Jul 23, 2012

Doers Vs. Watchers

On HowlRound today, Sherri Kronfeld brings fresh passion and (seeming) common sense to an age-old debate (or at least one that's been raging as long I've been in the arts journalism racket). Essentially:
Why aren’t there more theater practitioners among theater critics? Why is ours one of the rare fields—unlike sports, books, economics, etc—where esteemed practitioners can’t comment on each other’s work? In fact aren’t they the best people to do this?...Why should theater practitioners only write about theater in the most oblique ways, and on blogs? I want Adam Rapp to review the next Stephen Adly Guirgis play, and in the damn New York Times (if he wants to). I want a busily working lighting designer (too many to name) to review plays in Lighting and Sound America. And no, I do not think it’s a conflict of interest. I think it would be a celebration of the art form we’ve dedicated our lives to. Why, in theater only, is enthusiastic advocacy and lifelong experience viewed as a conflict of interest?
In response I could cite my own previous thoughts about sometime practitioner/critic John Lahr, roughly to the effect that this line of thinking hugely undervalues the role of the seasoned aficionado (and Matthew Freeman's related thoughts); I could mention my colleague David Cote at Time Out, who's been a practitioner before and is dipping back into it; or WSJ's Terry Teachout, former jazz bassist, now part-time playwright. I stand by all that (and I'll use this opportunity, again, to plug my favorite piece ever on the purpose of criticism). I can add that I agree in part with Kronfeld's point; I'd like to see the conflict-of-interest canard challenged more vigorously, and I for one would like to read more intra-theatrical dialogue, something we definitely encourage at American Theatre, where we frequently publish practitioner/journalists. I'd like to do my part to break down the wall on the editorial side of this impasse, and pieces like Kronfeld's serve as good reminders that we have further to go on that score.

But the resistance of editors and publishers is not the whole story here; artists also have an aversion to practicing criticism in the public square. Some of that is for entirely self-interested and political reasons, the old don't-shit-where-you-eat conundrum. But I would argue that it goes deeper than that, and that there are practical and personal reasons you don't see more crossover. In my own experience as a full-time arts journalist/critic and sometime theater composer/musician, I can say that the cliché about the "inner critic" is entirely true; it is surpassingly hard to shut off one's evaluative, analytical mind at will when trying to be creative, and vice versa. It's a switch that most artists worth their salt don't flip back and forth lightly, and I can say that putting an emphasis on one over the other, in my own case, has had its costs.

And these costs aren't just internal; they're also eminently practical. Arts journalism is a trade and a craft (if increasingly a tough career), and not only are there are only so many brain compartments into which one can file critical and creative thoughts; there are only so many hours in a day. Kronfeld alludes to this issue but I don't think she quite gives it the weight it deserves. She quotes playwright Jason Grote, who used to do a fair amount of theater journalism and blogging, as to why he doesn't do that anymore:
“I never had a problem with writing for The Brooklyn Rail or American Theater—but everyone else seemed to. I’d just ignore stuff I didn’t like or wasn’t interested in, and offer something closer to analysis than criticism. But I stopped, mostly because of burnout, but also because many people didn’t seem to understand ‛what I was’—I felt forced to choose between thinker and artist.”
To the extent that Grote means he felt external pressure to fit into one career box or another, that's lamentable; I think that kind of prejudice about job description should be set aside as much as possible. But I think Kronfeld underestimates the extent to which that choice between thinking and doing, reflecting and creating, is a genuine artistic crossroads. The folks who can keep straddling those two roads without strain are few; heck, the list of folks who can do either playwriting or criticism well is short enough.

Speaking as an editor, I'd love nothing more than to publish eminent playwrights' writing about their peers; who wouldn't? But I understand why I get vastly more pitches from people who've dedicated themselves to writing about theater than from people who are busy doing it.


David Barbour said...

In point of fact, we did something like this at Lighting&Sound America. In 2009, Wendall Harrington covered a number of New York productions, all of which featured a major projection design component. Some of her comments were remarkably tough, and I’m sure she made no friends for herself. But she is a fearless woman.

But, 99% of the time, this idea is simply not realistic. Theatre people keep their own counsel, for the very good reason that you never know who you will be working with next week. Even in the course of relatively anodyne interviews with us, designers choose their words carefully, and, more often than not, mum’s the word. And it’s not just the designers. Consider the case of Stephen Sondheim. In his two Hat books, he analyzes without mercy the work of Alan Jay Lerner, Lorenz Hart, Noel Coward, et al. Interview him, however, and he will not offer so much as one word about any living theatre songwriter. (Of course, he has plenty to say about the living executors of the Gershwin estate, but that’s another matter.)

One other point: In my experience, theatre artists are often not all that aware of what their colleagues are doing. And why would they be? They are so busy with their own projects that they don’t have the time (or the brain space) to give careful, reasoned consideration to the work of others. I often speak to designers who, given a couple of weeks off, are running around, trying to catch up with the latest shows.

Anonymous said...

This would seem to support Mr. Barbour's point:


(Anonymous for the same reasons)