Are Theatre Critics Critical? An Update
It wasn't exactly an ambush, but the first question actor Bernardo Cubria posed to me as a guest on his theatre podcast was about a complaint that actors have about critics. I was his sixtieth guest, and his first theatre critic.
Why do so many reviews, he asked, just summarize the plot and not give an opinion? Later he complained that a critic’s opinion in a review upset a friend of his who had spent “three months of her life” dedicated to her show.
Finally, we got around to something I actually had something to do with, a review I wrote, “a really negative review of a show I was in that I loved,” he told the listeners, and that “my future mother-in-law loved.” I also reviewed his performance in the play, saying it was “less persuasive” than some of the other cast members’. “It hurt,” he said.
All of this seemed to illustrate an observation he made in his introduction: “At some point in their lives, theatremakers develop hostility towards theatre critics.”
Should Anybody Care About Theatre Critics?
“I believe the trade of critic, in literature, music, and drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and has no real value,” Mark Twain wrote in an autobiography that was published only recently, a century after his death. “However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics and missionaries and Congressmen and humorists. We must bear the burden.”
Must we bear it much longer? As Chris Rawson, theatre critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, put it in 2010 when introducing a panel discussion, “what is the future of theatre criticism—is there a future of theatre criticism?” And (something he did not ask), should anybody care?
For several years now, the state of theatre critics and criticism has become a popular subject of think pieces, panels, blog posts, and conversations on Twitter. It heated up recently with the attention paid to the negative depiction of a critic in the film Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. On the night it won four Oscars, including Best Picture, J. Kelly Nestruck, the chief theatre critic for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Tweeted: “All theatre critics lost tonight when Birdman triumphed, but at least I won my Oscar pool.”
Is theatre criticism crucial (critically important) for anybody or anything—like, say, for the theatre? Are theatre critics too negative (do they criticize too much)? Is the field dying out (in critical condition)?
I first wrote an article entitled “Are Theatre Critics…Critical?” in 2010 for the national online newspaper that I served as New York theatre critic. The publication has since gone belly up. I think it’s time for an update.
Five years later, the question of whether theatre critics are critical is really three questions, playing off the various meanings of the word “critical”:
- Is theatre criticism crucial (critically important) for anybody or anything—like, say, for the theatre?
- Are theatre critics too negative (do they criticize too much)?
- Is the field dying out (in critical condition)?
What Is a Theatre Critic? Are They Better Than Vermin?
A theatre critic is a “malicious, cowardly” person who cannot see the beauty in a flower because she cannot put a label on it. That is what the ex movie star turned first-time Broadway director Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) tells the New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. “You risk nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” the director tells the critic as they both drink in a theatre bar. “I risk everything.”
Critics are “really failed playwrights or actors who become critics out of desperation,” the playwright character says in the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play, which singled out the (actual) New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley as “a pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat.”
This is nothing new. From The Man Who Came To Dinner to The Worst Show in the Fringe (in which a critic is kidnapped), theatre critics have been depicted as intimidating, pompous, and unpleasant—yes, usually cultured and erudite, but also condescending and out-of-touch…and sometimes (All About Eve?) villainous. In Ruthless! The Musical, the daughter of a character named Lita Encore says: “Oh Mother hates anything to do with show business; she’s a theatre critic.”
The only theatre critics that get unmitigated affection seem to be under ten years old.
But if the image of the theatre critic is more or less fixed in people’s minds thanks to these works, the definition of a critic is now in flux, due to the convulsive changes in journalism, and the rise of the Internet. It has been estimated that there are some 300,000 arts-related bloggers (I am one of them). Can any of them be considered professional theatre critics?
John Simon didn’t think so. Asked whether bloggers could replace the diminishing number of critics from traditional print publications, Simon said “no matter how wrongheaded a critic may be, he or she’s always better than the bloggers. The bloggers are the vermin of this society.” He said this in an episode of the television program Theatre Talk in 2010 when he was the critic for Bloomberg News, after thirty-six years as the theatre critic for New York Magazine. Shortly afterwards, Simon lost his job at Bloomberg News—and started his own blog.
The American Theatre Critics Association, ATCA, the only national organization of American theatre critics, has been struggling with their criteria for membership. Right now they admit people who, as they put it, write professionally, regularly, and with substance about the theatre. But what does professional mean at a time when only a handful of critics derive all their income from their reviews? (At a recent conference of ATCA, only three out of fifty attendees raised their hands when asked whether they made their living entirely as a critic.) And has the Web (with its hyperlinks and reader interaction, etc.) changed the definition of substantive?
The International Association of Theatre Critics, or IATC, has a 10-point “Code of Practice.” Examples (put more succinctly than they do): 4. Be open-minded. 6. Be alert during a performance. 7. Use concrete examples to back up your evaluations.
