The contemporary role of the critic

The contemporary role of the critic

The Perspectives in Criticism talk at ATCA’s weekend conference in NYC (Feb., 2011) was coordinated by Sherry Eaker (Back Stage), who gathered playwrights Adam Rapp and Richard Nelson, artistic director Tim Sanford and producer-director-playwright Emily Mann to discuss the role of the contemporary critic. It was a stimulating discussion, one of ATCA’s best.

Sherry deserves further thanks for getting it transcribed and posted elsewhere online, with her introductory thoughts, then sending the whole thing to post here. NOTE that it ends with ideas for training critics that ATCA will address at the Ashland conference and beyond.

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Over the course of my 30-year editorship of Back Stage, I interviewed many people who wanted to write theatre reviews for us. The writers that I did eventually choose all had the qualities that I was looking for and met the standards that I set up. Here’s some of the things that I considered:

1) Naturally, good writing skills were a must; 2) The person had to have a passion for theatre; 3) He or she would need to have a broad theatregoing experience in order to have a context upon which to judge; 4) Of prime importance and very influential were their educational and work background, and the profile level of the publications that they wrote for; 5) Personality was key! The person had to be personable, open to suggestions, and have an optimistic attitude to life; my idea was that this type of person would be more open and accepting to whatever was being presented on stage; 6) He also had to understand the value of “constructive” criticism. My point of view was that it wasn’t the theatre critic’s place to tell the playwright what he or she should be doing; instead, the critic should focus on what is already there and explain either why it works or why is doesn’t work.

But 20 to 30 years ago, the critical atmosphere was different. Today, anyone who wants to write criticism can do so simply by starting a website or blogging, without having an editor’s critical standards to live up to.

This lack of critical standards is discussed often by members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), especially because so many of its own members, once with full-time jobs at their city’s major daily papers, find themselves doing now what others, not as experienced, are doing, i.e., blogging, setting up their own websites, or writing for others’ sites. This state that critic pros find themselves in — experienced theatre journalists writing side by side with “newbies,” many of whom lack the knowledge of writing an in-depth analytical review, feel that a “thumbs up-thumbs-down” review is satisfactory, and do not, for the most part, meet the professional standards of the more experienced writers — has raised concern not only in the critical community, but among all theatre practitioners.

At ATCA’s New York February conference which I chaired, a panel made up of a handful of such theatre practitioners focused on the state of criticism today, expresses what they want to hear from critics, and came up with ways they and critics can work together to form a common goal.

But first, what exactly constitutes a qualified critic?

I’ve stated my criteria above. But my standards pale in comparison to those of Harold Clurman, one of the most influential theatre critics of his time as well as a director and author.  He summed it up best in an article for the London-based Encore Theatre Magazine in 1964. He called it “The Compleat Critic’s Qualifications.”

(Clurman’s list is already posted as the first “position paper” on this site)

Clurman’s list of critic’s qualifications was read during the discussion by guest panelist Emily Mann, director (Me, Myself & IAnna in the TropicsMiss WitherspoonHaving Our Say), playwright (Execution of JusticeStill LifeHaving Our Say, among others) and now in her 20th season as artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.

Joining Mann was Tim Sanford, artistic director of the multi award-winning Playwrights Horizons; playwright Richard Nelson (Goodnight Children EverywhereNew EnglandTwo Shakespearean ActorsSome Americans AbroadJames Joyce’s The DeadMy Life With Albertine); and playwright Adam Rapp (The Hallway TrilogyRed Light WinterFiner Noble GassesStone Cold Dead SeriousAmerican SligoBlackbirdThe Metal Children).

The panel was moderated by Ira Bilowit, theatre journalist, editor, and playwright, and Chris Rawson, ATCA Chair and theatre critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This discussion, for me, was one of the highlights of the weekend conference because it went beyond what the panelists thought about criticism: It actually came to some resolutions about what can be done to improve criticism’s standards by preparing for a better future. Here is an edited version of the transcript of that meeting. I took the liberty of substituting pronouns and names for clarity and inserting bracketed information.

— Sherry Eaker

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BilowitWhat is the basic role of the critic? Do you want a critic to tell you how to fix your play or what they think didn’t work?

Sanford: There are only a few critics that want to enter a dialogue with the artists. Most fall into the category of consumer advocacy. I don’t read those reviews because the only one paper that has anything to do with consumer advocacy really is the New York Times. I always read that no matter what in order to know if tickets are going to sell. The rest of them don’t really sell too many tickets except if The New Yorker likes you and you get into the hi-brow matrix of New York magazine, or one of those…

BilowitYou don’t read to discover something that you don’t know yourself?

