Post image for Reasons to be Critical

For a full ill-advised minute (actually, more like ten months), I had considered being a theatre critic. And then, I realize two things: I really disliked reading my own opinions and criticism was a hard and mostly thankless job.

When you give a theatre artist a good review, they admire you and your writing and everyone is happy and satisfied. But when the review is not positive…

Well, then you hear about it in the comment section.

In this month’s issue of American Theatre magazine, Time Out New York theatre editor critic, David Cote, spotlights 12 critics that he believes are influential to the theatre scene in their respective cities.

The comments that followed the piece seem indicative of a sensitive, often tumultuous relationship: the critic and the artist. Or more specifically, like that odd couple, how much they periodically seem to dislike each other.

In this modern world, thanks to the interwebs, a critical opinion is simultaneously easier to spread while also easily diluted due to the breadth of other concurrently running opinions. As such, I see a quandary building: What voices are more respected by the artist and what voices are respected by the readers? And how often do those tastes intersect?

Last year when I was in journalism school to learn how to be a feature writer and a potential critic, I was told by my adviser, who writes about and critiques classical music, that when you are criticizing a piece of work, you are writing for the reader.

Or as Oscar Wilde memorably puts in The Critic as Artist, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.”

Which is why I find asking artists what they think of critics a bit redundant. Some reader comments in Mr. Cote’s article pointed out: “I’d be interested to learn which critic in these markets has the most respect among the theatre artists working there.”

Based on what I was taught and what I noticed in practice (reviewing for student dailies, websites, print publications and my personal blog), the respect of the theatre artist is a sometimes-handy byproduct of a review. It is not why critics write.

In the words of Chris Jenson, a stage columnist for the SF Weekly, “My primary role is not to be a cheerleader for local theatre, but to be of service to readers.”

I understand that the dislike of critics from artists may lay in the power inherent in a position. After all, a bad review usually means less seats in the house (unless you are Spider-Man or Mamma Mia!). Or theatre artist may feel that certain critics are short-changing their work in some way.

But the emphasis should not be on debating whether or not certain critics are skilled writers, know enough for their opinions to matter or are “influential” enough. It should be on finding ways to expand coverage, for big and small theatres in any way, whether it is through reviews or features, instead of dismissing critical voices as unimportant and ineffective to the theatrical discussion.

The questions should then be: How can writers help theatres? And what can theatres do to bring their work to writers’ attention?

One of the most often-quoted lines from the smartly dressed TV show, “Mad Men” is: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” If theatre artists are not satisfied with an opinion about a show, then respond, add something to the discussion. That way, both critics and artists can gain the attention of the most important group of all: the audience.

While artists may not care for critical opinion, the audience who may not frequent the theatre as often does need a critical hand when choosing a show. Or, in these economic times, someway of gauging whether or not they should be spending money on a particular show. And when the opinions between audience and critics differ, you get a discussion as entertaining as the ones at New York Magazine.

A comment on Mr. Cote’s article from Barry Johnson, executive editor at Oregon Arts Watch suggests another topic of discussion: “A look at the different ‘ecologies of criticism’ in various cities and the extent to which they manage to engage their communities in intelligent and provocative discussion about theater, which leads to… more intelligent and provocative theater, ultimately.” And to add to Mr. Johnson’s suggestion, perhaps a look at how to increase those discussions to include big and small theatres and to attract more readers.

This past summer, Jason Zinoman wrote in a New York Times blog post that he “would rather live in a theatre culture where discussions about plays can get as contentious (and occasionally rude) as those about politics.”

I have to agree with that sentiment. Because at the close of the curtain, the most toxic reaction (for critics and artists) is silence.

P.S. As an addendum to Mr. Cote’s piece, John Moore of the Denver Post also responded with a post elaborating on why he thought he might have been selected into Mr. Cote’s list. It’s worth a read for any publication looking for a model on how to widen their theatre coverage beyond reviews, previews and blog posts. Any theatres that are looking for new ways to present their offerings will also find it useful. Some handy suggestions include social media presence, new play samples, online photo galleries and podcasts.


Diep Tran is an editorial assistant at American Theatremagazine. She comes from the sunny land of California. When she is not writing about theatre and seeing theatre, she watches television shows about glee clubs and zombies. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.

  • http://www.BlackOpsArtist.com Black Ops Artist

    The problem I have with theaters and critics lies more with the artist. Let’s for a moment leave out the fact that it is easy to be a critic of other peoples work, no matter how important the critic think he or she is.

    My point, as an artist, is that artist need to redefine what judgement is. Actually our culture does. But as artists we cannot escape the fact that part of our job description is to be judged. If we are creating art, we are sparking emotions, conversations, ideas, psychological synaptical firings in the minds of our audience. This process is a process in which the audience gets to measure their life experience with what they are witnessing on stage. And to come to any sort of conclusions, the audience must make judgements.

    As artist we get all happy when the audience judges us with niceties. “Oh your performance was great”. Or “Wow, your character development was so moving and nuanced”. BUT, what happens when an audience member says something to the artist like “Ohh, you know, I couldn’t find myself engaged in your character”. Or “I didn’t really enjoy the play”. Or “You know, I wasn’t sure of the point of your character”.

    The artist gets upset. The artist gets mad, and usually what comes out of their mouth or thought in their mind is something like “How dare you judge me. You don’t know the amount of work that went into creating my character”.

    What we end up having is a hypocritical artist who doesn’t understand the nature of being an artist. Judgement can have both positive and negative components. How can we only embrace the positive judgement and revile the negative? Why is it that we only say that someone is judging us when what we hear is not flattering? Are not flattering statements also judgements?

    When the critic passes judgement that is not “positive”, the artist immediately jumps to the “How dare you judge me” mentality which is an artist who doesn’t fully understand his or her role as an artist. An artist is someone who is supposedly out to affect the audience, to stimulate the mind of an audience and have an effect on those persons life.

    If you are an artist, you cannot want less than trying to catalyze change. And when you embrace that and when you embrace that judgement in the positive is just as biased as judgement in the “negative”, then it becomes easier to accept criticism that an artist may find unflattering.

    A big discussion topic in social media for businesses is how can a business mitigate the repercussions of negative social backlash? Or put another way, how can businesses reinterpret negative social media commentary and use it to their benefit? Or put another way, how can businesses spin negative social media reviews?

    Believe me, it is a reality and if there are ways to use “negativity” to ones benefit, businesses are finding ways. So why can’t artists, and or artists institutions do the same? WE CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONE and there is bound to be someone out there whose aesthetics will not jive with the aesthetic of a particular production they may see. Shall we silence their response to that production?

    No artist wants censorship, so lets not censure our audience or our critics when they seem to “judge” us negatively.