Where is our Tiki Barber? Theater Makers As Theater Critics
During the Critiquing Criticism discussion this March at Humana, (moderated by HowlRound’s P. Carl and live streamed on #NEWPLAY TV), I felt a familiar rush of anger. Here were arrayed before us a group of prominent theater critics from a variety of web and print publications, as well as an artistic director of a well-respected theater company, and someone who worked at a major theater in play development. The journalists ranged in age from their twenties through fifties, and the discussion focused on the decline of theater criticism in print publications—both column-inches and dedicated theater critics being cut, and the tendency of print reviews to be forced into Consumer Report-esque blurbs, informing you whether or not this show was worth your money, as opposed to the lengthy critical essays of the past. There were spats between the internet generation and the older folks, regarding the merits of social media—Facebook, Twitter, blogs like this site, etc.—and whether they were an enhancement to popular theatrical discourse. This was certainly a lively and interesting conversation, so why was I angry?
It was the same spot that’s been sore since I worked as a critic for two summers at the Edinburgh Festivals, where I was one of a handful of writers with a theater background reviewing for a print publication that had the worthwhile mission of reviewing all of the shows at all of the festivals. My fellow critics were a throng of young journalists, some in school for journalism or English, and some just graduated. And although I thought the paper’s mission estimable, I found the reviews of my young colleagues read at times like brief book reports by writers with limited knowledge of the field. There was a profound lack of knowledge—of the body of work of well-known playwrights, of histories of major companies, theatrical performance styles, and of almost anything about design or direction. In the brief space we were given, I tried in my reviews to celebrate the design, writing, directing and acting that seemed most excellent, and to place the shows in a critical framework based on my own experience as a practitioner, my knowledge of theater history from college years, and my own frequent theater-going.
I want the writer or director to tell me in the first paragraph that they’ve always been envious of the amazing things that this artist or company pulls off. I want the designer to share the tricks of the trade they were impressed by when the room seemed to swiftly morph from one location to another. Just as Cristina Aguilera tells an up and coming singer how to sing, with the intention of sharing that info with audiences in a way that is interesting and engaging, I’m fairly sure that Diane Paulus could share some incredible things about what she’s seen in Boston during her tenure at A.R.T
Years later, at Humana—when the Q&A came, I asked the question I’d been burning to ask, though I already had a sense of how it would be answered. Why aren’t there more theater practitioners among theater critics? Why is ours one of the rare fields—unlike sports, books, economics, etc—where esteemed practitioners can’t comment on each other’s work? In fact aren’t they the best people to do this? Now, asking this to a group composed of critics who were not practitioners, and practitioners who were not critics, I assumed I’d be jumped on, and I was. The woman in play development said that although she saw so many plays and would love to advocate for them, the ‘conflict of interest’ meant that she couldn’t. This is the most common response I’ve been given when posing this question.
The other argument was that it was already happening, sort of, in blogs and in things like the Curtain Raiser series that Lizzie Simon is doing in the Wall Street Journal, where she joins a theater artist for a night out at the theater. These are not exactly reviews however, and Simon generally takes the lead in describing the shows, including a few choice quotes from the guest theater artists. I’ve found the series engaging indeed, though I always wish the guest artist was allowed to actually write the critical essay herself.
A couple years ago in London I had the pleasure of directing Samuel D. Hunter’s UK premiere, a play called I Am Montana. In the early rush of reviews, one of Sam’s and my favorites was a thorough piece in British Theatre Guide, which we appreciated not only for its high praise, but primarily for the Kevin Quarmby’s writerly voice—that of both the frequent theater-goer and theater-maker. He’d captured even the smallest acting, set and lighting design details of our show. He seemed to know theater from the inside, and was able to point out what was unique in what Sam and I were trying to accomplish. We looked this man up, of course—and found that he was a lifelong actor, with a resume of West End, National Theatre and major TV credits—turned Ph.D. holding Shakespearean academic, teaching in the UK and US. What an excellent person to have as a theater reviewer! We discussed how fortunate we had been to have this knowledgeable thespian share his opinions about the play.
Back in Brooklyn, both of my two new roommates are playwrights. One loves sports, and often the TV is on in the background with either a game or various talking heads commenting. Without fail, one or more of these gentlemen (they seem to most often be male) is a major former athlete. Sometimes this commentator even played on the same team whose game is being discussed. No one views Tiki Barber’s presence as a conflict of interest. His impressions are seen as particularly valuable, as he has a wealth of recent related experience to draw on. If you flip the dial around to reality and competition TV shows, you’ll see chefs and restaurant owners commenting on food, fashion designers sitting alongside fashion editors checking out new designs, interior designers celebrating the designs of others, famous models telling wannabe models how to model, etc. In the newspaper, you can read poets’ reviews of new books of poems, and major fiction writers describing the merits of the latest big novel.
