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Call for Critics!

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When we started HowlRound a couple of years ago we intentionally avoided reviewing plays. We didn’t want theatre artists to wake up in the morning to a bad review. And two years later, we still don’t want to review plays. But we do want to foster more in-depth dialogue about the work on stage. We want to bring the art of criticism to HowlRound—to more regularly talk about the art and foster a space for respectful dialogue about what gets produced and why. We hope in the process to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the role of criticism in our profession and elevate the value of that thing we work so hard to make. This is a pilot initiative and a learning opportunity for us. We will launch this initiative in a very limited way beginning in six cities—Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco—with a handful of articles each month.

We will work closely with our critics to cultivate a HowlRound voice that engages the work on stage through positive inquiry asking: Why this play, playwright, or story now? This criticism will not be aimed at ticket sales. In fact it’s unlikely that articles will be published during the run of the show—our hope is to deepen conversation around the work and emphasize its importance above and beyond the market value of the ticket. This is a call for HowlRound NewCrit Critics. HNCC’s reside in the city where they review. They love theatre and are committed to its ongoing vitality. They commit to writing one or two articles for HowlRound each month and are paid $100 for each contribution. They agree to work closely with the HowlRound editorial staff and embrace the values of the journal with an emphasis on positive inquiry and rigorous thinking. If you live in one of the six cities listed and are interested in applying please send the following:

  1. A 500-750 word statement that reflects your views on theatre criticism and your interest in the position.
  2. A Resume.
  3. A published writing sample that demonstrates your ability to think critically about theatre.

Send your application to editor@howlround.com by Friday, February 15, 2013.

***Editer's Note: The New Crit section is now open to everyone! If you'd like to write for New Crit, please submit your pitch through this form. For more info, check out the Participate page.***  

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Hello, Regarding the writing sample: Does it have to be published? Could I write something about a recent show? I'm interested in the position but don't have anything published as of yet.

Polly, you may be interested in checking out the "Appreciative Inquiry" commons, which I believe I mentioned to David Dower quite some time ago. The idea behind this theory is to foster change by focusing on untapped possibilities and pursuing them, rather turning focus towards problems that "need to be fixed" and pursuing those. He used an analogy of trying to navigate unknown terrain as being similar to learning how to ski. If you keep focusing on the run, you can conjure inspiration that will eventually glide you down. Keep focusing on the trees and you'll continue to pick pine needles from your teeth. It's mostly used in corporate settings, but the approach has resonated with me in other settings ever since meeting David Cooperrider (one of its founders) when we both spoke at a telecommunications event in early 90's--a time when that industry was petrified by the spectre of gargantuan disruption they were staring in the face. Those who kept gazing at the possibilities on the horizon ended up doing just fine in the end. Those trying to protect the infrastructure that had been erected on all those telephone poles have been swallowed up, or have disappeared from the landscape.

Taken on its own, this theory can seem rather pollyanna on the surface, but when you apply it to points experiencing transformative pressure, it always seem to me to have value. Adam's point below on the need for open, transparent discussion that doesn't shy away from difficult themes is well taken. That's a vital ingredient in any authentic dialogue as well. I suspect a mix of the two approaches --where a proactive goal is identified and pursued while allowing for frank, open and sometimes difficult dialogue may be optimal here. Howlround and Culturebot both seem to do a pretty good job of striking that balance, and in creating new runs for these discussions to sail down.

Thanks Bill for pointing me to Appreciative Inquiry, it is stewarding a similar kind of conversation that we're trying to create with the Center here. And exploring the terrain of criticism was something we thought long and hard about. Can we find a way to engage that conversation through this lens of inquiry that focuses on generous and rigorous investigation, what we've been calling positive inquiry? Can we build new infrastructure for the field using a Commons-based approach? We're learning as we go and sharing that learning as we have it. It will be interesting to see what happens with this initiative!

Okay, I'll take the bait, because I'm curious - are you thinking of hiring critics to critique your own productions, or other people's? There would seem to be some obvious conflicts of interest in either case, of course - but I'll assume you're interested in enlisting a critic to discuss your own productions.

Now integrating a critic into the internal development process strikes me as a good idea, actually; in fact several budding playwrights have asked me to critique their work. It's the public face of this supposed "critical" writing that strikes me as problematic.

You say, for instance, that you don't want to publish "reviews" and you don't want to "wake up in the morning to a bad review." (Only guess what - I don't want to go into the theatre and see a bad show, either. And yet it happens all the time.) Only if the critic isn't being paid to write a "review," then what, exactly, is he or she being paid to write?

Well, you say it's going to be "positive" and "respectful," which is nice. Beyond that, though, the project seems vague. Very vague, in fact - although these critics will apparently ask questions about "what gets produced and why," and inquire, "Why this play, playwright, or story now?"

Only frankly - those queries doesn't sound like critical questions, in that they seem to dodge any issues of aesthetic analysis. They sound instead like political questions, designed to subvert critique with open-ended gestures toward "diversity" and various demographic targets (in short, the academic version of audience development).

Not that there's anything wrong with audience development! Only of course it's not criticism, and those who practice it are not critics. Which is why I question the nomenclature of your headline "Call for critics!" I don't think you're calling for "critics." Because I don't think you're really looking for criticism. Well, okay, you're looking for critics, perhaps - only you'd like them to write something else.

Is this open to college students? I have an extensive background and interest in theatre criticism and would love to expand into the kind of theatre writing you all appear to be starting.

What an interesting initiative! In the application instructions, I'm imagining that's a typo asking for a "statement that reflects our [HowlRound's] views on theater criticism." Right?

