(updated to fix the link to Spearbearer Down Left)
A while ago, I was going to write a brilliant post about theater criticism today. And then I set out to write it, clicked over here and found out that George had already written the goddamn thing. But seeing as George has only written Part I and never got around to Part II, perhaps I shall do it for him.
George is absolutely right when he says we are facing a dearth of theater criticism. Theater reviewing, on the other hand, is alive and well. By “reviewing” I mean the simple practice of consuming an art object and reporting back for us all to see whether or not you thought it was good. This is essentially what almost all mainstream theater writing is today. Some people are especially good at it (Jason Zinoman, for example, or John Lahr) but most are decidedly not. I am going to attempt after the jump to discuss what I view as wrong with theater writing today, and what can be done about it.
The first problem is, of course, snark as embodied by John Simon, the Dale Peck of theater writing. Terry once wrote something along the lines of how easy it is to write a cruel review and say witty things that are mean and degrade people’s work. And it is very, very easy. Any blogger who writes with passion can tell you how simple it is to say something smart and insulting. This practice, however, does nothing to engage the issues at hand, nothing to expand the conversation, nothing (in other words) to improve the form of drama. All it does is show off the writer’s pithiness. It is not designed to help the audience with further understanding of anything, it is designed to make the reader think the writer is smart. It is thus both destructive and totally pointless, an ego trip whose ticket is paid for by someone else’s labor.
The second problem is starfucking. Thanks to our current producer’s love of stunt casting, reviews now center almost entirely around the famous people in the plays. There is one reviewer for a major publication who seems incapable of giving negative reviews to stars period. But any way you look at it, theater reviewing today seems so much more invested in a question like was Christina Applegate good in Sweet Charity? as opposed to looking at the production as a whole, with the lead actor as one part in it. Part of this is a result of the United States’ Actor Cult (more on that in a later post), but quite a bit of it is our lack of ability to resist the Famous, who draw us to them like moths to flames.
But perhaps the biggest problem is the total lack of a presence of theater criticism within theater reviewing. Theater reviewers today seem to view their jobs as just consumers and reporters, perhaps they are highly educated in their field, perhaps they just like theater. But any way you look at it, reviewers don’t seem to think of themselves as having anything to add besides thumbs up and thumbs down. So we hear that someone gave a “good” or a “bad” performance, with no investigation into what exactly that means. The staging a director develops for a play (which is what you spend most of the rehearsal time doing) rarely gets more than a one sentence “effectively staged by” or “efficiently put together by” etc. as opposed to writing about how specific choices changes the reviewer’s understanding of the play. The design is “pretty” or it isn’t. (Or, if you happened to have written this review the designers and director don't even merit a mention in the text of your review, as if the actors had created Two Gentlemen of Verona, and its set in an isolation ward.)
In other words, what we really lack here is the expectation that theater reviewing is something to be taken seriously. That the reviewer owes something to the work created that is an equal or perhaps even greater burden that what they owe their reader. Why? Because a reviewer makes his or her money on the backs of the artist, and all they give back is a simple quality assessment that may (or may not) boost ticket sales. This fundamentally exploitative relationship needs to be realized, and its consequences examined more closely by everyone in the theater business.
So here are some ideas for improving theater writing in America:
1) Recognize that the relationship between artist and reviewer is one of exploitation. I think it would be harder for reviewers to be snarky if they remembered that it was the bad play they saw that is putting food on their table, or that they get paid more than I do to trash my work. I am not asking for an end to negative or even harsh criticism, god knows, we need it. But what we need even more than that is considered, intelligent, thoughtful criticism that lays out reasons, arguments, analysis instead of “this sucks”.
2) Assume that the making of art is fundamentally noble. No one goes into non-profit theater for the money, and no one really goes into it for the fame any more. Or if they do, they’re idiots, because it’s almost impossible to get either. Let us assume the best intentions on the part of the artist, and try to simply take their work seriously. We’ll all get more out of it, and theater will be better off for it. (of course, the occasionally charlatan and plagiarist must be exposed, but for the most part people working in theater are hard working, decent, earnest folks who are trying to bring something meaningful and beautiful into this shitty little world of ours, and we should appreciate it).
