Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Critical Defense Posture

There is a lot of hyperventilating over the state of theater criticism lately.

Just a few weeks ago, we had one of the old lions, retired New Yorker Critic John Lahr, assailing the younger generation of print critics.  His hyperventilating turned out to be extraordinarily wheezy though.

This week, Howlround,( the online journal for the Theater Commons at Emerson,) has solicited some pieces from several critics and artists about criticism and journalism in the theater.

Rob Weinert-Kendt starts off with an essay about the parallel circumstances of the critic and the theater artist:

I refer also to the grittier, less exalted ways in which theater critics are as much like theater artists as to be indistinguishable as a class: the meager pay, the struggle for recognition, the dwindling audiences and disproportionate power of a few make-or-break gatekeepers, the sense in which one is stuck with a habit as hard to shake as it is difficult to explain to outsiders, who tend to imagine what you do as either glamorous fun or corrupt, frivolous nonsense, but never honest work.
There’s a deeper affinity, and it’s rooted in the fact that critics and theater artists literally share the same workplace for the most important part of their jobs. Glance again at that hypothetical list above—of miserable, ecstatic, and mediocre theater experiences, and of various ways to respond—and consider that the true critic feels called, duty bound, and, if they’re lucky, contractually expected to respond publicly, and in more detail than most of us ever will, even with shrinking word counts, to all three kinds of shows, and many more varieties besides. If that sounds hard—on the soul, on the brain, on the ass—it is. And if it is not nearly as brave or as arduous as making or performing theater—jobs with as much grind and obligation to them as inspiration and gratification—it is hard work when done well, and it is no more a job for just anyone than are acting or playwriting. We all may have felt the critical impulse, but no, not everyone is a critic.

Wendy Rosenfield dispels the persistent myth that a critic couldn't possibly want to be a critic.  And she proudly states that theater knows it needs critics:

Without that critical assessment, without critics going on record to champion a playwright, performer, or movement—or conversely, without critics opening up a can of whoop-ass on a show they despise and occasionally receiving a bigger one in return—would theater retain even its peripheral position in our culture? No way. Not even if it’s a review of your city’s 10,000th touring performance of Nunsense. It’s a critic’s job to compare and contrast, to examine the spaces in between those performances, to see where they intersect with our lives and where they diverge, and to keep this ephemeral living art form among us a little longer by recording what happened onstage, while challenging audience passivity in the bargain.

And yet criticism, which by now should have evolved from a one-sided conversation (and we critics all know colleagues who are so accustomed to spouting opinions unchallenged that every “conversation” becomes a monologue) to a full-fledged back-and-forth between audience and critic, still drags its knuckles. 

Dominic Taylor, Associate Artistic Director of America-in-Play, points out that poor critics might not be able to accurately assess a work's primary goals:

The dangerous thing about critics examining any work, then, is not the authority that they have over a work, but their individual and collective potential to conflate an audience. This conflation is most problematic when they assume that the primary function, and the primary audience, of all artists is the same. There are ways in which the aesthetics of this understanding can be made clear—even within the one work of one playwright, these factors can shift. I might go so far as to say that the primary audience for August Wilson’s Jitney is different than the primary audience for his Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that difference might be a reason why one of the plays has landed on Broadway twice, while the other play never has. 
John Moore, the former Denver Post theater critic, assures us all that if you didn't like the old way of doing things, just wait until you get a load of the new way.  He exposes a strange new network in Colorado in which arts organizations actually pay reviewers to review their plays.  Then he goes on to point out the reality of the life of an online critic:
Two things the new generation of self-starting blogger critics have in common: Almost none of them are paid anything close to gas money to write about theater. And, perhaps coincidentally—perhaps not—what they write is almost always insufferably, uselessly positive. Some do it for love. Some just want to cheerlead for the community, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Some hope it leads to bigger and better-paid writing gigs. But where are those gigs, exactly? Who is paying anyone a living wage to write about theater anywhere? No one, in part because there is no demand from consumers that “The Man” do so.
Speaking of, who is “The Man” anymore, anyway? The ExaminerThe Huffington Post? Those are newfangled networks of web sites that publish articles by citizen journalists who are paid next to nothing. 

On Thursday, April 4th, Howlround will be initiating a Twitter discussion on this subject using the hashtag #newplay.  Details here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Criticism And Reviewing - "I'm Versus You. Completely Versus."

Refined Or Philistine? Critic or Reviewer?
(Seth Numrich in the Lincoln Center production of Golden Boy)
The critical community rallied to separate camps this past week after former New Yorker critic John Lahr took a swipe at the general state of the profession.

