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!
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Thank you for the article, Sherri, as well as for the comments.
Are there many theater practitioners who would like to constructively write about theater productions by their peers? If so, why not try putting this into action, and having our own journal / magazine (on or offline) to test-run it for a year? In this way, we can see if the model has substance and weight: is it serving our community? Is it helping audiences learn more about the context and the content of what they are seeing? Is it helping the art-form of theater to evolve, through robust dialogue between the performance, the practitioners, the public, and the written pieces?
As one person commented earlier, I too would love to see more "manifestoes" written by artists by their work, and/or more interviews with theater-practitioners of all backgrounds (not just directors, but also designers, actors, choreographers, fight coordinators, dramaturgs, etc) about their creative process. Perhaps these could be published in this journal, as well?
What a great, provocative discussion!
I began my professional writing life as a theatre critic...then I transitioned into dramaturgy and playwriting...and now I find myself spending less time writing reviews. Yes, there seems to be an unspoken suspicion towards artists who also write critiques, and I wish this was different. I also find it hard to have the energy to write reviews when in production--so much time and effort are consumed by the tasks at hand.
This is an extremely important point, and I think it wouldbe a great mistake to dismiss it as being impossible before considering how a greater plurality of voices can find their way into publicdiscourse on theater. I think Garvey's enumerations of the vitriolic aftermathof negative criticism is sobering, but not a deal-breaker. If you are alreadymaking public work, you live with the reality of possible soul-gnashingbacklash (from critics, audiences, producers, etc). To speak to the point thatartists may be shitty critics, or not committed to criticism, this may in fact betrue, though since writers of criticism may equally be hacks, this is also nota deal-breaker.
Meanwhile, the benefits of artists writing critically is notonly in that they can judge the efficacy of the material aspects of the work as'professionals', but in that their basic point-of-view may be radicallydifferent from that of another kind of observer (and even another kind oftheater artist), and *therefore* valuable.
Similar frustrations led to Matvei Yankelevich and Ifounding the Emergency Gazette in 1999, which was exactly an effort to includeoutsider voices and points-of-view into critical discussions of theater, inhopes that the conversations would be more interesting, and that more marginal/ephemeral/hard-to-definework would be discussed. The Gazette lasted 2 years before we burnt out, and tobe honest, I wouldn't revive it today because (as I have said elsewhere) Ithink blogs and internet-based discussions like this one have allowed forplurality of views that can (if spread by users) be much more visible andimpactful than 1000 copies of a printed boadsheet.
I am commenting here because, the last time I was in NewYork, I saw a bunch of shows, and was shocked at the lack of critical response.I was especially saddened to see artist friends patting each other on the backfor work which was problematic at best, but also seeing those artists notpsychologically or emotionally prepared to hear criticism from friends. Here,(as a theater-maker myself) I really understand the main point of conflict: wedo not want to piss off, hurt, or torment our friends, colleagues, or people wemay depend on for work in the future. Meanwhile, they (and we) languish in aself-delusional haze wherein we have no idea what our work is actually doing tothe other people we invite to watch it. I dare you, artists, to stand up andsay you do not have this problem.
A few months ago, I joked with another friend that what wasneeded was an "Artists Among Artists" internet blog where everywriter would be under a randomly generated alias, or multiple people wroteunder one alias. The blog would have an editor (so that stupid, vitriolic crapcould be weeded out), and artists could respond to theater events honestly andwithout fear of retribution. Anonymity is common in the humanities and sciences(as "anonymous peer review") though not usually made public in thosefields. I guess the danger is that commentaries would be overly harsh (theauthor having to take no responsibility for their utterance), though maybe thisis something an editor could make a call on. I also think that allowing for readercomments (as is standard in blog programs) could ensure that disagreement isregistered.
So, maybe my "Artists Among Artists" joke isactually the punch line to your angry cry at the heavens, Sherri? We can talkabout this till the curtain falls, or just give it a go.
Culturebot? The Performance Club? HowlRound? Can't this be aone-year experiment, a regular column, wherein people could contribute througha form and not expose their identity? Perhaps the reality of artists writingabout each other's work would surprise us all.
thank you Yelena, i loved reading this response- mulling your idea- exciting stuff- Sherri
On the other hand, I just noticed this, in the New York Times, of all things: "ArtsBeat once again is inviting members of the theater world to contribute over the summer to the weekly Theater Talkback column, alternating with the critics Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood. For the first guest post, Trav S. D., a historian of vaudeville, talks about the long bare-knuckles history shared between the boxing ring and the stage. " http://artsbeat.blogs.nytim...
