Critics, Bloggers, and Critical Mass

Critics, Bloggers, and Critical Mass

There is an interesting conversation going on over at the Parabasis blog about what it means to be a “critic” in a new and denser climate of critique, namely, one that now includes the blossoming theatre blogosphere.  After reading Isaac’s posts and the comments they’ve elicited, I’ve come to one certain conclusion: the theatre blogosphere has achieved critical mass, putting “critics” in check in ways they’ve never before known, for theatre blogs contain as much metacriticism as theatre criticism.

What qualifies someone to be a conventional (and paid) theatre critic for a national or regional magazine or newspaper? Passion? Politics? Prior publications? Academic training? Verbal panache? Practical theatre experience?

These are questions I pondered as I skimmed the bios of several theatre critics. It concerns me that critics seem to hold posts akin to the tenured positions of university professors.  For example, a perusal of the bio of Christine Dolan, theatre critic for the Miami Herald, reveals that she has held this position since 1979!  30 years?! Dolan holds degrees in journalism: while I do not necessarily think that having a formal drama degree should be requisite for all drama critics, I must admit I’m perplexed when I have to hunt for theatre credentials on theatre critics’ bios.  The only theatre-ish elements of Dolen’s Bio are the following lines: “she actually appeared in a few plays” while a journalism fellow at Stanford and “she is an actor’s daughter,” which, by the way, is the last line of her bio.  She actually appeared? Oh, well, then. And what exactly are we to glean about her from knowing that she has a parent who acted?: does this qualify her?

A gander at Ben Brantley’s bio offers some additional insights.  Like Dolen, Brantley has enjoyed a healthy run as chief theater critic for the New York Times since 1996 ( and had served as its Drama Critic since 1993). Prior to this, he wrote on topics from film to fashion for a range of publications, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Elle, and Women’s Wear Daily. He holds a literary degree–to be exact, a BA in English from Swarthmore College.  While his A & E journalism resume impresses, I love the last line of his bio the best also: “Mr. Brantley is single…” Really? Is this a personal ad or professional profile?

Just this past January, three Theater Artistic Directors in Los Angeles spoke out in defense of theatre critics after word spread that several theater critic, writer, and editor positions had been cut at Los Angeles Daily News, LA Weekly, and Daily Breeze.  A longer recap and a reprint of the letter co-written by Gilbert Cates of the Geffen Playhouse, Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse, and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group can be found here on the LA Times blog. In sum, these guys argue that theatre critics are a necessary and not necessarily evil component of theatre, a bridge between performance and public awareness and community dialogue. If theatre practitioners can agree on the usefulness of critics, then surely theatre bloggers and critics can find a way to coexist constructively without the former sounding whiny and the latter elitist.

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Comments
One Response to “Critics, Bloggers, and Critical Mass”
  1. CL Jahn says:

    Critics are disappearing from the scene at an alarming rate, and with them, coverage of theatre. And as you reveal, too often those writing about theatre lack a background in the subject.

    Of those reviewing locally, only a few are worth reading; the Sun-Sentinel doesn’t even have a theatre writer on staff anymore. They either send out the fashion editor (who can’t seem to master complete sentences) or reprint from the other local papers. Once in a great while, they send out Bill Hirschman.

    Since I started commenting on reviews on the Theatre Scene, I’ve noted a modest improvement in the quality of reviews; in some cases, the reviewer simply didn’t realize what parts of the show were critical to a well-written review. In another, the lesson went to the editor, who had been chopping out the production details and leaving the plot summaries.

    But that hasn’t helped increase the number of plays reviewed, or the number of reviews per play.

    BTW, I agree with Ritchie – critics bring public awareness, and an opportunity to discuss the play. The more reviews, the more opportunities, and the greater the awareness.

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