Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
A Moment of Musing: The Purpose of Theatrical Criticism – Who do I write for?
Ever since I was a part of an L.A. Stage Talks discussion about theatrical criticism a month or so ago, I have been mulling a few things over in my mind. Central among these (and beyond the whole question of whether theatrical criticism has any validity, or is even read by anyone anymore) was the theme regarding audience. Who is a critic writing for? Is it for the public who might want to come to the show, or the other members of the arts community engaged in productions all over the area, or playwrights who need feedback, or the actual artists on stage and behind it who need to put suitable commentary on their resumes, or… who?
Certainly, I came off – for better or probably for worse – as the populist writer, or (as a former editor once wrote) someone who could find some value in her 500th “Annie.” Though I know I have gradually built up an allergy to singing-dancing orphans, I think I know what she meant. She knew I have spent my career writing theatrical criticism for a string of suburban, and therefore comparatively provincial dailies. With that in mind, what my editor meant is not that I only have an affinity for fluff (or at least I hope that is not what she meant). It is that I have spent my career trying to explain the art form I love in such a way that I can get people who may not feel that same automatic passion to go into the theater to see almost anything done well, whether it is a very polished version of an old fashioned musical, a stunning reworking of a classic play, or something new which expands the bounds of the intellect and the craft of theater itself. I want to stretch them, of course, but I have to meet them where they live and connect their interests to my own understandings.
This has led at least one recent commentator to say that I am not talking about theater, I am talking about myself. No, my reviews are not all about me, but I sometimes need to offer a view of the lens through which I am looking. If you (here I go being populist again) adore the musical “Carousel,” and I bristle at it because of its approach to domestic violence, then knowing that about me will help you understand why you will not agree with my review. Context can be everything. And sometimes by talking about my own experience, I can connect with someone who might otherwise be dubious about attending a particular show, or a particular theater, because now they can see where I am coming from.
Nothing screams “connecting with the people” like being a local oneself. This may also be a part of my filter for my reviews. I live in the area where the papers I write for appear, so anything I say can have interesting consequences. I have been stopped on the street or at social gatherings by people who know my family, or know me in another context, or even just know my face. Sometimes they stop to say they wait to read what I have to say before seeing something. That’s lovely. Then again, they sometimes publicly scold me for liking something they didn’t understand. Sometimes they are very direct. My favorite came when an elderly gentleman who had known my grandmother stopped my on a main street sidewalk, shaking his finger in my face and proclaiming loudly “I always thought you were a good girl!” (I had praised a show with bad language and references to sex.)
Since this blog began, and my writing began to be part of the various compilations of reviews, both at theaters’ sites and at places like Bitter Lemons, I have spent a bit more time comparing the way I do what I do with the way others write. And, of course, I examined the differing practices of those with whom I was on that panel. They approach the entire process from a more literary standpoint than I often do. They offer articulate and sometimes compelling reading, bringing insights sometimes different, sometimes far more expanded, sometimes the same as my own. I am often envious. Yet, with some of the most esoteric I occasionally wonder how many of these reviews teach me something but may not teach that same thing to the uninitiated – to the audience I often write for.
Which brings me back to the entire question of who reviews are written for.
And that brings me back to my “populist” label. When Billy Collins became U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001, he had one strong focus for his two-year tenure: making poetry approachable again. He collected modern poetry by many artists that he felt ordinary people (as in, not those specifically schooled in the finer points of modern poetic theory) would connect to. He went on “60 Minutes” to push people to read poetry again, offering examples of his own and other works he found generally approachable but still fine art. He published a collection of this accessible poetry. His central argument seemed to be that, though poetry should not be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, it should also not be written exclusively for other poets, like some kind of secret handshake: art only the artist “gets.”
I guess I find myself in agreement with him, when it comes to theater. I have seen some pretty cutting edge stuff which, when done as it can be done, is a performance many should challenge themselves to be educated by. I have also seen some productions which are not intended for the audiences I write for but rather that “secret handshake” group of the intellectual elite. I have also read reviews which seem to take that road – talk mostly to the artist and the scholar. As Collins did, I become uncomfortable with this, as I see it leading to obscurity. Obscure art only preaches to those who are already converted, something which has its own virtue, but does not really advance the overall health of theaters in Los Angeles or the nation. As with Collins and poetry, this is not an argument to dumb down theater, but perhaps the job of the critic is sometimes to increase accessibility, to let people know what kind of genre they will be dealing with: in the simplest terms, whether they will have to work hard to understand something which is worth the adventure of trying, or whether it is pompous trash.
In general, I fear for the art form of theater, perhaps even more than I fear for the apparently inevitable disappearance of the print media where I got my start. For print there are alternatives – like this blog. For the art form we review? I once had a Features Editor (a gift to my papers from the Times, actually) who announced that “nobody goes to the theater anymore – certainly not anybody young,” and who therefore did not see the need to give space to covering it (I was flat-out told during his tenure that, if I left the newspaper group, I would not be replaced). At that point I was made particularly aware of how fragile this art form is. As theater critics, we are to some extent the free advertising many small companies could not afford to pay for. Our job is to tell producers when something is wrong, and celebrate with authors and actors when something is right, but our primary purpose is to tell an audience to show up when the work is worth it.
I am nobody’s paragon, and that is not the point here. I am just a writer who has been around a long time. I sometimes envy the sophistication of what I read in other critiques. My point is, I want theatrical criticism, and theater itself, to be important. It can’t be important if there aren’t enough people listening. They won’t listen if we don’t start the conversation by speaking their language.
Returning to the metaphor of poetry, think of this. The poet Pablo Neruda was thrown into exile because his poetry, critical of the government, so resonated with his people that he was seen as profoundly dangerous. He and his poetry were that influential. When the poets invited to the Bush White House to celebrate National Poetry Month in 2002 explained they would be reading anti-war poems, the entire ceremony was canceled. The nation shrugged. The group then opened a website called Poets Against the War, published a book of the best of what was received there… and their protest went nowhere because, as was stated at the time, Americans don’t read poetry anymore.
You may argue with that conclusion, and with mine, but I fear a similar fate for theater, if it is written about in an insular way, or treated even by those who produce it as some kind of hot house flower. Nothing could be worse than to simply become extraneous – culturally unimportant. So, my own choice is to write critiques of explanation, both in the traditional print media I’ve been associated with all this time, and here. My scope is small, but I believe passionately in the importance of the theater. It does and says things nobody else is saying, in ways no other medium can match.
Please do not read anything here as a matter of treating myself or my work as superior to anyone else’s, or some form of bashing of some specific individual. It’s just a conversation with myself about why I write the way I do, and who I am writing for. This is what I’ve been musing about, so thought I’d share.