Sanford: When you produce a play you’re usually in love with the play, and when you’re in love with something you don’t always see what someone else might consider a flaw. I’m not going to fall out of love with my play based on something a critic will say, but it’s enlightening to just have that subjective element.

Rapp: I’ve had a very up and down relationship with criticism. I read critics, I don’t read them. I like certain critics, I’m friendly with some, and there are certain critics that I would like to punch. It’s a really volatile and weird relationship that any artist has to criticism especially when it relates to how successful one’s play is going to be. I think there’s an important place for criticism, and I think certain writers take that responsibility seriously and they treat it as a kind of literature, which I think is important. They’re interested in the mind of the playwright. I think there are also critics who are consumer advocates and we get into this “thumbs up-thumbs down” culture. That’s where it can be damaging. I get a sense with certain critics  — purely by reading their work – that they don’t want to be there. And those are the ones that should go away and let other people take their spots.

As a playwright you care about your play like it’s a child. I certainly do. I become defensive about protecting my child. I’ve learned how to ease away from my expectations from critics. I’ve also learned how to not read them. And sometimes I’ll break down, and I’ll read them the following day as soon as they’re published. I feel that there’s been a period in my career that anxiety about the New York Times metastasizes to such a degree that the sole success of  a  play depends on their review – whether the play is done regionally, or extends, or transfers. I’ve had a lot of that kind of success and failure, so it is something that I think should be discussed more.

I think there are great theatre critics and those that I have great respect for, writers like Michael Feingold, John Heilpern, Mr. Rawson right here is a great critic. I think some of the writers for Time Out are very important because they’re reaching younger audiences. I find myself engaging with them because I care deeply about the theatre and I want it to survive. I find myself wanting to have homicidal impulses towards certain other critics who seem to be out there to destroy art.

BilowitHave you ever learned anything from critics about your work that you didn’t see in it yourself?

Rapp: No. There are so many people who are so intelligently involved in the play’s process:  Bright actors, often a very important dramaturg, a very important dramaturgical director, and the playwright – and they’re all engaged in pursuit of something that they’re going to give an audience. All these smart minds… they can figure things out. Theatre is problem-solving. I don’t think that I’ve read a review which made me say, “I’ve got to change the second act!”

Mann: It’s such a huge question that you’re asking because I wear three hats: I’m a playwright, a director, and an artistic director which means that I produce, nurture new plays, and revivify the classic repertoire. Should critics be telling playwrights how to fix their plays? No. Simply no! Critics must respond to what they see. If there are 10 critical voices and there is a similar complaint, or reservation, or observation that keeps coming up in different ways in, say, half the reviews, then I’ll say that’s worth looking at. Perhaps. Not only do we have very smart minds working in the theatre, but we have very smart audiences. At McCarter, we have talkbacks, so we hear a lot from our audiences; we have blogs; people call in or write me notes. I’m constantly in contact with responses and opinions from audience members, as well as industry professionals. That someone has written a review is yet another voice.

When I came into this business years ago, I thought by the time I would be going into the “autumn” of my career, I would see some new faces writing about the theatre… and I don’t see too many.

There are two things that I feel we have to talk about this afternoon, and one is the New York Times. I don’t know if it’s the fault of the Times, but the reality is that in no other business that I can think of, does the success of a piece of work — that may have taken years to create — or the careers of the people involved, or the fate or future of that play, depend on one man’s opinion. And I say “man,” because we all know that there are many brilliant women writing.

The second thing is, in terms of criticism, we need a diversity of experience, a diversity of taste, a diversity of race, gender, and class. Writers from all different kinds of lives need to be looking at the work and responding to it. The critics should mirror the American audiences that we’re playing to. For example, we have a very diverse audience in Princeton. We don’t have a diverse community of critics, and sometimes that plays out. Certain critics are not able to connect too deeply. It’s not in their life experience.

[It was at this point that Ms. Mann read Clurman’s essay on critic’s qualifications.]

I’ve begun to use this as a check list for today. What’s interesting about the ‘generosity’ point that Clurman makes is that we’re all in a diminishing field. Critics are in the same boat. If the theatre is killed, the critic’s livelihood is killed as is ours. I’m not saying that the critic be kind and sweet. We still need high standards of course, but some humility when looking at a new piece of work. During talkbacks, everybody seems to know how to fix this play. But that’s not what the talkbacks are for. They’re there to ask questions, study dialogue. I think that’s very important for the critical establishment as well.  Critics can point to “flaws” …but sometimes those flaws are absolutely gorgeous. They should be highlighted.

