Let’s Talk About Critics

 

Hedy Weiss, a theater critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, caused an uproar when, in a review for Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, she wrote the following:

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene.

Weiss has a history of making problematic statements in her reviews, but this time Steppenwolf decided they’d had enough. The theater made the unusual decision to refuse Weiss free tickets to their productions, and advocated that other theaters do the same. The Chicago Sun-Times stood by Weiss, indicating that while they might not agree with what she had to say about race as it pertained to the play, they felt refusing tickets to and/or banning a critic from reviewing a performance is a violation of free speech. The American Theatre Critics Association echoed that sentiment, although they did acknowledge that the existence of such a review is partly due to the lack of diversity found among critics in their organization and throughout the country.

In the midst of thinking about all of this, I had the pleasure of seeing the two productions that opened Trinity Repertory Company’s latest season: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. While there was much to admire about both productions, I was particularly struck by the urgency of Skeleton Crew. It’s rare to encounter a show that presents issues with such immediacy, and allows characters to embody those issues who are of the present day. Characters so real and so beautifully drawn and performed that you wonder if you’re watching actors on a stage or the filming of a documentary. While watching Salesman, the audience can hear echoes from the past that still resonate today; in Skeleton Crew the echoes were roars of the present. While most theater strives to achieve a certain degree of relevancy, I found Morisseau’s play to be as relevant as a fire alarm in a burning building.  It was a stunning evening of theater.

Not that you’d know that if you read most of the reviews for it.

With one or two exceptions, an army of straight, white, male critics descended upon both shows and heartily labeled Salesman the victor of some unseen battle Trinity probably wasn’t aware it was waging with itself. They found somebody to champion in Willy Loman (no surprise there) and couldn’t quite connect with the story of Faye and her co-workers at an auto stamping plant in Detroit.

Now, before you go thinking this is going to be a piece about bashing critics, I want to say that I actually like many of the critics in this area, which some people might consider a miracle since I run a local theater company. When I talk about being friendly with the critics who come to review my shows, I occasionally get the same look someone might give a chicken mentioning his fondness for foxes.

I should also mention that a producer of theater making any sort of public statement about critics would normally be labeled a fool — and rightfully so. After all, most theaters still depends heavily on critics to sell their shows — and we’ll get to that in a bit. In the meantime, feel free to label me a fool. I’m a theater person — it won’t be the first time I’ve heard it.

This is not a piece about bashing critics, but it is about the problems we face with critics. I was flummoxed to see that none of the men writing about Skeleton Crew seemed even remotely willing to entertain the idea that perhaps the reason they enjoyed Death of a Salesman so much was because it was easier for them to relate to it. In other words, I agree with the ACTA that there’s a bigger obstacle afoot in terms of diversity, but what about empathy, as well? If you’re reviewing theater, shouldn’t stepping inside someone else’s mind and soul be a vital skill needed for the job?  I don’t presume to say these men should be able to understand what it might be like for blue collar workers dealing with the closure of an auto plant, but their writing was drenched with what can only be described as resistance — a resistance to even allow themselves to eavesdrop on that world for a bit, and maybe learn a thing or two. Personally, I found it to be negligent, lazy and frustrating. I can only imagine what those involved in that brilliant production must have felt.

While none of the local critics said anything as vile as Ms. Weiss did when reviewing Pass Over, the lack of empathy shown by them and the racist agenda carried by her are not that far apart. As far as the actions taken by Steppenwolf, I believe it’s their theater and they can invite or not invite anybody they like to review their shows, especially if it means giving that person free tickets. If the Sun-Times or another publication wants to have a reviewer see the production who hasn’t been invited, then I think they should be able to buy a ticket and then write about it. As far as banning someone from the theater altogether, I wouldn’t advocate for that unless the person was actually dangerous, although I do find the opinions that Ms. Weiss is spouting to be treacherous in their own way, especially when they’re supported by an organization as powerful and respected as the Sun-Times.

This ends up being one of those issues that causes people talking about it to lean one way or the other, never quite falling on one side, but temporarily visiting each for a brief period of time.

From what I can tell based on reading every article I could find on the subject, nobody seems to like what Ms. Weiss said, but many people are adamant that she should be allowed to say it, even if the platform she’s been given to do so is highly influential.

