event musings: critics at play: condition critical

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Condition: Critical
A Discussion on the Future of Theatre Criticism
Monday, October 25, 2010 at 6:30pm
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY
event site

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

I believe in theatre and I believe in logical thinking and I believe in deeply-felt writing  (and this doesn’t haven’t to be “emotional”) and I believe that all can combine to contribute to the written history of theatre.  Yes, I believe that the profession that analyzes and discusses and engages with live performance is crafting history and is working hand-in-hand building theatre appreciative audiences and communities.  Perhaps this is a matter of belief.  Yet I contend this is 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 October 25th.

Resume credits for all panel members can be found at the link provided at the head of  this blog post.  In the briefest summary, the panelists and their current positions: 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).  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?

  • Cotes wondered whether he, as a sometimes instructor of arts criticism, was encouraging “sophists, dandies, and dilettantes” while he was 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 — with dreams of being actors, designers as well as writers for the theatre.  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, whether they provide the old format summaries and excerpts of 10 “best plays” or the newer play-focused essays, 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 argues that theatre and dance criticism are more important than film criticism in part due to the nature of the media involved: film can be reviewed and viewed anew in perpetuity.  The critic’s voice is hat we have for the ephemeral theatre and dance arts.  “At its best, criticism is a real art form” he stated.  Its more than an argument about something you’re passionate about, though that’s part of it.  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.  Critique to her is “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 noted that he has long imagined a fantasy graph indicating 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 the text of the major reviewers and staff assign letter grades based on the text — 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, that 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 ember, 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.
  • Jenkins — sees himself as a bridge person between the old critics, the “first night critics” who were members of the Drama Critics’ Circle and knew where they stood.

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

This group functioned as an on-line 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.”

  • Cote  — “who cares if it’s good or bad — how does it work?”
  • Weinert-Kendt — there is a stronger on-line presence in other arts than there is in theatre.  there has not been, in his view, the “promised 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, attempts to capture a full season on Broadway.  [I also have 70 years of these volumes, courtesy of a theatre-loving grandfather, and through several editors during those years, the form morphed slightly to include introductory essays on the year on Broadway and off-Broadway and in several cities across America, and included a summary snapshot of each production — cast, number of performances, opening and closing dates, that kind of thing — for EACH Broadway show that season.] Jenkins described the current Best Play volume as summarizing the season on Broadway, and providing more detailed essay 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 3000-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 in each essay for 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 true and is this a change from prior eras?

  • 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: What form can criticism take to break boundaries and engage audiences/readers differently?

  • Zinoman: film critic friends include video commentary/reviews of films that are both criticism and works of art in themselves.  He goes on to note (and may have been quoting A.O. Scott here): in theatre the visual is important but “the written word matters”.   He concluded that for a critic “the best you can do is make your prejudices apparent.”
  • 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 that [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.”
  • Jenkins: he has the advantage of not having daily deadlines so he can attend nights other than critics nights.  [At this point there was some discussion of the value of attending shows a few weeks into the run rather than critics night when the audience might be packed with sympathetic theatre folks, but that is more about performances being honed than a critical mind being swayed by audience response.] “It is the job of the critic to say something good about and have the ability to champion good work.”

—-

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 magic 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.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 27, 2010)

3 comments on “event musings: critics at play: condition critical”

  1. 2/8/2011 edit: Claudia La Rocco let me know that a quotation I attributed to her about critic as cultural arbiter read as the opposite of what she truly believes. I have edited out this quotation as attributed to her.

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