Nelson: I do read the critics and I do listen. My career is somewhat different in that I’ve spent a lot of time both here, in the regions, and abroad, so I have quite a range of critical responses that have taught me a lot of things. I understand what Emily means when she speaks of a kind of generosity, but I also will take the other side.

For me, writing plays, and being in the theatre, is a very serious, important and significant task, and requires the highest of standards. I believe that we in the theatre should be held to the highest of standards. I’m probably the only person on this panel that has written two plays about critics.

[Tynan, an adaptation of the diaries of Kenneth Tynan, played in England and recently concluded a run at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.; Farewell to the Theatre about actor, playwright, and critic Harley Granville-Barker, is scheduled to open in London in 2012.] Tynan wrote that the primary job as a critic is to “demolish the bad to make way for the good.”

What we, as playwrights, do is important, and why and what critics do is important. We live in this world cheek by jowl. We are connected and we are necessary to each other because we need that dialogue in the air about what we do, primarily because we are a public art.

The point: Playwrights are not isolated in terms of the theatre, in terms of expressing ourselves, and having those responses to what we write. We’re involved in something much more public and much more necessary: Theatre is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. What that means is that theatre carries with it a point of view and a moral compass of the world and that moral compass can be defined as humanism. Theatre is, by its nature and its structure, a humanistic art form. And, therefore, the times that we’ve seen humanistic advances … The Golden Age of Theatre…. theatre is seen as the greatest threat to totalitarianism. Because of that, we are involved in something that will never go away, we are involved in something that is necessary to art, to culture, to our country and, because of that, the dialogue between critics’ thoughts about what they see on the stage and what we put on the stage is very necessary and real.

What are the standards, what should that be? How do you judge …the idea of fixing someone’s play is a complicated animal…even the most experienced people in the theatre could go to see a play and say there’s something wrong in the second act when the real problem, when you pull it apart, is really in the first act. It’s so complicated. It could be a performance, it could be someone off, and so many different things could be going on. It’s really just an honest dialogue of a reaction and the response.

So what one looks for is a kind of honesty, fairness, being open with any prejudices, and then help give a context. That is the knowledge that one brings…knowledge not just of the theatre but of the society and your country at the time.

Finally, in terms of this context, I remember being a youngish playwright. I was in my 30s…I had a tricky career:  Good times, bad times in the U.S. I had a play done in London and I remember reading one particular review by Michael Billington. He wrote very positively and it wasn’t because it was positive that struck me. It was because he articulated back to me what I had written… what my ambitions were….I said to myself, “I’m not mad!” I look for my ambition to be articulated back to me by a critic.

Rawson: I would have thought that the main job of the critic was to report from the battlefield. We go to the theatre, have as full an experience that we’re capable of having, and then we try to write about it interestingly for our readers, and that you guys are sort of listening in. I don’t think we’re writing criticism for you. But there is a way where what we have to say to our readers might be interesting to you and I can see where it can be destructive or get in the way.

So, with Richard as an exception, what is the main way that the critic can serve a useful function in this dialogue about art? Understand, too, that our audience is not necessarily your audience, and that the people that read reviews aren’t necessarily going to be thinking about coming to your play.

Nelson: I don’t think the job of the critic is to address us directly. The job of the critic is to convey the experience as honestly and clearly to his readership. Some critics can like something more, or understand more, but at the same time there’s an element of simple clarity — of having some knowledge of what the critic felt the ambition of the experience was about.

RawsonThe element of reportage! I’m an old newspaperman. We’ve learned that we are, first of all, reporters. Get your facts right!

Mann: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the audience where the audience was clearly loving and cheering a show, and yet the show was panned by a critic. If that critic thought that the show was absolutely dreadful, it’s also part of his reporting to say, ‘I may be crazy, I may be the only one in the audience that loathed this, but I must tell you that everyone else was having a great time, cheering, and jumping to their feet.’

The critic’s opinion is very important, especially when well articulated. But if the critic is aware of his blind spots, or prejudices, or a particular point of view, and if it may be the minority voice, I don’t think it’s your job to ‘demolish the bad.’ I think you have to have some grain of sense, and think through what you’re doing.

Sanford: I don’t mind a hard-core critic if there’s a belief in the art form. The idea of reportage…Who cares? Make the case to listen to the playwright to begin with. You’ve got to be speaking to larger endeavors to some degree. I think articulating prejudices is just one step…What turns you on? Over time, I’ve gotten to know what certain critics like and where they’re coming from. Try to get your readership to read you carefully so that you are articulating what you like, what your own tastes are, what appeals to you. Engage them in a way so that they read you and not just skim what you write.

