Theatre reviewers make personal, un-testable and necessarily fallible judgments that have enormous impact on the careers of artists. Former New York Times critic Frank Rich could once single-handedly make or break a Broadway show. He was rewarded with the moniker "the Butcher of Broadway." The relationship between reviewer and reviewed can get pretty cranky.
But most critics sincerely love the theatre, admire theatre artists and hope to contribute to the art form. The question is how.
Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, once told me, "Of course we welcome criticism. But if critics say they care about theatre, then they must be caretakers of theatre, which means taking care of people in theatre." He added, "Your Richard Christiansen exemplified that."
There are those who disagree. Richard Gilman reviewed for Newsweek in the late '60s and later taught at the Yale Drama School. He wrote, "From the true critic the theater generally gets what can only be interpreted as gross infidelity, the reason being, as Shaw and every other major observer of drama makes abundantly clear, and as our own sense of what is civilized should tell us, that the critic cannot give his loyalty to man and institutions since he owes it to something a great deal more permanent. He owes it, of course, to truth and to dramatic art." In the name of truth, Gilman disclaims any obligation to "take care of" theatre people.
But what is taking care? A kind review of a bad show may spare the feelings of those involved but enrage other artists who feel betrayed by a world that doesn’t recognize the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
And what is loyalty to truth? Martin Denton, the creator of www.nytheatre.com and an influential champion of Off-off-Broadway theatre in New York, offers this advice to critics: "No matter how terrible or misguided or perverse a show seems to be, always remember: they didn't do it just to annoy you... These artists are compelled to tell us something. Try to figure out what it is."
To explore how some of these ideas apply in Chicago's theatre community, this week's Talk Theatre in Chicago Podcast features three local critics: Chris Jones, Chief Critic for The Chicago Tribune; Tony Adler, Arts Editor for The Reader; and free-lance reviewer Kerry Reid. They talk with Anne Nicholson Weber about the job of the critic, what gets reviewed, the importance of context and the joy of surprise.
Their candid discussion offers a reminder that no matter how terrible or misguided or perverse a review seems to be, the reviewer didn't write it just to annoy you.
Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre in Chicago contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw Jack and the Beanstalk at the Goodman Children’s Theatre and has loved theatre every since. She is the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age, which includes interviews with Tony Kushner, Julie Taymor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Martha Lavey and Sir Peter Hall, among many others, and her work has been published in American Theatre Magazine and other national publications.