Critics: What Are They Good For?

As I’ve been writing about theatre more and making theatre less, I’ve naturally been thinking about what the relationship between writer/critic and practitioner is and could be. Though I’m now on the record with my disappointment about Jesse Green’s hiring at the New York Times, I think he’s a really interesting, talented writer, and one of the things that jumped out at me in his interview with American Theatre was when he insisted that his background in theatre practice was an essential part of his critical practice. Of course, as someone who comes from a similar background, I think that’s true.

I also think that critics are an essential part of the artistic world. But two pieces that came out recently were a very explicit reminder that many artists don’t think so.

The first, in the New York Times, is actress Amanda Peet’s light-hearted tale of refusing to read a scathing review of her performance in a Broadway play. The other, rather less high-profile and significantly less good-natured, is this poem, which (like Peet) calls out the writers of the bad reviews by name, but unlike Peet, does so before heaping on several stanzas of insults.

What I found striking about both pieces is the complete unwillingness to assume any good will on the part of the critics– or indeed, to acknowledge that a critic’s work serves any purpose at all. They are an annoyance made to be ignored, jumped-up nobodies who are just trying to get your attention. I can’t help but feel it’s notable that the poem is called “did you get a bad review?” What if you get a good review? One assumes that in that case, they would have happily quoted the critics in the marketing materials for their shows.

There are obviously plenty of reasons for artists to approach a review skeptically. There’s no such thing as an objective review, and a critic’s dislike doesn’t mean that a show is bad. But how can we create an artistic world in which critics and artists are two strands of the same conversation?

When I was in grad school, it became clear to me that the directors, actors, and writers saw us dramaturgs as safe. While they had to get up onstage and bare their souls, make themselves utterly vulnerable through their art, we just got to sit back and make comments when they were done. I could never find a way to express to them how vulnerable it can feel to express an opinion– how much craft it takes to put together a thoughtful, careful response. As I said above, there’s no such thing as an objective review. A critic is always revealing something about herself through her opinions.

How can practitioners learn to embrace critics as fellow artists, people who are engaged in a creative process of their own– one that at times seems at odds with theatre practice, but is ultimately complementary? And how can writers approach their work in a way that will allow theatre practitioners to trust that their work has been approached in a spirit of generosity and good faith; that they won’t be attacked for the sake of a funny article; that we, too, have made an effort to read what they have written and hear what they have to say?

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