OPINION: Myths About Critics (Installment #2)

Addison De Witt Blue

Cameron and David continue the conversation about what critics do and how they are perceived by the public (not necessarily the same thing at all)…

Critics should help theaters
CK: If you subscribe to the theory that all press is good press, then even a negative review should make you happy. Especially at a time when arts coverage is rapidly shrinking, being deemed important enough to warrant column inches is an achievement, and I don’t mean that glibly. But on the other side of the coin, critics are advocates for the art form—not for individual artists or theaters. We are not an unpaid arm of a theater’s public relations team. 

DF: I agree with all this, but my answer is even simpler: popular criticism serves potential audiences, not artists. Our basic responsibility is to help people decide whether or not to see a show—if we don’t do this, we’re not doing the job. I say “popular” criticism to distinguish it here from academic critical writing, and indeed many of my academic friends would consider my definition over-simplifying, but so be it.

CK: I have no problem with a theater taking something positive I’ve written about them and using it as part of a marketing campaign—it’s all part and parcel of using the platform to amplify awareness of the show. It also doesn’t even bother me that much when theaters will take something I’ve written out of context to try and make it seem that what I wrote was more positive than in actuality. But the expectation that critics are a theater’s silent partner in promotion is beyond misguided.

DF: Even the notion of critics and theaters as “partners” makes me giggle. When I give a show a positive review, I’m that theater’s best friend. When the review is negative, I’m persona non grata. It’s OK—I’m used to it.

Critics have undue influence on productions
DF: Let’s start by questioning the premise—do we, in fact, have influence (undue or not)? I take on faith that New York Times’ reviews have a significant impact on box office, and likely also on the future of a show in regional theaters. As for the rest of us, I’m not so sure. I’ve been told by a Philadelphia theater director that reviews—positive or negative—have absolutely no impact on attendance; and at another time, the same director seemed miffed that I might not review a different production. I like to think that such influence as we wield is mostly positive: we’re in a position to bring attention to interesting work that people might not otherwise know about.

CK: I don’t think this is a question with a blanket answer—and also an area where correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Is the theater working from the supposition that prior to the negative review being printed, every seat would have been sold, at full price, for the length of the run?

DF: As for the “undue” part, I see the problem as largely economic, and again the New York Times is a good example. A Broadway production costs millions to produce, and tickets are well over $100. Prospective audiences are understandably leery of spending a lot of money on a risky commodity. No wonder the New York Times’ critics are seen as powerful! On the other hand, most people I know only read movie reviews out of interest–it doesn’t affect whether they’ll see something, because it’s a relatively small investment. And I see this issue as getting worse before it gets better—costs keep escalating.

CK: The last time I bought a ticket to something based on a review, it actually had nothing to do with the critic’s opinion–I just had no idea the show was happening, and I knew instantly that it was something I wanted to see. That speaks to the idea that any press is good press because it makes a production visible. But again, I’m using myself as a case study. Other mileage may vary.

Critics are meant to be collaborators.
CK: I once received an unprompted email from an actor I’d reviewed in a few productions, in which he said he didn’t like my approach to criticism because what I wrote wasn’t helpful to the artistic process. Basically—and I’m paraphrasing here—my reviews weren’t helping him give a better performance. I had to stop and wonder at what point it had become my job to guide this actor, or anyone, to their characterization. But in the same way that many view critics as writing for the theaters they cover, even more seem to think that the function of criticism is to provide directorial advice, dramaturgy, and the like. I don’t know where that comes from, but here’s something to remember: Crafting a play into the best version of what it can be is the job of the people sitting in the rehearsal room—not the people sitting in the audience.

DF: It’s probably not an accident that I can think of very few critics who are performers (and the two who come to mind work in classical music, not theater), and none who are designers. I can come up with one who alternated between writing criticism and directinghe shall remain nameless, though he ran both the Yale Drama School and Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, and was extremely problematic in both capacities. It’s not impossible to have gifts for both, but I think they are very much separate ways of thinking about theater. To be part of a production is exactly that: to immerse yourself in creating a theatrical work in a way that almost necessarily is blind to its problems. Critics can’t “fill in the blanks” of a show, nor should they. The experience a critic has should, to the extent that it’s possible, be completely divorced and dispassionate.



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