What is a Theatre Critic, and What is “IT” Good For?

userpic=fountain-penLast night when we went to the theatre, the latest Footlights had an article by Peter Finlayson, their editor-in-chief, on theatre critics, and what they are good for (despite the grammatically and acronym-ally incorrect title). In this article he talks about the impacts of critics on the theatre, and notes their importance for the artistic community. He talks about the education of critics — “At the height of the professions, critics were persons of significant background and understanding on the topic of their specialties. Much education and a lot of practice gave weight to their ponderings…”. He notes that a good critic will “give us insight into whether the creative energies of a show were effective in presenting the final product.”

I have no disagreement on the role of a good critic. I think good theatre critics are vital to the artistic landscape, and they should be providing criticism throughout the region they serve.

He then, however, decides to go on a rant against those who talk about theatre on the Internet:

With the advent of the internet, the opportunity for self-publishing via blogs or other posts give virtually every Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally the opportunity to claim the right of posting an opinion. Simply because someone has this new forum to post their opinion does not necessarily give credence to that opinion.

Sadly, much of what is now being written about shows is done out of self-interest. In some cases some reviews are nothing but self-promotion. In other cases, a self styled writer will create a blog, call themselves a critic, and hence get complimentary admission to shows in the hopes, or in some cases the assurance, of a good review.

While some consider this a democratization of the arts, and support the idea with the argument that we are more interested in peer review than in an expert’s opinion, the fact of the matter is that we may be influenced by friends assuming we have similar tastes. But a true critic offers us insights that prompt us to come to a personal reflective choice, which is the fundamental core of theatre.

In Los Angeles, with more than 1500 plays opening every year, the odds of getting a review for a production are often very low. Hence the opportunity for amateurs, or to be blunt, hacks, is heightened. The want of publicity overrides the common sense of credentials.

Say what?!?! Everyone who is not a credentialed critic is a “hack” and their opinion should be dismissed. Thems are fightin’ words, mister.

I do my blog for me, to improve my writing skills, and to share my observations with the world. I don’t charge people to read what I write; I don’t have advertising because I don’t do this to make money. I happen to love theatre, and enjoy sharing that love with the world. For this I’m labelled a “hack” and told I offer no insight, that there is no value in my words. I disagree.

First, let me make something clear. I never label what I write as “theatre criticism” or even “reviews” (although I do have a review tag, solely to separate them from other forms of observations). They are write-ups of shows that I attend with my observations on the show. My blog is not a theatre blog; it is a blog of observations. Further, I pay for every ticket of every show I attend (except for one show where a friend gave me a ticket because she couldn’t attend). Some are at theatres to which I subscribe; some are tickets I get through Goldstar, Hottix, and other similar programs. But there is no “pay for play” here. Just as with where I work, my integrity and independent opinion is vitally important to me. So please, Mr. Finlasyon, do not lump all bloggers who write about theatre together.

Second, I write my observations up to share an audience members point of view. I’m a computer scientist by trade (specializing in computer security), and a highway hobbist by choice. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since “The Rothschilds” in 1972 at the LA Civic Light Opera. I’ve learned a little bit along the way (and I’d love to learn more about theatrical criticism and the craft). I’ll share with people what I like — and what I dislike — with the ultimate goal of getting people to try live theatre and develop their own opinions.  I believe live theatre is unique — there’s something magical about seeing someone on stage, and every performance is different (unlike film).

Further, I don’t believe sharing of opinions should be restricted to trained critics, although they are certainly part of the mix. Producers such as Ken Davenport have recognized the importance of word-of-mouth in the life or death of a show, and we should be encouraging people to talk and share about the shows they are seeing. A number of theatres are recognizing this — while they ask that phones be turned off during the show, they are encouraging patrons to share their experiences during intermissions and after the show. Sites such as Goldstar are encouraging patrons to share their opinions of the show, and these opinions often help convince people to attend shows.

This is vital publicity. Often I learn about interesting shows to attend from the many Los Angeles theatre blogs I read, such as Musicals in LA, the LA Stage Blog, and blogs from theatre friends. Are these all written by professional critics? I doubt it.

What is important is transparency. We should know the credentials of those who write. I make no pretensions on my websites that I am a professional theatre critic; the people that post on Goldstar are clearly not professional critics. As for many of the people who write for the papers — who knows their credentials. Some have been doing it for years, but based on their opinions, I don’t often respect what they have to say. They might have a degree, but it might not be worth the paper it is printed on. Then there are other people out there who do have theatre websites whose writeups are treated as criticism but are clearly not critics. They appear to have a large impact — but is it worth it.

In the end, whatever you read about a show should be recognized as the opinion of the person who wrote it, and nothing more. They may be able to provide you with insights about the show, or they may just say “I liked it!”. You should read it and form your own opinion, recognizing that many shows that critics have disliked have often been embraced by audiences — or have found greater appreciation further down the road from the initial production.

I’d also like to encourage the so-called critics to broaden where they go. We attend theatre in far flung locations in Southern California — from Thousand Oaks (Cabrillo Music Theatre) to the Anaheim Hills (Chance Theatre), from Newhall/Santa Clarita (Repertory East Playhouse) to Burbank (Colony), from Woodland Hills (Valley West) to Sierra Madre (Sierra Madre Playhouse). The professional critics never seem to want to venture out of the safe zone of West Los Angeles, Hollywood, North Hollywood, Burbank/Pasadena, and DTLA. They occasionally go to Chance (Anaheim Hills) and Sierra Madre, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a criticism of a Thousand Oaks show from anything other than the VC Star, or a REP show from anything other than the Santa Clarita Signal. (In fact, usually the only far-flung shows I tend to see are those mentioned in Footlights… hmmm….). If you are a professional, you have an obligation to cover all of Southern California. Not every show from every theatre, but you should sample all the theatres attempting to put on professional productions (as opposed to the amateur regional productions).

So, in closing, Mr Finlasyon, this insulted “hack” thinks there should be a place for both professional critics and lay observers. This “hack” thinks it is important to share the love of theatre. I think you should recognize this instead of dismissing the theatre lovers who feel the urge to share that love. Your editorial makes me think a lot less of your publication, in that it doesn’t value the opinion of all of its audience. I’ll still attend Southern California theatre, because I think Southern California has the best and most vibrant theatre community in the world (and yes, I even think we’re better than that city in the east).

Music: Pops Britannia (John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra): “Scotland The Brave”