Maybe "critic" and "criticism" are the wrong words? In saying "why this play? This story? Now?" we begin to engage how our work is received and perceived in a broader cultural context. I may be misreading but it's not about how well the aims were achieved or how magnificently the production rendered. It's about the impact we have, the accountability of the artist, and how to further the dialogue among us and also the world at large. A new way of thinking and speaking about the work! I'm eager to see what grows from this seed!

I can't imagine Polly only meant criticism without criticism...but I do love the point about peer review in science journals. Though there is a lot less that can be considered "empirical" in our field.A forward thinking conversation about the medium could really benefit from a step outside the drive for audiences, to look at what's shifting in the American voice. And that conversation goes way beyond "liked it" "didn't like it," which often is what a review timed for opening and supporting the run focuses on, by design. That's the verdict we scan for: Is It Good? If that question was no longer the relevant primary motor, what would the core structure of the article be? Of course, reviews during the run are very helpful! I've benefitted many times. But to take the conversation outside the performance schedule and engage the medium as a medium a bit more, vs. only as an evening, could be a nice addition. There are many examples from the art world: ArtForum, Art in America, Bomb

Increasing critical conversation is important and I applaud the effort. But with all due respect, and not to be difficult, I'm not sure that what the field at large needs is "positive inquiry". The theater world's insular conversations already tend towards an echo chamber of self-affirmation and defensiveness by playwrights and directors against audiences and critics. What the field actually needs is legitimate, honest, open peer review like we see in science journals or artist-to-artist "crit" like they teach in visual arts schools.

Playwrights and directors need to actually learn how to talk directly to each other openly, honestly and constructively about what they really think about each others' work. That means being "negative" because you have to address what works, what doesn't and issues of quality. Ian Thal hits the problem on the head, by accident, when he says, "I already have to make firm rules for myself to avoid even the hint of conflicts of interest owing to the fact that I am both a critic and a theatre maker". For work to get better and the field to improve, practitioners need to risk saying in public the things that they say to each other privately in bars. It is counterproductive, and frankly disingenuous, to pretend to objectivity or separate one's roles as maker and responder.

Obviously I've given this a lot of thought over the past 9+ years at Culturebot.org, where, when we launched in December 2003, we expressly stated our mission was to avoid reviews and resist a commodity-based discourse on the work. We've always supported conversation by people with multiple hats - makers, administrators, critics - because generally they *are* a big swath of "audience. In fact, the the whole issue of the perceptual divide between audience and artist is a rich area for examination.

We've also given a lot of thought to the nature of criticism, what makes a critic in the 21st Century and the role of the critic in creative conversation. Links here:http://www.culturebot.net/2...

Hi Andy,

Just to be clear, by positive inquiry, we don't mean positive reviews or positive criticism. I think if anything we've proved on HowlRound that we can take on very contentious topics through the idea of positive inquiry—which means we seek to provoke dialogue and encourage group problem solving while avoiding personal attacks. When we say positive inquiry around criticism we mean inquiry that encourages deeper understanding of the work, and invites artists into the conversation about their plays and performances. So much of the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism seeks to close off conversation, to destroy productions and people. Or they are mindlessly positive to drive ticket sales. We're not advocating either approach. We work hard at HowlRound to create a public platform for difficult conversation, and positive inquiry proves a useful lens.

As you know, i'm a big fan of Culturebot and so glad for your efforts around these issues. Glad both HowlRound and Culturebot are out there doing this work.

" Ian Thal hits the problem on the head, by accident, "

It's not by accident: I sit on a committee of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston. This means I have to work with a lot of people on a grassroots level. In some cases these might be amongst my favorite companies in townThere's plenty of theatre in my town that is produced by companies without an affiliation with the Alliance: those are shows I review.

Simultaneously, I also refused an invitation to join one of the local critic associations because of the potential conflicts of interest.

Nonetheless, on the issues where I don't keep silent due to potential conflicts of interest, I do tend to rock the boat often enough to know that there are certain folk who are unlikely to ever forgive my opinions.

The real issue is to ensure that no one question my sincerity.

As someone who doesn't live an any of those cities but lives in a city that actually influences "the production of many of plays in the nation," I wonder why Louisville, KY is not included in this list when we have Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival of New Plays, which by the way, it is about to start, not to mention the fact that ATL has three fairly new plays in its current season.

Carlos, We would love for this initiative to be fully national. We currently don't have the funds or the staffing to manage that, and hence a pilot initiative that we hope will help prove the importance of the initiative so that we can find a way to expand it. So hoping to have many more the cities in the mix soon!

I certainly understand that. What is sad to see is that whoever decides in this type of new "initiatives" often enough the decision makers end up picking the same cities: NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis. And while I understand why those cities, everything always goes to those cities, and if "if works" or "there is more funding" then things will spread out. I only hope that one day those creating new initiatives will look beyond the established or influential cities and pick at least one or two cities not necessarily in their immediate radar, yet cities that strongly contribute to the cultivation of our theatre community.

I hear your frustration. In this case the cities selected were about where HowlRound has Commons Producers, a way of coordinating our own efforts. I highly encourage you to find ways to get the activities in Louisville in the mix, would love someone to pitch a Louisville city series for example? And thanks for engaging the conversation.

Respectfully, it sounds like you really, really want to control the discourse. I'm sure you'll get people to collaborate with you, but vague phrases like "positive inquiry" and vague processes like "work closely" suggest a suppressive intention.

I wouldn't automatically assume suppressive intent, Tony, but I understand the concern. I already have to make firm rules for myself to avoid even the hint of conflicts of interest owing to the fact that I am both a critic and a theatre maker-- where I actually have to bar myself from joining organizations for which I have nothing but respect while at the same time bar myself from reviewing some of my favorite companies.