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.

scripts and programs laid out
Another sunny day spent indoors, review-writing. Photo by Fabiana Cabral.

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.

three people in a panel Q&A
Sitting in the front row of a Company One panel discussion. Photo courtesy of Company One.

 

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My apologies, in advance. This is a VERY long response, something of an entire, condensed course in reviewing but, I flatter myself, it’s worth the time.

What you address is not a problem unique to theater criticism - it's more or less true of all cultural criticism in America. Three reasons: 1) Traditionally — and I mean since the time of Edgar Allan Poe — reviewing has been a wing of journalism, and as is the case with so much of journalism, it was essentially a trade one picked up. You rose through the ranks by learning-by-mistakes while working for smaller papers or alternative papers (now websites) and eventually getting to the big city paper or magazine, a path that also could be taken via mentors who brought you along with them when they became editors. I'm old enough to have seen newspapers promote aging reporters with a 'literary bent' (meaning an English degree) to the theater or book columnist's position because they’d gotten too old, they'd 'lost their legs.' They didn't have the energy to chase ambulances, stay up late at crime scenes, bang on doors to track down sources, etc. So their old buddies, the editors, pretty much gave them semi-retirement, ’put them to pasture' in jobs that involved a lot of sitting (sometimes sleeping).

This exemplifies the general disdain hard news departments still have toward the 'arts.' (Watch the film 'His Gal Friday,' and see how Cary Grant-the-editor treats the ‘effeminate’ reporter who likes to write poetry. That was real. Don't believe me? Check out how many 'arts journalism' awards even today are given out by journalism associations -- print, radio, TV, online. Most often, there will be half-a-dozen categories for sports (beat reporting, spot news, breaking news, feature profile, series, columnist, etc.), while the arts are dumped into 'general or soft feature' categories or ‘commentary' (that is, editorials). American journalism is proud of its (supposedly) hard-nosed, aggressive reporting -- arts coverage doesn't fit that image. It came out of what was once known as the 'women's' or ‘society' page.

2) The great rise of white-collar professionalism with the J schools -- after Watergate -- did not really take cultural journalism with it. Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program -- which no longer exists, a horrible loss -- was one of the few graduate level programs designed to improve cultural critics in any genre, pop music to painting. It's still the case that only a small number of journalism schools offer anything more than a single class in 'reviewing' -- meaning all the different arts are supposedly covered in a single semester. Why? Because the fact is, in addition to hard news' contempt for 'soft news,' there were very few full-time paying jobs for critics. Basically, there was one major newspaper theater critic in most big cities. Ditto classical music critic, visual arts critic, etc. And that was it. Which meant there were a few hundred jobs across the entire country — at most.

Now, of course, the job situation is far worse because of the loss of ad revenue to the internet. Cultural journalism has basically become another art form -- it's a type of writing that the majority of practitioners do for love and personal fulfillment and not for any reliable financial support or professional advancement. Some of the finest cultural critics in the country, the biggest names you read and follow -- from rock music to theater to architecture to literature to classical music -- are actually professors who write for newspapers or magazines or websites on the side. It's barely a full-time profession anymore for anyone, other than the on-staff editors, of course.

When it comes to training, this is a wretched situation for cultural journalism because fine arts academic programs, if they have classes on reviewing, often inculcate a degree of resentment or dismissal of the form, as Patricia McLaughlin has noted here. And because although Ian Thai is generally correct — practicing the form is the best way to learn it — the fact is my year at Columbia on an NAJP fellowship at Columbia was a tremendously enriching experience. I met dozens of other cultural journalists and learned a lot from them (it’s obvious when you think about it: Other practitioners can confirm your experience, open different avenues of thought, steer you away from bad practices).

3) The fact is, if it's not pop culture -- a mass art form like film, television or pop music with huge corporations pouring millions into marketing their products -- arts coverage is an intensely local endeavor. And pop culture criticism pretty much got eaten alive by corporate co-optation and by ‘entertainment news' -- meaning celebrity tabloid gossip.

