Condition:Critical

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in Critics & Reviews

(L to R: David Cote, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, Claudia La Rocco, Rob Weinert-Kendt, Jason Zinoman. Image: Martha Steketee)

I was recently invited to speak on the panel “Condition: Critical,” Monday, Oct. 25 at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY. Present at this wide-ranging discussion among my colleagues and myself was avid theatergoer Martha Wade Steketee, who wrote a version of this post on her blog. We’re reprinting it here with her permission.
–Rob Weinert-Kendt

Condition: Critical
A Response to the Discussion on the Future of Theatre Criticism
Held on Monday, October 25, at 6:30pm
At the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY
By Martha Steketee

I believe in logical thinking and I believe in deeply felt writing—and I don’t think these have to be mutually exclusive. I believe that both are needed to tell the story, the written history, of the theatre. And yes, I believe that the people who analyze and discuss live performance are writing history, and are working hand in hand to build theatre-appreciative audiences and communities.

Perhaps this is a matter of belief. Yet I would contend that it’s also a matter of craft, as do the five people who parsed the future of theatre criticism on the stage of the Segal Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center on Oct. 25th. They included David Cote (Time Out New York), Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (Best Plays Yearbook, NYU), Claudia La Rocco (The New York Times, WNYC), Rob Weinert-Kendt (American Theatre, StageGrade), and Jason Zinoman (The New York Times, Slate). Believers in theatre and in the role of the critic, with some nuances presented in engaged conversation for 90 minutes or so. The balance of this post will relay their own thoughts, roughly organized by questions asked by moderator David Cote or members of the audience.

Q: How do you navigate the balance between journalism and criticism?

  • Cote wondered whether he, as a sometimes instructor of arts criticism, was encouraging “sophists, dandies, and dilettantes” while training writers to “write clearly when in a mode that’s not academic, more journalistic.”
  • Jenkins responded that he teaches students at the theatre program at NYU who are already committed to careers in theatre, whether they be actors, designers, or writers. In his role editing the over-100-year-old Best Plays series of annual yearbooks, he sees daily criticism of current productions as “the first draft of theatre history” and the annual yearbooks as “the second draft.”
  • Zinoman noted that he has taught criticism courses and has now concluded that he is not sure that criticism should be taught at all—better to study a subject critically rather than study criticism as a theoretical academic discipline. Zinoman also noted that he thinks theatre and dance criticism are more important than film criticism in part due to the nature of the media involved; films can be viewed and reviewed in perpetuity. The critic’s voice is just about all that we have for the ephemeral theatre and dance arts. “At its best, criticism is a real art form,” he stated. Performance criticism “aspires to be a kind of literature.”
  • La Rocco noted that much of what is happening in theatre criticism today is genre-crossing. She noted that she resists giving a grade or approving something. Criticisim for her is a “cultivation of thought.” She considers the critic as sitting at the intersection of several spheres: the artistic creation, the critic’s own world view, and the larger culture. Cote added that he has long imagined a graph organizing each known critic by his or her known biases and tastes—a kind of predictive tool to anticipate a critic’s reaction to a particular theatrical work.

Q: What have we learned by aggregating reviews?

  • Weinert-Kendt has created a review aggregator, StageGrade.com, that includes links to reviews of every New York productions, with letter grades assigned to each review, an admittedly subjective process. He noted that he has found it striking that while there is not “group think” among the critics the site tracks, the commentary “falls along axes of opinion” the more reviews a play receives.
  • Zinoman thinks that review aggregation efforts such as StageGrade are a great resource for the thoughtful critic. Yet he is troubled that this easy one-stop viewing of the array of reviews for any single production might encourage the counterintuitive instinct—the strategy of any single critic to gain attention by finding an extreme position. He concluded that “we’re victims of our own biases.”

Q: Is it possible that theatre critics are less flexible than their colleagues in other fields?

  • La Rocco: For a critic to be predictable is not necessarily a bad thing
  • Jenkins: As an audience member, you begin to know how your reaction, your critique, fits with the critics you follow.
  • Weinert-Kendt: Knowing a critic’s biases and creating assumptions about how they will react to any particular production is not a reliable guide for him.
  • Zinoman: There is room for the “aesthetically ideological” in the field, such as Pauline Kael in film reviewing.

Q: New models are emerging for building communities such as a “performance club” that La Rocco hosted.

