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Critical Thinking About Being a Critic and a Playwright

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I’m a playwright.

Not a terribly successful one, granted, but a handful of companies, professional and otherwise, have staged my work and it’s something I take very seriously—even when writing a comedy.

I’m also an arts journalist.

And a successful one—because anyone actually employed to be an arts journalist these days should be considered a success. This, too, is something I take very seriously—even when reviewing a comedy.

I’m not alone as a playwright/critic, as witnessed by a parade of dual-hat-wearers from George Bernard Shaw to Terry Teachout by way of Kenneth Tynan, Eric Bentley, and Stark Young. But that doesn’t mean the situation isn’t a minefield filled with raised eyebrows, questionable motives, and potential conflicts of interest.

In my case, the problem—the challenge, I should say—snuck up slowly. While I reviewed theatre for the Temple University News and wrote occasional critical pieces for other publications over the twenty years that followed, my journalistic writing on the arts primarily took the form of previews, interviews, and features. In a pre-blogging world, the monthly print publications that were my bread and butter—Philadelphia Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Indianapolis Monthly, etc.—weren’t staffed with editors terribly interested in critical reports on productions long gone by an issue’s publication date. The focus was on now and the future, not the past. Even when I rose to editor-in-chief of one such magazine, I didn’t assign myself reviews and so there was no conflict when I was writing plays.

The fact that I wasn’t getting any plays produced certainly factored in as well.

a performer on stage pointing
Robert Neal as Jerry in Midwestern Hemisphere by Lou Harry and Eric Pfeffinger. Photo courtesy of Heartland Actor's Repertory Theatre.

Things changed a bit when, while editing that magazine, I dusted off an unsold novel I collaborated on and, with my co-writers permission, reimagined it as a play. A living-room read that I hoped would help show me how much work the piece still needed led to the offer of a full production as the first play for the Equity company Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre.

I was thrilled, of course. Conflicts? Not only didn’t I see any, but I accepted a position on the fledgling company’s board.

Before opening night, however, the magazine folded. Door closes, windows open, and I successfully pitched myself into a full-time job as the first Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ). There, amid stories of real estate deals, political maneuvers, and top CFOs of the year, my work would include writing a weekly arts review column.

Of course, I resigned my spot on the HART board. But I didn’t withdraw the play from production. What self-respecting playwright would? Instead, I fully disclosed to my new employers my financial stake in the show (If memory serves, the show ultimately netted me $175) and by my own edict, not IBJ’s, I didn’t discuss the play in our print or web pages or e-blasts. (Okay, except for a column, written years later, titled “Why I Won’t Be Watching Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ Miniseries.” You see, King and I had similar ideas and, well, that’s another story.)

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only arts journalist not writing about Midwestern Hemisphere. The city’s paper of record, the Indianapolis Star, was already cutting back on arts journalism, specifically criticism (one of the reasons the IBJ decided to jump into the arena). The local alternative weekly opined for a paragraph or two. And that was about it.

I left that production not only with a newfound appreciation for the challenges of creating new theatre work but also for the real impact of diminished arts coverage. Yes, the play had been given a world premiere by a new, professional company in a high-profile-but-untested venue (The Indianapolis Artsgarden). But when it comes to having the journalistic evidence to show potential future producers, Midwestern Hemisphere was a tree that fell deep, deep in the forest.

Harold Clurman included in his list of qualifications for being a theatre critic: 'He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).'

Various performers on stage
Sue (Megan McKinney), Miranda (Kelsie Coughlin), Tommy (Frank Shelton), and Jerry (Robert Neal) in Midwestern Hemisphere. Photo courtesy of Heartland Actor's Theatre Repertory.

If I liked one, I would be open to accusations of trying to butter up the powers that be. If I didn’t, I could be viewed as retaliated for my own scripts being rejected.

As a critic, the experience didn’t make me softer on new work. But it did give me a more holistic approach to reviewing. Thereafter, I was less likely to assign sole responsibility to a director, actor, or writer for a moment. It also gave me a greater sense that writing plays was adding, not taking away, from my ability to write critically. Harold Clurman included in his list of qualifications for being a theatre critic: “He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).” Well, while I don’t meet all of my critical idol’s criteria, I’ve got that one covered.

So where to go from there as a playwright?

Having a professional company tackle my first full-length theatre piece led me to continue writing plays—I just wasn’t too sure what to do with them. The logically break-in move for playwrights is to push their work locally, finding a home base to continue to develop work.

But because of my journalism role, that wasn’t really an option for me. Sure, I’d love for the Indiana Repertory Theatre to be interested in a play of mine. But if I lobbed scripts at the IRT in hopes of an enthusiastic read and a future production, wouldn’t that compromise my ability to fairly and honestly review—or at least leave me open to accusations of compromise—when it came time for me to write about the next IRT show?

As a critic, I don’t like the labels “good reviews” and “bad reviews”—I hope my star-free columns are more nuanced then that. But I knew that it would be a lose/lose proposition if I was both marketing to and commenting on IRT plays. If I liked one, I would be open to accusations of trying to butter up the powers that be. If I didn’t, I could be viewed as retaliated for my own scripts being rejected. Even under the best of circumstances, critics are accused of biases and agendas. Surely that would be worse if I was pushing my own material on the groups I was covering.

For the time being, the ethical thing to do seemed to be not to submit work directly to local theatres. Instead, I just tried to write better plays. The hope: When I had enough that I was happy with, I would pitch outside the region.

Then an actor friend asked if she could produce and direct a play of mine for IndyFringe—an annual non-juried festival, which I had covered in the past for IBJ.

