Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: theatrical criticism
I have been thinking about what the life of a theater critic is, these days. Times, in the cliche phrase, have certainly changed. In the era of plays like “Arsenic and Old Lace” or books by Jean Kerr (remember “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”?) a critic’s life was hectic but glamorous, and theatrical criticism could – at least in various entertainment capitals – become a full-time profession. That was when newspapers were the way in which people received their news, for the most part, and theater even beyond Broadway and Neiderlander touring productions could actually afford to advertise in them.
Not so today. Even in the generally smaller, more suburban papers I’ve worked for, the change has been startling and disturbing. For example, early in my career as a critic the Pasadena Star-News, though already owned by the comparatively hands-off Knight-Ridder Group, had a stable of writers on theater, dance, film, and the specific arts of classical, operatic and popular musical forms, put out an entertainment magazine every Sunday, and ran reviews thick and fast – even doing overnight publishing for shows close to home. Already they didn’t pay much for their “stringers” who did much of this coverage, but at least they devoted lots of space to the arts.
Today most surviving papers are parts of large chains owned by single media companies (pretty much all, nationwide, belong to one of the Top 20, a startling number to the top 10 or 11), so in general independence or variety of expression is out. The company which now owns the Star-News owns somewhere around 10 papers just in Southern California alone. One theater critic serves several papers (I serve at least 3 and often more). Anything national is purchased (or sold) through syndication.
Some features editors (I had one like this, at one time) decide what art forms people are still seeing, and may cater only to the most popular. I actually heard from that old features editor (now gone and not mourned) that nobody went to the theater anymore, so there was no reason to cover it – that I was only writing for them because I was grandfathered in, and if I left the paper(s) I would definitely not be replaced.
Now – sadly – as papers shrink, the first things to disappear are entertainment pages. Once daily, in the papers I work for now one is lucky to have entertainment featured more than once a week. And almost no paper has a full-time, or even generously part-time critic anymore. But this is the newspaper business, which has been declared more than once to be a dying art form itself. Okay.
What does this mean? First, of course, it means that much of the writing about local arts has gone electronic, where the new audience is. It also means that – with rare and celebrated exceptions – those who have gone electronic do so on their own time, and not for money – as a sideline based more on their love of the art form than anything else. In other words, many critics, including me, must have a day job.
And this is its own dilemma. What about those times when the day job’s demands overwhelm the deadline-rich life of the critic? To whom is one master?
Certainly, those who invited a critic in to review deserve to hear what that person thinks, particularly if the work is good. That’s the advertising most of the many small companies in this area can afford: mention in writing somewhere, where it can be tweeted or referenced on Facebook, or quoted in publicity. They risk the negative of course, yet still give free theater tickets to those who critique, in the hope for analysis, but also in the hope that this will create conversation about what they are doing and, as Derek Jacoby said about appearing in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, “put people’s bums in the seats.”
But – and this is the point here – theatrical criticism, by and large, isn’t what one does for pay around here. Sometimes the demands of mammon outweigh the desire to sit and write about art. Sad though it is, people like me who have mouths to feed and a roof to keep over someone’s head must bow to the demands of the job that pays the bills even when it means letting down the theatrical companies one wishes to honor.
This has happened to me three or four times since I began this blog, most recently regarding the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of that Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse, “Cats” in La Mirada. Work was intense, and I didn’t even answer the invite until late. I saw the show, and found parts of it resonated in a way I wished to write about… and then I was beset with deadlines and paperwork at that ever-present day job which were both time-consuming and exhausting.
You cannot imagine how frustrating it was to come out from under those other demands and realize that my review, if I wrote it now, would appear even online after the show has closed. My fault, certainly, but caused by the attention I must put into my other life.
Now, I do realize that much of this is something I need to solve myself: mapping out a time frame taking me from view to review in as economical and practically possible a way as I can. And I also realize that, at (I hate using this phrase) my time of life, it is just possible that my energy level – my after-burners, as I have always called them – have somewhat diminished. Still, even for those who have not boxed themselves into my corner, this is still a dilemma.
Which comes first when there is not time for full concentration on both: art or eating?
This morning I was listening to a commentator on the radio extolling the greater Los Angeles area for the huge amount of arts organizations and artistic endeavors this part of the country contains. And, of course, this is true. It is also true, as it is for journalism as a whole, that access to credible information about local goings-on is becoming tougher to create and to disseminate, for this same region.
So, I am working to get myself more organized – to plan out my work life, my family life and my theater/writing life so they each have enough time devoted to them to flourish. I will keep going even as the pay and outlets dwindle, thanks in great measure to having this blog available. Still, even though that myopic editor is long gone, I wonder if the papers I write for would replace me if I left. Sad to say, stringer though I am, given budget constraints both of money and space, I rather doubt it.
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.