Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Power of Enthusiasm

I wasn’t in Chicago this past weekend. Several of my colleagues were there for the annual American Theatre Critics Association conference. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it until some Facebook pals started posting. Now I’m feeling a little retroactive melancholy. Not only would I have loved to be there to see all of the shows, but I haven’t been back to Chicago, the city of my birth, for more than a decade. I wonder if I would even recognize the place.

I’m sure there are people who couldn’t think of anything worse than hanging out with a bunch of critics for a long weekend. I expect the image persists that such a gathering would involve a gang of persnickety humorless sad sacks looking down their noses and harrumphing about everything they see, the hecklers from the Muppets multiplied exponentially.

In an effort to dispel any such image, here is a link to the text of the keynote “Perspectives on Criticism” address, delivered by Terry Teachout, the Wall Street journal drama critic. I love this address because Teachout says crisply and clearly things I have always thought and have at times tried to state, if perhaps less expertly. Two of the highlights: “[Criticism is] about enthusiasm, and passion, and love—and if it’s not about those things, then it’s no good.”

Furthermore, “The awful truth is that I don’t really like writing bad reviews. I can’t understand critics who live to write stinkers. Why on earth would anybody want to sit through a bad performance, just so he can pan it? I have better things to do with my evenings.”

I regularly hear from or about people who think critics serve no purpose, particularly in this age when the Internet and social media can give just about anybody the reach and impact of a “professional” critic. And even so, almost every production I’ve ever seen uses pull quotes from critics in their advertising. There must be some reason for this.

Beyond the advertising benefit, there are plenty of other good things that spring from criticism, at least 6 of them outlined in this piece from the Guardian. The people who go to conferences like ATCA's take the job of criticism seriously; it's not like a lavish corporate junket or anything. With fewer full-time critics on publication staffs than ever before, most attendees pay their own way (I did when I went). Sure, it’s a great excuse to see a bevy of shows and commiserate with others in the critical trenches. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the job and to gain insight into becoming better at it. It’s been a decade since I went to an ATCA conference. Methinks I need to go again.

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