The Responsibility of the Artist-Critic

There’s an unwritten yet widely understood policy within arts criticism circles that discourages theatre critics from participating in theatre creation. It is believed that if critics are also artists, they can’t be objective.

We are both critics and artists—Kitty of the Boston-based New England Theatre Geek and Regina from Rescripted in Chicago—and we disagree. We know that if we are active members of the theatre community and have a base understanding of the craft, we will be better critics.

Being artist-critics influences our practice and affects the relationships we have to the work in our communities. In this conversation, we explore questions around what it means to be an artist, how we work through our biases, how transparency has radically changed our work, and how these factors influence our training of the next generation of theatre critics.

What does it mean to be a critic and an artist in a community that doesn’t necessarily welcome critics as part of the fold?

Regina Victor: Before I became a critic, if I saw other critics at an opening of a play I was working on, they generally didn’t go out of their way to speak to me, so there was a distance and a mystery to their profession. As an artist and critic, there is now a warmth I feel is extended to me, but the other side of the coin is that people have unprecedented access to me and demand accountability as a result. I’ve had a couple of instances where folks have gotten upset about an error, but I think it’s cool they expect me to represent them properly and that they feel comfortable demanding that.

Kitty Drexel: I firmly believe it is possible to offer constructive criticism and also participate in creating theatre. These are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, some reviewers believe that creating theatre while critiquing it will lead to bias. But I find that bias is much preferred when the alternative is ignorance. Critics should serve the community, and they can’t if they don’t know what the community wants.

As a person who identifies as a producer, actor, and critic, I am vigilant in communicating my willingness to work transparently. When I audition for a production and, as is sometimes the case, am later asked to review it, I am sure to include this disclaimer before each blog post: “I auditioned for this production, and was not cast. It is my opinion that only a jackass would allow rejection, a natural process of auditioning, to taint their review.”

four people posing

L to R—The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program Alumni Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, Sierra Carlson, and Co-Facilitators Regina Victor and Oliver Sava after their session: "Turning Dramaturgy into Dramatic Criticism" at the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs Association National Conference.

Should the theatre community legitimize the opinions of critics who do not actively participate in the theatre community as creators?

Regina: I think everyone’s opinion on a piece of work is valid—we all have hearts and minds even if we don’t have a working knowledge of Elizabethan theatre or whatever the genre may be. I think the mistake we have made is allowing non-practicing critics to rise to such a place of authority that they dictate artistic trends, aesthetics, and opportunities with their words.

Personally I am interested in a decentralization of power and an increase in empathy. More perspectives means a review can stand as one critic’s opinion rather than an authoritative edict that determines the very success of a show. The critic needs to be in the community whether or not they are an artist. There are critics in Chicago whose entire focus is on New York, and it shows—they have no investment in Chicago artists’ success beyond what might be Broadway-bound.

Kitty: Why should we take seriously the words of someone who doesn’t understand the great amount of work involved in creating a performance? A critic’s opinion is unreliable if it’s based only on a writer’s personal preference. Personal preference tells the reader what the writer enjoys, it doesn’t tell the reader why the writer enjoyed it.

I find it incredibly difficult to take seriously the opinions of critics who don’t have an up-to-date working knowledge of the performing arts. The theatre community looks to critics for a fresh perspective, and critics can’t provide that perspective unless they know the rigorous process through which theatre is created. I’m constantly reading local and national press releases, academic publications, autobiographies, and as many plays as the library allows me to take out at one time.

More perspectives means a review can stand as one critic’s opinion rather than an authoritative edict that determines the very success of a show.

Regina: At the end of the day, what you see is what you get with theatre. Anyone can comment on how a piece made them feel. However, when we are discussing questions of worth or value, there needs to be a voice in the conversation saying: “Hey, I not only saw what you did, I saw what you were trying to do, and here is how well you executed that with the methods you chose.” The most important thing for an emerging critic is to understand what their personal expertise is, and, even then, be prepared to be wrong about it.

At Rescripted, we have had guest contributors write about a piece that touched them in a specific way because they belonged to the target audience for the play, and/or had insight into the cultural perspective or artistic lineage of the play. However, if you’re writing about what the play does well culturally, and you don’t have an understanding of the technical or historical aspects, maybe leave that evaluation for a critic who does.

Kitty: Critics have a reputation as being snobbish culture wardens, which I think comes from the divide that exists between the critic and the stage. If critics were to approach their work as part of the theatre community rather than from outside it, the tenuous relationship between critics and creators would mend.

Actors, directors, and other creators are more receptive to critique if they know that the reviewer understands how much goes into creating theatre. The community is less likely to honor the words of someone they feel doesn’t understand them. It is possible to be uninformed of the intricacies of performance practice and still write a respectful review, but an educated review that implies an understanding of performance practice will always be better received by the community. 

four people seated in a booth

Geeks from left to right: Diana Lu, Gillian Daniels, Noelani Kamelamela, Kitty Drexel

Are critics merely a means to better marketing, whether through quotes or awards?

