat: 19
          (and 14 years before that at the East Bay Express)
  • Charles Isherwood, 46, Drama Critic, The New York Times, Years on beat: 7
          (before that, 7 years as Variety's chief theatre critic)
  • Chris Jones, 47, Chief Theatre Critic, The Chicago Tribune, Years on beat: 15
          (before that, freelancing for Variety since 1987)
  • Peter Marks, 56, Theatre Critic, The Washington Post, Years on beat: 9
          (plus four at the New York Times before that)
  • Charles McNulty, 45, Theatre Critic, The Los Angeles Times, Years on beat: 5
  • John Moore, 47, Theatre Critic, The Denver Post, Years on beat: 10
    Graydon Royce, 57, Theatre Critic, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Years on beat: 12
    Toby Zinman, 68, Theatre Critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Years on beat: 5
          (before that, 14 years at Philadelphia City Paper)

Commentary: Is decline of American drama attributable to decline of criticism?

George Hunka, SuperfluitiesRedux.com, 9/30/11

[Elizabeth Hunter Spreen's 2011 master's thesis] "The New Playgoer's Club: The Emergent Theater Weblog Culture and the Practice of Theater Criticism" offers considerable food for thought about the "crisis" in contemporary dramatic criticism in the United States, which is also suggested by the 2008 publication of Bert Cardullo's American Drama/Critics: Writings and Readings. According to [Cardullo's] publisher, "The thesis...is that the decline of American drama in the late 20th to early 21st century is paralleled by, and even attributable to, the decline or disappearance of American dramatic criticism" -- a thesis that some will find arguable, others compelling. I have been [re-reading] "The Death (and Life) of American Theater Criticism: Advice to the Young Critic," a speech Jonathan Kalb gave to students in 2002. Now, in 2011, are things much different than they were in [2002]? For the print media, they are worse. When Mr. Kalb delivered his speech in 2002, he noted that there were still a "handful" of "real critics" working in print media..."a small, embattled, and aging group." Those critical voices who have taken their place have done so as the print medium itself has been evolving in a more consumerist, post-capitalist direction, and those voices reflect that direction too. The theatre blogosphere had the potential to provide a genuine alternative. Has it done so? No. Early on, bloggers were ghettoized and, in the worst cases, demonstrated the same concern with "style" as the print medium. Many bloggers now have moved to Twitter and Facebook, which are more amenable to the desire to become what Kalb describes in his speech as "blurb whores". I noted a few weeks ago that the third generation of the theatrical blogosphere is an institutional affair, more self-justifying and self-rationalizing than even the most egocentric individual blogger. As I enter my ninth year of writing Superfluities Redux, I do so without the expectation that any one writer -- or any one medium -- will be able to revolutionize the genre of drama criticism.

Commentary: Calm down, dears - it's only a theatre review

Miriam Gillinson, The Guardian theatre blog, 9/30/11

The internet. It sure is grand, but by God is it angry. And in few places, curiously, is this anger more evident than in theatre blogging and online reviews. The very titles seethe with anger. The West End Whingers, Burnt Arts (the text blazing red) and Distant Aggravation are just the tip of the razor-sharp iceberg. Just why is the internet so riddled with rage and is it useful to theatre criticism - or merely self-destructive? One reason for this combative tone is, perhaps, the fact that the theatrical establishment has only made faltering attempts to deal with the web. Many bloggers proudly maintain their independence from "mainstream media". The web feels liberated, lively and perhaps even anarchic. And when writers get personal, they often get angry. With online reviews, the writing often reads like a stream of consciousness. Sure, this creates vivid and urgent responses, but should these be the key characteristics of future theatre reviews? Shouldn't consideration and care enter into the equation, too?  Another factor unique to online reviewing is the mere mass of online reviews. Perhaps this is why the reviews tend to be so vehement - a case of shouting loudly in order to be heard above the fray. But whilst a forceful style might work initially, is this really a sustainable approach? If we're not careful, this approach will result in reviewers who consider their audience first and the accuracy of their reviews second. And then, of course, there are comments. In many ways, the comments thread is useful and strangely tempering. It encourages writers to think more carefully about the effect of their words and, in the best cases, sees them held to account. Indeed, as Mark Shenton recently remarked, the comments section means that "critics are no longer the end of the conversation - we're the start of it". However, that doesn't excuse what often feels like viciously destructive feedback. I fear these acidic comments could have a corrosive effect on the critics themselves, forcing them into writing hard-hearted and dogmatic reviews. It would be sad indeed if critics were pushed into defending against trolls rather than thinking about theatre. But I imagine you all might have something to say about that.


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Commentary: If reviews are worthless, why quote them?

Norman Lebrecht, ArtsJournal.com blog Slipped Disc, 10/26/11

Dozens of artists have written in, denouncing the continued practice at Fanfare magazine of pedding advertising space in exchange for a favourable review. Fanfare is not the only classical [music] outlet to practise such bribery, though others are perhaps less brash. What perplexes me - and I have been discussing this with several artists - is why, knowing a rave review to be valueless, many artists, labels and managements still post it on their websites. If Fanfare is fraudulent, don't quote it. Otherwise you become party to the fraud.

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