Join an online discussion today on Twitter regarding the state of theater criticism and journalism -- today, April 4th, from 2-3 pm EST; use the hashtag #newplay.
Commentary: I now fear less for theater's future than for arts journalism's future
Arts journalist Rob Weinert-Kendt on his personal blog The Wicked Stage, 3/31/13
Among the many things critics can be counted on to have strong opinions about is their own reason for being. Indeed, the why-criticism-matters essay seems as evergreen a genre as the don't-listen-to-me commencement speech. The form persists not only for its obvious appeal as a means of self-justification and sanctimony for a class of routinely despised and insecure souls, but in large part also because it is such a live topic, on the minds and lips of anyone who's ever disagreed with a critic or had a box office line go cold because of a bad review: Who died and made these unelected assholes kings? That's partly why every attempt by a critic to clarify and defend their work and work ethic, like this recent classic example, stirs interest, further debate, even some vestige of understanding on the part of the critic's critics, one would hope -- until their next eviscerating review, their next "offense." While I used to feel guilty that I made a living writing about theater when so many people making actual theater didn't, I'm starting to feel the ground shifting; while too many people doing theater still don't make enough money, I now fear less for the future of theater as a going concern than I do for the future of paid arts media. All of which is preamble to a week of posts I've curated at HowlRound about theater criticism. One essay I wish I'd assigned, but you should read in full, is Omar Willey's extraordinary, searching examination of the dysfunctional relationship between theaters, audiences, and critics that's as devastating, and as clear-eyed, as anything I've read on the subject. And I also direct you to my favorite purpose-of-criticism essay ever: Fintan O'Toole's "What Are Critics For?"
Commentary: Hyperventilating over the state of theater criticism
actor, director and playwright Art Hennessey on his blog The Mirror Up To Nature, 4/3/13
This week, Howlround (online journal for the Theater Commons at Emerson) solicited some pieces from several critics and artists about criticism and journalism in the theater. Rob Weinert-Kendt starts off with an essay about the parallel circumstances of the critic and the theater artist:
"....the meager pay, the struggle for recognition, the dwindling audiences and disproportionate power of a few make-or-break gatekeepers, the sense in which one is stuck with a habit as hard to shake as it is difficult to explain to outsiders, who tend to imagine what you do as either glamorous fun or corrupt, frivolous nonsense, but never honest work. There's a deeper affinity, and it's rooted in the fact that critics and theater artists literally share the same workplace for the most important part of their jobs... And if [arts criticism] is not nearly as brave or as arduous as making or performing theater -- jobs with as much grind and obligation to them as inspiration and gratification -- it is hard work when done well, and it is no more a job for just anyone than are acting or playwriting. We all may have felt the critical impulse, but no, not everyone is a critic."
Wendy Rosenfield dispels the persistent myth that a critic couldn't possibly want to be a critic. And she proudly states that theater knows it needs critics:
"Without that critical assessment, without critics going on record to champion a playwright, performer, or movement -- or conversely, without critics opening up a can of whoop-ass on a show they despise and occasionally receiving a bigger one in return -- would theater retain even its peripheral position in our culture? No way....And yet criticism, which by now should have evolved from a one-sided conversation (and we critics all know colleagues who are so accustomed to spouting opinions unchallenged that every "conversation" becomes a monologue) to a full-fledged back-and-forth between audience and critic, still drags its knuckles."
John Moore, the former Denver Post theater critic, assures us all that if you didn't like the old way of doing things, just wait until you get a load of the new way. He exposes a strange new network in Colorado in which arts organizations actually pay reviewers to review their plays. Then he goes on to point out the reality of the life of an online critic:
"Two things the new generation of self-starting blogger critics have in common: Almost none of them are paid anything close to gas money to write about theater. And, perhaps coincidentally -- perhaps not -- what they write is almost always insufferably, uselessly positive. Some do it for love. Some just want to cheerlead for the community, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Some hope it leads to bigger and better-paid writing gigs. But where are those gigs, exactly? Who is paying anyone a living wage to write about theater anywhere? No one, in part because there is no demand from consumers."
Commentary: Theater critics who criticize other theater critics
Mark Shenton on his blog for The Stage newspaper [UK}, 3/29/13
As critics who give criticism, we have to learn to take it, too. The Guardian's Michael Billington has already had nearly 100 comments posted below his review for The Book of Mormon. The Guardian [itself published] not one but two extended replies from its own staff as columns. It's not just the public and columnists who are taking issue with what critics say; its critics who sometimes take issue with each other. I'm not going to be a hypocrite and say I've never done it myself on this blog, and have indeed been the victim of it on blogs written by a colleague, too. But I was frankly astonished by the ferocity of former New Yorker theatre critic (and still columnist) John Lahr on the website of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He attacks, in turn, New York magazine's Scott Brown and Ben Brantley, chief critic of the New York Times. [Lahr's commentary] is pretty lethal stuff. But he also makes an impassioned case for the importance of good criticism -- as opposed to mere reviews -- for providing "the only real record of the passing show" and what the critic's essential job is, which (in his view) is to be an artist in their own right. Lahr also explicitly calls for critics to also have greater direct professional experience of the theatre themselves:
"One of the impediments to improving the state of criticism today is newspaper management's fantasy of 'objectivity.' To protect against any claim of vested interest, a sort of institutional glass wall has been raised between the critic and the theater world. The critic must not fraternize, befriend, associate, collaborate or be involved in any way with those he reports on. This policy not only insults the notion of intellectual integrity, it dooms drama reportage to ignorance. The idea of critic-as-objective-amateur is a bias that flies in the face of historical reality. Over the decades, the major drama critics on either side of the Atlantic have been professional practitioners, either as writers, directors or producers. They have known what they were talking about, and they've had a vivid idiom with which to express it."
In Britain, those glass walls are not built quite as high or are quite so impenetrable; critics, myself again included, are often not just friendly but also friends with theatre practitioners. I even once dabbled myself in producing a play on the London fringe; and my colleague Jeremy Kingston has even now got one of his own plays running at the fringe Tristan Bates Theatre. But the key to Lahr's own intimacy with the art is a biographical footnote to his piece: "He is the only critic to win a Tony Award, for co-writing 2002's Elaine Stritch at Liberty."