Lahr wrote an essay, The Illumination Business; Why Critics Should Look At and After the Theater, for the Winter 2013 Issue of Nieman Reports which included several other essays about criticism and reviewing.

Building off of  two distinct examples of what he considers lazy, inaccurate opinion-making, Lahr builds a platform upon which he can lament the rise of reviewing over criticism.

Stop me if you've heard this one. No, really. Stop me.

Many critics took umbrage with the piece. Charles McNulty, the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, took to Twitter to respond to what he considered to be an unfair attack on the authors of the two reviews Lahr chose to single out for criticism.  McNulty later compiled these tweets on his Facebook page.

In a rally not so much to the defense of Lahr personally, but more to the point of the Nieman essay, theater blogger George Hunka characterized McNulty's twitter flurry as an ad hominem attack that chooses to avoid Lahr's overall thesis:

George's post has, to this point, drawn 14 comments, most of them continuing to defend the targets of Lahr's  attack, if not attacking  Lahr's critical acumen.  

With every comment it would appear that Hunka's point strengthens. However,  Lahr's essay is just too weirdly constructed and lazily evidenced to be defended. Yes, even though it seems to be stating the truth.  

Now, I do believe that there are distinctions between reviewing and criticism, and, of course, there are arguments to be made about the state of theater criticism. Hunka himself has written a follow-up post entitled "A Modest Proposal" which examines some of the hurdles the art of criticism is having in the internet age. 

However, everybody should avoid the boring way in which Lahr chooses to engage these problems. 

Kenneth Tynan, one of the critics Lahr holds up in his pantheon of great writers for the theater, would never have turned in such a shoddy piece of work.   

I know, the blogosphere may not yet have yielded a Kenneth Tynan, or a Richard Gilman, but it certainly can provide  a corrective to lazy thinking and writing on the part of establishment writers.

For instance, I may not have the skill or talent to write criticism like Robert Brustein or Walter Kerr, but I can actually read the reviews which Lahr chooses to illustrate, or (I'm sorry,) "illuminate", his points. Furthermore, I can read Lahr's own reviews as well.

Scott Brown, theater critic for New York Magazine, comes in for harsh criticism as Exhibit A in Lahr's piece.  Of course, Brown is not named, and the review which Lahr references is not hyperlinked on the Nieman site. (This type of online editorial policy, should be annoying to any readers with functioning brain cells, but I digress.)  

Here is a link to the review in question, you can peruse it if like. In it, Brown is reviewing a  lauded revival of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy.

Lahr is offended, greatly, by Scott Brown's opening passage about how Odets, for a couple of generations of theatergoers, was more of an intellectual acknowledgement, rather than an actual theatrical presence. 

Lahr provides an overly defensive defense of the Odets legacy, citing royalties and, strangely, focusing mostly on Odets' successes prior to the 1960's.   This is his proof not only of Scott Brown's ignorance, but also of Scott Brown's joy in his own ignorance?  

If that isn't enough, the rest of Brown's actual review provides a little more confusion for Lahr's argument.   Brown goes on to consider how Bart Sher, the director of Golden Boy, was able to succeed in pulling off the revival.  Brown says the secret is that Sher focuses on the street lyricism of Odets' dialogue:

In fact, Sher backseats “concept” entirely, tucks it into the shadows with Michael Yeargan’s ghostly suggestion of a set, and instead amps up the sound of Odets, the musical palookaspeak that might represent his greatest contribution to the American Voice on stage and screen....
This is a Golden Boy that’s as much sung as performed, and Sher has assembled one hell of a tabernacle choir to sing it. Even better, he’s managed to keep everyone in the same mighty key. 

Please hold on to that image of a symphony and a conductor for a moment.  

You see,  if you do a little Googling, you will find that this is the way that Lahr himself chose to characterize the very same Lincoln Center production of Golden Boy"This distinguished, symphonic production has finally put Odets in the pantheon, where he belongs." This, of course, right after he points out that, "for decades Odets has languished in the discussion of the American theater."

Notice, Odets was not in the pantheon, by Lahr's own estimation.  In fact, while recapping the year in drama for the New Yorker,  Lahr recalls his own observations about the late 20th century fortunes of Odets among the theater-going public:

When I began as Senior Critic, in 1992, the second show I reviewed was Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing,” in Chicago. Odets seemed to me a woefully overlooked major writer. 

To go even further, in a long "Critic at Large" piece about the playwright of Golden Boy, Lahr writes, "Odets didn’t lose his talent; he lost the attention of his audience."

