Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Do Critics Need a Self Defense Class?

Bloom: Actors are not animals! They're human beings!

Bialystock: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

-The Producers by Mel Brooks

Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, spent his life around dangerous animals. And he died, from a poisonous stingray, in pursuit of his passion and his vocation.

It seems that theater reviewers might be able to relate after the recent rough-up of a critic by the artistic director of the Cleveland Playhouse.

In the past few years critics seem to fall back on the fact that they often must engage personally with their subjects as some type of badge of courage. You would think the theater beat is akin to some strange tributary that must be navigated as if one was Mr. Irwin on a croc hunt for the Discovery Channel.

However, this latest incident in Ohio may lend credence to their tearwaters. The Denver Post theatre critic, John Moore, tries to make sense things, and ends up with some advice:

The goal of the critic is to move readers to action - usually to go and see a particular show. The goal is not to move an artistic director to deliver a sharp right uppercut.

There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.

Of course criticism is no place for grudges or vendettas or misuse of power. Every show at every theater must be a clean slate. Conversely I think it is the responsibility of any critic, especially one at a major metro newspaper, to use his influence and access to help build up the community he serves in any way that does not compromise his ability to also objectively evaluate theater.

That means speaking to classes, moderating forums, and most of all - seeing as many plays as possible, and writing about them honestly. Then let the readers decide.

Happy Hunting Critics!....And Artistic Directors!

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