Mann: Both Tim and Richard used the words, ‘turn on,’ ‘discussion,’ and ‘dialogue,’ and I guess that’s what I feel is missing. One of the ways to make theatre an event is to make a lot of people talk about it, argue about it. What’s great about the Internet is that people are having discussion, turning each other on to something that is exciting. But, the measured deep analytical discussion of a work of art, I want to keep seeing that. It’s very important for artists to be up against it, and it’s very good for us to learn about each other’s work through the analysis of a different kind of mindset. The Internet is all about being fast and dirty.

Nelson: Regarding the Internet and blogs, I think we sit on the cusp of a very exciting time of drama criticism. I think that the potential power is huge. The standards are a mess, as you already know, and people are doing outrageous things under the guise of criticism….

When I was at Yale teaching a few years ago, I argued strenuously for the department to go back to their roots: Offer a degree in criticism. I explained to them how it could be done: There are drama critics in New York and we can apprentice our students to them. Once a week, they could go with a professional critic to see a show. Let them write a review…it’s a fantastic way to learn. Then, have these young critics review two or three shows a week on a website. With ten students, there would be 30 new reviews a week; in three weeks there would be 90 reviews. The website could become a focus for young people. Also, create a new kind of prize based upon things the critic might want to support such as ‘Best New Play in a Foreign Language Translation.’ It requires professional critics to oversee the training of a new generation.

Mann: That’s a great idea. What happened at Yale?

Nelson: They wanted the students to stay as dramaturgs.

Sanford: When I was president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), I wrote an article based on my experience at the time. Most of the kind of training programs focused on training the dramaturg to be a third eye, like sitting in on rehearsals. I think this idea is more of what literary manager job is than dramaturgs.

BilowitAs a playwright, do you like having a dramaturg to work with?

Rapp: I can say that I take full responsibility for being the best dramaturg in the world.

When I was a younger playwright, I was a mess, and I really didn’t understand my craft as well as I might now — and I’m still learning – I worked with Gay Smith who teaches at Wesleyan. She was really helpful about certain things. I do think that there’s this idea that there is a dramaturgical profession, and sometimes you do feel infantilized as a young playwright, and that there’s somebody who knows how to fix your play better than you do…and that’s a bad idea.

I think we’re supposed to be empowering the younger writers to develop the skills to fix their own play and not rely on anyone else. I’ve had experiences working on a production where the dramaturg was trying to ‘simplify’ things. He wanted clarifying mathematical solutions! And I’ve had experiences with Gay where she understood the language, the tenor of the play. She encouraged me to even go further in ways that I hadn’t as an artist. That was incredibly helpful.

Sometimes I don’t know what dramaturgs are.

Sanford: I guess the point that I was making is that if dramaturgy students can apprentice as critics, they would probably be better equipped to do the job that they’re more likely to have, which is actually evaluating plays. Now, the critic goes to see a production, and the literary manager is reading a text trying to imagine that production. Yet the main job of my literary staff is to write reports. Writing is key to what they’re doing, and the writing has more in common with the critic than with the director, which is what the dramaturg sitting in a room is basically doing.

RawsonWhat can we, as members of the American Theatre Critics Association, be doing to improve the state of criticism in this country? [ATCA currently gives prizes to playwrights and scholarships to young critics and also sends young critics abroad to international critics’ meetings.]

Nelson: Interning young critics is a very important thing. Use money from the funds that you receive so that these young critics can be mentored in two, three, or four different cities. Let them get a perspective of American theatre as opposed to just New York theatre.

Mann: Your playwright prizes are very meaningful. I’m wondering if there is anything to having your critics writing essays about these plays. Do they get published, since that means so much to a writer? Even if there was discussion and dialogue between the critics in ATCA on each play, it gives the play more depth.

Rapp: Piggyback what Richard is saying. If you’re shepherding these other critics, why not give them a byline as well? Why not get them in print? Get those conversations going with the younger generation critics as well. If there’s a response to a play from the critic in Pittsburgh on Sunday, let there be a response to the same play the following Wednesday from a younger critic. If younger critics can see that other younger critics are getting published, it might create some excitement.

Nelson: And, if you bundle mentoring with some kind of residency at a theatre as well, so that it necessitated a dialogue by itself between the young critic and the resident critic, it can then become more fundable once you intersect with the arts. There are organizations that fund artistic enterprises and make the travel part of it less expensive.

Mann: That would be an exciting way to get critics and young people involved. I know that I would be very happy to try to get that kind of funding.


The panel discussion ended on this note of promise. If the American Theatre Critics Association and its members are able to act upon some of the great ideas mentioned above, then I can possibly foresee a new and younger generation of theatre critics that would make Harold Clurman smile. — Sherry Eaker

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