3. Embedded. How connected can a reviewer be before they compromise themselves? How much of a relationship can we tolerate between artists and critics?
The NYTimes has very very strict guidelines about all of this stuff. They spiked a review of my play In Publicbecause Rob Kendt and playwright George Hunka were both bloggers who had, on occasion, corresponded (just to be clear, Rob and I had at that point neither met nor e-mailed, we met for the first time that night, and CoM was founded much much later). While on the hand, Martin Denton, who heads NYTheatre.com both publishes and reviews plays by people who also write for the site.
So the question becomes... which model is better? I guess honestly... I think it's healthy that there's a wide spectrum of level-of-interaction between artists and various reviewing outlets. NYTheatre.com is really far over on one side of the spectrum (in ways that do, in case you're wondering, occasionally make me uncomfortable) while the Times is waaaaaay on the other side. In between, you have reviewers like David Cote (who has-- for example-- both worked on and reviewed Richard Foreman's plays and who is a budding librettist), Alexis Soloski (who dramaturged for Alex Timbers while on staff as a reviewer at the Voice) and so on and so forth. Reviewers have different levels of connections to theatre in New York. I think this is a good thing. It creates a more vibrant and prismatic view on the scene.
I recently read the very excellent book Rip It Up And Start Again, which chronicles post-punk and new-pop from 1978-1984 (roughly it charts the journey from Public Image Ltd. to Duran Duran over the course of its 400 pages). One of the most interesting things about the book is its portrait of the music press during that time. Basically, the reviewers were not only reviewers but fierce advocates for music they believed in. "Some critics actually [played] a part in shaping and directing the culture," Simon Reynolds writes. Critics took on a more activist role, "articulating the unwritten manifestos of these fledgling movements and city-based scenes" as a way of intensifying and accelerating the music's success. "Musicians and journalists fraternized a lot during that period, a kinship related perhaps to a sense of solidarity as comrades in the culture war of postpunk versus Old Wave... roles shifted around. Some journalists played in bands or made records and there were musicians who wrote criticism, such as Pere Ubu's David Thomas... Joy Division's Steven Morris, and Manicured Noise's Steve Walsh... the gap between those who `did' and those who commente wasn't nearly as wide as in the pre-punk era."
It would be naive in the extreme to say that such an approach applied the theatre would have only upsides. There would be huge problems, of course. Amongst them would be the intensely social nature of theatre. I was wondering out loud to a friend about why the NYTimes Book Review section had novelists writing reviews but outside of NYtheatre, playwrights by and large don't review in the papers. And the conclusion we came to is that the dense interrelated socialness of theatre makes this nearly impossible. You could be in a band and write a review of another band. If you didnt' like them, you might never have to work with them, you're in your own self-contained unit, they're in theirs. Similarly, novelists are largely solitary animals. Theatre is a collaborative art from made largely out of ad-hoc coalitions often formed without the explicit approval of all members. An actor who gave a negative review to a fellow actor could find herself acting in the same show as them, for example. So yes, such an approach would have its downsides... But it's worth saying that this Active Criticism movement in England did also correspond with on of the most exciting times in the history of rock. The two are (to some extent) interrelated.