On a recent trip to Chicago to see David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette in the upstairs theatre at Steppenwolf, I was unfortunate to miss Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s provocative This is Modern Art – part of Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Adults program – taking place downstairs. Upon returning home to Providence, Rhode Island, I discovered that my social media world had exploded with a hot and heavy debate about two major reviews of the show: one from Hedy Weiss at the Chicago Sun-Times and the other from Chris Jones at the Tribune. Both critics had challenged the ethics of producing a show for teenage audiences that valorized graffiti. The community’s response was immediate, sharp, aggressive, and in my opinion, glorious. Glorious not because of the content of the debate (although its merits are undeniable) but because of the articulate, sophisticated, and inquisitive force that emerged around the production, thus elevating This is Modern Art from your average, run-of-the-mill, young-audiences’ show into a catalyst for a cross-national conversation about theatre, race, art, and the role of the critic. Poring over this muscular debate that had blossomed thanks to the immediacy of digital communications, I was inspired to rethink the unique challenges and potential solutions facing theatre communities (such as my own) that operate outside major metropolises like Chicago.
Whereas large cities tend to enjoy excellent criticism – an essential ingredient of engaging the public in a vibrant theatre community – artists making work in smaller urban centers rarely enjoy the level or breadth of critical discourse sparked by plays like This is Modern Art. Yes, like most cities Providence has newspapers and magazines that pay writers to review the work that takes place on our stages. But reviewers serve a different function than critics do. What this means is that plays like This is Modern Art (had it been produced here in Rhode Island) would receive a review but not be critiqued. A review tends only to summarize the plot, mention a word or two about the production value, and then offer a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” evaluation. A review is thus valuable only insofar as it attracts or dissuades a ticket buyer. Good criticism, on the other hand, is an invitation to engage with a play regardless of whether the reader has or will see the production. Why read reviews of film, dance, theatre, art, or music in The New Yorker or The New York Times if you’re never going to see the work? Because reading good criticism demands engagement with art in a meaningful way that has intrinsic value utterly independent of whether you will ever personally experience that play, movie, or painting.
A critic’s job, to quote Chris Jones in The Washington Post (“Critics Pens vs. Spray Cans: Reviews of a Play About Grafitti Sparks Controversy,” 3/19/15), is “to see the work in the terms the artist intended” (emphasis added). Unlike a reviewer who renders an evaluative judgment of a play based strictly on his or her tastes, a critic’s responsibility its to consider in depth the artists’ objectives, how those objectives were met or fell short, and to contextualize the work in a way that orients his or her readership to where this play sits in the dramatic canon and how it reverberates within the theatrical culture of its city. A good critic asks: what are the political/social/aesthetic/civic implications of this play? Criticism that fulfills its purpose generates thoughtful discourse that demands engagement from the public in multifaceted ways that extend much deeper than the conventional post-show talkback.
Here in Providence, internationally renowned director Brian Mertes recently directed a provocative (and I would argue) highly controversial interpretation of The Glass Menagerie for Trinity Repertory Company. The company took valiant measures to engage its audiences through talkbacks, excellent program essays, and a strong social media campaign. Also, the review from Rhode Island’s flagship newspaper, The Providence Journal was resoundingly positive. And yet no one (beyond the artists and administrators responsible for making the play to begin with) has critiqued the work. No has asked the hard questions about what Mertes’ objectives were, how those objectives resonate with Williams’ text, and how this production relates to our community’s history with the play (Rhode Island’s Gamm Theatre, where I regularly direct, also produced a provocative interpretation of The Glass Menagerie several years ago that, like Trinity’s production, used Williams’ personal life as a framing device but in a distinctly different way. How are that production and this in conversation with one another?). The dearth of critical engagement in small cities such as mine has profound implications for audience engagement and the health of our arts communities overall. Without an intelligent, inquisitive intermediary between artists and audiences, plays that are new, formally challenging, or feature provocative interpretations wither and die on the vine when the ink they earn reflects little more than a reviewer’s preferences. But when an intelligent mind publicly grapples with the art before him, he builds a bridge between the community and its artists. Without this key aspect of a city’s cultural life, we are creating work in a vacuum and screaming from our stages and talkbacks and program essays: What we make matters!