The idea of more critique coming from practitioners is appealing on a few levels-a) there would be different povs than we are normally getting from reviewers and that in and of itself is worthy of exploration. I do agree however with the idea that being a theater maker does not necessarily give one better analytical critiquing skills -in fact they could be worse but b) i think it would broaden a discussion of theater -causing more thoughts about intent, form, ideas, etc and not just a kind of one size fits all /one type of theater or does this fit? -no =bad theater responses/reviews which happen way too often for my liking. Different angles of entry would enable different angles of exploration-I think.In many ways it is up to the theater makers to initiate this sort of world if it is wanted. I fear though that it is not desired by makers enough, b/c to be critical there is always the chance of hurting someone's feelings, someone who is like you maybe, and what exactly is to be gained from that.? So then only the homages and positive "reviews" are written. And then there is also the kiss ass factor, don't want to damage the possibility of a career....etc. Maybe need to rethink role of theater makers in theater world at large and not just in our own boxes?
Interesting proposal, Sherri. I would very much like to read the opinions of other playwrights on playwriting, lighting designers on lighting design, etc., but I don't think I want a practitioner to become the lead critic at the Times. You'll notice that the primary review even of a big new book in the NYT is not the celebrity author review, but Michiko Kakutani or Caryn James or somebody else whose daily grind is reading and writing critically about books for a living. And those professional-talking-to-professional reviews are hit and miss, too—my favorite example is Gregory Maguire's borderline nonsensical pan of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," but there are others. Jay McInerney, who'd been at Yaddo with David Foster Wallace, wrote a tepid dismissal of his former colleague's masterpiece "Infinite Jest" in the same publication. That's not to say that print critics are infallible, obviously—just that professional creators are just as capable as daily journalists of lapsing into incomprehensibility or spectacularly missing the point.
Part of my problem with the idea is that (as I think both Jeremy and Thomas have pointed out), a playwright is going to have a very narrow set of concerns from moment to moment, at least if he or she is any good at the craft. I speak not from personal experience but from my experience of people who write creatively—guys who are dedicated entirely to making things up are going to be wholly consumed with whatever they're working on at the moment, and in theater particularly, it often seems to me that playwrights are very concerned with finding individual stylistic niches. So while I, too, would love to read Young Jean Lee of Nature Theater of Oklahoma or Scott Pask on pretty much any Broadway show, I'd be much less interested in, say, David Mamet on Annie Baker.
The second problem is that I'm not sure why it's a given that theater artists will as a matter of course write worthwhile reviews. Reviewers certainly can't write plays, with the exception of a Wilde here and a Shaw there. I know everyone with an opinion thinks of him or herself as a critic, but the fact of the matter is that expressing that opinion cogently and in a way that's interesting to hear or read is not something you can do very well the first time out (at least that was very much true of me), just like anything. Again, the Times Book Review section gets around this sometimes by setting its guest reviewers up to succeed, but it doesn't always work even then.
The last thing I'll say, and then I promise to shut up, is that I fear the theater is already becoming a medium about itself, for its donors and practitioners, responsible only to its own judgment of how terribly well it's always doing. First-night critics barely get to vote in the Tony Awards, for heaven's sake. I think that a sea change in the critical establishment to exclude ignorant slobs who work poorly-paid gigs at lowbrow newspapers would do irreparable harm to the American Theater, frankly. A print critic from a tabloid daily might not be the best-educated guy in the room, but he might not be the dumbest, either. If a play is inscrutable or unbearable to somebody who likes theater professionally (and that is what critics do—they like theater, or they kill themselves), it might not entirely be the critic's fault. That's not to excuse ignorance or cruelty, just to say that it's important to remember you're there on the stage for the audience, and that is who the critic is supposed to stand in and advocate for, however poorly he does this.
Just my two cents. Thanks for listening.
That's supposed to be "Young Jean Lee ON Nature Theater of Oklahoma," not "of." Obviously every journalist is diminished without his editor...
The more a critic wants to be a critic -- and not one of those consumer reports people you mentioned, or a total dilettante -- the more that person is writing for the long haul, and maybe for history. So he or she probably doesn't have a lot of time to make theater. Real criticism isn't an observation now and again, it's a job. I've written some criticism and found the demands exhausting. You have to know so much, and you can never stop paying attention. Even excluding the demands of careerism, it's a tough job.
It's probably easiest to do both at once at the beginning and the end of your career. At the beginning, well, you're young, so you have plenty of energy and flexibility. At the end you've won time to moonlight. I know of two big critics in New York, Teachout and Feingold, who work on plays and translations, but I don't believe they did that when they were coming up.
