Friday, February 10, 2006

Critical Mass

There's a wonderful discussion brewing about the role of the critic in the art world. Sure, we come back to this subject again and again, but now we've got some immediate examples to anchor the theorizing. First stop: Chicago.
  1. An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Don Hall writes a post "Critique the Critique" where he criticizes Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss's review of A Child's History of Bombing. With me so far? I know that was a mangled string of refernces, but hyperlinks are replacing prepositions one-by-one these days and I'm not sure I ever learned how to use either of them. In short: Don takes issue with Hedy's emphasis on the subject of the play and maintains that her role as a critic is to appraise the sundry craftworks on display, not to contend with the ideas/themes/statements therein. As it happens, this play is about War, The Atomic Bomb, WWII, and Vietnam. Hedy thinks the Neo-Futurists have chosen the wrong war to advance an anti-war premise and Don thinks that makes her an Op-Ed columnist, not a theatre critic. Warp to North Carolina, where ...
  2. Theatre Ideas blogger Scott Walters has been trying to articulate his frustration with In-Yer-Face-Theatre and the legions of glib devil-children it seems to spawn. So his reaction to Don's reaction to Hedy's reaction to A Child's History of Bombing is something along the lines of: "Well, what did you expect?" He states:
    "Artists can hand out the assaults, but scream like babies when they are assaulted themselves."
    I appreciate Scott's willingness to deflate Don's indignation, even if he's generalizing a bit in the larger analysis. Cue Allison Croggon of Melbourne, Australia ...
  3. Theatre Notes and Critic Watch -- two blogs maintained by Allison. They don't feature any posts about the current deabte, but they're wonderful to read in their own right. Allison comments regularly on both Scott Walter's and George Hunka's blog and she brings the expertise of a professional critic. She adds this dimension:
    If you think an audience is part of the theatre, then a theatre critic - as a member of the audience, albeit a privileged one - is also part of the theatre. I have never had much time for the idea of the "objective" critic who hands out elephant stamps or black crosses and a mark out of ten - this is a fiction usually translated by media outlets into a consumer guide and by critics into an excuse for ignorance. And I know, first hand, how ignorant journalists can be. Personally, I'm all for theatre artists arguing back, even to me; most don't in fact because they fear being seen as whining complainers.

    A true sense of commitment to theatre in an abstract sense sharpens the critical faculties. Of course critique should always be honest, or it's worthless: and it should also be informed. I don't always agree with things I consider fine criticism; that isn't the point. The point is the quality of response and expression, its ability to spark further thinking. It's probably worth remembering that the best critics, without exception, from Kenneth Tynan to Jann Kott, have always been advocates.
  4. Now, I wish to hone in on Allison's deeper point about general advocacy as a way to introduce what I consider to be a shameful little episode here in DC. Trey Graham of the Washington City Paper maintains the blog Theaterboy, which features the story of a fourth-string critic for The Washington Post: Tricia Oszlewski. Tricia writes for both publications; movie reviews for City Paper and theatre reviews for the Post. To judge by a recent mini-bio she wrote on her own personal blog MovieBabe, she would rather be writing for movies than theatre. She calls the DC theatre scene "pretentious" and makes a plea for deliverance from her blog audience so she can go back to reviewing just film. Trey judiciously outlines the whole story here -- followed by a growing list of comments from every corner of the DC theatre scene.
Some people have written that Tricia's personal blog shouldn't be used as evidence against her professional writing. Others have taken this episode to vindicate/validate the critical treatment they've received from her. Still others have launched into the larger argument about a critic's role in the art world -- which brings us back to our colleagues in Chicago, NYC, North Carolina, and Melbourne.

To me, it sounds like everyone's getting their bitter little wish -- but no one's wiser or happier for it. It's just sad that it came down to a throwaway joke on a personal blog when the real problem was the lack of "a true sense of commitment to theatre in the abstract." It doesn't take an accidental slip on a personal blog to discover this, nor should we go on our own hunches. Tricia's been with the Post for three years and apparently no one ever asked her if she enjoyed the work she was doing, nor did she have the time, resources, or inclination to expand her understanding of the craft or the circuit.

So now Tricia doesn't have to review pretentious theatre anymore and hopefully she'll continue to watch the companies she enjoyed. Smaller companies won't have to endure her reviews anymore, if that's really what upsets them. And until the Post introduces someone to fill her place, we'll get to chew on the mechanics of big-paper distribution and criticism ... all the while ignoring one scrumptious irony: the blog world, which provided evidence for Tricia's dismissal, also lets us parse our indignation while rendering that indignation moot.

More on this later -- I just wanted to offer everyone a chance to compare notes with different examples. If the T.O. story has DC bloggers reaching for some deeper articulation of the critic's place in the community -- check out Allison's blogs and her comments on Scott's recent post. If Scott, Allison, and Don are looking for another case-study in the critic-artist relationship, I'd invite you to weigh in on our most recent tiff.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Articactor - thanks for the plug! I have a lot of sympathy for Tricia. It's a situation I'm familiar with; there was a concerted campaign to get me sacked when I was writing (the magazine I wrote for, admirably, did not heed the pressure). But I knew of at least three reviewers who had been quietly let go by arts editors because their reviews had caused complaints from companies. I realised then that the mediocre critical culture that causes so much concern in the Melbourne theatre scene was as much the fault of the companies as of apathetic media outlets: if the companies desire only PR fluff, then PR fluff is what they will get.

