Will working with audiences encourage stage companies and theater artists to go beyond the status quo? Or just cement them into their sweet spots?
By Bill Marx
There was good news and bad news about the future of American/British theater criticism in a recent poll run by the publication The Stage. On the one hand, 87% of the respondents said they believed criticism played an important role in the theater world. But 54% thought reviewers were becoming less important, partly because the media no longer provides criticism. So there is a desire for incisive discussion of the theater, for evaluating its quality and impact on society. But out of sight, out of mind, and out of luck … Can this slow crawl to extinction be turned around?
Former Guardian critic Lyn Gardner (whose contract was ended, after 23 years, in May) writes for The Stage, and she finished first in the poll for the most trusted theater critic. Gardner came up with an interesting analysis of the results and, generally, her diagnosis is spot on — mainstream media does not care much about theater criticism (or theater, really), aside from covering the product cranked out by the wealthy, big name companies. That leaves the less glittery work from the medium-to-small-to-marginal theaters, as well as support for the experimental and the bold, out in the cold. Here are some of Gardner’s salient paragraphs:
It [the poll] reflects a growing ambivalence about the role of critics, where and how they operate, who they are and how what they do connects with the industry, celebrates it and keeps it on its toes by encouraging it to be bold and brave.
When The Stage ran its criticism survey in 2010, 46% of respondents said they thought critics were less important than they had been a decade before. That figure has risen to 54% in the current survey, perhaps reflecting the erosion – which has sped up in the last couple of years – of mainstream press coverage. During my last three years at the Guardian, the number of reviews I wrote declined every year. It’s a pattern being repeated at other publications.
That creeping attrition doesn’t much affect the West End and the flagship companies, or the boutique houses in the capital. No editor is going to say: “Sorry, there is no space for the new Alan Bennett at the Bridge.” But it does affect work produced beyond London, the new and emerging, and all those diverse voices who are experimenting and playing with form.
These are theatre’s life-blood, and they require critical support and interrogation if they are going to get a chance to provide the ongoing creative and artistic transfusions that theatre regularly requires.
Survey respondents identified more space in mainstream press as one thing (along with greater diversity of reviewers and more regional coverage) that would help improve the critical landscape. But I can’t see mainstream criticism stepping up to that plate at a time when it is fighting for its own financial survival and chasing clicks.
You and I might think it is important to document a fragile show by an as yet unknown artist, but most newspaper editors are going to want to be certain that review will pay its way in clicks before they commission it. In the current climate, newspapers are primarily focused on their own survival, not on supporting the arts.
Yet 87% of respondents said they believed critics play a “crucial role” in the industry, and The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith is right in saying that theatre should be worried about criticism’s future health.
But what is the solution? If London’s major media are kicking theater critics to the curb, Boston’s mainstream publications and NPR stations are going to follow suit and publish less criticism of theater. In fact, our middlebrow media machinery is happy about ditching serious critics. Their replacements (often glorified entertainment reporters) see themselves as marketers and/or fans, which keeps everybody happy — the plush theaters get what they want from reviews (dependable sources of blurbs for ads) and, gilding the lily, they are given the precious opportunity to brand what they stage any way they want. Critics with expertise and independence might challenge a company’s claim that a production is “bold and brave.” But when the critical bar is sitting on the ground — for example, Broadway shows concocted at the American Repertory Theater are the creations of a ‘visionary’ — there is no voice to challenge the status quo, which leaves donors, funders, editors, foundations, and companies content. Theater is about conflict; criticism is about deliberate judgment. Selling is about proffering the impression of satisfaction guaranteed.
So don’t look for mainstream media to come to the rescue of theater criticism (or arts criticism in general). Is there a solution? Here I have to disagree with Gardner’s suggestion, or at least I find her idea too vague.
… theatres need to look to how they can play a significant role in creating local and regional critical communities that can help keep the public conversation around theatre robust, challenge the status quo, act as midwives to new work and celebrate the deserving, while ensuring that theatre remains visible and reaches an ever widening community. They have already got those people, and they are called the audience.
Not sure what this optimistic huzzah to ‘the audience’ means. American theaters cultivate “communities” by tailoring productions to (generally) satisfy the demands (political and spiritual) of middle- to upper-class white liberal audiences. (Granted, there have been recent attempts at diversity.) Just how are these spectators — groomed to be passive, hailed for their advanced degrees in empathy — going to push stage companies out of their ruts, spark meaningful conversations, etc? Have our theaters really created “local and regional critical communities” — or would these groups more usefully be described as customer bases that need to be placated and cultivated? (And what does ‘community’ mean in an era of Facebook?) How and where will these networked communities learn to be so critical? When have audiences been encouraged to be picky by theater companies? As Gardner admits, one model for evaluation, theater criticism, is fading away.
Is the money invested in theater development these days dedicated to making stage audiences more ‘critical’? Are there any plans for ‘creative power sharing’ with spectators? From what I can tell, resources are being pumped in to help companies of all sizes keep up with the latest corporate/digital/social media inspired enhancements — the goal is to buff up their business plans and marketing efforts, not to encourage the development of ‘critical’ audiences.
And how does the imagination of theater artists fit into Gardner’s notion of audience collaboration? Do these free spirits have a say in putting together theater productions calculated to defy audience expectations? Or are playwrights supposed to win over enough audience members (preferably ones with fat wallets) so they will have the clout to produce what they want? As a critic, I am sympathetic with Ezra Pound’s advice to James Joyce: “Sometime we will have to resign ourselves to the fact that art is what the artists make it, and that the spectator has damn well to take what he gets.” Will working with audiences encourage stage companies and theater artists to go beyond the status quo? Or just cement them into their sweet spots?
Yet Gardner’s idea gave me a hopeful fantasy. Let me put it this way — an audience might be coming along that will shake up the current system. American politics are changing: the Boomers are slowly moving out, the young are moving in. The mildly moderate left (the predominate political persuasion of our theaters, aside from the tastes of tourists) is finding itself assailed by ‘socialist’ progressives. Why can’t that ideological Sturm und Drang undermine our theaters’ fashionable Blue State bromides? Might audiences come along that are impatient with the dysfunctional family drama? Dismiss musical/rock nostalgia? Yawn at ‘fearless’ put-downs of homophobia? How about plays, blithely noncommercial, that reflect the topsy-turvy world we live in? Plays that deal with justice, hypocrisy, sacrifice, intractability, responsibility, and power? Why not scripts that explore how income inequality benefits the wealthy — on the left as well as the right? A satire on the business-fed delusions of sustainability? How about scripts that examine how corporations/social media are shaping reality — and art? It would be great to have voices that fight for these and other possibilities, but critics are on their way out. Perhaps fed-up audiences of the future will take up the cause.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.