I believe strongly in artistic cross-training and like the idea of a critic/theatrical, but I doubt many people have the jam or the opportunity to do both well.
can you guys erase the 2 "clones" of my comment? It did post a few times.thanks,saviana
I used to work as a playwright, journalist and theatrecritic (for a daily newspaper and a few theatre journals, plus as a host for acultural TV talk-show) back in Romania and it was a normal thing to do. As manyother cultural journalists covering literature, I was a writer writing abouttheatre premieres and other cultural events, stimulating/participating in theintellectual conversation of the moment, responding to theatrical contributionsto the cultural/social/political landscape. I still have a monthly columncalled New York Puzzle in the Romanian theatre Journal “Scena” (The Stage). Andeverything is fine because I fulfill my need to comment on the NYC theatrescene this way. I wish I had the opportunity to do that in US theatre journalsand newspapers, I think that my perspective and my analysis could be ameaningful contribution to a necessary radiography of the US theatre phenomenonin the global context. A few years ago I did have a profile on Kristin Martingpublished in American Theatre, and I wrote a couple of reviews fornytheatre.com. However I did notice that I tend to feel the need to write areview/essay when I’m not working on a (production/reading of a) new play. Itmight be time-consuming and difficult to keep the creative and analytical ballsin the air but for me it’s stimulating and it fulfills my need for intellectualDIALOGUE as opposed to being stuck in one’s own creative bubble. But I stoppedwriting any blog reviews or pitching any essays after lots of US theatreprofessionals told me exactly what Sherri mentions in this article: “You gottabe careful, you don’t know who you’re gonna work with next week. You don’t wantto be seen as a critic, artists hate critics, you want to be seen as a workingplaywright.” So… I don’t know anymore. This discussion is important and I hopeit moves us towards a genuine next step of inclusion, understanding andcollaboration.
I believe this conversation is conflating two separate forms of writing: reviews (i.e. commentary) and critical essays; and, in doing so, conflating two types of writers: the reviewer (i.e. commentator) and the critic. The two forms have different goals, the two writers different jobs. Either form may be casual or formal. Either writer may be a passionate evangelist or dispassionate arbiter. Either writer may be an experienced audience member or an experienced practitioner. Either type of writer will have a range of interest, experience, knowledge and education. As a communications professional for a Bay Area theater, I am as happy to read (and repost) a lifelong theater goer's commentary (the most common form of writing about theater) or a first-timer's impressions on social media, as I am a thoughtful essay by an academic or practitioner that contextualizes the play (very rare these days) or the experience of the play (more common, though still rare). When our theater performs plays from early to mid-20th century, I relish reading the older critical essays – they are thoughtful; they are thorough; they are written by experienced, professional writers (who got paid to write the piece!); they are molded by a staff of editors, copy editors and fact checkers; they are also 1,000 words, 2,500 words, 5,000 words! It seems the argument being made here is that we plenty of reviews, but not enough criticism. We want what we had 50-100 years ago when newspapers were king and gas was 10 cents a gallon or whatever.
Since most newspapers and magazines have cut the space it allocates for arts coverage (and the first to go was long form critical essays) and most bloggers are without support staff (whether it be editors or distribution reps), I think if WE as an industry believe that we need more criticism, WE as an industry need to make it happen. Encourage American Theater Magazine to commission critical essays. Start an NPO/foundation/company that funds commissions for critical essays, supports an editorial staff and networks with existing media to get them published (or self publishes them - ebooks ahoy!).
Or, we could just panel discuss and blog about it until the curtain call...
I, like Michael, would invoke the name of Harold Clurman in support of Sherri's argument. Back in 2009, Terry Teachout wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal that directly addresses the conflict of interest issue. Since Teachout articulates my position so well, I will link to his article and spare the world my own purple prose: http://online.wsj.com/artic...
Having greatly admired the passionof this article and the conversation that has erupted because of it… I wantedto add some thoughts as both a practitioner as well as a recent participant inthe Curtain Raisers series. Sherrimakes a compelling and well thought out argument, with one important questionat the heart of this- Why don’t artists review more? I would argue to address the grievances brought up in thearticle we need to look at a larger issue. I’m not sure the implication that people who writecritically don’t have as intimate a knowledge of the art as us practitioners dois entirely accurate- Nor do I think that that “thumbs up/down” and the generalsnarkiness that has permeated critical writing is helpful to anyone in ourindustry. I think what we are allresponding to is the conversation that is happening (or not) between critic andartist. What made my night withLizzie Simon so memorable (and full disclosure- I know Miss Simon personally)was the dialogue about someone’s work (the musical Dogfight) that wasthoughtful and engaged. She is afiercely intelligent journalist, whose comments and questions not only made mehave to defend or sharpen my thoughts, but at times made me rethink my commentslong after we parted ways. Ithink maybe if we don’t draw a line in the sand (I do it/you write about it),we can pave a way that opens up more dialogue in which we would achievesomething akin to what Sherri is asking for. The mere fact that she openly admits to being fearful ofreprisals points to the contentious nature of the relationship- “And I realize thatin writing this I’m opening myself to angry comments from theater critics, andpossibly tough reviews for whatever I direct in future!”