As for the second major example that Lahr gives, a 2003 (almost ten years old!) New York Times review of The Retreat from Moscow, well, I could go back through my collections of Gilman, Tynan and Brustein that are on my shelf, and cite numerous examples of those critics working in their overall opinion in their opening paragraphs.  

I won't bother though.  It seems that type of rigorous effort won't get me in Nieman Reports, or land me a job writing at The New Yorker.  

There will, of course, be those who think I am unfairly nitpicking Mr. Lahr's essay in order to willfully ignore his larger point. I can assure you that these questions concern me enough to have recently compelled me to read and dissect 20 professional reviews and 69 Amazon customer reviews of a recent bestseller in order to try and decipher  differences between criticism and reviewing. You can read the results here.

That's not the type of thing Harvard publishes, I know, it's just what bloggers sometimes do. 

We're such hacks.

Links to sources referenced in this post:

John Lahr's original column in Nieman Reports
Charles McNulty's Response on Facebook
George Hunka's Defense of Lahr's Thesis
George Hunka's Follow Up: "A Modest Proposal"
Scott Brown's Review of Golden Boy
John Lahr's Review of Golden Boy (Subscription required)
John Lahr's Critic at Large Piece about Clifford Odets
John Lahr's 2012 Year End Wrap Up
2003 New York Times Review of The Retreat From Moscow (Subscription required)

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Evergreen Movie Tax Credits Debate Now Moves To Stages

Tax credits for film production are a familiar enough concept for those who follow Massachusetts political and cultural news.

As I posted last year, the concept of tax credits for large, Broadway touring or try-out shows, hit the mainstream in places like Toronto and Chicago.

Now, Geoff Edgers, writing in the Boston Globe, reports on how legislators in the Bay State will be considering a similar tax credit proposal:

 The credit would grant up to $3 million to a production that plays in Massachusetts before opening in New York or to a touring show that starts here, reimbursing up to 35 percent of its state labor costs. Advo­cates of the proposal say the credits would create hundreds of jobs and drive millions of dollars of business into Massachusetts. 

Of course, there are arguments for and against this new idea. Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Globe, fired off with both barrels:

 Local theater honchos are warning, of course, that unless the Legislature showers them with a lucrative new subsidy, Massachusetts can kiss big stage productions goodbye. 
“We need this credit,” the Citi Center’s Josiah Spaulding Jr. told the Globe. “Illinois has one. Louisiana has one. And if we can’t get one, we won’t be able to attract pre-Broadway shows again.”Uh-huh. That is what rent-seeking special pleaders — sports team owners, mutual-fund companies, video-game makers, solar-energy firms, filmmakers — always claim. And almost invariably the subsidies and benefits and tax breaks they clamor for turn out in the end to be what the critics predicted: ill-advised corporate welfare that costs far more than it generates. (See under: 38 Studios. Or Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Or Evergreen Solar. Or Nortel Networks.)

However, the most interesting cautionary note, to my mind, was voiced in the Edger's story by long-time Broadway producer Tom Viertel:

 “The problem is that in order to do a good job with a pre-Broadway show, you have to be able to keep it in front of an audience for close to a month while you work on it,” Viertel said. “The daunting aspect, from a producer’s point of view, is, ‘Can Boston really provide a month’s worth of audiences?’ Even with the tax credits, Boston may be a little limited as to what it can attract.”
(Note to Mirror readers.  The Globe has opted for a pretty restrictive paywall, so I apologize if the links don't work for you.  More on this in an upcoming post.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gambling is Coming to Boston. What Does It Mean for the Arts?

Rendering of one of the casino proposals for outside Boston.

This is an important date in the future of the Bay State's cultural landscape.

 Today is the deadline for casino developers to submit proposals for the three possible casino development licenses in Massachusetts.

Gambling is coming.

What does it mean for the culture makers and performance artists of the Commonwealth?

Almost on cue, Chris Jones has written a column in the Chicago Tribune addressing this very topic. Chicago faces a similar situation as the Hub, a large gaming facility is on the very near horizon.

