Criticism and Critics: Who’s the audience?

To whom is the reviewer speaking? There are two obvious constituencies, and one not so obvious.

In decreasing degrees of obvious-ness, the first group to which the critic talks is the potential theater audience. This fact highlights the tension inherent between the theater community (or the arts community? Please – someone in another arts field let me know how the facts shake out differently) and critics. They are essentially doing advertising – only some of the times the billboards read: SHOW SUCKS! AVOID AT ALL COSTS! Naturally, the theater community’s inclination is to fire this particular marketing director.

From the theater community’s perspective, the critic has one particular incentive that is all too-often ignored: to advance the community – in this case, the community of theater audiences. After all, doesn’t the critic’s very job depend on this community? If there is no audience, so the logic goes, then there is no theater. No theater means no reviews, which is to say, no critics. From a purely self-interested perspective, shouldn’t critics be doing more to shore up, to develop this community? Shouldn’t they be as much of a development director as a marketing director? Why don't you say better things?

There is not exactly a consensus on how to approach the idea of “development.” One reviewer I knew in Indiana took the cheerleader approach, and was very forthright about trying to get people out to see theater, any theater. He wouldn’t lie in his reviews, but he would (to my mind) misrepresent the whole experience of any show he saw by writing only about its positive aspects. Does the “analytically critical cheerleader” exist? Clearly, cheerleading will only go so far – and if the critic only supports shows, their judgment will be called into question. This person has to be an honest broker, as the saying goes. Presumably, this is what we mean when we talk about journalism – it’s not necessarily objective, but it is intellectually and emotionally honest.

There is a second group to whom the critic is speaking in this regard, however, and one that the theater community tends to ignore – not because we’re dumb, but either because it’s not our audience, or because it should be our audience, and we’re that solipsistic. That second group comprises the potential readers – of the newspaper, the online journal, the blog. Damien Jaques at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is quite articulate about his audience: they are the readers of the paper. Although I haven’t spoken to him about this since he instituted his blog, I expect that his limitation of space (expressed in column inches) doesn’t impact what he can write about on the virtual geography of his blogspace.

In other words, the electronic form of the medium allows for both greater depth and greater breadth. The question is, and I don’t know the answer, how many people read him in the print edition, how many the online, and how many easily access both? How overlapping are these two reading populations?

When speaking to the Potential Theater Audience, the critic is of course commenting on the show, and also recommending to go or not to go (items 1 and 2 from last week's Criticism post). If acting in the “development” capacity, she might also choose to add advancing the community (potentially item 4, certainly item 5).

Keep in mind, I’ve only been talking so far about the Most Obvious Audience for reviewers. Two to go.

The second audience with whom the critic can interact is the theater community (item 3 from the list). Suddenly she is no longer presuming to act as a filter, but is speaking directly to the artists, typically in a critical capacity more than in a praising one. While this is an entirely reasonable perspective for a critic to write from, for theater artists it is nothing but problematic.

In the first place, the critic still has same more-or-less stable body of audiences (viewing population, reading population, artists). In other words, this more personal critique still functions as a negative filter, and a more personal one at that. It’s not that we don’t want constructive criticism – we do – but this kind of communiqué comes at our expense, we suspect.

Secondly, this personal communication is inconsistent. It is difficult to frame a response when it seems to come at the critics’ whims. I hasten to add that this is not always the case. When I directed John Leicht and Michael Neville’s script CAFÉ DES BON TEMPS several years ago, Shepherd Express then-critic Jason Powell wrote me privately in advance to give warning that he wouldn’t be giving us a good review (apparently no longer available online). Based on conversations I’d had with Jaques, I knew that space would be an issue, probably more so in the free weekly that is the Shepherd, so I asked him if he would consider sending me a more detailed criticism personally. He did, which was above and beyond the letter of his job. It took some of the sting out of his review, which is really just a perk, and gave us something more concrete to think about.

There is an obvious reason why Jason emailed me ahead of time. I was about to direct him in my next show, ROUNDING THIRD at the Boulevard. Which is to say two things: Jason regularly writes and acts, and he had a stake in not creating a bad working relationship before we started having a working relationship. This is, of course, pure self-interest – but it led to the most productive, professional exchange I’ve ever had with a critic.

The third, and least obvious, population that the critic has to speak to is her journalistic peers – people at the same paper, or other critics generally speaking. I can’t address this very clearly, not being a critic and not having this issue, but I can imagine it from an artist’s perspective. If I were to program and direct a season that consisted of Edward Albee’s The American Dream, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Nicky Silver’s Fat Men in Skirts, and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and they were all done well, I could reasonably assume that everyone would think I had mastered elements of absurdism, expressionism, and grotesque. Why would I follow this season up with a freelance job directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Rightly or wrongly, Shakespeare is one of theater’s gold standards, just as many canonical 20th century plays are. Great, you can do stylized theater – but can you handle heightened, poetic language? Can you handle American Realism?

I imagine that theater journalists have similar issues – what they see, what they like, how they write. Just because they’re in print doesn’t mean that self-presentation doesn’t matter. What’s the written equivalent to ripped jeans versus pressed, pleated pants?

Next week: Credentials and Platform (or, why we listen to “one person’s opinion”)

1 comment:

  1. I would say that journalist / critics like Mary Louise Schumacher solve some of the problems you mention, by A. frequently and repeatedly reporting the existence of all things happening in the community (not just a yearly seasonal listing, which overlooks anything that isn't rigidly advance-planned). B. encouraging and bundling a crowd of voices (anyone can call in with their gallery night reccomendations, and she'll publish them) this recognizes diversity and subjectivity, over a false universal standard of "quality". C. Being transparent, she says when she's reccomending something because it sounds unusual or significant, when she's reccomending something because she's seen and really liked it, or when she's reccomending something because others clearly like it even though she doesn't. D. taking an active role advocating for the community.

    The writers at Third Coast Digest and The Shepherd do a better job of these things than the most prominant theatre writer in the city. You'd think the Journal could see the contrast between their own two employees, and what effect it has on readership, relevance, and sales. If they do, and Damien's way actually works better with the broad (non artist) community, then it's clear that Milwaukee is not, and will not be an "Art City", and we all need to get out, now.