At one point this past weekend, I worked myself into a good little snit. I think it started percolating a couple of weeks ago when I re-listened to a podcast of Bill Davis (playwright of "Austin's Bridge" from last summer) in which he was asking insinuating questions about the motives and the vetting of theater critics. Then last week I heard an interview where Edward Albee talked about how he’d prefer that his productions not be reviewed because he would rather that people come to the theater without any preconceptions. Then just a couple of days ago, someone who I think is a very talented comedienne called a rave review about her show "terrible" because it included one lame line about our world “where women are not smart or funny” – a line that I at least took to be ironic.
There are plenty of things wrong with the world of theater and live performance but I don’t see critics as being a significant part of the problem. Call me defensive but I don’t understand why some people want to make critics the bad guys (or bad gals). In response to Mr. Davis: I don’t know any critics with an agenda other than wanting to see good stuff that they can write about. In response to Mr. Albee: theatergoers may be art lovers but they are also consumers who are being asked anywhere from $20 to $150 for admittance into a show. Without theater critics you may get fewer people with preconceptions coming to the theater …or you may just get fewer people coming to the theater.
And to my comedienne friend: critics are people, too, and sometimes they write lame stuff. But performers shouldn’t expect a flawlessly written review any more than a critic should expect a flawlessly performed show. Nobody and nothing is perfect; I think judgments should be made with that in mind.
These comments come at a time when critics in general are disappearing. NPR did a story recently about the couple dozen or so movie critics that have been fired or retired recently in major markets. Here in Richmond, there was a time when there were two daily papers, each of which had a full-time staffer doing theater reviews. Now, the T-D has a couple of freelancers.
Movie box office doesn't seem to be suffering because there are fewer critics. But movies have massive marketing machines and movie trailers are ubiquitous on the Internet. For theater, critics are still an important part of getting the word out about a show. Until theater companies can develop their own massive marketing machines, critics will continue to play a key role. There are plenty of theater reviews that I’ve disagreed with or thought were lame in one way or another. But I’ve never read a review that was as vociferous in its sentiments as some of the average audience members I’ve talked to who were disenchanted with a show. A critic (who has usually attended for free) may be disappointed; the average consumer (who has ponied up significant funds for admission) may feel downright cheated.
In my experience, the great majority of theater professionals appreciate critics – if sometimes begrudgingly – for their role in the art / commerce system. But for those few who look at us as the bad guys, I have a question: if theater critics suddenly ceased to exist, do you really think the theater world would be better off?