I worry that all of the theatre-driven programming and grant-making we do around “audience engagement” places the burden of motivating audiences on the wrong party: the artists. Artists who, especially here in New England, are producing plays for small and midsize companies who are understaffed, underfunded, and fighting tooth and nail to realize their stated mission: to make high-quality, important theatre. Of course engaging audiences is essential to pursuing that mission (who is the work for, after all?) but for most of us, audience engagement initiatives are not our stated mission. In fact, I think it is unethical to insist that our primary duty as theatre professionals is to devise community events that attract people to our buildings. I think our duty as theatre professionals is to make work that is worthy of the public’s participation. When we place the onus of “audience engagement” on the artists alone, we run the risk of a) naval gazing; b) mission drift; or worse c) assuming a self-righteous stance by claiming that our community’s cultural diet lacks the nutritional value of what our theatre offers. Who’s to say that I, the artist, know best what kind of audience member will get the most out of what I make? Woe to the production team that has not forethought not only how to make a play but whom to invite. But if my job is not only to create the art but also to curate the best audience to receive that art, I have supplanted my role of creator with that of party host.
When we put up with poor criticism or its absence altogether, we endanger the quality of a city’s civic life. Excellent productions of challenging work are ignored or dismissed. Poor productions of mediocre work are rewarded for their digestibility. Serious artists – such as those graduating from top-tier institutions like Brown and RISD – flee their training grounds for cities where their work will be enriched and promoted by good criticism. Professional theatres are saddled with having consistently to self-validate their ambitious, challenging work. The artists suffer. Audiences suffer. The city suffers.
There are real economic impacts here to consider, too. When we talk about “audience engagement” we mean a variety of things but one of the ways we ask audiences to engage is to monetize their experience of the work we create. Insisting our cities invest in good criticism influences this financial reality because it not only promotes the work but enriches the experiences of potential audience members by providing them a quality of discourse that is commensurate with the work. Paradoxically, a “bad review” by a “good critic” can positively influence ticket sales (as was the case with This is Modern Art that enjoyed blockbuster attendance after the online debate exploded) whereas a “good review” from a “bad critic” can negatively impact ticket sales (as was the case with Trinity Rep’s Glass Menagerie that struggles to fill houses despite a positive review from Rhode Island’s best-known critic). But good criticism has the potential to empower art by giving it a newsworthy platform accessible by a much wider demographic than one cherry-picked by the producing theatre.
We must invent a new model; one that can serve effectively the particular needs of the city for which it is being invented. We must move the burden of audience engagement from artists onto the individuals responsible for ensuring the vibrancy of a community’s artistic life such as city and state Arts Councils. We must demand that good criticism be as important to the health of our civic life as the art itself. In so doing, we not only alleviate the burden currently borne by theatres (and other arts institutions) but also the newspapers that can no longer fund or attract high-quality arts writers as print media approaches extinction. Moving critical arts discourse to the digital sphere will also prove essential. Divorcing theatre criticism from newspapers alone (even the online editions) liberates writers to engage quite directly with their public, thus making space for conversations (and arguments!) between critics, artists, and the general public in a way that our current reviewing process and “audience engagement” habits prohibit. The debate over This is Modern Art is an excellent case study in what can happen when bold, quality, arts criticism is met with robust challenges from artists, audience members, and scores of people from across the nation invested in a rigorous discourse about art.
As a professional theatre artist who has built a career in a small city, I feel like I am in the fight of my life when it comes to this issue. I am not alone. Tony Estrella, the Artistic Director for the Gamm Theatre (nationally celebrated for its edgy, take-no-prisoners aesthetic) has dispensed with “press nights” altogether for many of the reasons enumerated here. Rebecca Noon, co-creator of Strange Attractor (a physical theatre company that devises original work), constantly questions Providence as an artistic home due to the lack of critics who will engage with the formal challenges of her work. Artists are not the only stakeholders who stand to lose if we do not demand a new relationship with those who write about our work. If the only place artists can get access to good critical discourse is a major city, then audiences who will never see a play in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. or a handful of other metropolises are excluded from the deep, inquisitive, and rigorous engagement that can bridge audiences to the ambitious and compelling theatre taking place in their own neighborhoods. Building this bridge is critical to the success of an American theatre for which communities large and small are its lifeblood.
Rachel Walshe is a director and producer based in Providence, RI where she also serves on the faculty of the University of Rhode Island.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.