 Jones suggests a proactive approach:
Any Chicago casino must, first and foremost, not be seen as a Chicago casino at all. Instead, it should be viewed as a major new cultural hub, which happens to have a little gambling going on alongside its many other attractions. And that won't happen unless Chicago's creative professionals — its architects, entertainment executives, chefs, artists, actors, music promoters, cultural officials — hold their noses and overcome, as did the former street performers of the Cirque du Soleil more than two decades ago, whatever qualms they may have about becoming involved with gambling, which will arrive with or without them. They must grab hold of this civic debate right now, before the chance is lost for good.
The main energy of a Chicago casino should have everything to do with experiencing architecture, watching spectacular shows, eating at world-class restaurants, interacting with thrilling technological art and the like, and as little as possible to do with gambling.
Is this an approach for Boston or any of the other possible casino locations? Could ArtsEmerson have a stage over at the old Suffolk Downs?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Side by Side by Side Reviews of Sondheim

 Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in MARRY ME A LITTLE.
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures.
The critical waters in Boston are growing shallower by the year, as evidenced by Tom Garvey's recent post comparing word counts at the various cultural outlets.

I've always been of the mind that it is helpful to have various voices on stage and off.

I was looking over three recent reviews of the New Rep's production of Marry Me a Little, a musical revue of Stephen Sondheim tunes.

I was struck by how different the focus was in each review.  While all of them at least touched on several of the same points, each reviewer keyed in on an aspect that would form the spine of their criticism.

Writing in New England Theater Geek, Craig Idlebrook focuses on Sondheim's music and how it frustrates, and never so much as in a revue format:

Listening to Sondheim’s repertoire in the musical revue Marry Me a Little, currently being staged by the New Repertory Theatre, is like taking a master class in songwriting with Sondheim, with melodies that feel both familiar and haunting, easy on the ear and flat-out wrong. Lovers clash musically with competing versions of a fairy tale or declare their undying devotion as long as it doesn’t cost too much. All this musical discomfort can be overwhelming musically without dialogue to temper it; even a Dear John letter has familiar words for the hurt heart to find refuge. In the revue, there is nowhere to hide. 
Meanwhile, Tom Garvey sees a revelation in the cast director Ilyse Robbins has brought together:

 Which brings me back to my first point - once again I've found myself watching a cast that easily negotiated issues and funny twists that would have sent Boston's best pros spinning only a decade ago. The quartet here - Aimee Doherty, Phil Tayler, Erica Spyres and newcomer Brad Daniel Peloquin - all have delightful voices and acting chops to spare. Peloquin, often perched on the top level of a sprawling set, sometimes had a projection problem (the actors were wearing mikes, but the amplification, if it was there at all, was blessedly subtle) - but in general the singing was wonderful, and the vignettes accompanying the songs ran the gamut from haunting to hilarious. 
And, at the Boston Globe, Don Acouin's review is more woven around the concept, or hook, of the production:
Now, nearly a decade after Massachusetts led the way nationally by legalizing same-sex marriage, the New Repertory Theatre is staging a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little’’ that broadens its scope to include gay relationships. It works, and beautifully, too. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, the New Rep’s “Marry Me a Little’’ is an appealingly understated gem of a revue. Melancholy and uplifting by turns — but mostly melancholy; this is Sondheim we’re talking about, after all — the show underscores the necessity and difficulty of human connection, gay or straight.

Three different takes on the joys and challenges of the New Rep production.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Boston Theater - Friday Roundup

2013 is getting into full swing with a lot of openings 

Here are some of the shows you can see in and around the Hub this weekend: 


  • A variety of Boston's best actresses are on the boards at the Lyric Stage for 33 Variations
  • Ralph Ellison's iconic novel Invisible Man is brought into theatrical view at the Huntington Theater Company. (Photo above.) 
  • Whistler in the Dark, (fresh off their triumph with Tales from Ovid,)presents the seldom produced Caryl Churchill play Vinegar Tom at the Calderwood Pavilion. 
  • Anne Hathaway may win an Oscar this year, but previously that name was most commonly associated with Shakespeare's wife. The Bard's spouse is brought to life in a one-woman play Shakespeare's Will at the Merrimack Repertory Theater. 
  • For those who want to start the theatrical New Year with a little Sondheim, New Rep presents Marry Me a Little, a revue of the composer's music. 
  • Flat Earth Theater Company dashes off A Memorandum at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. The play, by Vaclav Havel, is satire of bureacracies. 
  • Christmas season may be in the rear-view mirror, but Imaginary Beasts are back with their annual winter panto, this year is Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


  • David Cromer's landmark production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town continues at the Huntington Theater Company. 
  • The Broadway bound Pippin keeps tumbling at the American Repertory Theater. 

 (Photo Credit: Teagle F. Bougere in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of INVISIBLE MAN. Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New York Centrism - Critic Says, We're All In the Same Boat

Michael Feingold, writing in the Village Voice, takes in the latest Pulitzer Prize winning play to have originated at a regional theater outside of New York City. Water by the Spoonful, last year's winner, had its premiere production at Hartford Stage.