One of the more engaging nights ina theater I have had in recent months was at The Public when I attended thehastily pulled-together panel of artists and critics to discuss the Mike Daiseyissue (organized by a critic- Jason Feldman of TONY). It was fascinating to hear from both sides on how Mr. Daisey’sactions in his show affected both journalists and artists- And therein lies theheart of this- BOTH were affected by what happened in a theater. We are one industry. We all endeavor to make a living fromwhat happens inside that dark, magical place, whether we live in it or writeabout it. I loved the few times Igot to see Mel Gussow and Edward Albee on panels talking- Gussow was asinformed as Albee, and spoke knowledgably about the work. And in a time of unprecedentedconnection and openness, isn’t it time we look to make more of that happen?
I think both sides are at faulthere. We are in a symbioticrelationship, so instead of trying to switch positions (artist reviewing more/criticsmaking more theater), shouldn’t we try to discuss what we don’t like in anattempt to better it?
Thank you for this great piece, and the comments are so interesting. Though I would have thought I'd be in total agreement with your argumentation (as a playwright and sometimes critic-- though not of my peers, for many of the reasons cited), I do think there is a place for the non-practitioner as critic. The critic, after all, can be said to stand in for the audience, the audience being the other essential (unless you are Grotowski) element of the theatre experience. A sensitized and knowledegable audience member has a unique perspective, one that is different from a practitioner.
In any case, thanks to the 'new media' we really have arrived at a much greater and potentially diverse array of response to art. We can help this along, by insisting that theatres 'legitimize' online arts criticism and practitioner-critics-- by giving them weight in terms of their decison-making and marketing. Non-traditional influences on the profession can only grow with time; it's inevitable.
One final thought; a great critic is the practitioner of an art--the art of criticism. And it's a very different art from any other, as are all art forms from each other. Some can do both, of course, and certainly artists with an inclination towards criticism should give it a try!
--Ohh--and thank you, Sherri, for this piece.
A good theater practitioner is not ipso facto a good critic, any more than a non-practitioner is ipso facto a bad one. It's certainly true that many of the really good theater critics also have been practitioners, but that alone doesn't account for their accomplishments. Good critics need to know what they're writing about (to know, for example, the difference between what is directing, acting and writing), but they also have to be good writers and thinkers who have specific criteria and prejudices that they can articulate, who can recreate a theatrical event in words, and connect it to the theater and world at large.
Criticism, Shaw (perhaps the best theater critic in the English language, who was a critic before he was a practitioner) said, is always as bad as it can possibly be, and he remains right: most people who are either hired to be critics or simply declare themselves to be one because they have access to the web, are not good writers, which is to say, they are not good thinkers or perceivers. Eric Bentley (not a practitioner until he quit writing criticism) wrote, "Nothing a critic has can open your eyes except his own eyes: he says, look! and you look. Which sounds gratuitous but is not. For you had failed to look, or had not looked with sufficient concentration and discrimination. A good critic will get you to do so." Harold Clurman was a terrific critic not only because he was simultaneously a practitioner, or because he had passion, which is hardly at a premium among theater workers, but because he was perspicacious, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of and relish for all of the arts, a generous and humane world view, and a vision of theater's role that informed not only everything he wrote, but everything he did. For all these qualities to be present in one person is a rare thing, not often to be found among any group of people, alas, whether they're journalists, theater makers or boiler makers.
Well we *do* already do that kind of expert reviewing among close circles of friends, right? The issue is that the traditional "thumbs up/thumbs down" review is too risky to be made in public exactly because theater is really nothing like sports in at least two ways: 1) the field always feels that it is one audience member away from bankruptcy, so criticism is perceived as competition at best or more likely as sabotage; and 2) artistic endeavors are feats of emotion, intellect and imagination, and are notoriously difficult to quantify or measure. Sports stars might be objectively playing badly and be able to work out harder or less hard or wear good luck undies or whatever to play better (which in this case means something concrete like scoring more points), but even with many communally accepted touchpoints of professionalism, a production may simply not be to the taste of any given critic, and even the most expert critic may have a cranky night. When reviews are structured not to tell us whether a show is "good" or "bad" but to orient us to what our experience might be like if we go to the show (as most of the really thorough criticism you cite in your post), they are more useful to audiences, who can then decide for themselves whether they want that kind of experience. They are also, not coincidentally, the kind that expert practitioners might be able to feel safe giving in public.
