After tonight's performance of the world premiere of Arts or Crafts, there's going to be a critic's symposium. Last I heard, there was going to be four City Pulse critics and me.
I've not been to one of the Theatre Department's symposiums, so I don't know how long they last or how open-ended they are in terms of questions. I do think the topic is a fascinating one and I think the discussion could get quite lively and potentially intense. I'm guessing that the five of us will have very different answers and approaches to many of the questions that could be raised. It's one of the joys of talking to fellow critics: reveling in the diversity of opinions. It's one of the things that stands out for me about the NEA Fellowship--how 25 of us were able to talk about theater and criticism non-stop for 10 days.
Because I've been feeling woefully unprepared for this, I've been going back over my notes from the fellowship. I'm glad I took a lot of notes, because I'm really enjoying some of these tidbits again:
From one of the artists at The Theatre at Boston Court:
We’re sometimes more grateful for mixed reviews. We read you. We may know you better than yourself. We’ve analyzed your writing and we know which of you are soft touches who like everything and which of you have agendas and axes to grind. We want to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
From Dan Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts:
Theater is an ecosystem and public critics are the middlemen of culture. They create the commentary around culture.
From Ben Cameron, Program Director, Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
Things have changed. We have to get rid of the hierarchy in theater. It used to be that if you were the biggest budget theater, you won. Now it is an ecosystem. Everyone needs each other. The non-profit can’t survive without the commercial which can’t survive without the community theaters. 90 percent of theaters operate with $1 million or less; 70% with less than $500,000.
Reviews should be a form of engagement rather than judgment. It should be a conversation between people.
Critics must love the art form and know their values.
Dominic Papatola,Chief Theater Critic of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and President of the American Theater Critics Association
Art critics have to be as good as any other writer, teacher, and philosopher. Art is organic, it’s part of life.
Write reviews that engage, entertain, and provoke your readers. Once they find you in your paper, don’t make it harder for them by the way you write. The first sentence has got to make them read. Put the good stuff at the top.
Be journalists. You can’t just engage theater in the auditorium. You have to connect it to the world. What is happening in business, politics, neighborhoods, pop culture. Find stories that connect theater to the community.The devils of writing are:
Loving the sound of your own voice.
- Ivy towerism.
- Lack of agility to hop on something that’s a story.
- Lack of engagement; lack of participation.
- Not writing to your length. If you can't, give the editor optional cuts.
Michael Phillips,former theater critic of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribute, currently a film critic
Be specific. The phrase “colorful costumes” is meaningless. It’s not good enough to say “dull” or “boring.” We can do better than that. Find better ways to express your itchiness. That’s just the beginning.Be specific and be brave.
Honor and explore without making readers guess what you feel. Don’t deliver the verdict in the first paragraph. Leak and make them guess where you’re going so they’ll stay with you.
Screw completist thinking. You don’t have to cover all bases in the same way. You don’t have to talk about every actor and every technical aspect.
Use the outside world. Live in the world of the theater and the wider world. Theater is our calling. We belong on the other side of the fence, but there is no border patrol. We’re double agents.