There’s a smidgen of good news in that: First, as a theater critic, you can actually make some sort of difference to a local scene, as opposed to being just another pop music critic among hordes of fan sites and Facebook posts and twitter feeds. Second, many media outlets, realizing that everyone can get all the celebrity tabloid news they want from the web, have re-focused on the local - in their reporting in general and arts coverage in particular. The problem is that ALL print arts coverage was pretty much funded by movie ads. Local theaters and concert promotors and certainly publishers and bookstores have NEVER generated enough ad revenue to make a difference, even when you put all their money together. Now that movie ads have left for the web, print arts coverage remains skimpy — dependent entirely on the ads generated by the single most important critic any daily newspaper has: the restaurant reviewer.

As for your Boston director who dismissed reviewers, he/she is right and wrong. Right, in that you’re not writing for the artists; your responsibility is to your readers and to the art form. You would like to write knowledgeably enough, wisely enough, that the artists come to respect your judgment and insight, but you cannot tie your sense of worth as a critic to the artist’s often understandably narrow focus. If you impress the director with your discussion of blocking or the research you did on the production history of a play but leave your readers bored or confused, what good are you really doing?

Years ago, I interviewed Natasha Katz, the multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer before she’d ever done a show on Broadway. She was stunned. It was her first interview. No one ever profiles lighting designers, she said. No one pays attention to their work - unless it’s really an eyesore. True - and ever since then and ever since I was involved in my own productions, I’ve realized how many theater artists have, of necessity, a tunnel vision in regards to a show as a whole. Imagine theater reviews written by lighting designers.

I saw it’s actually quite rare, even among directors, for the artists in a project to really know how all the moving parts actually affect an audience. Many certainly THINK they know, but if they’re not open to listening and learning and possibly enriching their future work, then their opinion isn’t worth caring about, either, is it?

Finally, the two things you need to be a good critic are an audience — which you build and earn (and that means an audience not just among ordinary readers but among editors and sometimes artists as well) — and authority. And how do you gain authority? No program can bestow that (think of the teachers you suffered from who were experts in their field but were terrible teachers, boring, disorganized, unconvincing).

You gain authority and an audience by having seen (or heard or read) a lot of your particular art form, then by having THOUGHT about it a lot and finally by having the ability to express your thoughts and convictions vividly, succinctly, persuasively, entertainingly.

Period. That’s it, that’s everything. But also this: Any good review is essentially an argument being laid out, an attempt to hold the reader’s attention long enough to persuade him or her of your judgment. If all your review does is declare that you think this theater production sucks, why not just give it one star? What’s the point of the review?

The point is explaining HOW or WHY it didn’t work. And that’s an argument that must be made; you have to convince people. There’s a reason people who can tell you why this scene or that line in a film is the reason the humor doesn’t click are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in Hollywood. It’s not that common a skill. And there’s a reason the great Christopher Hitchens once wrote that it’s the mark of a truly serious critic that you can disagree completely with his point of view but find you still must read him, want to read him. It’s the quality of his mind, his thinking, his knowledge, his writing. He could be passing judgment on the design of tea cups and you'd pick up the paper to see what he has to say.

Good luck.

From your story, I immediately recognized that you must have been working with the shady New England publication ArtsEditor. I had a nearly identical experience with them, and later uncovered other writers who had been similarly mistreated. My suspicion is that this "publication" is an advertising scam that posts just enough content to sell expensive advertising to gullible arts-oriented businesses, but actually has a tiny readership. A little internet sleuthing will reveal that the publisher has a long history of shady dealings and abusive behavior.

I am very sorry that your experience with them almost turned you off from writing all together. You should know that it is an illegitimate and predatory "publication" and the quality of your writing was not the issue. Real editors behave professionally, give clear guidelines, and offer written contracts.

It seems to me that critics are best served by 1.) a good liberal arts education, which is ultimately about learning how to critically engage with the culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives; 2.) an enthusiasm for the arts (which leads one to developing and becoming aware of one's tastes and preferences.); and 3.) an effort to take that enthusiasm and academic training and render it in a prose style that a non-specialist audience can read -- which often means unlearning academic styles.