Of course, it's the bigger companies here that have the clout to lean on arts editors and threaten to withdraw advertising (or whatever it is that they do). The companies that suffer from consumer type reviews are typically the smaller theatres who are attempting innovation or political comment or something which is not mainstream. Getting critics sacked seems pretty much a case of shooting oneself in the foot: the newspaper will just hire someone who is no trouble, which generally means more bland fodder and recycled press releases (which suits the companies with class PR, of course). The real thing to attack is the media culture which doesn't value quality arts commentary. Don't ask me how this can be changed - but blogging is a good start...

Don R. Hall said...

Interestingly enough, the DC exaple deflated me far more than Scott. While I still aintain that the political leanings of a theater critic should not dictate the bulk of a review, I also realize that my beef began with a long, unresolved dislike for Weiss herself, rather than a specific problem with most Chicago critics.

I'd say that 80% of the theater reviews printed in Chicago are fair and generally without an overload of bias. The thought of my complaints getting Hedy fired (never gonna happen)gives me pause. The thought of any theater company having the clout to get a critic fired kind of sickens me.

I believe the role of the critic will continue to be bandied about - any one factor that has so much power in a community is going to be scrutinized. As for PR Fluff, my relationship with the press is such that when certain critics don't like something I'm involved in, they intentionally make sure there isn't a single quotable blurb in the review. I like that because at least I know they're paying attention.

Anonymous said...

Just to keep things sorted out, Tricia O. was not let go because her reviews caused complaints. If that were grounds for being let go The Post (and every paper that has published more than about 3 reviews in its history) would be going through critics like Kleenex.

What happened was that she wrote something on her own blog which was interpreted by some to mean that she A) would just as soon stick to reviewing movies and B) felt that a lot of what she was assigned to review was pretentious.

So the issue, for those who thought that what she wrote implied the above, became one of trust. Is this someone who walks in the door of the theatre feeling that she would rather be somewhere else, or can she and her publication be trusted to report truthfully whether the show works or not?

(I personally feel this question can be answered pretty objectively. Whether someone LIKES a show is a different question from whether the company's reach exceeds its grasp. And I'm not talking about big budget v. small theatre. An example might be going to a show and saying "That show really captured the expressionist style and mood very well" - though the reviewer doesn't enjoy expressionism.)

I'm not taking a side because I don't know T.O. personally so I can see why people took her words one way and I can also see that she may have been misunderstood. Of course the truth could be somewhere in the middle. But the issue is not that you can't ever pan something. Anyone who's being fair, whether they work in theatre or not will admit that a small number of shows deserve high praise, a small number deserve all the contempt that a critic can muster, and the vast majority of shows are some shade of "okay."

Bilal said...

The most frustrating thing I've seen among critics in Chicago is this need to temper one's enthusiasm. The Reader, in particular, suddenly became very stingy in handing out their Recommended "R"--even for shows for which the reviewer had little negative to say. The essential temperament is that a critic can really have a great time at a show, but still refuse to "recommend" it to the public at large. Why? Is a critic not allowed to enjoy a show anymore, lest they lose their critical credibility?

But beyond that, the larger question of the critic's role in the artistic process remains unanswered, for me. I have personally witnessed a number of times that a critic has been the only member of an audience who didn't enjoy the show...but their opinion is somehow "worth" more because a newspaper decided to pay them for it. This is arrogant hogwash--if you're the only person who didn't enjoy the performance you were at, then what gives you the right to say there was something inherently wrong with everybody else's experience?

The vast majority of theatre criticism I see does not offer constructive insight. The agenda seems to be little more than the aggrandizement of their own opinions. They have little to no interest in improving the work itself; if they did, they'd be dramaturgs.

Scott Walters said...

"The vast majority of theatre criticism I see does not offer constructive insight. The agenda seems to be little more than the aggrandizement of their own opinions. They have little to no interest in improving the work itself; if they did, they'd be dramaturgs. "

This is exactly right! Critics do not exist as some sort of post-graduate mentors for creative artists. They have a role of their own, separate from the creators of the theatre. They are paid to react to the play (whether that reaction jibes with the rest of the audience or not), and to put their reaction into some sort of educated context.

Bilal said...

And I ask, how is this job in any way "important"? What is the broader function of this job? Why are we meant to assume that the critic is somehow more educated than your average theatergoer?

It's one thing to respond to the art, it's another entirely to set yourself up as a role superior to it. It's not universal, but it's certainly there in many critical articles.

Phrases like "crime against drama" and "disgraces the stage" spring to mind--these are indicative of this sort of attitude, and it's ugly as sin.

DCepticon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DCepticon said...

Here is what a critic of anything should do and in my opinion the good ones do it. Respond to the production they are seeing. Yes that means criticizing the ply, the performances and production values.