American Theatre Magazine recently devoted an entire issue to the problem of critics in America.  As the political climate we find ourselves in gets more and more tense, newspapers and other publications are scaling back arts writing. We find that happening right now in Rhode Island. Our theater scene has exploded over the past few years, and what’s been the critical response? To be fair, you might be seeing more reviews being written, but features are still highly coveted and very rare. This might be because The Providence Journal pays less for features than they do for reviews, which is truly bizarre.

About a year ago, I actually heard a critic at a press night exclaim, “There’s just too much theater going on right now!” I remember thinking that would be like hearing a cinephile complaining about too many films, but for that analogy to work, you’d have to believe that many of the people who write about theater in this area truly enjoy doing so — and I’m not sure that’s the case.

The ones who do enjoy it appear to have real trouble explaining why they do. That means even when a review is good, it’s rarely more than a plot summary with a few upbeat adjectives tagged onto the end. Never mind the odd negative review with a positive headline that seems to be the paper’s way of saying “We feel bad about how mean this piece is, so we’re going to spin it as best we can that way you have something to put on the poster.” I once read a review where the headline used the word “Phenomenal” even though that word appeared nowhere in the actual review and the critic didn’t even seem to like the play that much. Wow, I thought, somewhere an editor really went out on a limb. I wonder if his niece is in the show.

Sometimes I wonder if we should all just give up and let critics give each production a letter grade instead of forcing them to write what oftentimes amounts to little more than a book report. At least that would be better than that awful moment when a theater artist finishes a review so meandering and wobbly they wonder whether or not to share it with friends because they’re not quite sure if it’s good, bad, or something in between.

So what’s to be done?

For starters, we need to stop relying on critics to sell shows. Let’s have everyone sit down with their marketing departments and tell them to lay off the quotes carefully edited with ellipses to convey nothing but praise. Let’s tell our actors and admin staff to stop jumping on social media whenever a critic loves one of their shows to champion what a genius he or she is. Inevitably, when that same critic pans the next show, there are shouts and complaints about what a moron they are, but the truth is, we in the theater community like to have it both ways, and it’s simply not possible in a world where you can Google the last show a critic liked and see how happy the theater was using that praise to unload a few more tickets.

I would need much more space to tackle whether good reviews still sell shows the way some theater administrators and marketing experts in the area would argue they do. I can only speak from personal experience when I say that I’ve seen shows with positive critical feedback flounder and shows that got a poor reception from the press become commercial successes. Some productions sell out before the critics even get a chance to review them due to title value or some other magic factor. I think you could do a production of To Kill a Mockingbird in Aramaic with circus clowns and still have it run for years.

I’m sure to an audience of a certain age, there’s still some allure left in getting tickets to something The Journal raved about, but that audience is getting smaller, and those in the younger demographics don’t usually make their decisions based on something they read in a newspaper.  You’re better off hiring 50 20-year-olds to talk about your show on social media than you are cozying up to a Motif contributor on opening night.

Critics and the papers they write for only have as much power as the theaters they’re writing about give them. It’s a relationship — although, of course, the critics probably wouldn’t want to admit that. Neil Simon used to say that a critic’s job is to help better the work and to better the audience’s understanding of the work, not simply to judge it and comment on how nice the costumes were.  Perhaps we got ourselves into trouble when we started calling critics “reviewers” and their work “reviews.” A review and a piece of criticism are two completely different things when you think about what the word “review” means versus what the word “critique” implies. Maybe if we start demanding more from our critics, we’ll start seeing them aim higher.

Or maybe we won’t.

The New Age of Criticism is probably not going to exist in the form of articles in the Sunday paper, but blog entries spread out all over the internet, and I’m not sure that’s an entirely bad thing. If we can’t guarantee quality from the small group of people we have writing for us now, then maybe casting a wider net will get better results. If it means that people with more diverse backgrounds will feel more comfortable expressing their opinion about theater, I’m all for it. I’m sure we’ll get a few more like Hedy Weiss in the mix, but at least their power won’t be so prevalent. If nothing else, it means people will have to show up at the theater so they can keep up with the conversation.

For years, the joke has been, “Everyone’s a critic.” Wouldn’t it be funny if that was the solution after all?

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Motif. 

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