Most of this is comes from experience; I don't think a training program can help one much.

Experience certainly can't be overstated, and those three elements are quite important. I just find it curious that other styles of writing can be and are commonly work-shopped/taught/based on certain agreed upon conventions, and that arts writing isn't always included in these discussions.

I think one can be taught to write competently within a narrowly defined discipline, as with newspaper journalism, various academic fields, business communication, for just a few examples. However, I do not believe that one can be taught to write with the unique voice that good criticism (along with poetry, playwriting, fiction writing) requires -- one needs to cultivate that on one's own.

I think that makes it all the more puzzling that there are scores of programs that offer training and community for poets, playwrights, and fiction writers (without promising them that they will be able to produce great art, of course), but that critics who are training themselves to find their own distinct voice often barely find guidelines to do so. I'm interested in how we can specify what we mean when we say one needs "experience" and "taste," and how one can learn to consistently produce good prose (and what artists and audiences would find "good prose" to even be in this style of writing).

I'm not clear that programs that offer training for poets, playwrights, and fiction writers actually have resulted in a renaissance in American literature that surpasses those benighted times when writers learned how to write on their own without having to pay tuition to an accredited institution.

I realize that these programs claim to teach these things in their brochures and that it is often assumed to be true by people within the industry, but the evidence I have seen gives me reason to cast doubt on these claims.

Thanks for the shout-out for my work, in particular "Are Theatre Critics Critical?" I agree with your main points about the lack of encouragement and guidance for critics, and the way drama critics are caricatured and reviled. I do wish to point out that there ARE formal training programs for theater criticism. For example, the Yale (Graduate) School of Drama includes a "Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism."(That dramaturgy and dramatic criticism are smushed together here is intriguing, especially since so many of the tasks dramaturgs are often asked to do -- researching the historical period of the play, providing context, even writing up articles and interviews for theatergoers -- are virtually indistinguishable from what critics do.)

Thanks for reading my piece! You make a good point; the Yale program in particular has come up multiple times in comments to my post. I have noticed there are also some good individual classes at both BU and BC (my two alma maters), not to mention at Emerson and other universities local to me. As I mentioned in my reply to Patricia below, I have wondered whether or not my interests don't veer strongly into the dramaturgy camp. I guess it would depend on how one felt about working closely with the theater companies, working with actors, directors, etc., when doing such research and writing those pieces. Intriguing indeed!

As someone who regularly teaches a seminar on Arts Criticism at the undergrad level here at UNC, I believe that the best way to teach criticism is first to study good criticism written about the theatre, music, film, dance, photography, art, architecture, etc.; and then to practice writing criticism. I didn't really learn how to approach critical writing until spending three years in the Criticism Workshop course as part of my MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale Drama (still a mainstay component of that program), and similarly in the Arts & Culture program headed by Alissa Solomon at Columbia's School of Journalism. In teaching that course I follow the mantra of one of my mentors, Stanley Kauffmann, "I'm only interested in criticism that helps." Helps both the reader and the critic understand the artist's intentions, helps the artist realize those intentions.

Adam, I wish I had asked advice from someone like you before I made my first writing attempts! I think you are right that there is also much to be gained from studying all kinds of performance and arts criticism, not strictly sticking to pieces on stage plays. Can you recommend any particular critics to read?

Every summer, the Eugene O'Neill Center hosts the National Critics Institute (http://www.theoneill.org/su... which is a two-week residential program, free to attend for qualified folks, that, well, makes some effort to train critics. Many, if not most, of those working today either went there as fellows, or teach there now.

I was in the first group of critics-in-training at the O'Neill, way back in the late 1960s. That led to a long career as an art and theater critic. Beyond the O'Neill, I learned my craft through reading other critics, art history, and history. Plus thousands of hours in museums, theaters, concert halls, studios, galleries.

"Inexperience and a lack of dialogue are exacerbated by our culture’s collective failure to bestow any overt value on the critical conversation."

