Last week I went to an arts criticism discussion at Stony Brook University. It was formally titled: Elevating the Discourse: Artists, Critics and Audiences, A Roundtable Discussion on the State of Criticism in the Age of Twitter. (Oof, what a mouthful!) My brilliant former professor/chief theater critic for Newsday, Linda Winer, invited me to attend – she was on the panel. (NOTE: I think I might have been the only journalist in an audience full of dramaturgs. Makes sense, I suppose, as the discussion was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.)
So, one of the first questions asked was something on the order of, “How can we elevate the discourse when talking about the theater?” I'll confess, I’m not sure exactly what that means, but a lengthy discussion ensued – much of which aimed to answer the more focused, if not entirely realized, inquiry: “Are critics writing for the artists or the audience?”
When I was younger (a naïve late teen), I would always complain to my parents that criticism wasn’t in touch with its audience – it was writing for someone that knew too much. I vowed to create a criticism that maintained a regard for my subjects, but was written with my readers in mind. As I get more entrenched in the theater community, however, I fear I’m losing touch with that “audience” I once felt so indebted to. I sigh when friends ask me if they should take their parents to see Jersey Boys when their in town. Typical, I think – safe commercial choice. (Perhaps another question that should have been asked at this panel – but wasn’t – might have been: How do we get serial commercial theatergoers to make the jump to Off-Broadway and beyond?) The honest truth is that I’ve never even seen Jersey Boys, and I have a particular distaste for the jukebox musical. Yet, I turn my nose up because Jersey Boys isn’t the best “artistic” option out there. We seem to live in a society where “artistic” is just another word for highbrow, and “entertaining” is the damning synonym for lowbrow. Something “brazenly artistic” generally garners a good review, and something “sordidly entertaining” usually means a pan is in order. But why does it have to be this way? Something artistic may be a total bore, just as something entertaining can provide for a memorable, enjoyable even, night in the theater. And what’s more, can’t something be artistic and entertaining at the same time?
I’ve decided that it’s largely a matter of taste. I see at least one show a week, so I’ve cultivated a palate sensitive to nuances in performances, direction, and narration. Regrettably, many people are fooled into thinking that critics are laymen that know nothing about the theatrical craft. But the fact is, we’ve probably seen more theater than most. It is our life’s work, after all.
But the hypothetical Jones family that schleps into Times Square to see two Broadway shows a year doesn’t share that same luxury. Going to the theater is a treat for them, and they’re probably going to stick with something "safe." (Here, word of mouth from friends probably holds more sway than anything the critic has to say.) The trick then is: How do I get them trust in my informed opinion? Can you mix experts and amateurs?
I’ve spent a long time thinking about the state of criticism today, and I’ve come up with three roles that critics can play. They are as follows:
1) Scoreboard keeper – This is the worst type of critic that I can imagine. Sadly, though, as we continue to whittle down our reviews to stars and thumbs, keeping score is becoming our reality. As the scoreboard keeper, I’m asked to objectify a subjective art form, and my creative license is completely stripped away. But I didn’t sign up to take a multiple choice exam where I’m instructed to fill in my scantron for the categories of acting, playwriting, and directing. Art is rarely extraordinary, but infrequently atrocious. How do I “bubble in” the middle ground without becoming redundant? Bottom line: I lose. You lose. And 2.5 stars becomes the norm.
2) Personal shopper – So let’s assume I get paid to write 300-400 word reviews for a publication of my choosing. (What an awesome alternate universe, right?!) Now say I write multiple reviews a week. In my limited space, I can’t say much, but as an avid reader of my engaging and witty blurbs, you get to know me – Laura Hedli: theater critic. You get to know what types of theater I enjoy, if I prefer to laugh or cry, if I like this actress or another. After a while, you know where your preferences line up with mine. I can recommend things about certain shows, but you take them in stride – you’ve got your own style after all. Still, I’m a consumer reporter. You want to know if you should pay your good, hard-earned dough to go to this-or-that particular show. You may want a brief explanation of why it suits you. But essentially, the question remains, “Does it fit?”
3) Matchmaker – Okay, so perhaps I’ve got to think longer on this term, but bear with me here. In an ideal world, my reviews would make you want to go to the theater. Maybe you want to see what I see, or perhaps you want to disagree. Either way. I would exist in order to foster a love between my reader and the art form that I hold most dear to my heart. Every time I take my seat, no matter the venue, I feel that I am home. I realize this is a bold statement, and I don’t make it lightly. It’s a privilege to be able to go to the theater once or twice a week, but I can think of few better ways spend my time. You, the reader, may not enjoy the same luxury, but I can bring the theater alive to you through my writing. If my critiques foster an organic connection between reader and theater, then I have done my job. I have opened the door to another voice, a broader discourse. I have perpetuated the dialogue – and by association, the art form.