The Canadian Theatre Critics Association has a “code of ethics” which is also something of a code of practice. (“The critic should, whenever possible, prepare in advance of a performance”—by reading the handouts and if possible the script.)
I believe that a good critic needs three basic qualities:
- Independent judgment rooted in education and experience.
- An ability to articulate one’s views with clear and engaging prose, backing up their points with accurate and concrete examples.
- Taste generally shared with the intended audience.
Are Theatre Critics Crucial?
In his provocative way, Kristoffer Diaz, the playwright of the Pulitzer finalist drama, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, who earlier had sparked a conversation on Twitter by calling for a moratorium on productions of Shakespeare, once said he would prefer the work of playwrights be reviewed by other playwrights. Few theatre people would go so far as to call for the elimination of theatre critics, and when I followed up with Diaz, he said that what he wanted was “a more diverse group of critics (age/race/ethnicity/aesthetic).”
Most theatre artists will admit, however grudgingly, what Vickie Ramirez, a playwright and founding member of Amerinda Theatre, told me: “Reviews are absolutely needed; they are a critical part of the process.” But sometimes, she said, critics pick targets unfairly. “Nobody’s saying don’t review,” Ramirez said. “Time it well, and maybe bring out the big guns just for bigger productions.”
On the other hand, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, the site each year of the National Critics Institute, several panelists discussing criticism told how a review of a small production early in their career gave them a crucial lift. “I was in a very low place, and it told me to keep going,” playwright Adam Rapp said of such a review when he was twenty-nine. “It’s such an interesting, complicated relationship between artists and critics,” Rapp said. “Some critics are doing great things for theatre,” he added. “Some out there should be removed from the planet.”
Theatre critics can help careers, boost morale, and even aid a creative team in refashioning a show. But they do not exist to inspire and enrage theatremakers. Their purpose is to guide theatre audiences, to provoke thought and discussion, and to offer an independent assessment of an evanescent experience, for posterity. As Pauline Kael liked to say: “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” Theatre artists’ widespread misunderstanding of the critics’ purpose may help explain at least some of the hostility—but not all.
Theatre critics can help careers, boost morale, and even aid a creative team in refashioning a show. But they do not exist to inspire and enrage theatre makers.
Are Theatre Critics Too Negative?
I began writing reviews of college productions for my school newspaper, which didn’t always sit well with classmates in those shows. One with whom I’ve kept in touch still brings up decades later how unfair I was in my assessment of his Snoopy in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Although he says it as if he’s joking, I’m not so sure. That classmate is Peter Marks, now the long-time theatre critic for The Washington Post. The moral of the story: Few people like to be criticized.
Many theatre professionals have learned to accept the negative review as “a part of the job,” as Bernardo Cubria put it to me after the podcast—or, if not accept, at least ignore. When Charles Durning was starting out as an actor, he recalled, Joseph Papp told him: “The only people you have to please are the producer and director and yourself. If you think you have to please a critic, you shouldn’t be in the business.”
But the resentment and hostility by theatre artists is palpable, and I suspect it has much to do with what they perceive as the critics’ power. After all, how many of these same theatre people happily watched Simon Cowell eviscerate American Idol hopefuls? How many read Gawker and gleefully participate in hate-Tweeting such shows as Peter Pan Live? When people cackle over infamous flops like Carrie and Moose Murders, they are not remembering the plays themselves—which few people actually saw, since the shows ran only for a day or so—but the cleverness of the reviews. We live in a society that accepts harsh negative assessments—as the price for high standards, or as a source of schadenfreude entertainment (take your pick)—while at the same time proudly embracing a tradition of fighting the power.
But how much power do critics really have over a show? “We only have significant influence in certain narrowly defined circumstances,” says Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout.
Peter Marks championed Ragtime and Side Show productions in D.C. that transferred to Broadway…and wound up commercial bombs.
“I’ve never understood why theatre reviewers are counted on to be box office oracles,” Marks says. “Producers who rely on reviews rather than gut are not producers."
“It’s hilarious that the current hit play on Broadway [It’s Only A Play] is about the power of a reviewer. Well, then again, it’s a comedy."
“Critics can spotlight talent, add momentum, move the needle a bit. They have tremendous impact—in the margins.”
Philadelphia Inquirer theatre critic Wendy Rosenfield relishes critics’ roles as “catalysts, not just judges.” But she bristles at the most frequent complaint she gets from theatre artists—that a review of hers will discourage people from seeing the show. “I’m in journalism, not public relations,” she replies. “It’s like saying covering political scandals will stop people from voting, or covering a team’s loss or a player’s errors will stop people from attending sporting events.”
The best response to this complaint is that an honest assessment, even if severe, does more to promote the art form than indiscriminate praise.
