10 Ways YOU Can Improve Theater Criticism

Is everybody a critic? Statler and Waldrof. (Photo via muppet.wikia.com)

Critics suck. It’s a topic of conversation that bubbles up periodically in the Philadelphia theater communities and it seems to have come to the surface again recently.

Anecdotally: On a single day during the Fringe Festival I saw multiple posts by artists lamenting the sorry state of criticism in Philadelphia (“We are experiencing a laughable paucity of quality criticism in Philadelphia performance… What we have (with a few exceptions) are opinionated novices who need to read more.”). One recent review on this site provoked noticeable hand wringing and a flurry of online comments. In May, a leading Philly theatermaker wrote a well-balanced editorial protesting the critical response to the Wilma’s production of Christopher Chen’s Passage (basically, the reviewers didn’t get it). I was recently invited to coffee by a local performer/creator/writer to give input into a research project into the state of local theater criticism and its inability to adequately review new forms of dramatic art.

Tomorrow, indie theater creator Chris Davis hosts an outlet for this putative sentiment with The Z-Files: Bad Reviews. A night of people reading, analyzing, and celebrating their bad reviews, Z-Files allows artists to exorcise hurt feelings in front of an audience of friends and peers. I’ll be in attendance to hear and empathize, but I thought I’d put together a list of suggestions of actions which might actually improve criticism, beyond impotent complaints.

Here are 10 actions you can take since you’re upset with theater criticism in Philadelphia:

  1. Make better plays*.
  2. Read, comment on, and share reviews you like. Sure, you can like the review just because it says something nice about your friend, but perhaps also because you like the form of critique. If publications see more impressions and cogent engagements with theater reviews they will prioritize them, publish more of them, and pay more attention to their quality.
  3. Fight the urge to be a plague of locusts. Don’t just criticize reviews which say things you don’t like about a play you like. Criticize them when they are poorly written but say nice things or praise them when they are well-written but say negative things.
  4. Use your parents money to subscribe to the Philadelphia Inquirer or another publication which you want to publish reviews. No one is making tons of money from this, but giving monetary incentives to criticism may bring out more and better writers.
  5. On that note, donate to thINKing DANCE, Broad Street Reviews, or another non-profit dedicated to publishing reviews. (Phindie also has a donate button, but it’s only non-profit in that sense that nobody makes a profit.) I know thINKing DANCE has a fun fundraising party coming up and that they want to cover more unconventional theater in Philly. .Attending that and maybe letting the editorial board know that’s why you’re doing it would be a great way to encourage such coverage.
  6. Similarly, buy ads for theater in publications or websites which sell them and publish theater reviews. (Ahem.) Click on ads on reviews you like and patronize companies which have ads in theater review sections.
  7. I’m not sure if these next points will actually make criticism better but listen: Everyone knows that some theater shows are better than others. Sometimes you see something and you’re like “that was terrible”, often you’re like “meh”, sometimes you’re like “that was life-changingly good.” Success in theater is not about selling tickets, getting awards from your peers, or getting good reviews. Supporting theater means holding it to a standard we know it can reach, but usually fails to. Reviewers love theater and have seen a lot of it. If a reviewer didn’t like the play, don’t treat it as a flaw in the reviewer. When you don’t like a play, is it because there’s something wrong with you, or…?
  8. So, yeah, be as respectful to the reviewer as they were to the play. If they didn’t make ad hominem attacks, you shouldn’t.
  9. Write reviews yourself or encourage people whose opinion you respect to do so. Maybe you teach theater and know most students won’t “make it” as actors or whatever. Encourage them to write criticism and to seek venues for it, on their own blog or elsewhere. For every dozen kids who do this maybe one or two will become critics.
  10. Start your own venue to publish the right kind of reviews. It’s not that hard, trust me.
  11. Shut the fuck up.

*Saying “make better plays” seems petty, but I cannot stress this enough. We’re symbiotic. Places and time periods get good theater criticism when they have good theater. (Maybe vice versa too?) Critics have to see a lot of theater, and it’s seriously taxing to see shitloads of mediocre plays. To me (and not everyone has the same opinion), this means making plays which surprise, choose difficult choices, eschew easy political orthodoxy, create believable characters engaging in real conversations and plausible plotlines, aren’t self-serious solipsistic nonsense, don’t ape shitty TV episodes that would be too shitty for shitty TV, or otherwise succeed artistically to create something you’d like to recommend to an intelligent general arts admirer. It’s so hard to waste 90 long minutes with a mediocre play and then spend hours trying to engage with it and write something intelligent about it. I know good writers and critics who contributed positively to the critical conversation in Philadelphia but who stopped writing theater criticism because they were bored by the output of local theater companies. If we want good criticism, we need good plays.

For various reasons, I’ve stepped back from reviewing and publishing reviews quite as much as I once did, but I think perhaps there’s a point to it. Do we agree?

Read more about theater criticism.

4 Replies to “10 Ways YOU Can Improve Theater Criticism”
  1. As long as artists continue to hold the misguided notion that critics exist to serve their interests, this churlish behavior will persist. Of course, critics *don’t* exist to serve the interests of artists, so it’s an argument that’s mostly one-sided. Artists may be among a critic’s audience, but they are not the only audience, and their opinions deserve no more weight than anyone else’s.
    Folks are free to gripe, but Philadelphia actually has a fairly strong critical bench, especially in light of major limitations. A decade ago, the Inquirer employed a full-time theater critic (plus several regular freelancers), City Paper had two critics, and Philly Weekly had a staff critic too. Now, the Inky has no full-time critic and its reviewing patterns are widely variable. Philly Weekly no longer reviews theater at all. And City Paper is gone. Phindie, Broad Street Review and Thinking Dance have stepped in to pick up the slack for little or no remuneration. No matter what anyone might say, I’m sure they would all be missed if they ceased to exist tomorrow. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

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