Conflicts? Well, since the festival was open to anyone who sent in an application and entry fee on time, there wasn’t an issue with organizers unfairly favoring my play. And with something like forty shows in the mix, it wasn’t like I was reviewing them all anyway. If participation in the festival as a writer kept me from covering as many, well, I was under no obligation to cover any.

I agreed. And when that production proved satisfying (and broke even at the box office), I returned the following two years to co-produce shows of my own. Before I knew it, I was being taken semi-seriously as a playwright—including receiving a grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis through its Creative Renewal grant program.

Seeing red flags yet?

As a critic, I proceeded with caution but not restraint. If I saw outstanding work, I said so. If an actor with whom I had worked previously didn’t meet the challenges of a play I was reviewing, I hope I honestly reported that. I trusted myself to remain fair and true in what I wrote.

Why not turn over the reviewing chore to another writer for shows featuring talent with whom I’ve worked?  Because there aren’t any. You’d need a time machine to find a town outside of the majors where a single paper still has multiple theatre reviewers. (The Indianapolis Star has given up on criticism completely.)

The reality is that nobody is going to be monitoring the ethical line but me. And in a constantly changing media landscape—a place where an anonymous blogger may well be the brother of a play director, where the person-on-the-street praising a play in a video could easily be a board member, and where many theatre reviews, if they exist at all, are barely longer than a caption and an array of stars, a playwright/critic who strives for ethical consistency is among the least of the arts world’s challenges.

Two performers on stage
Lou Harry's Lightning and Jellyfish at Theatre on the Square. Photo by Zach Rosing. 

So, tonight, after I file my column, I’ll be going to a rehearsal at Theatre on the Square. The long-standing, professionally managed (meaning actors don’t get paid) theatre in Indianapolis selected my play Lightning and Jellyfish to be a part of its 2014/15 season.

Of course, you won’t be reading about it in IBJ.

How will it be covered by local media?

That’s up to them.

Will it bias my reviews of TOTS shows in the future?

I tend to only review fully professional work (with some exceptions).

Will the development of this play help me become a better arts journalist?

I think it already has.

Do I look forward to the day when I’m successful enough as a playwright that there is a true conflict of interest dilemma with my journalistic work?

Absolutely.

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As a playwright in a faculty position, and the artistic director of a theatre company, I have recently committed to reviewing shows I love that are not receiving the attention I believe they deserve. Often those shows are happening in the most out of the way places, and sometimes not even in theatres. This piece was clarifying for me in that I believe more playwrights should write about plays, but can't presently see myself writing about work for which I am the wrong audience.

How do you define "the wrong audience"? It's something I wrestle with. I know I'm the wrong audience if I react negatively to something that has proven popular (For instance, I won't see or review another production of "Menopause: The Musical"--not because it's a "women's show" but because it's pandering and unimaginative). For you, is the "wrong audience" something you decide after seeing a production?

I'm also a playwright and critic (I rarely act these days) but I never find it problematic as to when I must recuse myself. It's fairly obvious: don't review recent collaborators, and don't review people one is planning to collaborate with in the future (even if it is a discussion of a hypothetical collaboration.)

If my editor asks me about a play that might provide a conflict of interest, I tell him to assign it to someone else (I suppose that this is more of a problem for Lou, who is an editor.) If I feel that there is no conflict of interest but I have worked with someone in the more remote past, I disclose so in the article.

The real conflict for me is many theater artists do not understand the role of the critic; they do not understand why critics must have editorial independence to voice opinions that sometimes go against the grain and do not understand that critics are part of the theater community, and that being able to articulate their view points does not take away from being a collaborator.

(Indeed, I have noticed that as of recent, I have more success getting work produced in regions geographically remote from where I practice criticism.)

As to your point about theaters not understanding, I haven't run into too much of that. Most seem hungry for someone to write about their work. And they seem to get that what I write about a specific show is less important than the fact that a business journal with our reach is writing about the arts at all. The push back I get usually get come in the rare case when I review a non-professional production and the talent involved believe that reviewing requires saying nice things about everyone involved.

I've certainly had some push back from people who have some professional credits as directors, and artistic directors who seem to believe that my role is to praise their work no matter how undeserving -- certainly, they are in the minority among the companies that I do review, but they are an often vocal minority marked by feelings of entitlement.

Another related question, though, is how do companies to relate to a playwright who is also a critic? How comfortable are they working on a play (even if they admire it) when author is unafraid to voice an opinion? Obviously some companies might resent a playwright/critic that has given them less than glowing reviews, but if they produce a play by a playwright/critic that has in the past been consistently supportive, doesn't that result in the appearance of quid-pro-quo?

That appearance of quid-pro-quo is a huge risk. In addition to your example, if there have been less-than-glowing reviews in the past, there's also the risk of seeming to be doing it "to get on the critic's good side." But I also think that, in most markets, that's giving too much credit for the power of the critic and the willingness of a theater to compromise it's integrity for the sake of better press. My assumption is that a theater considering a play written by a critic probably has a much higher degree of confidence in the merits of the material than it would with any other play. Otherwise why take that risk?

I so appreciate your dilemma, Lou. I am a reviewer, playwright, actor, director, producer and venue owner in NYC. So I have had to recuse myself from reviewing shows in the festivals I produce, and as much as I'd like to review the shows in my space, I don't. Even when I am not producing them or directing them, they are still in my venue and it looks like a conflict of interest. I also struggle sometimes with my quality standards. I don't like it when playwrights don't finish the job, and sometimes I think I judge them too harshly. But then the publication I write for has asked me to use my judgment when I write, so I do. So far no one has written me any hate mail, I'm happy to say. And I totally relate to this statement you made - "I was less likely to assign sole responsibility to a director, actor, or writer for a moment." I know exactly what you mean. Keep up the good work.