I'm going through a period where I feel like seeing LESS "formal" theater criticism. I've seen several show this year wherein the critics (in my opinion) have completely missed the boat. I'd rather read audience opinions and conversations than a "legit" review . Sarah Ruhl's getting a lot of bashing for her article in the NY Times about why she chose to not invite critics to her latest work in NY, Melancholy Play - the final production of the fabulous 13P company. But really, in this age of social media is there really any upside to inviting critics? In Ruhl's case, her entire run was pretty much sold out. I've seen enough critically praised shows fail to find an audience and I've seen enough popular shows make their poor reviews irrelevant. It's really nice to have someone say something nice about your show, I'm just not really sure it's worth the risk.
I fall heavily towards what Garvey is saying. I don't think critics like the art more than the artists, do, as he suggests, but my experience of artists is (a) they're savagely opinionated, and (b) terrible at separating their personal feelings for one another from the work itself. It's not an across the board thing, by any means, and yes, there are some critics of whom the same could be said. But honestly I don't think that being a "theater practitioner" is a particularly good qualification for being a "critic," except insofar as you'd generally think a good critic has a strong sense of the material production of the work, which I actually think is more often than not the case.
Hi Jeremy, I was thinking about everyone's comments across the course of the evening (while I was at a show!), and thanks so much for sharing yours. You know, I'm really fine with artists being savagely opinionated, and the idea of them expressing themselves that way in a critical piece of writing about a show in no way disturbs me. How is it different than the mainstream press, except that their supposed conflict of interest would be clearly stated? We've all seen snide, nasty critical reviews of theater pieces from the mainstream press that have sometimes closed that show, even when they perhaps differed from generally positive reviews of less powerful print and website publications. We're all aware, in our various cities, that certain critics have strong favorites, and strong prejudices too. I found myself thinking about Mr. Isherwood's recent NYTimes article recusing himself from writing future reviews about Adam Rapp as he just has never seen what anyone likes about Rapp's writing - a thought he came to after years of writing reviews that to me read like negative, personal attacks at times.
Also.. I see no problem with artists-as-critics putting their personal feelings and biases all over the place. Whether we are discussing artists-emeritus, i.e. folks no longer regularly making work - I think learning about their personal feelings as related to the show their seeing might make the pieces even more interesting to a lay audience of potential theater-goers- Or whether we are discussing younger practitioners, who perhaps are expressing their intense feelings about a show on their blog or other social media- I think they should go for it! In other words- I'm not fearing the theater-makers' spiciness- let's get spicy! Let's share our feelings about the art we and our colleagues make! Let's throw open the doors! Let's be unafraid! Anyways, thanks again for being part of this discussion. P.S. Do I still get to write for Culturebot after all this??
You know, Sherri, I do want to just make clear to you something of the "underside" of reviewing. It's all very well to say, "Let's be unafraid!," "Let's share our feelings!," but let's also be honest about what there is to be afraid of, okay?
For instance, here are a few choice phrases from emails and comments on my blog that I have NOT published over the years:
"Get AIDS and die, faggot."
"I am going to find you and hurt you."
"What a complete coward. And a douchebag."
"Grow up. Nobody cares what you say about anything. And nobody is reading you either. You're pathetic."
"You racist troll."
"Hey, jerk-off. Fuck you. No, really, fuck you."
If you imagine that these kinds of comments are anonymous, think again - I know exactly who said most of those things. Sometimes, in fact, they have said them in public, too, on their own blogs and sites.
Now, you may think this kind of thing counts as "spice." Others may disagree. By now I'm used to it, and I'm hardly looking for sympathy. This is what comes with the territory. When you point out that someone's idealism is a pose, or that they're incompetent, or that they have their hand in the cash register, this is what comes over the transom in response.
Now I don't think theatre practitioners who dared to write real critiques would actually get these kinds of missives. I think the reaction would be subtler, and more insidious, than that. It would be more like what critics have learned to expect from certain theatres and press reps - organized smear campaigns, threats - even actions taken against other actors who "fraternize" with the enemy (as recently happened to actor Danny Bryck up in Boston, who was forced by Company One to refuse a donation I had offered him to develop his one-man show).