Regina: There is no doubt theatres need reviews to get the word out about their shows, but I wish they did not feel the need to rely on pull quotes from specific critics or outlets in order to sell tickets. At the Theatre Communications Group conference this year, I learned that there is a regional conversation happening about the dependency theatres have on major papers as a core marketing tool. Shifting this calls for a deep restructuring of theatre marketing strategies.

I am a big advocate for crowdsourced reviews. I want my friends to tell me whether or not to go see something, I want a critic to contextualize the work and show me viewpoints I may have missed. In essence, I want the critic to be a part of my post-play experience, not my impetus to attend. Many theatres are already moving beyond the critic-to-ticket-sales relationship and discovering their own innovative ways to get around critics who refuse to support them.

Kitty: I wholeheartedly agree. I find that fringe and community theatres are genuinely glad to receive New England Theatre Geek reviews for the perspective they provide. These organizations are a joy to work with because they make it clear that we share a mutual respect for the work we do. Our relationships are symbiotic.

Professional theatres are not nearly as welcoming. In certain cases, I am given the distinct impression that my writing fulfills a marketing purpose only. It is my wish for my blog to be of service to New England’s theatre community, and I also want the contributions of my staff to be valued. We’re colleagues hoping for everyone’s success. We want our feedback to be a part of that success.

How does your personal practice affect your reviews?

Regina: I am a critic, professional dramaturg, and director, and these roles are inextricably linked to the style of criticism I employ. A dramaturg is expected to have a knowledge of theatre and production history, as well as the ability to reasonably research these things when they do not know them already. It is also a dramaturg’s job to understand the story the playwright is intending to tell and ensure the director’s choices represent that story well. Acknowledging production history, cultural context, integrity of storytelling, and the playwright’s intention are also key parts of a critic’s duties.

As a director, it is my job to tell the story the playwright has written and to offer a perspective on that story by deciding which themes to highlight through creative choices and collaborations. In the training program I started, called The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program, participants often ask what a director does and how best to evaluate their work critically. I tell them to look for things like the comfortability of the performers with the material and continuity among their performances (“Are they in the same play”?). Is there a point of view, is the vision cohesive? Are there choices the director made or elements that are not in the script or in other productions? I often request scripts to get a sense of how the director interpreted the work.

An educated review that implies an understanding of performance practice will always be better received by the community.

I frequently collaborate with playwrights of color and have been repeatedly frustrated by the laziness of dominant, majority white, male critics when it comes to seeing and supporting work by these artists. I don’t ever want to make people feel the way I have felt in the past when someone has misgendered me, has refused to research an aesthetic and therefore incorrectly assessed a stylistic choice, or hasn’t taken the appropriate steps to gather other perspectives to expand their observations on a play they didn’t comprehend.

Kitty: I don’t view critiquing as antithetical to performing. One informs the other. Many respected fields demand critical thinking from their community. The sciences don’t look down on its scientists for writing papers. It’s only in live-performance criticism that this divide exists.

As a performer and a producer, I don’t read feedback from writers who only write about what they see on stage. I read responses from writers who evaluate what they see. I seek constructive analysis of what does and does not work, and I expect my own writing to do the same. Analysis is part of theatre. We’re subject to it at auditions and in rehearsals. Actors are told to have a thick skin while retaining vulnerability. It’s personal, but it doesn’t have to be painful. I write to offer the kind of criticism I hope to receive. I’m not always successful but I know that’s true of me as a performer and producer, too.

I also use critique as an opportunity to educate. Theatre gives all participants (creators, viewers, and producers) the opportunity to learn while teaching. We live at a time when many theatremakers and attendees are at risk of being stripped of their basic civil rights. Whether the production that’s running is a story about forming a family, voting, seeking asylum, receiving medical care, or accessing the world as a whole person, artists are at the forefront of it all.

six people posing

The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program Session 2. L to R—Lonnae Hickman, Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, Elon Sloan, Oliver Sava (co-facilitator), Regina Victor (co-facilitator), and Aaron Lockman

How do you manage bias and personal preferences in your writing?

Regina: As an artist, there are styles of storytelling I prefer, and some modes of storytelling I do not care for—whether that be due to limited exposure, a difference in taste, or lack of cultural or scholarly preparation and appreciation. This is true for every critic. In practice, Rescripted prioritizes the subjective review over the objective review, meaning that we are trying to communicate an individual’s opinion rather than express an authoritative view over a piece of art. We have artist profiles for our writers, under “Meet the Artists,” so readers can get to know their background, the lenses they bring to the show, their artistic practices, and their preferences. This way, readers are able to evaluate their opinions on a subjective basis, much like those of a friend that you gauge based on their personal taste.