Feingold notes that such plays are usually greeted "sniffily" by the New York critics:

New Yorkers like making the nation's taste, not vice versa, and they're not famous for approving of plays coronated elsewhere—a stance that the Pulitzer's Drama committee has increasingly tried to combat in recent years. 
Like New York's haughty preference for being the determining factor when prizes are dispensed, the committee's insistence on hunting elsewhere for a prizewinner may strike one as silly and arbitrary, a well-meaning attempt to resist a bias that hardly exists any longer. The theater's shrinkage as a cultural force in our society has so entangled New York with resident theaters nationwide that we are all, in effect, stuck in the same storm-tossed little boat. The sooner we stop squabbling over precedence and start figuring out practical ways to keep the damn thing from sinking, the better off we're likely to be.

Boston Playwright Gets Mellon Grant - Melinda Lopez Will Take Residency at the Huntington

More great news for Boston theater.  One of our playwrights, Melinda Lopez, has been chosen for one of the Mellon Foundation's residencies for playwrights, which will provide salaries and benefits for three years to the recipient..

Melinda is currently onstage at the Roberts Theatre in the Huntington's production of Our Town, which was directed by David Cromer. (Photo above.)

An article in the Boston Globe covers the details of the Mellon initiative:

The Mellon money is designed to enable the writers to focus more fully on their writing without scrambling to make ends meet, but under the initiative they will also shoulder duties that could include taking part in planning sessions for theater companies’ upcoming seasons, providing a writer’s voice at board meetings, and participating in playwright development programs. A total of $245,000 will cover Lopez’s salary and benefits at the Huntington for the three-year residency. She will also be eligible to apply each year for an additional $10,000 from the Center for the Theater Commons to cover travel and research expenses. Lopez said she plans to finish “Becoming Cuba,’’ a historical drama set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, and also write two additional full-length plays during the residency.
However, this is not to be confused with a MacArthur Fellowship which is a direct gift to the recipient. The Mellon grant is a bit more admin heavy:
Playing a key role in the Mellon Foundation initiative is the Center for the Theater Commons, a research center based at Emerson College. The center will receive a $760,000 grant, of which more than half will be distributed to the playwrights for travel and research expenses, according to the center’s director, Polly Carl. The rest will fund a project to hire freelancers who will closely track the residencies to see how well they are working and what difference they are making for the playwrights, the individual theaters and the communities where they are located, as well as, potentially, the American theater in general.
Congratulations to Melinda Lopez, who is breaking ground for Boston playwrights once again!

Back in 2004 when the Boston Center for the Arts opened the Calderwood Pavillion, Melinda's play Sonia Flew was chosen by then Huntington Theatre Company Artistic Director Nicholas Martin to christen the Wimberly Theater, which was to serve as the Huntington's second stage. 

  (Photo Credit: Melinda Lopez and Derrick Trumbly in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN. Photo by Charles T. Erickson.)

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Year of the Critical Discussion

Over on Salon, Laura Miller interviews literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who has just published Waiting for the Barbarians, a collection of his criticisms.

The short interview ranges through many of the arguments about the state of literary criticism that appeared during 2012, including memoir, non-fiction versus fiction, positive reviews, social media cheerleading, etc. Many of these arguments were crossover hits into the world of theater and film as well.

Here Laura Miller brings up the eternal accusation of the critical agenda:
MILLER: Another form that takes is the author’s response to a bad review. Before, you might complain about it with your friends on the phone or over coffee. Now, that sort of angst often gets expressed on Facebook or Twitter. Or a writer’s friends will take up the cause in those forums and drop sinister remarks about the reviewer’s ulterior “agenda.” 
MENDELSOHN: They always say that! Of course, if you’re talking about a professional assignment, no good editor would allow that to happen. I don’t think it’s Pollyanna-ish or naive to say that if you were given an assignment and you had some personal gripe against the author, you would recuse yourself. I’ve done that. But people always instantly assume that you had it in for that person when you’ve written a negative review. It’s a pernicious myth. Of course, we do have agendas that are aesthetic. That’s different. That’s a legitimate agenda.People also have the idea, especially if you’re not liking something very popular, that you’ve been gunning for it the whole time. In my experience, that’s never the case. You always go to a movie or open a book hoping that you’re going to like it. You don’t say, “Oh, everyone loves ‘Mad Men,’ so I’m going to knock it down!” Because why would you put yourself through that? This is actual work. I don’t want to sit through something I hate, knowing that I’m going to have to criticize it strongly. You always start out with an open mind.