Inter-critic? No. Dramaturg.

The following was submitted as a reply to Wendy Rosenfield’s thoughtful piece on The Broad Street Review, “The Future of Professional Theater Criticism: An International View”. Since I am not confident BSR will publish my reply at all, or at least without edits and cuts, I will post it here in its full, unadulterated form.

Wendy is tackling an important question, one that I have been concerned about for some time: what is the role of the art critic in our society? She, and other thoughtful (and kind) critics have a vital role to play in the survival of the art we love. She and I differ on the perimeters of that role. I hope that this conversation leads to a positive outcome for her work, and mine.

***

Wendy Rosenfeild is passionate about theater, and writer I admire. But her complaint about the diminishment of the role of the critic misses some foundational truths; truths which have more to do the evolving cultural landscape than the work of the critic. Although I have some thoughts about that too.

Periodicals have employed critics not from any altruistic investment in the art of theater, but rather because they felt that the critics work would help them sell newspapers. This was true some years ago, when the opening of a play was a major event which attracted the public’s notice on mass-market scale, and when the critic’s opinion of that event was nearly equal to the event itself. In this light, we see the critic as celebrity, and we need only think of Clive Barnes and Frank Rich for models. People bought newspapers to see what these celebrities wrote about theater. And if the celebrity critic was entertaining in either their enjoyment or disappointment, then the piece the critic wrote was in itself a work of entertainment. Those days are over, and they will not return. And so with no economic incentive to support the critic’s work, newspapers relegate them to the newsroom junior varsity, with no expense accounts, reimbursements, or privilege.

The reasons for the demise of the celebrity critic are many, not the least of which is the medium we are communicating through here. The importance of the critic rests on the presumption that there are a only a few people writing in public fora who’s opinions we should respect. But now the public fora is filled with fauna of all kinds, including Average Joe, who is able to share his opinion right alongside the critics, and the reader is left to ask the question which bothers the critic the most: why should I respect the critic’s opinion more than Average Joe’s? In many ways, I am more like Average Joe than this critic I don’t know, and he liked this play that the critic dismisses. I think I’ll go see it.

As long as reviews of artistic work remain glorified opinions of that work, resting on an authority the average reader doesn’t understand or care about, and attempting to turn a subjective response into an objective judgment about “good” vs. “bad”, then critics will remain on Dinosaur Road, and we will study their fossils in years to come.

Ms. Rosenfield doesn’t write reviews like this, although many of her colleagues do. She genuinely cares about theater, and wants to play a role in its survival. She believes theater still has a vital and meaningful role to play in the communities in which it is made. So do I. So do all the theater artists I live with. You know who doesn’t, or at least who needs convincing? The people she says she writes for: the ones who buy the periodicals in fewer and fewer numbers.

Ms. Rosenfield bemoans the emergence of the “inter-critic”, the person who both writes about and practices the art of the theater. But that is the future of the critic, if not the present. The truth is, the only people who really care about what the theater critics write are the theater artists. See this epic letter I am now writing as exhibit A. And so the future of the critic lies not as a standard bearer for a public that doesn’t care about or understand the standard, but rather with the artists, who need more critics in the mode of Tynan, Brook and Shaw; critics who respond to individual works against the backdrop of the history of the company that made them, the state of the art form currently, and their own personal tastes.

There is a name of this person: dramaturg. I hereby offer Ms. Rosenfield a position in my company, White Pines Productions, as Company Dramaturg. Her duties will include writing about the kind of work we are doing for both internal and external publication, and helping the artists making the work understand more clearly how they are succeeding, or inhibiting the vision they claim to create. She will be a primary artistic advisor to the Founding Producer (me), and provoke and stimulate me with questions and ideas that only she can come up with, since she possesses the skills of the aesthetic observer and, yes, critic: one who asks the tough questions out a sense of love and care for thing being questioned. None of this will prevent her from writing about and/or evaluating the work of other companies. Rather, it will put her in the company of the people who, ironically, need and value her work.

As we checked in recently, before my ensemble began rehearsing, we each took a moment to share what was going on in the rest of our lives – a kind of personal sharing ritual which has become deeply meaningful to the company of actors I work with regularly. One of us shared his very real anguish, grief and rage at having been personally slighted in a Philadelphia Inquirer review of play he is now performing in. Everyone in that room shared his anguish, and we all wanted to hurt that critic, and our esteem for critics and criticism fell even further.  And guess what? The only people who cared about that ugly awful review were people like us: theatre artists struggling to survive.

Want to name what’s wrong with criticism? Start there, in that room, with us.