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.


Thomas Garvey said...

It's funny how much more eager everyone is to write ABOUT criticism rather than just WRITE CRITICISM.

Ian Thal said...

Well, Tom, It's much safer to write about criticism than write criticism; you're far less likely to place either your virtues or vices on display, become embroiled in a controversy, or make an impact.