3) Give more column inches to theater reviewing. There is simply no way that Terry Teachout or the reviewers for Time Out NY could possibly write a complicated analysis of a theater piece with the amount of space they have to do their jobs. I believe this is one of the reasons why Teachout started About Last Night, because there were a lot of more criticism-type thoughts in his head that he couldn’t put in his column. But perhaps I’m putting words in his mouth.
4) There is no such thing as a Platonic standard of what is good. There is your opinion about it. You are not God, and you are not St. Peter judging what art gets through the pearly gates. You are one well-educated person who is writing about how you feel or think about something you’ve seen. And there are plenty of other well-educated people doing the same thing who disagree with you.
5) Stop writing feature articles about Hollywood stage novices who are doing plays. It simply reinforces a vicious cycle and leads to star fucking. They didn’t pay their dues, and they’ve done nothing to earn their column inches. For every gigantic profile on whatever film actor is condescending to appear in front of us, you could be writing three columns on people who actually stuck it out in New York. Considering that the Sunday Times allots (essentially) one page for theater profile pieces, they could use that space to help cultivate theater starts instead of encouraging stunt casting.
6) Theater artists need to suck it up and deal. I don’t think that theater artists want reviewers who are also critics, because I don’t think theater artists want to have to take anything the press says seriously. I am referencing here specifically the removal of Margo Jefferson from the New York Times theater reviewing beat. Jefferson was a passionate and intelligent advocate for theater, who had very specific opinions about how theater was being made and was not afraid to express them. Her review of Suitcase (directed by a friend of mine at a theater I’ve worked with often, just so we all know what’s going on here) in which she lamented the lack of plays about serious subjects got her into trouble, but I applaud her for it. Regardless of whether I agree with her or not, she was laying her cards down on the table, and saying what she believed needed to be happening with the art form. And the review that got her canned, in which she said that she found the director Daniel Sullivan’s staging to be inorganic and filled with predictable use of props was so offensive to theater artists precisely because it was perceptive and specific (again, not saying I necessarily agree here). But we didn’t really want that, we instead complained about her “professorial” manner. Because being a theater artist takes a thick skin, and part of developing that skin is ignoring criticism as founded on a sea of bullshit. You can’t do that if the writer is actually a thinking, serious critic. I think we needed her.
7) Why can’t theater artists review plays? Authors can do it. John Updike reviews books for the New Yorker, why couldn’t Edward Albee review plays for Harper’s? I’m not sure the answer to this question, but I know that no one really wants to do it. And that’s a pity, because we have a rich tradition of theater artists giving theater criticism as well (Shaw, for example). On top of that, we have both an empathic understanding of the difficulty and value of theater and a heightened sense of deconstruction about it.
For an example of one writer’s attempts to grapple with all of this, I would point you to diego-rep.html”>this review of King Lear by Spear Bearer Down Left. Now, SPDL can write this anonymously, which helps. But here we get to read a theater artist grappling with trying to write a specific, critical review of a work he didn’t particularly like while still treating that work with respect. It’s hard work, and the length of the writing bears this out. But if more of our theater writers could strive to have such respect, and take such time to really focus on the work and the art, we’d all be better off for it.
Update: Wow, my hit count has gone through the roof. Thanks to those of you who are linking to this post (esp. Terry and George!). This site, if you haven't been here before, is Parabasis. The name comes from the moment in Greek Comedy when the lead chorus members addresses the audience, explaining the political point of the play and pelting said audience with sweets in order to curry favor with the judges. Pretentious, I know, but also appropriate. I'm Isaac Butler, a theater director living in NYC, and this site is dedicated to issues in arts and politics. Over the weekend, I have three guest columnists, Abe Goldfarb who writes movie reviews, Rob Grace who chronicles his experience of being a playwright and actor who has recently transplanted to LA, and Buckminster, a pseudonomous theater director friend of mine who makes his living dealing in an underground poker club. I hope you'll find much here that'll entertain you and bring you back. Enjoy!