Dallas — I was once called an “auteur-gone-wild” in print.
My parents thought this was hilarious. My dad made me a t-shirt with the logo of the producing theater company on the front and that phrase on the back.
My team and I were thus scolded in response to a fairly straightforward production of A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room. There was one departure from the norm: in an effort to put the focus on the people and not the objects that clutter their well-appointed lives, we removed all the props. The actors did meticulous space work that, with sound from our crackerjack resident designer, rendered the ghosts of the objects loud and clear but kept our eyes on the people attached to them.
I never wore that t-shirt. I was embarrassed that one of my first forays into the infamously supportive Chicago theater community was met with dismissal. What we made wasn’t consistent with the critic’s understanding of how that play should be produced, so we had crossed a line. It wasn’t just a difference of opinion; she seemed to take our work as a personal affront. This review didn’t end my career nor stymie the careers of my collaborators. Did it impact ticket sales for this show? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the handful of other, far more complimentary notices probably impacted our bottom line more and in the opposite direction. But those first words, casually thrown at a new director almost nine years ago, stuck. That old thing about sticks and stones? I don’t buy it for a minute.
We were lucky that this was an established script. Mr. Gurney is doing just fine. If this had been a new play—well, I think we all know the kind of death knell a negative or even an indifferent review can ring for something just getting on its feet. Playwright Lauren Gunderson spoke eloquently at the American Theatre Critics Association conference in 2014 on this topic. She asked for a détente of sorts, a kind of Christmas Truce in which the ball we kick around is our abiding love for the American theater, a belief in its relevance, and a sense of the necessary role that theater-makers of all kinds, including critics, have to play in its continued vitality.
The recent news that both D Magazine and the Dallas Observer were significantly cutting if not de facto eliminating their theater reviews didn’t surprise me. It’s another block on a long street of publications incrementally reducing or simply disappearing space for arts criticism as print itself dwindles. From two daily papers, to one; from two full-time theater critics to one and a half, to one, to a half, to zero, the focus of our media has shifted from holding sacred space for considered reporting and cultural critique to selling advertisements and increasing clicks. That’s not the critics’ fault; many of them are working at least as hard as the scrappiest young theater artists.
Not long ago, Time Out Chicago stopped running weekly print editions. Their online theater section is still robust, in large part due to its editor, the astute Kris Vire. In the last week or so, Mr. Vire covered six shows himself, and sent out other reviewers for six more. In addition to writing and editing theater reviews, he is also now covering comedy, dance, LGBT events, a little bit of film, and working on a baseball preview for March’s seasonal print edition. I’m not sure he sleeps. What’s remarkable about Vire isn’t even his workload—it’s the love he maintains for the form and the people who make it, despite the amount of pressure he clearly endures. Isn’t that the same kind of passion that keeps young artists up late at night painting sets or learning lines all for little or no financial compensation? (Don’t get me started on artist compensation. Or maybe do. In a different post.) He is the kind of theater critic who, like Richard Christiansen at the Chicago Tribune before him, wants to see good art succeed, and wants to be part of the conversation that is lifting it up, holding it accountable to be as excellent as it dreams of being, and as relevant as is necessary for it to thrive.
Mr. Vire is, of course, not alone. Here in Dallas, the very online publication I’m contributing to was created in order to offer more and more in-depth coverage of arts and culture in North Texas. In my short time here, I’ve seen critics who demonstrate generosity, curiosity, and journalistic rigor, but these folks still feel like the exception that proves the rule. Whatever the cause—be it the stress of dwindling support, or fear of lost livelihood, relevance, or influence, there are many critics who seem to take pleasure in wielding their power for its own sake. The men and women who would be king-makers, the ones who are more interested in crafting a witty turn of phrase than provoking significant dialogue or grappling with difficult subject matter, whose cynicism fairly drips from the newsprint or the touch screen—what are artists to make of our relationship to them? And how are we to mourn the loss of their place in the pantheon of tastemakers when they seem so determined to spit out everything they try?
So what? In the long run, what does it matter how artists feel about what critics are writing about their work? Read the reviews or don’t, isn’t that all artists’ prerogative? But it’s just not that simple. Look at the marketing of just about every theater in America—in the world—and you’ll see one thing in common: pull quotes. So much time, energy, and money devoted to promoting the most positive, snappiest turns of phrase the critics have crafted (or those the marketing directors did after the fact with the skillful use of the ellipsis). Even more than inherent relevance, rigor, or artistic merit, there’s no denying the power of a positive notice to sell seats or a negative one to tank a production, especially of a new play. Take this perhaps apocryphal story: a major critic on opening night of a new production told a staffer at a small theater—before the show even started—“Don’t worry. I’m going to sell out your houses for you.” Whether that power is real or imagined, are these the advocates we want speaking to our audiences on our behalf?
Is this newest time of journalistic change an opportunity for true reinvention? What might a revolution in artistic criticism look and feel like today? And what are the barriers to changing a conversation already in progress? To me, it comes back, as it so often does, to the audience.
Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area have been collaborating for the past few years on a study called Triple Play, which is designed to examine the relationships between playwrights, theater companies, and audience members. The results of the first phase of their work were fascinating: occasional theatergoers weren’t averse to new plays, but they are more averse to risk than we knew. They don’t recognize the names of playwrights, even the “fancy” ones who win Pulitzers or enjoy multiple productions at the same theater. They are most interested, according to this study, in the story that they’re going to be told. In our well-meaning desire to keep from “spoiling” a play, it turns out we’re often not giving folks enough information to decide whether they want to attend or not.
Audiences want more information. They want to be let in on the conversation. If they can’t easily find a way into the organization and get access to the artists themselves (which is what they really seem to want), the next best people to strike up a conversation with are the critics. They’re experts, right? Their job is to help us know if a show is going to be worth our time and money. Isn’t it? That’s why world premieres, so often sought after by theaters and funders, can make audiences nervous. If something’s brand new and no one’s reviewed it yet, how do they know if it’s good, or if they’ll be interested in the story? On the other hand, if something has positive reviews from, say, the Paper of Record, there’s at least one stamp of approval. No wonder we still see so many productions of the same play spread through the regions the year after it’s a hit in New York City.
Critics carry a remarkable amount of power. What if critics took advantage of their megaphones and influence to empower audience members to decide for themselves how to make the best use of their money and time? Could critics work with theaters to better prepare audiences for what they’re going to experience while leaving the final assessment up to the taste of the individual? Could critics help create a culture that wants to see for itself, and more actively create conversation? Advocate-critics could help spark ongoing dialogue. They’re also the ones we want writing the history of our culture with their perceptive reflection and smart analysis of artistic experiences. Not every piece of art is brilliant, and I don’t suggest we treat it as if it were. Hollow praise is just as problematic as indiscriminate bile. Astute observations, questions, or challenges can be the stones against which artists can sharpen our work and ourselves. Those are the invaluable gifts that advocate-critics give to artists. We don’t need blank checks; we need people who care about this field enough to critically engage with the work, and help our so often underestimated audience do the same. Not everything has to be to your taste, but like Lauren Gunderson noted, something not being to your taste is different from it not being worth your time. How can we better distinguish between these two?
In a landscape as rapidly evolving as the one artists and critics currently share, how can we address the myriad challenges that impact us both? What if we could better model the kind of empathy, discourse, and reflection that the theater seeks to generate in the way that we work with and speak to one another around the art? Sometimes compassion can feel like a challenge; how can we as artists better receive the gift of true critique in that sprit? And how can critics take care to ensure that, no matter the context, their spirit is never simply mean?
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.