Is Theatre Criticism Dead?

Dear Theatre Critics,

July has been a dark month for you. It seems you can say nothing right! After years of artists cowering in fear of what you might say about them, artists are standing up for themselves (and for each other) to call you out on the way you abuse the hand that feeds you. 

First, there was your unfortunate New York Times’ body shaming review of Smoky Joe’s CafePoor Laura Collins-Hughes was only making an innocent remark about the ways that the costume designer made her feel icky about someone else’s body, and it was taken all out of (Euro-centric) proportion! What’s the big deal in saying Alysha Umphress is “bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have know-how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way.”? Alysha Umphress had temerity to enlighten you in her tweeted response that ended with “Also, I think I looked pretty ferosh.” 

Of course, Laura Collins-Hughes says she was talking about the costume and not the body, responding on Twitter, “It is not shameful to be big, and I didn’t suggest that it is.” But Laura Collins-Hughes’ review implies that the costume designer didn’t have enough “know-how” to handle “that” — as if being “the biggest of the girls” (Alysha Umphress’s words — pointedly emphasizing the relativity of a word like “big”) is something to be managed. 

Umphress wasn’t alone in coming to her own defense. Scores of theater artists took to social media to sound off. Once on This Island costume designer Clint Ramos named the trouble of the review with incisive clarity:

"The reviewer points out Ms. Umphress’s size as a problem or a dilemma to be solved and furthermore it negatively magnifies Ms. Umphress’ otherness by comparing her body to the other female bodies onstage. […] In this context, the use of the word 'bigger' is not as a benign descriptor but rather as a hurdle to overcome. Imagine for a second if we replaced the word 'bigger' with 'darker.'"

Our culture’s sensitivity toward the world’s multiplicity of bodies is deeply lacking. A costume designer’s job isn’t to fix that problem, but rather to embrace that multiplicity. “Ms. Collins-Hughes has reduced our job to merely solving these imagined problems that society (and some producers and directors) places on actors’ bodies and appearance constantly,” says Ramos.

Here, he hones in on something with which you, dear theater critics, often overburden a production. It is not our job to make you feel comfortable or to solve the societal pressure you’re feeling. In fact, the tension you might feel while looking at someone’s body, hearing someone sing, or listening to someone speak on stage might be the exact intention of the artists.

I would be willing to debate the merits of a garment because, in theory, this is changeable. What isn’t is Ms. Umphress’s physique. But, on both accounts, even if you could — why would you? They are perfect.

Rather than assuming someone isn’t doing their job well, what if you assume that the greatest theater makers in the greatest theater city in the world are doing thoughtful work? What if you examine your feelings not as flaws but as part of the experience? 

Before the first storm could die down, the head critic of the New York Times, Ben Brantley, managed to step in it with his review of Head Over Heels

“These assorted role reversals are overseen by the wise oracle Pythio (Peppermint, a contestant on ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, described in the program as “the first transgender woman to create a principle role” on Broadway. Pythio identifies as “nonbinary plural”. Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the King’s viceroy and father to Mopsa, finds himself strangely drawn to her — I mean them.”  

Do you see the problem here, dear theater critics? On one hand, it’s a problem of tone. Ben Brantley sometimes amuses himself by adopting the tone of the piece that he’s reviewing. My pet theory is that he does it when he’s bored. Regardless, he did it here. He said as much in his apology: 

“I feel horrible about having offended transgender and nonbinary communities. I was trying to reflect the light tone of the show, as well as a plot point in which one character learns to acknowledge another not as “she” but as “they” — this was meant to be a reference to the character of the Oracle, not Peppermint, the person who plays the role. This unfortunately read as more flippant than I would ever have intended, especially with regard to a performance that marks a historical first. I am deeply sorry.”

To be tone deaf is to not hear the music around you. It’s to listen to only the loud wrong notes you’re singing and miss the delicate symphony that surrounds you. It is to be out of touch.

No one is reading your review for humor, dear theater critic. We read your review for context, for how the piece of art is tethered to its moment and, ideally, to its lineage and legacy. Why not open your arms to the era you live in and take in the panoramic view that you are so privileged to see (to be paid to see)? Instead of shutting it down — looking for cheap jokes and nitpicking flaws — try to see the breadth of what’s happening in theater right now? Have you ever considered — without oozing bias and judgement — the possibility of trying to connect a piece of theater that isn’t your thing with the audience that might love it? Have you ever tried to put yourself in the stilettos, pumps, or flip flops of other audience members? 

The late July entry is from Pulitzer-prize winner Hilton Als, who has a history of chiding female artists for their ambition.

In reviewing the exquisitely talented and smart Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men, he wrote “There is no heart in Straight White Men, or not much of one, and that’s the fault not of the actors but of Lee’s ambition: she wanted to make a “straight” play and hang with the Broadway boys, without appearing to aspire to anything other than the spectacle’s success.” 

Did she? And how do you know that, Mr. Als? Did she tell you? And what exactly do you mean by “hang with the Broadway boys”? Do you really think a woman who wrote a play called Straight White Men, problematizing the idea of straight white men, has the ambition of “hanging with the Broadway boys”? What is a Broadway boy? And how does any of this have anything to do with the piece of theater you saw?

Winter Miller, a fantastic playwright and incredible thinker, took to Facebook to air her thoughts: 

“Dear Hilton Als,
Your job as a critic is to comment on the merits of a play, the content within that play, and to do so with an eye towards recognizing that your own lived experience does not match that of the writer’s, that it serves us all if you can broaden your understanding of the values of a play based on its reflection of the human condition that may not match yours. Your job however, is not to cut down any artist by speculating about things you cannot possibly know about the inner workings of their emotional life, and it is never ever your job to patronize any female artist for her actual ambition or your projected ambition for her.” 

I wonder, as Hilton Als was writing his review, if it occurred to him that he might be feeling something that women have felt as they sat in the audience of a darkened theater watching female characters (almost exclusively written by men) reflected on stage in ways that lacked “heart”? I wonder because I couldn’t possibly know, because I wouldn’t presume to know the inner workings or ambitions of his mind. 

So, dear theater critic, are you ready to examine the role of the “professional reviewer” yet? Might we consider a different system? I can’t tell you how much more I would rather read — say — Winter Miller’s or David Henry Hwang’s or Taylor Mac’s review of Young Jean Lee’s work, whether or not they liked it. Might I humbly put forth the radical notion of paying theater artists (a known starving breed) to see and review theater? It works quite well for the New York Times “Weekly Review of Books,” not to mention the “New York Review of Books.” Or perhaps it’s up to us, as theater artists, to end the era of New York City theater being a “one critic town.” 

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The advantage of having a play criticized by a critic who is also a playwright is as obvious as the advantage of having a ship criticized by a critic who is also a master shipwright.” A playwright is uniquely positioned to speak to the craft of a play, and, more than that, a playwright is a student of empathy. A playwright sees the limit of her own perspective and has a deep humility and curiosity about it. Not to mention, playwrights have an obvious investment in the constructive advancement of theater as an art form. They don’t often write articles pronouncing that theater is dead, for example, which is something theatre critics seem to enjoy doing. 

Critics need to stop assuming that writers don’t have a worthy agenda when they spend half a decade or more working on a piece of art. They need to recognize that their job is not to give a thumbs up or down but to add to the critical discussion of a piece. There ought to be room at the table for professional theater critics as well as artist critics. We owe our institution that breadth and perspective. Though I must say, if you don’t take your role seriously, dear critics, you are dinosaurs. You are obsolete. Because truly, we don’t need you. You need us.