Don't review this

Criticism | Vision

"It was an experience,'' she says with wonder, of her contact with the impostor she never really knew. For the author and his heroine, the challenge is to hold on to true experience in a world in which most human encounters are bogus and nearly all are instantly converted into the disposable anecdotes, the floating collage scraps that are the glib currency of urban intercourse. In Six Degrees of Separation, one of those passing anecdotes has been ripped from the daily paper and elevated into a transcendent theatrical experience that is itself a lasting vision of the humane new world of which Mr. Guare and his New Yorkers so hungrily dream.

I have a stack of books in my living room – collections of essays and reviews by some of the country’s best theater critics. They include reviews you want to read whether you’re going to see a show or not – the kind of journalism that gets published as collections. The most recently published in my stack is Frank Rich’s collection of writings from the New York Times (from which the above quote is taken).

Growing up, I read Rich’s writings at the library in a small town in Illinois. They provided me with a glimpse into what professional theater was, and without my ever having seen a professional production, they illuminated the work with their words in a way that helped me understand it and long to see it done well. Whether he was writing about something as sublime as Dreamgirls or as ridiculous as Moose Murders, his words shaped my image of theater and his obvious love for and deep understanding of the art form instilled in me as much respect for those who write about the theater as for those who create it:

When Broadway history is being made, you can feel it. What you feel is a seismic emotional jolt that sends the audience, as one, right out of its wits. While such moments are uncommonly rare these days, I'm here to report that one popped up at the Imperial last night. Broadway history was made at the end of the first act of Michael Bennett's beautiful and heartbreaking new musical, Dreamgirls…. Miss Holliday just keeps riding wave after wave of painful music -clutching her stomach, keeling over, insisting that the scoundrel who has dumped her is ''the best man I'll ever know.'' The song can end only when Mr. Bennett matches the performer's brilliance with a masterstroke of his own - and it's a good thing that Act I of Dreamgirls ends soon thereafter. If the curtain didn't fall, the audience would probably cheer Jennifer Holliday until dawn.

Rich left the theater desk in 1993. Was he the last of the great theater critics? Is his type of criticism even being written anymore?

Let’s focus on the traditional print newspapers, because, for better or worse, that’s still where the highest readership for arts writing exists. The future is bleak. Daily newspapers are contracting, and arts critics are taking buyouts or being laid off. The other day, I talked to Michael Sommers, former theater critic of the Newark Star-Ledger. He’s freelancing – writing a story for Equity News about the impact of shrinking arts coverage on actors – and thinking about what he wants to do now that there’s not much of a future in being a critic. Just last week Christopher Rawson, another longtime critic, took a buyout from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In December, theater critic Jacques le Sourd was laid off from Gannett after 35 years. When the New York Post’s Michael Reidel asked him about the future of theater criticism, le Sourd said, “You can write that he just laughed. Loudly.”

The future looks no better for the Twin Cities’ newspapers. It’s remarkable that we’re still a two-newspaper town, but I’d bet that will change within the year. And while we do have a daily paper with two theater writers – that’s unheard of anywhere except the New York Times – my concern is about more than the number of papers or critics. The problem is that too much emphasis has been placed on theater reviews to the detriment of arts journalism that might have a real effect in the region.

Of course, inside the theater community, we can’t keep from talking about those reviews: This reviewer doesn’t like me personally, that one’s reviews are incomprehensible, this other one doesn’t even understand the play and they all review only the big theaters. Every one of us has at least half a dozen stories about a critic’s mistakes, misunderstandings, incompetence or lack of writing ability that we are sure has caused irreparable damage to our theaters, our artists, or the theater community at large.

Seriously? Let’s face some hard truths about the reviews printed in our daily newspapers.

Does the average newspaper reader even skim – much less read – a review of the latest production from a small theater company she’s never heard of and has no intention of seeing? Probably not. But she might well read movie reviews and almost certainly reads feature stories about the movie industry, even if she sees only two or three movies a year. I believe it’s because, in part, newspapers provide stories about the film industry that explain and inform, yet provide little real coverage of the theater community in this town.

A sense of the experience

Reviews in the Twin Cities newspapers don’t accomplish what critics and editors insist they do, which is provide a service to their readers. I would argue that the readers of the two major daily newspapers in this town would be better served by forgoing hastily-written, ill-considered snapshots of an opening night performance and focusing instead on actual journalistic coverage of the arts. I’m not against theater reviews; I’m against theater reviews that are poorly written, thumbs-up-or-down laundry lists of actors and designers that don’t do anything to illuminate the production or give readers a real sense of the experience. Maybe it’s not fair to compare our local critics to Frank Rich, but I think there’s a solution: Stop writing reviews and start writing news.

Local theater critics are journalists first. Journalists are storytellers, and there are thousands of stories in this large and active theater community that just aren’t being written. Features about theater are often glossy, shallow puff pieces that are indistinguishable from reviews. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone say to me, after reading a feature story about a show that hadn’t opened yet, “Wow, great review in the paper today.” And the very sporadic stories that do get reported are disproportionately about money – or the lack thereof – and therefore focus on only the large theaters. Plus, because these stories are so sporadic and lacking in context, complex issues are boiled down to one line conclusions.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s story is one example. It takes a long time to build up a debt as large as the one that killed Jeune Lune, but I can’t recall reading a story about their troubles until 2008, the year they announced they were disbanding. Our theater community is large, but hey, it’s not that big. How could our reporters miss something like that? When the Playwrights’ Center or the Guthrie or Mixed Blood gets a grant, the papers run a paragraph culled from a press release announcing the grantor, grantee, amount and purpose. And then…? Our critics don’t have time to follow the money to see how it actually creates art because they have to write reviews of the six shows that opened this week, an interview with an American Idol reject who’s appearing in a touring production of Grease, another profile of that really gorgeous actress they’ve profiled twice this year, and a Valentine’s Day poem.