  • La Rocco explained: The group functioned as an online social club, like a book club, in which an organized group met for a show and dinner and drinks and discussed the show, sometimes with representatives from the show attending. To La Rocco, this functioned as a “democratic space for critics, audiences, and artists” to interact. “I’m not as interested in criticism on its way to judgment, but in the disagreements, the conversations…which were best when there were wildly divergent views.” She continued: “Just because a person is paid doesn’t mean we’re good at what we do…Criticism is not dying, it’s just shifting.”
      Various thoughts:

    • Cote: “Who cares if it’s good or bad—how does it work?”
    • Weinert-Kendt: There is a stronger online presence in other arts than there is for theatre. There has not been, in his view, the “promised or threatened Internet takeover of theatre criticism.” The only difference between institution criticism to him is deadlines and whether people are paid.
    • Zinoman: Economics matter. Bloggers need money so they move on to paying gigs. The number of people who are paid for reviews is down. Whether a writer receives health care has an effect on reviews—there is “dignity in the job.”

    Q: How do you balance the critical essay versus short form reviewing?

    • Jenkins: The Best Play series, that has existed in some form for over 100 years. It attempts to capture a full season on Broadway. Jenkins described the current Best Play volume as summarizing the season on Broadway, and providing more detailed essays on each of 10 “best plays” (selected by a committee of individuals in the theatre). The established style of many years of the series was to provide a brief summary of the play, then selections from the script (a kind of annotated version of the script), or script highlights, in an almost anonymous editorial voice. Jenkins is changing this coverage of each “best play” to be an individually authored 3,000-word essay in a distinct and recognizable voice about the selected play and its production and its cultural context, with pull quotes. Jenkins noted that playwrights didn’t appreciate the old style. With his new style, he includes in each essay about 1/3 production information, 1/3 play information, 1/3 social and cultural context.
    • Cote: Facebook is a way to begin conversations, perhaps get into arguments, that can inform these discussions about theatre.
    • Zinoman: There is room on the web for much more to be done in theatre writing. He now is a heavy user of Facebook, which he got into when he had a child and found he missed kibitzing with folks in the office. He discovered that Facebook can be promotional and begin conversations if the parties are respectful of other points of view.

    Q: In the current Broadway climate, producers can attempt to reduce the power of critics, making shows “critic proof.” Is this a change from prior eras?

    • La Rocco: “the most important thing a critic can do is to be a cultural arbiter.” (Ed. note: Claudia La Rocco notes in the comments that this quote  ”is actually in direct opposition to what I believe a critic’s role to be.” – 02/07/11)
    • Cote: “If Ben Brantley can’t kill The Addams Family, then there are larger cultural influences at work”
    • Jenkins: In Los Angeles recently there was an open letter printed in one of the major papers, signed by several major producing companies, asking for more theatre critics in the city.

    Q: Do you take into account the reactions of the audience?

    • Jenkins: There is a long tradition in American theatre criticism of reviewing the crowd, the audience, in attendance.
    • La Rocco: While theatre is live and there are emotions we can stay focused. “We’re sophisticated enough to be moved by [the crowd] and yet be critical of the event.”
    • Zinoman: Critics aren’t as affected by audiences as theatres think they will be. “Criticism is a branch of journalism. It is a version of reporting.” Zinoman goes on to add that he doesn’t feel arts criticism is endangered as much as is arts reporting.

    To champion good work. To keep one’s own counsel. To practice a form of reporting. To honestly react to the live performance in front of you. To engage with context where you can, yet be specific and in the moment always. This is the alchemy of criticism of the live arts. And all of this informs why I’m enthralled by the practice of it now, after my own training as an observer, researcher, writer, journalist, dramaturg.

    I interviewed theatre critics in Philadelphia about a year ago, and heard a range of opinions about the future of the enterprise – concerns about the credentials of those offering their blogged opinions, concerns about too many voices in the landscape. Some of those opinions are expressed this evening in New York City. And yet one is left with the optimism expressed by Philadelphia theatre critic Wendy Rosenfield (full interview here):

    “I think at this point you have to have a real entrepreneurial spirit if you’re going to succeed as a critic…There is no doubt that [the future of theatre criticism] will be on line, and there is no doubt to me that it will involve multimedia in some way. I know a lot of critics who are stuck in print media and don’t want to expand much. Fine if you want to hang on there but I can’t do that. I love the job so much that I want to make sure that I have a future at it. I don’t have the time to run my own web site or to start my own business, but certainly I want to be involved in it, and I want to be prepared to be involved.”

    The passion about the art form and the openness to new media platforms expressed by Rosenfield may define the next generation of art critics. The analytical skill set is as essential as it always has been while the form of distribution and engagement are morphing opportunities rather than impediments to the future of what George Jean Nathan called “the art of the night.”

    —Martha Wade Steketee

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    • Claudia La Rocco

      hey – it’s great to have this summary. but – ack! – this quote,“the most important thing a critic can do is to be a cultural arbiter,” which is attributed to me, is actually in direct opposition to what I believe a critic’s role to be.

      thanks,
      clr

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SUSVW5ALAJ7FBF6QAQDSEMTLWU William August

      Claudia,

      Thanks for writing – we’ll add this clarification to the post!