If you think this kind of thing is rare, think again - it happens all the time; critics just rarely talk about it, because it's so embarrassing to theatre people. In fact, one persistent illusion of theatre folk is that they are meekly abused by critics, but never return fire; in fact, theatre people abuse critics constantly these days, both openly and covertly. And tirelessly, I might add; one press rep in Boston is now engaged in the third straight year of a scorched-earth campaign against me. Sometimes the invective is even macabrely funny - one emotionally challenged local director, for instance, continued to send emails lambasting a local critic even after the poor fellow had died!
The bottom line is that as theatre practitioners wrote and did all these things, they themselves probably have a pretty good idea of what kind of feelings criticism instigates - so they also know what to expect from "people like them." Theatre people tend to circle to the wagons at the drop of a hat, in my experience - and I can't tell you how many actors have been able to quote back to me a critical comment I've made about them verbatim, while completely forgetting the praise I've offered them elsewhere.
And so I think it's unlikely practitioners would risk any real criticism for fear of having to endure that kind of blowback, not to mention real damage to their careers. Intricate formal critique with its own deniability built in, maybe. Positive praise for collaborators, present and future - yes, most definitely. But little actual criticism, I think. I mean, just imagine trying to collaborate with people who were secretly harboring those kinds of feelings. I can't see that working.
So while I admit I feel a tug of interest in your idealistic plea - and it's always fun to imagine that we're bound by outdated conventions that it's time to throw off - I simply doubt that as a practical matter your ideas could work out. Maybe for a small selection of hardy, noble souls, yes - but for the rank and file, no, definitely no.
I'll note that I have written about the campaign to silence Tom Garvey, and while much of it happens behind closed doors and may appear to outside observers to have a "he said/she said" quality. We have a 2011 statement from Katalin Mitchell, Director of Press and Public Relations for American Repertory Theatre confirming that she and a number of like-minded administrators at other theatres had banded together to silence his criticism:
Well, to be clear, my argument isn't that art practitioners necessarily make bad critics, it's just that I don't see why they make necessarily good critics. And someone has furthermore drawn a good distinction here, which is the difference between "criticism" as some sort of lasting, intellectual engagement with the work, and "reviews" which are less so.
But in either case I think the same problem applies. Some practitioners have a valuable perspective on the work; the difference, in fact, between practitioner and critic is deeply problematic to boot. I don't make work anymore, and I didn't make work like the work I cover now, but I do have training and education in theater and in some capacity was once a theater professional. What's a dramaturg? A practitioner or critic? What's the desired body of knowledge we want to get access to?
I think the most important thing to draw on here is that artists for whatever reason typically do not write about the work (aside from playwrights; most theater bloggers are playwrights, followed by directors, in my experience). In conversations with other writers and critics and editors, I have to tell you that the universal opinion is that for one reason or another, it feels like most non-text-based performance people these days suck--or simply refuse--to express themselves or their ideas in writing. They make work but they don't take part in the reflection or contextualization of it. That's unfortunate, and I think artist choosing to express their approaches and values, to discuss their own work as process rather than others' work as product is the most important thing artists should be doing.
hey j,i do think a lot of artists who would like to write about the work in their field don't attempt it because of fear of reprisal (as several playwrights, directors, and theater administrators have privately written me in response to this piece, to afraid to even comment publicly as part of this dialogue, as editors and critics have weighed in from Variety, NY Times, Time Out, American Theater, and elsewhere, both here and in other internet locales). one reason i mentioned practitioner-emeritus is to try to work around the fear issue a bit- if it's already clear you're a major somebody in your field, you will probably feel more unafraid (i.e. the Sondheim op-ed on Porgy and Bess). i've noticed that few of the responses from the editors/critics have reckoned with this possibility, and really i'd like to hear more response about that.second reason theater makers don't feel embraced as potential critics that they've mentioned to me: being actively dissuaded by others, often by their own mentors or their primary peer group, who tell them their artistic output will be regarded less if they continue to also write critically (as Jason Grote and Saviana Stanescu both mentioned). not sure we can say 'they suck' when 'they' are not generally given the chance- when the mindset is: that's not ok- then people in power won't offer it and people who make work won't attempt, or continue to attempt, it. as Sam Thielman noted above, learning to be a good critic takes time and practice and work- if this work is discouraged, well then it's like a kid who doesn't learn something because his parents don't want him to, you know? we can't know if 'they' suck when 'they' so rarely are invited or encouraged to participate and learn the skills. per Saviana, she reviewed all the time in Romania, and I bet she was damn good at it.thanks j for engaging with this here-
Sorry I wasn't maybe as clear as I should have been. I think all you say about the pressure for artists not to write reviews is true; I appreciate the point, though I certainly can't claim to be responsible for those conditions. I'd love (and do, relatively frequently) publish artists reviewing and responding to others' work.
