Mar 31, 2013

Crritic!

Among the many things critics can be counted on to have strong opinions about is their own reason for being. Indeed, the why-criticism-matters essay seems as evergreen a genre as the don't-listen-to-me commencement speech. The form persists not only for its obvious appeal as a means of self-justification and sanctimony for a class of routinely despised and insecure souls, but in large part also because it is such a live topic, on the minds and lips of anyone who's ever disagreed with a critic or had a box office line go cold because of a bad review: Who died and made these unelected assholes kings? That's partly why every attempt by a critic to clarify and defend their work and work ethic, like this recent classic example, stirs interest, further debate, even some vestige of understanding on the part of the critic's critics, one would hope--until their next eviscerating review, their next "offense."

As print media gets wood-chipped in the maw of the Internet Hydra, the stakes have only gotten higher, for both critics and criticized, which may be why hand-wringing essays and public forums about the state of criticism have only seemed to increase in recent years. While I used to feel guilty that I made a living writing about theater when so many people making actual theater didn't, I'm starting to feel the ground shifting; while too many people doing theater still don't make enough money, I now fear less for the future of theater as a going concern than I do for the future of paid arts media.

All of which is preamble to a week of posts I've curated at HowlRound, the indispensable online journal of the Center for Theater Commons, about theater criticism as a calling, even an art, unto itself. The assignment emerged from a free-ranging conversation I began with Polly Carl last June, when I was in Boston for the TCG conference and reporting a feature on the Center. And partly in response to Sherri Kronfeld's post on HowlRound (which I did respond to initially here), I had the impulse to seek out pieces that might humanize critics, demystify them--to make them appear, as I know the best of them to be, as passionate practitioners of their often unforgiving but frequently glorious work as are the theater artists I know. That, in any case, was my initial impulse, and it informs some of the essays you'll see this week, including mine, but the topics range beyond that, in pieces by Philadelphia critic Wendy Rosenfeld, Twin Cities dramaturg/director Dominic Taylor, Denver critic John Moore, South Brooklyn critic Jason Zinoman, L.A. hip-hop and theater critic Rebecca Haithcoat, and Seattle critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh. (There will also be a Weekly Howl discussion on Twitter this coming Thursday, Apr. 4, 2-3 pm EST; you can use the hashtag #newplay.)

One essay I wish I'd assigned, but you should read in full as a supplement, is Omar Willey's extraordinary, searching examination of the dysfunctional relationship between theaters, audiences, and critics that's as devastating, and as clear-eyed, as anything I've read on the subject. And I will also direct you, as I do every occasion I get, to my favorite purpose-of-criticism essay ever: Fintan O'Toole's "What Are Critics For?" As I once routinely signed off to my Back Stage West readers: Read on, and tell what us you think.

2 comments:

Swim Pony said...

This is a vibrant topic in Philadelphia, where I live and create work, in no small part because there are so many generative devisers and multi-disciplinary artists in our community and very few critics whose background in theater overlaps with this approach.

In a time when works are shown multiple times to the same community in various iterations, the role of critique should be MORE important than ever, and yet in my own experience I consistently find myself less and less interested in reading or even inviting reviewers into my work environment.

Clearly, something is in the air all across the country. I myself wrote on this same issue just a few days ago:

http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/everyone-is-not-a-critic/

Swim Pony said...

This is a vibrant topic in Philadelphia, where I live and create work, in no small part because there are so many generative devisers and multi-disciplinary artists in our community and very few critics whose background in theater overlaps with this approach.

In a time when works are shown multiple times to the same community in various iterations, the role of critique should be MORE important than ever, and yet in my own experience I consistently find myself less and less interested in reading or even inviting reviewers into my work environment.

Clearly, something is in the air all across the country. I myself wrote on this same issue just a few days ago:

http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/everyone-is-not-a-critic/