I asked my non-sports loving roommate—also a playwright and who reviews indie theater for publications like NY Theater Review and the Brooklyn Rail—my question. Why aren’t more theater practitioners critics? He offered an interesting response. He described his reviews as personal essays, in which he includes anecdotes about personal events or feelings the play has elicited; he said that in general his reviews discuss what the writer was attempting to do, and whether that had been successful for him. He feels that professional/print reviews primarily offer a thumbs up/thumbs down position, but that he was less interested in doing that. His goal in reviewing is to do the very best he can to describe what the playwright is trying to do with the work.
This was also how playwright (and current writer on TV’s Smash) Jason Grote described his past writing about theater. He’s the theater artist who joined Lizzie Simon for the article I linked to above, but doesn’t do much reviewing anymore. He wrote to me, “I never had a problem with writing for The Brooklyn Rail or American Theater—but everyone else seemed to. I'd just ignore stuff I didn't like or wasn't interested in, and offer something closer to analysis than criticism. But I stopped, mostly because of burnout, but also because many people didn't seem to understand "what I was"—I felt forced to choose between thinker and artist. I liked doing Lizzie's column, because covering theater with artists is the whole point.”
Jason hits the nail on the head here. I recently went to Louisville to cover both Humana and the Motherlodge Live Arts Exchange, for a variety of online publications. However I explicitly told Humana that I would not be doing reviews, but rather feature articles. Why? In all honesty, I was afraid to write reviews, at least under my own name. I’m a freelance director who has worked with some of the writers and actors who were appearing in the festival. The directors were folks like me but a bit further along in their careers. The festival itself was a possible future place of work. Therefore reviewing their shows—and giving potentially negative reviews—seemed like it would only offer me more harm than good.
But what if I was Caryl Churchill? Designer David Korins? An esteemed current or emeritus practitioner? What if I was an important member of Louisville’s theater ecosystem, and in fact had worked on Humana shows in the past. For instance, what if I worked in Austin, ran a major theater company that had been around as long as Rude Mechanicals, had seen all the Rude Mech’s shows, shared their actors and designers—wouldn’t I be a perfect person to write critically about their new production for Austin’s paper with my heightened awareness of that company’s history, members, mission, place within that city’s performing arts scene? What if I declared my involvement in the theatrical community (which apparently other theater makers, not me, would describe as a conflict of interest) in the opening paragraph?
Why isn’t someone like Robert Brustein our Ben Brantley? Where is our Tiki Barber? Why should theater practitioners only write about theater in the most oblique ways, and on blogs? I want Adam Rapp to review the next Stephen Adly Guirgis play, and in the damn New York Times (if he wants to). I want a busily working lighting designer (too many to name) to review plays in Lighting and Sound America. And no, I do not think it’s a conflict of interest. I think it would be a celebration of the art form we’ve dedicated our lives to. Why, in theater only, is enthusiastic advocacy and lifelong experience viewed as a conflict of interest? I want to read the theater maker’s passion, expertise, and experienced point of view.
I want the writer or director to tell me in the first paragraph that they’ve always been envious of the amazing things that this artist or company pulls off. I want the designer to share the tricks of the trade they were impressed by when the room seemed to swiftly morph from one location to another. Just as Cristina Aguilera tells an up and coming singer how to sing, with the intention of sharing that info with audiences in a way that is interesting and engaging, I’m fairly sure that Diane Paulus could share some incredible things about what she’s seen in Boston during her tenure at A.R.T. Ask Young Jean Lee to write about Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Ask Will Eno to write about Christopher Shinn. I have a feeling they’d all have more to say than thumbs up/thumbs down, three stars or four, limp comparisons to television, banal dismissives and sharp put-downs that have become too-common attributes of mainstream print writing on theater. (And I realize that in writing this I’m opening myself to angry comments from theater critics, and possibly tough reviews for whatever I direct in future!)
For the same reasons that well-known athletes, singers, bankers, novelists, chefs, now feature as prominent leaders of discourse in their fields—let’s get out there. Let’s get more practitioners in the criticism game—and hopefully re-invigorate Americans’ interest in the art form with our informed and passionate advocacy—and for goodness sakes, let’s not tell each other we aren’t allowed!