Who Trains the Critic?
While working as a bookseller at the Harvard COOP last fall, I found myself the master of the writing section. I was given permission to order stock for any section that needed it. Happy to conduct this search on company time, I began looking up books on writing. My ulterior motive? Finding any books that could help me learn more about writing arts criticism.
I had a shiny new English MA degree, and spent any free time during my 56-hour workweek writing theatre reviews. But I’ve never had much luck in this search as a customer, or employee. You can find books about writing fiction, poetry, or plays. We stocked books that promised to teach you how to write children’s literature; Young Adult fiction; sci-fi stories; romance novels; YA-romantic-sci-fi-thrillers, you name it. I was also disappointed with “creative nonfiction,” which includes travel writing, memoir, sports, humor, business, and food. No matter how often I poked around the writing section of multiple Boston bookstores, I couldn’t find books that taught how to write about the arts.
Occasionally, you could find some hidden gems. We stocked manuals on magazine writing, and you could sometimes find a chapter on the arts like Naveed Saleh’s The Complete Guide to Article Writing. Instructions from recognized greats like William Zinsser were even more motivating—I still refer often to the “Writing About the Arts” chapter in his monolithic On Writing Well. But my search involved a lot of stumbling around in the dark. Taking a cue from Zinsser, I wanted to go beyond theatre “reviewing” to theatre “criticism.”
I thought about taking a local writing class, a cheaper option than a university course. I looked through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and the Brookline Adult and Community Education catalogues, but found nothing on writing reviews. I scanned the listings of the redoubtable GrubStreet with its many creative nonfiction courses, but none that specified a segment on arts writing.
Perhaps it’s strange I was looking for external validation/formal training for writing that I was already undertaking. As the Junior Editor of a Boston theatre review site, I often wrote with great freedom and minimal supervision. But writing in a vacuum limits you. And it did nothing to help me shake off an experience from a few years ago that almost made me quit writing completely.
We are unclear of what skills or qualifications we demand of our critics because artists and audiences alike aren’t always willing to think of the critic as much more than a cartoon.
Back in 2011, an editor friend of mine connected me with another editor in charge of a New England arts website, to whom I offered my services. Without asking me for a writing sample, the editor agreed to take me on. Thrilled, I offered to review a fringe production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. I eagerly turned in my first review and waited. Ten days later, the editor replied that he was unable to publish my piece. He cited a lack of time on his part, and that the show had already closed. He said, “it would take some editing to get the piece into shape, and that it would take a lot of my time and yours.”
Disappointed, but not discouraged, I apologized for turning in the piece too late—no deadline had been mentioned to me—and asked for suggestions to improve. I never got a response about what was “out of shape” with that first review. I ventured to write another review for a fringe production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. I saw the play, went home and wrote the review, and emailed it to him the following night. In the morning, I received a response: I had been “fired.”
The editor cited problems in my piece that were uncorrectable and not in line with “serious criticism.” He further said: “I’m not sure how many reviews you have read, but there is simply too much to be done to make this acceptable…I appreciate your effort and wish you well, but reviewing for [the site] isn’t going to work out.” Devastated, I sent a brief thank you note, filing away the emails and my two fledgling attempts at reviewing. I didn’t write another theatre review for over two years.
Eventually, I did go back to that horrible email. By then, I was in my second year of grad school, teaching a first-year writing class on writing reviews. Reviewing is a good way to practice stating an opinion and defending it with strong examples. Somehow along the way, I had started to write theatre reviews again, but for a different web site.
The Good Doctor review did not seem unsalvageable to me. There were plenty of problems, including the clunky introduction of someone accustomed to undergraduate academic writing, and an overall lack of sophisticated observations about staging. But I had noted idiosyncratic acting choices, praised the costuming, and conveyed why I enjoyed the show. Going over my Good Doctor review with a writing instructor’s eye, I thought of my two years of silence, and wondered what would have happened if the rejection had come with some advice and just a bit of encouragement.
It was not that editor’s responsibility to give me an education. But this incident is representative of the stunning silence that often surrounds serious theatre criticism. Inexperience and a lack of dialogue are exacerbated by our culture’s collective failure to bestow any overt value on the critical conversation. Where are the MFA programs for critics? Where are the review workshops, or writing groups? We are unclear of what skills or qualifications we demand of our critics because artists and audiences alike aren’t always willing to think of the critic as much more than a cartoon.
We recognize these exhausted tropes. Critics are caricatured as failures, whose only joy lies in jeopardizing the success of artists by writing mean things. In addition, professional critics howl about the reduction in their column inches, and strive to defend themselves against technological, and cultural currents that threaten to render them irrelevant.
The question remains: who trains the theatre critic? There is a dizzying multiplicity of answers, relevant to anyone who has a stake in the future of theatre and its reception. Perhaps it is time to put aside the caricatures and foster more dialogue between experienced critics, newbie critics, and theatre artists.
A Boston-based director recently told me that she didn’t usually take much stock in reviews. The reason? They didn’t serve her as an artist because “Reviewers don’t often know the craft.” She isn’t alone; many of my friends (local actors, set designers, stage managers, costumers, and directors) chafe at the dearth of sophisticated commentary in reviews, especially when it comes to technical aspects of the show.
There are antidotes for this malaise. The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center leads an annual two-week intensive workshop for critics and arts journalists. Useful, recent books on theatre and theatre writing are becoming more plentiful, such as Mark Fisher’s How to Write About the Theatre, and The Routledge Guide to Dramaturgy, edited by Magda Romanska. A diligent Google search can bring up Don Aucoin’s syllabus for a News Writing class he teaches at Boston College. And I eagerly read anything Jonathan Mandell writes about the state of criticism, including his great piece “Are Theatre Critics Critical Enough? An Update.”
I keep my eyes out for these resources. I keep writing and hope for the best. But until structured educational opportunities for critics become less of a rarity; and until we value critical commentary about the theatre the way we appreciate TV shows, our tech devices, and a host of other cultural phenomena, we will miss out on opportunities to extend the reach of theatre, to bridge innovative, energetic, and talented new artists and audiences to reflect what the theatre can tell us about the way we live now.