Our critics are also involved in the artistic community, so we disclose any prior collaborations via our Bias Alerts. They are anything the artist thinks we should know that may affect their opinion—like a colleague being in the show they are reviewing or the fact that they have limited exposure to a certain style of play, which may influence their opinion.

Kitty: I work towards being fair, giving credit where it is due, while also acknowledging the areas that require tweaking. In terms of biases, they don’t have to be bad. For example, the New England Theatre Geek is biased towards equity and inclusion. A company that goes out of its way to be inclusive will receive notice. But we won’t give credit where credit isn’t due: a theatre company that treats women, people of color, immigrants/refugees, or the disabled community as tokens doesn’t get a pass on the blog.

Being a performer, I have friends within the performing community, and I have critiqued friends before. Having a healthy understanding of what it is to be an artist and to receive feedback has helped me retain these friendships. Some actors can’t handle negative feedback. Some can’t handle positive feedback that isn’t overtly effusive. I can’t control how a reader responds to my writing, I can only control me. At the end of the day, as long as my writing is respectfully constructive, I am unafraid to post an honest reaction.

Artists are not sensitive to bad reviews, they are sensitive to careless ones that refuse to notice the highs as well as the lows, or that miss the point altogether.

Regina: It is my belief that the artist-critic’s relationship with and accountability to the artistic community will preserve arts criticism for years to come. When Chicago had a well-known critic publish a racially charged statement, the theatre community called for her to stop having free access to review their shows. This was not solely because of her statement, but because she refused to engage in a conversation with the community or apologize for her comments. In contrast, Justin Hayford, who printed the n-word in a review is still working, and that may well be related to the fact that he responded to the outrage.

As an artist-critic, I have no choice but to be accountable to my community, as I am evaluating my once and future collaborators’ work. Effective and gracious criticism, I would argue, is at the root of collaboration. I have seen bad coverage result in layoffs and the shuttering of companies, so I do not write lightly—unjust criticism or personal attacks will result in a lot of angry artists and disrupted lives, and most of these folks have my number and know where I live. It is very important to me that we don’t sink into negativity but address the truth of an issue without decoration. Artists are not sensitive to bad reviews, they are sensitive to careless ones that refuse to notice the highs as well as the lows, or that miss the point altogether.

What is the training landscape for new critics, and how does that influence your work and how you expand your staff?

Regina: When I started as a critic, I had a “just do it” mentality because I knew if I didn’t start then I never would. I had gained skills and knowledge as a dramaturg and scholar, and in my training to be an artistic director I would read the theatre section of five publications, every day for years, but I had no formal training beyond this. I still believe this was a gift—I knew a lot of the “rules” of criticism from consistently reading a diversity of writers and understood what “rules” I would be breaking, but I lacked fear and I had an abundance of imagination about “what could be.” Folks told me I should go to the National Critics Institute, a reputable program run in conjunction with the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center moderated by Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune. However, this program happens in the summer, at the height of new play development season, and I was unable to afford to go.

Oliver Sava, a multidisciplinary critic, and I co-founded The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program in 2017, a free, six-week training program for students aged eighteen to twenty-four, as an offshoot of Rescripted. We had realized we needed to start training our own voices if we wanted any differentiation from what had come before. Our students see five shows and write six reviews (one is a multimedia piece), and workshop them in six sessions. There are also guest speakers, who build empathy for and understanding of different artistic disciplines in the theatre, and Oliver and I discuss the principles of criticism both at Rescripted and in the larger field with the class. I want to figure out how to make this program national. We already have several critics writing professionally—not just for us but outlets across the city—and local coverage needs an influx of new perspectives immediately or our field is in imminent trouble.

Kitty: I hire writers based on the premise that the traditional way of critiquing performance (the white, male, cis, abled viewpoint) is outdated. It is inappropriate for the New England area to be inundated with these opinions when the voices of the minority represented in a new wave of representation are clamoring to be heard. No one can speak to the experiences of marginalized people like the people in that community.

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Why should we take seriously the words of someone who doesn’t understand the great amount of work involved in creating a performance? 

Because the "amount of work" should not be what's critiqued; the end result is what's important. I have spent hours creating a meal that ended up being quite ghastly. The amount of work I put in has nothing to do with how the food tastes.    

A critic’s opinion is unreliable if it’s based only on a writer’s personal preference.

Correct. But why do you assume that artists are impervious to basing their opinions on personal preferences?  Frankly, I've worked in theater for almost 50 years and I've met very few artists who can detach to the level you claim. In fact, I have met a surprising number of artists whose world view is quite narrow. 

The two takeaways I get from this piece seem to be: only members of our club should be allowed to discuss our work and we need to be given ribbons for effort. I don't find this challenging enough for me. I want to get the opinions of people who don't think as I do. I want to impress the people who know nothing of what I do and I really want to impress the people who may think what I do is a waste of time. Now THAT'S a challenge I can sink my teeth into!