Critics Center Stage, Still

Critics Center Stage, Still

“The great misapprehension that shrouds the association’s code of practice is the belief that critics are part of the theatre community and that we should do everything in our power to encourage and support it. That is wrong. We are observers, not participants, and our only loyalty should be to our readers. If we can entertain them while sparing them the time and expense of seeing dire shows, so much the better.”

—–Charles Spencer, The Telegraph


Spencer’s musty old comment is precisely the point-of-view that works against critics, like myself, who seek to bridge, NOT SEVER, ties between those who review theatre and those who make it. Not to mention the fact that plenty of people in the industry perform more than one part in it–barring the minority who support themselves as full-time critics, many who write reviews are also creative writers, stage hands, directors, etc.  This is not, or at least should not be, an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ scenario, but a ‘we’ scenario.

In plain, Spencer’s comment goes against everything I’ve been trying to argue/advocate (perhaps too idealistically) about the role of critic.

Here is the most recent Parabasis musings on critics, and here is my (far tooooo long) comment:

There has been a longstanding tension between the playwright/screenwriter and the director, a vying for credit, that has no doubt affected the way critics review productions. (There are certainly some films that like to depict/parody/perpetuate this tension…I’m thinking of Adaptation, Synechdoche,New York, and State and Main.) Then, there are playwrights (Mamet, Mcpherson, etc.) who double as their own directors and an organization like 13P that makes the fusing of that role central to its mission. Even with press kits, reviewers still have to do their fair share of reading and research in order to compose solid reviews.

Beyond this, the role of “theatre critic” suffers from both overappreciation and underappreciation, from being taken too seriously and not seriously enough–both of which present problems for the craft. The former puts the critic on a pedestal, in a vacuum of sorts, removed from the practical side of theatre, aloft with the “literary gods.” The latter, in one sense, discredits the whole notion of a specialized “theatre critic” and clumps the role in with other forms of criticism–namely, all things artistic and cultural, from music and film to food and fashion. For an example of the devaluation of the theatre critic, one newspaper in my area (South Florida) has routinely sent out the fashion editor to review plays, and the result has been poorly written, insubstantive reviews; CL Jahn over at the South Florida Theatre Scene blog has done a nice job of analyzing (and thereby sparking positive changes in) theatre reviews in the region.

Both stances—overappreciation and underappreciation–do a disservice not only to theatremakers and theatergoers but also to criticism as a practice.

In grad school, my classmates and I had to analyze reviews and write our own, and the beauty of this exercise lay in how different our approaches initially were, largely because of the different roles we each had inhabited up to that point within the world of theatre—we ranged from playwrights, performers, and directors to dramaturgs, historians, and educators. Acknowledgment of our diverse backgrounds helped us be especially mindful, going forward and writing reviews, of all the people who come together to create a theatre experience.

While all people are entitled to opinions about theatre, not everyone is deserving of a formal (paid) journalistic platform to espouse these opinions. Not just anyone will do. (Certainly not someone just thrown haphazardly into the role from another section of the paper.) Perhaps, if those who perform the role of theatre critics were treated/perceived more like insiders, rather than judgmental outsiders, and if there were more dialogue between critics and theatremakers, some of the mystery/misunderstanding/oversight about what goes into a given production could be dealt with, making critics better attuned, better equipped to write more conscientious (which is not to say soft or undiscriminating), incisive, and effective reviews.

Read on for more from Spencer and others on the persisting chatter about CRITICS.

Today, Guardian theatre blogger Chris Wilkinson touches on the code of ethics for critics recently finalized by the International Association of Theatre Critics, Charles Spencer ‘s reactions to the code, and the ongoing blogosphere conversation about theatre criticism…

It’s nice to see the trans-Atlantic nature of the conversation…Wilkinson not only points to those discussing this subject in Britain, but also to American theatre bloggers such as Isaac at Parabasis, who gave the subject a thorough discussion during the month of October and again this month.

Telegraph theatre blogger Charles Spencer on the critic’s job… I’ve included his comments in full bc they are buried at the bottom of a longer post of his.

  • “It’s not a critic’s job to be nice” (11/2/09)

“For my sins (which must be grievous) and purely as a result of Buggins’ turn I currently find myself the president of the Critics’ Circle. Our meetings make the dreary parish councils I covered as a cub reporter seem like a fiery crucible of high drama, but by and large we are a harmless and well-meaning bunch.

We are also affiliated to the International Association of Theatre Critics, which represents 2,000 reviewers in 50 different countries. This, too, seems mostly harmless and largely an excuse for freebies to foreign lands, though why the seminars and conferences always seem to be held in the grimmer cities of Eastern Europe, rather than say Hawaii or Thailand is beyond me.

The association has just published a proposed code of practice for critics that strikes me as completely wrong-headed. The Ten Commandments may have been enough for God and Moses, but we theatre critics are faced with 11 of them. Personally, I’ve always thought that the critic’s obligations can be summed up very briefly: arrive sober, stay awake, stay to the end and don’t take a bribe unless it is big enough to allow you to retire in comfort for the rest of your life. My own price, should anyone be interested, is £1.25 million in used twenties.

The association is much more earnest and long-winded. We are supposed to acknowledge that we are “explorers in the art of theatre”, whatever that means, and told that we should “welcome new ideas, forms, styles and practice”. Why on earth should we if they are no good? We are also urged to write truthfully and (dread word) appropriately, and to respect the dignity of the artists we are responding to.

This last injunction seems to outlaw the great pleasure of writing — and reading — a vigorous piece of knocking copy. There is a place for the abusive review, and taking the mickey out of pretentious or inadequate actors or directors is an important part of the job.

The great misapprehension that shrouds the association’s code of practice is the belief that critics are part of the theatre community and that we should do everything in our power to encourage and support it. That is wrong. We are observers, not participants, and our only loyalty should be to our readers. If we can entertain them while sparing them the time and expense of seeing dire shows, so much the better.”

Guardian theatre blogger Andrew Haydon has sounded off on the subject of critics before…

This older post addresses the drafting of a code of ethics by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC); notes that the Canadian Theatre     Critics Association already features a code of ethics on its website; and acknowledges cultural differences in attitudes towards critics/criticism.

Towards the end of the piece, Haydon notes that he queried writers about whether or not they’d like their work read before being seen, and he claims most preferred it be seen first….I mention this because this point has been raised in the theatrosphere again recently… Such a preference emphasizes the play-in-performance, the whole experience, over the playwright and play-as-literature… it’s interesting…


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