Apr 9, 2013

The Non-Readers

I got a lot of response to Sunday's post on the future of arts journalism—encouraging words, actionable ideas, quibbles. I should acknowledge the response of Bitter Lemons, the site that gave the world the initial scoop about Backstage's decision to stop reviewing theater.

But three comments in particular have given me fresh food for thought about the changing value and meaning of criticism. This is not just about the Internet, folks. Something is afoot.

Exhibit A: I got a Facebook message from a college acquaintance who has two young sons enrolled in a major musical theater program at a prestigious college:
Since my teen years, I have been one to read reviews avidly, sometimes from several sources, before I see a show. But I don't see my sons do that. Even when I refer them to particularly helpful or enlightening reviews, they usually show little interest. Sometimes they say they just want to enjoy a performance and form their own opinions. Other times I think they just avoid "my way." And yet they have extensive knowledge of plays, musicals, performers, composers, etc. Much of this comes from various sources. In particular, I've seen them glean info from early-adopter friends, social networking, teachers, and even youtube clips. (High school students actively share Youtube videos of Joe's Pub performances of their favorite MT actors, for example.)

But this all got me thinking: I've been told that the number of applicants for college-based musical theatre programs is on the rise. One well known college audition coach tells me some of the top schools have seen numbers of applicants increase 30% over prior years. (Some of this increase may be due to application inflation, i.e.: as the competition for the same number of MT program spots increases, students apply to more and more schools. These days it's not uncommon for BFA MT candidates to apply to 16 audition-based schools.) But some of this is likely due to the popularity of the genre itself. (I credit shows like "Spring Awakening" for sparking a new fervor for MT in recent years.)

So we don't appear to have any drop-off, and perhaps we even have an increase (thank you "Glee/Smash") in students interested in theatre. (And I say theatre specifically, since students in MT programs typically start out aiming for a career on the stage, versus TV or film.) And yet Backstage reports a drop-off in interest in theatre reviews? Curious.
OK then, to quote Raising Arizona; chalk another vote in the less-fearful-for-future-of-theatre-than-of-arts-journalism column. Then I got an email from a Twitter acquaintance, a dramaturg with several years experience at major American resident theaters. She spent the first part of the email talking about her experience at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and about how she realized partway through a speech on criticism there that
I hadn’t been following any of the criticism coming out of the Festival...And, I realized I hadn’t read a review of anything in months or longer – New York Times, or anywhere. I get the NYT delivered on the weekend, but almost never get up to the arts section. Often, I just click through online if someone links to something on Facebook or Twitter that sounds interesting and I have time at the same time.

It was also interesting to me, in my own head, to be thinking of the role of the critic as the tributes to Roger Ebert were flowing in. When I was in graduate school in the mid 90s, Linda Winer of Newsday was my criticism professor, and Michael Feingold was trying to teach us something I don’t quite remember. Linda worked very hard to get us out of the thumbs up/thumbs down world she felt criticism was spinning into. But, then I lived in Chicago for almost 10 years, and both Ebert and Gene Siskel were champions there – not just of film, but arts in general, theater in particular.

If I’m not reading reviews, who is? Why am I not interested in reviews, especially in my line of work?

I do read features, though. Although, less and less. Some of that is just time, some is attention span, some is my desire to read about anything other than theater and to be in the world at large when I can, and some of it is that I haven’t found a writer whose critical voice I trust to fight or follow.
So young folks coming up don't read reviews; seasoned insiders don't read reviews. What about in-the-trenches practitioners? A comment on an earlier post came from a theater maker who wrote:
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.
She sent me to a recent post on the blog of her company, Swim Pony, in which she lays it out still more starkly, with reference to a show the company recently remounted, The Giant Squid:
My own experience with review has been this: it is totally unaligned with my sense of my own work.

I have had pieces that I loved that were panned. I have had pieces I thought were weaker and not ready for audiences that get raves. Mostly, it feels really random.

And perhaps more importantly, I have had a show utterly slaughtered in print but sell out every performance and another get glowing words in literally every venue that it was showcased in that I was dying to get butts in seats for. I have had every iteration in between. And always, it feels really random and disconnected to the work.

What was amazing about the experience of remounting Squid was this: I never had to think about getting people in the door through this imperfect intermediary. I could just market directly to these people and then watch how much they liked it myself. I could talk to them and ask what they thought. I could hear them laugh or gasp. I could see how the things I’d tried to do worked or didn’t.
And it made me think, “What if I never had to have a critic in a show of mine again?”

Because if I don’t feel in alignment with the assessment and most of the time the assessment doesn’t seem to make a difference on who comes, why bother?
True, you may respond, but these are insiders, not consumers, theatergoers, general readers. You might say insiders have a warped view of criticism, since they're often on the receiving end of it. Fair enough. But it's the indifference, not the hostility, that gets to me here. I firmly believe that theater is the original social medium, an ephemeral art that only lives on in reflection, argument, conversation, and of course revival and reinterpretation. And there is clearly a conversation, a discourse, going on about it; each of the three examples above cite sources where those extratheatrical discussions are happening (actually, the dramaturg's I didn't include, but she mentioned internal discussions in the field and HowlRound as meeting that need for her).

Can critics, these imperfect intermediaries, remain an important part of the conversation theatergoers and theater audiences crave and deserve, and seem to be finding elsewhere? I don't know. Maybe because I like a challenge, maybe out of curiosity, but damned if that last post doesn't make me want to see Swim Pony's work all the more.

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