As I See It: Why We Need Critics

A few weeks back there was a post made to the Praxis Theatre blog, referencing a piece that George Hunka had made on his blog about dismantling the critical apparatus in the theatre world, by either sending all of the critics on one-year vacations or just refusing to let them into our shows. It's taken me a while to figure out exactly how to respond to this, but I'm finally getting around to it.

As someone who straddles the worlds of critic and artist, I've had to put a lot of thought into what exactly the role of the critic should be and I can say with all sincerity that we do not need to get rid of critics. We need more critics. Better critics. What we don't need any more of is reviewers, which is what the major publications of the city have on staff. Writing a piece that tells someone whether or not they should spend money to take in a piece of art is not criticism and the people who pen these articles are not critics, despite the fact that the publications that they work for, in an attempt to grant them some level of legitimacy, assign them this title. While reviews can be humourous, insightful, and (especially when they are scathing) quite fun to read, they do not constitute critical writing and including them in this category diminishes the value and importance of actual theatre criticism.

Criticism, whether written about theatre or any other art form, is writing which is designed to accompany the work, NOT writing designed to tell people whether or not they should see it in the first place. True criticism is written under the assumption that your reading audience has seen or plans to see the work you are talking about and should inform the viewer's experience of the work, not to place a value judgement on the work itself. That doesn't mean that everything a critic has to say about a work is going to be positive, however the minute a critic starts telling their reader that they should or should not see a work, it ceases to become criticism and becomes a review.

Criticism should do several things for its audience. The first is to contextualize the work they are writing about, both within the practice of the particular artist they are covering and also within the greater context of other artists working in the same tradition. Critics who are good at what they do know what is happening on the world art scene. They read voraciously what other critics are writing about art. They travel to see work in different cities. They have an in-depth knowledge of the history of the discipline they are writing about. They also have at least a general sense of what is happening in the art world outside of their particular area of expertise. Perhaps most importantly, they talk to artists about what they are doing with their work.

True criticism should be a guide to the work being talked about. In addition to providing context it should clarify the intention of the artist. The reviews that I find most offensive are the ones that can be summed up with the phrase "I didn't understand this piece and therefore it is bad art". In an academic setting, which is about the only place in Canada where true theatre criticism takes place, if a paper was presented where the author said that they didn't understand a piece of work and that it therefore had no value they would be laughed off the stage. It is your job as a critic to understand the work you are writing about inside and out, as well as having a clear grasp of the artist's intention behind it. It's fine to judge the intention and execution of the piece in relation to the artist's practice and context in which they are working, but to simply throw up your hands, shrug your shoulders, and tell people it sucks is stupid, lazy, offensive, and is the thing I believe artists should truly be intolerant of.

When I say we need more critics, what I mean is that we need more people generating the kind of writing about theatre I've outlined above. I would love it if at every show I went to see, I was handed a critical essay along with the ticket and program that would actually engage me in the work in a way that I might not be if I just saw the work on its own. I would surmise that if this kind of writing was provided to reviewers, in addition to the company bios and flashy photos that normally pad a press-kit, we might also see a reduction in bad reviews as it would improve their understanding of what they are seeing. I would also suggest that this would be a considerably more effective tactic in dealing with the phenomenon of bad reviews than banning reviewers from seeing our shows. There have been a few companies that have tried this in the past and it hasn't worked. If a publication wants a journalist to cover a show, they'll get them in the door one way or another, even if it means having them pay for a ticket rather then getting them a media comp or having them go in disguise as Kate Taylor used to when she attended shows at companies that had banned her.

Ultimately, unless you're producing work for a large company that has a huge budget for marketing, you need to get reviews of your work as they are the primary means of reaching your audience. Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven't gone to the trouble to do this themselves. Find a critic to generate this material and include it in your press kit. Have your publicist follow-up with them to ask if they had questions about the piece or found things confusing and offer to talk to them about it. And perhaps most importantly, don't hate them. Reviewers are just doing a job that they get paid for which, by the way, is the lowest paying form of journalism. It's not going to guarantee that you'll never have a bad review of your work, but at the very least it will ensure that you won't have a bad review simply because the person writing your show doesn't have a fucking clue what they are talking about. And if we can, at the very least, avoid those kinds of the reviews it's worth the effort.


Anonymous said...

Really great piece Chris. I'd add that regardless of what kind of reviewing is happening in the press, we should be expecting the same kind of complexity from each other as artists when talking about each other's work. We should expect each other to be well-read and to have a depth of reference points within our craft, across the arts and socially, politically, etc., so that we're not just making value judgments on the basis of "this is the kind of thing I like". I question how much use there is for academic criticism, i.e. for criticism not intended for practitioners, but I do think there's room in Canada for a tradition of productive criticism by craftspeople for craftspeople, a la Brook or Mamet, that doesn't yet exist.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this piece Chris, and completely agree. You have been very generous in your thoughts. Now, can you send this to all the major 'reviewers' so that they can also read it! I might add, that I find it disturbing that most major publications in this country still don't know who to send out to interdisciplinary shows and often they are 'judged' (reviewed), rather than criticized, based on one of the disciplines represented in the piece.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Chris.
Nice post. Very intelligent and well thought out.
I am a publicist for theatre in Vancouver, and it is my job to get the local (I'm not sure whether to call them) reviewers/critics out to my shows. I have fielded many a frantic phone call the morning of a bad review. It's tough: you put yourself out there, and you need reviews to give your company a sense of legitimacy. But a bad review can hurt your bottom line, and that can be very painful.
Like you, my favorite reviews are those that offer criticism, not a thumbs up/thumbs down approach.
And I will be more careful to include more information about where the company and production are coming from in future media kits.