In Which I Try to Articulate My Feelings on Theatre Criticism

How do you guys feel about theatre criticism? Pro, con? I struggle with it myself. I would guess a large portion of us in the theatre community do, because it’s innately a complicated art form. Theatre reviewing is an art form, not a science, and yet the way it can affect work—especially new work—can be almost scientifically predicted. Negative reviews from high-profile critics have ended new musicals, especially when they’re in the early stages of development. But aren’t reviews opinions? Which people have a right to? Complicated.

This semester I’m taking a theatre criticism course, which requires me to see roughly a show a week and review it. It’s strangely difficult to articulate all my feelings in a form that’s interesting, coherent, and informative* (I’m usually more of a “leave the theatre and think about the show quietly to myself” type). Turns out, I’ve enjoyed reviewing. It makes me interact with a piece so much more than I do as a passive audience member. It requires me to meet the show halfway in its story and production value and to engage with the material. I’m not a composer or director and performer, but reviewing gives me a way into the world on stage, almost a license to live in the world of the show in a public forum.

Well, recently my class met with the director of a show we reviewed. I personally thought the play was perfectly okay, but apparently most of my class panned it and she had read each of our (non-published) reviews. All of a sudden she was grilling us – on how much theatre we’ve seen, on what we didn’t get about the show, on what were we missing from a show that’s so important to her.

…I mean, what am I supposed to do with that? I don’t feel bad about my review. It was honest, used facts, and didn’t rely on snark or easy jabs disguised as jokes (there’s criticism and then there’s bullying, in my opinion). I can defend every word I wrote, especially because I don’t think I made any grand assumptions about the playwright, the theatre, or the actors. It was one woman’s opinion on one performance on one night. But I watched this director defend her work, trying to get us to see what she sees in it, and I felt incredibly sad and thought, “I’ve been there.” I mean, honestly, last week my friend said he thinks A Chorus Line is overrated and I got so angry I left the room. (Mature adult alert!)

Yes! That was my reaction to hearing negativity about A Chorus Line—a show that other than countless sing-alongs in my car, I’ve had nothing to do with! If I slaved over a show for years and then some punk kids wrote how they didn’t like it, I’d be close to tears too.

I’m aware my train of thoughts here is cyclical rather then progressing to a point, but that’s because I really have trouble grappling with the concept of criticism. On one hand, who are we to critique someone’s art? On the other hand, who are we not to feel a certain way and respond to it in a respectful manner? On the other hand, why do some reviews (what’s up New York Times) have so much power in deciding a show’s fate? I can keep doing my best Tevye impersonation by adding more and more hands, but you get the point.

I don’t think I would ever want to eliminate the critic. Even though it was so incredibly hard to look a director in the eye whose work you didn’t love and be questioned about the reasons, theatre criticism is all we have in an art that’s beauty is in its fleetingness. My professor says that theatre criticism becomes theatre history. True. She says the critic must be educated, must function as the theatre scholar for the public. Contextualize the work – place it in a cannon or explain why it’s not in one. True. I mean in a sense, a critic is the professor for the community at large, and like students, people can always tell when they’re being bullshitted. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to meet two important theatre critics who were genuine, warm, and spoke of their true love of the theatre. One even told me that he became a critic because he thinks theatre deserves to be held to the highest standard to preserve it for future generations.

So at this point, I’m asking: how do you all feel? Are you over critics? Do you think they should be educated in what they’re talking about given their power, or does everyone’s voice deserve to be heard no matter their previous knowledge of theatre? Is the critic responsible if their review kills a show? Should they feel guilty? And then my last question…is a critic a part of the wonderful theatre community, or just an outsider looking in?

*PS: I’d like to use this opportunity to apologize for my last review. I was struggling to think of a concluding line so I ended up making both a Mad Men comparison and a pun with the word “succeed” while writing about How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Guys I’m so sorry I had to resort to that…

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