In this performing arts community, there are personalities and huge egos and unsung talent and incredible artistry and gossip and bad blood and conflict. Readers are being denied those stories because our writers are spending their time writing reviews that won’t be nearly as interesting, vital, or even as accurate.

A new way forward

Just recently, I traveled to Chicago where I met with a number of theater critics and discovered that the situation at their papers is not that much better than in the Twin Cities. The Chicago Reader, once a legendary alternative weekly with great arts coverage, has been decimated by the abandonment of the classified advertising upon which it relied. Yet, I found hope and inspiration in a young, hyper-intense theater critic and journalist named Christopher Piatt at TimeOut Chicago. This weekly magazine, part of the TimeOut franchise that publishes weeklies in New York and London as well as city guides worldwide, includes at least five theater reviews each issue as well as some of the best arts journalism I’ve read in a long time. There was a story examining the overwhelming whiteness of professional theater in Chicago that didn’t just bash the established companies for the homogeneity, but actually looked at the causes and offered solutions for both theaters and audiences. Another looked at the impact, both positive and negative, of large commercial shows like Wicked on the Chicago theater scene. And lest you think Piatt is only interested in hard-hitting investigations, TimeOut ran a great photo essay in April that showed the absurd lengths to which actors will go in order to survive, beautifully illustrated by a cover photo of a well-known Chicago actor wearing a suit made of meat. After perusing a few of his cover stories on Chicago theater, I blurted out to Piatt, “Wow – I wish we had TimeOut in Minneapolis.” He laughed and replied, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Piatt and his team are writing stories that would make me cringe as a publicist if their counterparts in the Twin Cities attempted them. But he’s doing them in a way that provides context and poses tough questions without seeming to pursue an agenda. His stories are fully reported and sourced – nowhere in his stories did I read, “Some say…” or “The theater community is buzzing about…” – both phrases used by journalists who have no sources to confirm their own opinions. Real arts journalism is informative and detailed and interesting, and it makes theater relevant.

It’s probably too late to save theater criticism at daily newspapers, but writers like Piatt may be able to show his brethren a new way. The future of arts journalism could lie in other formats – blogs like Chris Jones’ “Theater Loop” in the Chicago Tribune, where he covers the news of theater in a way neither of our dailies do, in weekly publications like TimeOut. or maybe even in independent blogs or online sources like MinnesotaPlaylist.com.

So, as our local newspapers hemorrhage money and staff, I challenge our arts journalists to do something heroic on their way out the door. Stop writing reviews and focus your energy on journalism.

In fact, I’m begging you. Just tell the stories.

Comments

I have a lengthy commentary

Fascinating but flawed

It's an incredibly compelling idea. I can't count the times I've been rehearsing a show, and between things alternately going horribly wrong and fantastically right, I don't stop and think, "Fuck, we should just sell tickets to THIS, it's funnier than the damn play!" The stories of the people in our community who make and support and produce theater are at least as compelling as the work they put on, and the story arcs are longer, too. They may not end with swords drawn in the fifth act, but I know blood feuds between members of the artistic community and producers of certain theaters that have lasted decades, not just past intermission.

But there are two hurdles that I'm not certain we can clear. First, there is an entire industry dedicated to turning the lives of people who make making movies and TV into performance art itself. I can't possibly imagine that without a substantial investment from more than just a few humble newspaper reporters, we could generate enough interest in our own semi-celebrities to get people to pay attention for more than two stories. And does it sell tickets? That's the bottom line. We can tell all the tragic and heartwarming stories about the people who make art we want, but supporting theater still involves driving to an unfamiliar place, paying for parking, buying a ticket five times as expensive as a movie, and seeing some people you've most likely never heard of perform something written by someone who is either dead or completely foreign to you.

The second is, where does it start? Who among us is going to volunteer to be the TC Theater scene's Paris Hilton? It's one thing to have a story told about your struggles, your rags-to-riches story, the quirky things you've done for a role. At some point, though, it'll have to get ugly. That's what sells. And while even bad press is good for those with higher profiles than ours (ala Blagojevich), airing our dirty laundry could be devastating to us. Most of us couldn't even remotely be considered "bankable" stars, so if an unflattering story about us were to get wide distribution, we could pay the consequences for years.

I'm vain as hell. I love any press. I read my all my press (it's semi-annual, at best). And I love shitty reviews. If someone wants to do a hit piece on me, rock on. But I don't think everyone will feel the same way, and I think it'd be a Sisyphean battle to get the general public to care - no matter how many 50-cent words Rohan uses in the articles.

Graydon Royce responds

For a critic to criticize another person’s right to criticize would be hypocritical. That said, I have not heard a groundswell from other theaters that we eliminate reviews. In fact, they call all the time, asking us to come see their shows. As for indepth arts journalism, I stand on my record; you can search the archive.

I would add, though, that arts organizations are not always eager to talk about what goes on behind the scenes. That is not criticism. It is a stone-cold fact.

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