A debate emerged early last year, prompted by HowlRound Director Polly Carl’s call for criticism based on “positive inquiry” and what Princeton theatre professor Jill Dolan called “critical generosity.” As Dolan put it, it seems that “mainstream” critics “revel in their power to destroy productions they don’t like for reasons that are always political, as well as aesthetic, and always masked by the ‘objectivity’ that power bestows on their work.” Critics of this position remarked that this was itself an ungenerous assessment, presuming to intuit nefarious motives.
It is harder to argue that mainstream critics are set on destruction when they reportedly wind up praising more than they pan. Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, the two main theatre critics of the New York Times, gave positive reviews to forty-five percent of the shows they reviewed over the past ten years, according to a recent calculation by Broadway producer Ken Davenport, who owns the review aggregation site Did He Like It. Only twenty-nine percent were negative, Davenport determined, and twenty-six percent were mixed.
Yet, the theatre community can be forgiven for being distrustful of a group of professionals who can seem at times to be rude and disrespectful. They see some who cover theatre taking for granted our free tickets, boasting about leaving at intermission, as the Wall Street Journal’s culture writer (not critic) Joanne Kaufman did. They see some of us as gratuitously mean-spirited: one critic Adam Rapp would probably like to see removed from the planet is Charles Isherwood, who wrote an entire piece about how unfair it is for him to be reviewing Adam Rapp’s plays since he hates them so much. Isherwood’s general point is worth making—if a critic consistently dislikes the works of a particular playwright, does it make any sense to continue to review them? But there was irony in his naming the playwright he was claiming not to want to hurt any longer.
Theatremakers also see critics’ efforts to be witty and engaging as too often at the expense of a show and the people who worked so hard to put it together. Chicago Tribune movie (and former theatre) critic Michael Phillips likes to quote a line from Lorrie Moore’s short story “Anagrams” in which a character wonders whether “all writing about art is simply language playing so ardently with itself that it goes blind.”
To these complaints, I’ll quote film critic A. O. Scott, who wrote:
Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life—a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them. As such, it is always apt to be misunderstood, undervalued and at odds with itself. Artists will complain, fans will tune out, but the arguments will never end.
Scott wrote this after he lost his job as a film critic on TV, and was asked to deliver a talk on the future of criticism. “The future of criticism is the same as it ever was,” he said. “Miserable, and full of possibility.”
Is Theatre Criticism Dying?
After the death in 2010 of Mike Kuchwara, the Associated Press’ theatre critic, and arguably the first or second most influential critic in the nation, there was some speculation that he might not even be replaced. But the Associated Press then advertised to hire “a theatre critic and pop culture reporter”—that’s one person with two jobs.
Kuchwara’s successor, Mark Kennedy, does do some pop culture reporting, as well as “some TV and music and smaller bylined stories,” he told me. “More editing, too.”
Other outlets have eliminated reviews entirely, such as Backstage (where I wrote at one point), or laid off their staff critics and rely on freelancers. This is not just happening in the United States.
“Entire review sections—especially on the Sundays—have been shut down, arts budgets are being slashed,” Tim Walker wrote after he was laid off from the Sunday Telegraph, “and the critics that are still standing are having to pick and choose between productions because they cannot physically get to them all.” He quoted “one leading impresario” as noticing that the critics who attended one of his shows were “young, spotty, out of their comfort zones and clearly exhausted, having been diverted at the last minute from other tasks at their hard-pressed media organizations.”
This outraged Jake Orr, the founder of A Younger Theatre, a combination publication and production company whose aim is to champion “the emerging generation.” Orr Tweeted: “Well, honestly, Tim, I can name many ‘young, spotty’ Internet critics that have a depth of understanding of how to write about theatre.” Lighting designer Tom Turner added: “And thus the ‘ex-theatre critics writing column inches bemoaning the lack of themselves’ industry was born.” Indeed, to an outsider, this does seem part of an almost comic pattern: Each UK theatre critic forced into retirement writes an essay proclaiming the death of theatre criticism, which is then attacked by online critics and younger theatre artists as self-centered and self-serving…and inaccurate.
Does Kennedy of the Associated Press think the doom-sayers are correct—that theatre criticism is dying?
“Yes and no,” Kennedy replies.
I think those critics who focus only on theatre are in trouble, but I see a future where critics are omnivorous—going from Miley Cyrus, to Tom Stoppard, to Interstellar, and readers would follow them from CD to stage and screen. I see more hybrid reporter-critic roles, too. Basically, fewer people will be covering the more mainstream of cultural offerings to gain the most traction.
Others see dedicated, diligent theatre critics proliferating online—on blogs, on chat rooms—who need only to figure out how to make a living from it.
Personally, although I don’t expect to have a full-time job again as a theatre critic—as I did years ago for Newsday—I hope to continue to write about theatre for any outlet that’s a fit. This includes Bernardo Cubria’s Off and On theatre podcast. Shortly after our chat, he invited me to appear regularly on Off and On, to review shows for his listeners.