That's point 1. Point 2 is that I actually am not entirely convinced that reviews or "criticism" is the most important thing we need. In fact, the internet permits for almost anyone to share an opinion. More opinion is probably not the most important thing right now. What amazes me is that more artists can't or aren't interesting in articulating their own artistic practices in writing, in a form appreciable to others. Frankly, I'd like to see artists writing manifestos more than reviews. We have a shit-ton of opinion these days, but precious little in the way of artists meaningfully articulating their own visions. Why is that? Why don't more artists want to emulate Boal, Brecht, Grotowski, Brook, Meyerhold....any of the people who, you know, inspired them, and whose work they appreciated as much for the creators' explication of it as for the work itself?
I've oft pondered this question myself, why not artists as reviewers, but I don't see it in music reviews or fine art or movies. one response is that a book is reviewed many times nationally, which allows for multiple reviewers in a way a play in one town does not. However that doesn't hold true of films, which for the most part, play nationally. What you do see are theater makers writing letters to the editor, such as Sondheim's recent response to Paulus' and Parks' Porgy and Bess.
Thanks Winter, for your thoughts. I did find myself thinking about Sondheim's essay before writing this piece- in a positive way- because that's the only piece of theater criticism (or whatever you'd like to call it) that many folks outside of the field seem to have read in the last few years. It was by an eminent practitioner and it started- or magnified- a conversation about a play that was read and mulled and discussed by non-play-people. That's definitely intriguing to me, and actually pretty hopeful-
I think you kind of give away your game in that paragraph in which you unconsciously morph "criticism" into "celebration" and "enthusiastic advocacy." Hmmm. This is obviously indicative of a certain kind of wishful thinking - and are you so sure that's what you'd get from theatre practitioners, anyhow?
Because when I've been involved with theatre makers in private conversations about the local scene (in Boston), their comments regarding "the competition," if you will, have often been far more mocking and vicious than anything I've ever put in print (and i'm widely considered Boston's most vitriolic reviewer - which really only means I go after sacred - or monied - cows). So I think you should be careful what you wish for - and also what you have faith in. The kind of gushy sales pitches you tend to hear in conferences, classrooms and other such forums may not be what theatre practitioners deliver in their criticism.
I think it's also worth mentioning that I'm continually struck by the fact that most of my fellow critics genuinely love the theatre (so it's a great irony that they're often attacked for "hating" it). Indeed, I get the persistent impression that in general, critics love the theatre much more, actually, than most of its practitioners do (hence their love for their own shows, but other people's - well, not so much).
I'm also often struck by how little theatre so many opinionated practitioners seem to have actually seen. Your faith in the depth of their experience may be misplaced, it seems to me. Theatre-going can quickly become a slog - and do theatre practitioners really have the stamina for it? Again, perhaps they, but I wouldn't bet on it.
At the same time, I share your depression about the level of most critical analysis. Critical talent is rare - far rarer than artistic talent, apparently. It would be interesting to see whether leading artistic talents are concealing such an ability. But perhaps one of the names you mention might give some readers pause; Robert Brustein was an interesting critic - at least intermittently - for the New Republic for many years. As an artistic director, however (at the A.R.T. in Boston), he proved - after a strong start - far, far (far) less interesting. Would most theatre practitioners reveal a similar gap when it came to criticism? Perhaps.
I'd add this one proviso to my earlier comment (and it's a fairly big caveat): I do think those who have actually produced/performed/directed/designed theatre have a leg up over (essentially) literary theatre critics in one key regard: they're better at teasing apart good (or bad) direction from good (or bad) acting. In Boston, it's unusual for any of the major print critics to be able to make such distinctions - they're basically journalists parsing their impressions of the finished product, they have only a rough idea of how the process comes together. In my experience, theatre people generally have a better sense of when they're watching a good actor who has been badly directed or a limited actor who has been expertly controlled and deployed.
Very much agree with this point, Thomas. So few reviews go beyond literary-related description. I feel like acting styles, directing techniques, interesting elements of design, or often given either no credence or only the slightest glancing overview. This sort of review negates the full, complete live experience the audience member actually takes part in when they come to a show. I want to hear about the sound design, I want to know what the costumes looked like- heck, I want to know what the theater felt like and how the audience reacted- all valid, juicy, interesting parts of the live performance experience.
Sorry to pin you on this, Sherri, but I do notice that all your responses to this thread have been positive. In fact you seem to be dodging various points of contention. Do you feel that undermines your call to arms to your colleagues to be more critical of each other?
