Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Critics on Criticism"

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American Theatre at a Crossroad:
The Function of the Critic

Date: Wed, 12 Nov 2003 12:55:44 -0500
Subject: Re: The Function of the Critic

Hi Larry,
Feel free to post my little summation of the panel discussion as it doesn't seem like too many others attended and I think it is important to include on your site.

Hi Larry,
I did manage to go. Here is a quick report on most of the major things said. This is the best of my recollection, so apologies if I misquoted anybody. Quote of the night "Madmen and Critics are the only ones in this culture referred to as raving," Linda Winer, Newsday.

American Theatre at a Crossroad: The Function of the Critic.

Robert Brustein started off the evening by asking the critics to respond to a few questions;
1. What are the differences between daily critics and less regular criticism that would allow more time to think about the work?
2. How has the reduced print space affected criticism?
3. Should the critic's function be a consumer guide or an advocate for the the theatre.

The critics each didn't necessarily answer all of these questions, but they did address interesting issues.
It is pretty obvious that none of them subscribe to the notion that they should be advocates for the theatre.

Carolyn Clay started off by saying that there is a place in the theatre community for those who "can't do," as the saying goes, and she stated that the critics chair is one of those places. She also stated that a good critic goes a little further than the "thumbs up, thumbs down" opinionation and that it is necessary for the critic to provide a little guidance.

Indeed, all of the critics bemoaned the onset of the "capsulization culture."

Linda Winer from Newsday was a former Chicago Tribune colleague of Gene Siskel and said that she would often tell him that he and Roger Ebert had started the arts reviewing community on the road to ruin. In fact, her husband, who is a music critic for a London Paper, recently received word that he would have to start giving stars to his performance reviews. "How do you give stars to a chamber orchestra piece?" she asked.

Peter Marks, critic from the Washington Post, and a former Off-Broadway reviewer for the New York Times was a great speaker and a passionate critical voice, but also the sobering cold water of reality. In the end, he seemed to keep pressing, people scan the review to see whether or not you reccommend it. In the end, "you are paid to say whether it is good or bad." He also stated in his opening remarks that he has come to the conclusion that theatre just doesn't matter to enough people anymore.

He is right. I remember seeing a Biography presentation of Marlon Brando and seeing footage of him being mobbed by literally thousands of people during his triumphant turn as Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire. We just don't have that much interest anymore today.

Linda Winer added that the theatre producers are implicit in this "thumbs up, thumbs down" culture. She implored the producers not to always pull blurbs from the reviews to plaster all over buses in town. She said that this type of advertising is legitimizing the viewpoint that the critics in the powerful papers are always correct. She joked that she said something nice about a play once and she saw her quote on the sides of buses for the next 10 years. She also had some choice words about some of the producers' tactics. For instance, selling previews as if they are normal performances. "People are paying full price to watch practice," she said,"the least they can do is inform people to that fact." Another pet peeve she has is the "$1.25 building maintenance and restoration fee." She doesn't think that people need to pay an extra dollar, "to clean the toilets in the theatre."

Ed Siegel was probably the least outspoken of anybody on the stage, and his philosophy amounted to basically, "if you call them as you see them," in the end you will have done a good job for the theatre in general. He also wished he could do more of his longer Sunday theatre pieces in order to elaborate on productions or the theatrical climate. And he has found that as he has evolved in his role he is putting less and less guidance and history of the dramatic pieces into his daily reviews.
Mr. Siegel also offered that while one of the theatre's biggest problems is getting young audiences, he doesn't even see young audiences attending the cheaper, younger, and edgier productions in town. Where he sees young audiences are at performances like Stomp and Def Poetry Jam. "The theatre needs to look to that direction if they want to attract new audiences."

Rocco Landesman was on hand as a former critic and now a producer in New York. His thoughts were that the papers make bad choices for their reviewers, noting that sometimes the restaurant critic is moved over to cover theater. A little embarassing for him to find out a few minutes later that that is almost exactly how Peter Marks was appointed as a stringer at the New York Times.
He also reccommended that critics must and should take a sabbatical now and then because a sustained period of time reviewing will eventually result in burnout or very automatic reviews. (Something which was agreed to by several of the critics.)
In concert with an point-counterpoint argument in this month's American Theatre magazine, Mr. Landesman also pointed to a distinct lack of journalism in the the realm of theatre criticism. He gave an example of how the late Walter Kerr would always try to report what happened in the theatre the night before and what it was like to be there for the experience.

My favorite story of the discussion was when Peter Marks told of how he did an assignment where he went to see New York shows as a regular audience member. He would go well into the run of established hits. First off, he had to pay to see the shows, and secondly he found himself experiencing the show from the depths of the balcony and the far sides of the orchestra. Lo and Behold, the show is a very different experience seeing it from balcony M9 than, "safe in my Orchestra F 102 seat." It was an eye opening experience for him.

The discussion started to move into an interesting territory with regards to subscribers and reviewing for people that have already bought a ticket. Peter Marks poked fun at his local regional theatre Arena Stage and how they are doing Camelot this year. Indeed all the critics poked fun at that notion.

However, I can't help feeling that there will be a day when the Royal National Theatre will reinvent Camelot and all the critics seated on that panel will all fawn all over it gushingly.

Kudos to Robert Brustein for organizing these discussions and Kudos to the Huntington for hosting them.
The next event will be on November 17th. The topic will be The Future of the Playwright. Paula Vogel will be on the panel; I just heard her give the Keynote at the NETC Conference this past weekend, and she should provide for lively discussion.

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