My take is that this is, and has been, a growing problem in society everywhere. We seem to have less ability and practice in conversations in general, in favor of the bloviated opinion.

While it is difficult to understand the many facets of theater, it seems even harder to find parties willing and experienced in real conversation.

I have no theater background at all, but now find myself going as often as I can just to experience the dialog between people and learn how conversation works because I don't really see any IRL.

This is a valuable piece – and thanks for giving a mention to How to Write About Theatre. When I started writing the book I believed training wasn't necessary for critics – after all, I had learned on the job myself with only a degree in drama and an interest in writing to see me through. By the time I got to the end of it, however, I'd changed my mind. There's so much to be learned about the history and craft of theatre criticism, and so many great critics to learn from. It is possible to study theatre criticism – Karen Fricker teaches a course at Brock University in Niagara and Catherine Love runs a class at Royal Holloway University London – but such courses are relatively thin on the ground.

Thanks for your comments, Mark! I did wonder whether people would respond to my piece by saying this need for "training" isn't important, and that "learning-on-the-job" is all you can do. I appreciate a professional confirming otherwise. I wish I had found a book like yours at the COOP!

Not all all sure I agree with Steve. Back in the early 90's I enrolled in an MFA program in the Columbia School of the Arts. My specialty area was "criticism." My fellow students were studying play writing, directing and management, Their general attitude toward "the critics" was one of condescension. They were reflecting what they believed to be the attitude of the profession and simply reinforced a stereotype. Yet, when as artists they needed reinforcement or a fresh vision,some approached us, eagerly and willing to collaborate. My own response to people who asked why I wasn't studying in the more "prestigious" journalism school was "I'm not a critic, I'm a dramaturg." In fact dramaturgy was my real interest, but I learned a great deal about dramaturgy writing criticism for people like Frank Rich, Julius Novick and Michael Feingold. The passionate detachment with which a critic approaches a subject is a rare quality. Understanding the craft can be very important, and I respect critics who "get" why something doesn't work. Criticism holds a mirror up to a work of art, describes it, reacts to it and provides context. My most revelatory class about criticism wasn't a writing class at all - it was a class about scholarly research in theater. We were asked to compile research on a series of playwrights: their own words, the scholarly articles and the criticism. The professor asked us to define what resource most completely recreated the work or production. Interestingly, it wasn't the artist writing on their own work. The "scholars" frequently had a particular hobby horse they were trying to ride. No, the writing which best created a sense of the unrepeatable moment was the criticism. They more honest the critic's vision, the more real the event to the reader.We lose something with our smug dismissal of critics and "frustrated wannabe's." We lose their ideas, their vision and, yes, their collaborative contribution.In the three years I was at Columbia the "criticism" specialty disappeared to be replaced by "dramaturgy." Well, something was lost and something was gained -- but I still regret the loss.

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Patricia! I have gone back and forth about whether I should maybe shift gears and study dramaturgy. There are a lot of new voices in dramaturgy surfacing in Boston companies, and the field seems to be gaining a lot of ground. At the very least, I feel like the two fields feed into each other in interesting ways. I think I wouldn't mind doing similar comparative research of the kind you described took place in your class!

Fabiana - The experience with the editor is so painful and heartbreaking. It happens constantly in play writing, in which I have vast experience with rejection without explanation. Glad you kept at it. I have a basic disagreement with the Boston director who told you she doesn't read reviews because reviewers don't know the craft. Most consumers of reviews also do not know the craft. Most people sitting in the audience don't know the craft. You don't have to know the craft to write a helpful and compelling review. Indeed, reviews where the critic is displaying their profound knowledge of theater history and craft are usually the least helpful. Anyway, your experience early on in your career of multiple rejections without any feedback is palpable. Sorry that happened!!

I appreciate your sympathy, Steven! I think the director would agree your point; I think she was pointing out that reviews are meant for audiences more than theatre artists, and therefore not pieces she can learn much from. But this may be up for debate, as artists can learn plenty from what an audience perceives, regardless of whether said audience knows much about staging or not.