Seems to me a bigger problem is that there are seven critics on the panel, only one person of color and she is an editorial assistant so I imagine she's not calling a lot of the shots around coverage assignments.
I never understood this seeming taboo about theatre practitioners providing commentary and criticism in public forums. My first forays into criticism was writing about poetry-- where poetry critics were expected to also be poets. It seems like playwriting is one of the few genres of writing where the practitioners are supposed to not write critcism.
Not being one to do as I told, I frequently engaged in criticism on my blog, and was eventually tapped by one New England based website, The Arts Fuse to write a review of a production of a Goldoni play since I was known locally also as a commedia dell'arte performer-- and this became a springboard for reviewing and providing commentary on other plays as well as trends of interest to the theatre community, on my blog, on The Arts Fuse, and most recently, as a columnist for the Clyde Fitch Report.
Yes, there is a potential for a conflict of interest, but I avoid that by making it a policy not to review shows by Small Theatre Aliiance of Boston member companies, since I am also a member of that organization, and I have to often meet with production staff from those companies in committee meetings.
I agree with you 100-percent. I think it's a shame that theater practitioner as theater critic is seen as a conflict of interest when in every other field, it isn't. As the PR Director for The New Victory Theater, which presents work from all over the world to young audiences and family audiences, I think we would have a great deal to gain from better informed criticism.
Thanks so much Laura! Personally I would love to review something at New Victory sometime- I'm aware you guys bring in shows for young people from around the world but personally I haven't read nearly enough coverage of them- let's get theater people to get the word out there.
I think you hit the nail on the head, the reason many don't is that they don't want to lose out on work.
I've been asked to write reviews for several Bay Area publications, and when I looked several steps ahead to the outcome, there was no "win" in it for me.
Even if I wrote a glowing positive review and named everyone I could, relegating their work like I was looking into the face of a deity - there is always someone you overlook, which then becomes a slight of omission. Or a turn of phrase that might be clear to you, might become a slap in someone's face.
And in a large, small town like ours, where you just don't know where anyone will end up in the next 5 years - it's better to try to avoid people holding grudges against you of any kind.
You already have to work to overcome unintentional grudges you make in daily life without it being visible every single time someone googles their own names.
My dear Sheri Kronfeld: Allow me to share with you what Pauline Kael said on this subject during a broadcast on KPFA (January 1963): "I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets." She was right then. Her words are still true today.Warmly, Randy Gener, theaterofOneWorld.org
Thank you, my dear Randy Gener. I'm a big fan of your work in American Theater and elsewhere, so I appreciate you jumping in here. I liked reading Pauline's quote, but to be honest it was stated in 1963, when there was a flourishing, lengthy, and well.. artful kind of criticism of the arts, in mainstream print.
The thumbs-up/thumbs down, brief plot summary as review of a theater piece - where there is even theater criticism in print at all- has become the norm, unfortunately. I have found longer, more 'honest', more 'artful' criticism via blogs, often by theater practitioners, which is one more reason to rally for greater inclusion of theater-makers as real-deal reviewers of shows. When a movie, a television show, and a play are reviewed in a newspaper by the same non-arts-practitioner critic- with a focus on pithy brevity and a dearth of real enthusiasm for the field or meaningful analysis of the work- not sure I can then understand the argument as to why theater-makers wouldn't provide an equally valid- or more valid- opinion to share in mainstream coverage.
Or, why recent arts journalism or English grads are understood to have a more important or useful point of view than an esteemed lifelong practitioner. (So basically I'm circling back to the some of the main points of my essay here.) Thanks for sharing Pauline's quote!
I'm a theatre critic (who hates thumbs up/thumbs down reviews) who has never been an artist - the less said about amateur dramatics at university probably the better - nor have I officially studied drama outside of high-school, or journalism in any form. Saying this, I study theatre independently constantly - blogs; books; scripts. I write in a very small theatrical community where critics are very much "the other" and I am in a rare position of being more accepted by the local community of artists than the community of critics. Perhaps because of this, I have desperately been trying to figure out how to increase the number of theatre practitioners writing about their work (and when I say "increase", one would be an increase) and I just don't know how to. All the fears you talk about in this essay are perhaps amplified in a small community.
Recently, one of my favourite Australian arts writers stopped reviewing. She is also a writer, a producer, and a director and she felt she wasn't welcomed as an artist if she was also a writer. A great loss for this country - both from loosing her voice, but also because it perpetuates the idea that you can't be both.
I'm with you - I just don't know I see a theatrical community that embraces this. And that's everyone's loss.