As producers you hopefully will never be in the position to have to put on a show you don't believe has worth. And therefore your opinions on the play are already set. For the audience and the reviewer those opinions are made when the curtain either goes up or comes down, and it is their's.

Critics or artists who set themselves as the arbitors of what ideas are good and what ideas are bad do the world a diservice. If the point of putting on a show is to make people think you can't be the one telling people that what they are thinking is right or wrong. And therefore we must be prepared for the bed we have made and be like everyone else in the world who puts an idea on display, be prepared to be misunderstood.

The Tricia thing is a disgrace on so many levels and just goes to show that you must always assume those you are writing about will come back and bite you hard on the seat. That being said snitches are the only thing worse than critics with a god complex.

Anonymous said...

So you think this all happened because of her reviews rather than the fact that she pretty much said that she doesn't really like theatre and that she doesn't really like reviewing theatre?

Leave out the stuff about "theatah" and all that, which came across as a straightforward joke, though not everyone got it. Even without that, she was completely honest with T-Boy that she doesn't go to theatre of her own volition and she feels uncomfortable interacting with people whose work she will be writing about. Both of those things are perfectly reasonable but if that's how it is, should she be a theatre critic?

I don't know who actually started this whole thing. For all I know someone she panned two years ago has been reading her blog and waiting for her to write something they could use against her. But the trouble is, even if that's exactly what happened, eventually she gave them the rope with which she was hung.

Right? Or is there more to this story?

Anonymous said...

Shout out from New York:

I'm not a topical person. To anyone that is, i'm dismissable, to those of you like me, get a job.
I'm merely looking for the next venue in life where I feel priveliged.
I was once priveliged, in particular, in my deepest seed of possesion, in what kept me awake and made me rise for a cup of coffee, to work with the author of this blog, which has been dormant far past my attention span.

Am I wrong for using a comments section to catch up with an old friend? I don't know. His is the only blog I've ever gone to on purpose. And, if you feel it's necessary, I think a critic's function is to judge our new material (the script and subject matter almost primary), keep us in check, if Peter Marks (name copywrited) says that a current production of What the Butler Saw is no longer relevant and therefore he has an opinion, then probably it was misdirected, probably the actors were dropping there "r's" over the edge of a cliff and taking themselves seriously.
Hard work is as common in theatre as no-talent. People are capable of more than they deserve.
It is a scapegoat for a critic to blame the script in a failed production of any of the world's cannon (I guess I mean the tried and true, to qualify for "classic-ness" one need only continue to exist). At what point is a piece granted entrance to this holding cell?.. I think, while at the same time holding the written word as one of my few most durable passions, that a lot of medeocre, intelligent writing is dismissed because of smart musical theatre directors who are allowed finally to control a straight play, and uninformed actors feeling their little hearts out. I don't think that was a complete sentence because my point is that it shouldn't be.
Burn This I saw with Edward Norton a few years ago, he alone made the evening worthwhile (Can anyone make an argument for that play being put up? I defy you to show me it's validity). At my school I watched a meagerly acted Red Noses and was more moved than I've been since hearing "Sit Down John" in the Senior classes production of 1776. My point is this, if it doesn't stack up, we demand more. The critic's job has always been to point at the mediocre and to encourage the relevant... since I'm trying to stay on track I'll be specific when I say that it is every theatre observer's mission to do this, but we can't all work for the Post. Plus, where I live, going to the theatre is like half a paycheck.
So there. that's my comment. Skattered into a pefect mess of common sense. As usual I have the most to say when I'm sure no one will here.
Alright, I guess I'm done. I just read Karl's writing and it makes me jealous. Those of you working with him on Hamlet are lucky dogs.
A good friend to me. A vital force IN and a reminder OF the theatre that I was priveliged to find meaning in. His hang up about monosylabic titles, in between commas I'm allowed to be more specific, namely "Doubt", for many of our contemporary plays is like saying that Johnny Damon is another sack-of-shit ball player that has no perspective (anymore) of his audience, and should be branded a Benedict for playing on the Yankees. Wait, I forgot which side of the point I was arguing.
That's the point. I agree with the heart of his point, because I believe he was merely expressing a necessary contempt towards laziness in art. And yet I can't put "Doubt" in the hot seat for doing "the opposite" of our duty as artists, that is, spreading confusion and suggesting that that confusion is an end in itself for we plagued mankind. It's the granola part of me, or the devil, that operates safely in the "I'm okay you're okay" frame of mind, but I'm weary of the same root of an idea in that that I've found in my more passionate days "snake handling". I guess that naming an entire piece after a single word that represents uncertainty does make my skin sorta crawl... I do despise any expression that thinks itself exempt from creativity, like our monosylabic best picture CRASH -- a movie that panders to our guilt complexes, literaly takes seige of our hope to be good in this life and glorifies the notion that simply a RECOGNITION of our "natural" impulses that harm others is salvation from it.
I just realized I completely share Karl's contempt.

I don't know, I just got a computer, let's have a debate.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say I think Peter Marks is a keen and necessary voice for theatre and I only used his name because I didn't know how to spell anyone elses...