Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Critical Look at Critics

… and the community that spawned them

Posted by Jon Santiago on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 1:23 PM

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Yesterday, the folks at Piccolo Spoleto put together a Critic’s Round Table, hosted by PURE Theatre. (Thank you for your hospitality Sharon Graci and Rodney Lee Rogers.) Rogers moderated the conversation. A nicely representative cross-section of Charleston’s lively theater community attended, as well as two students from Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program. On the panel: ETV Radio’s Jeanette Guinn, Adam Parker from the Post and Courier, and me.

Since I can confidently assert that you weren’t there (many of those in attendance received word of the event scant hours ahead of it), I’ll fill you in on some of the conversation.

One topic, raised by a panelist but not fully settled, posed this question: “Who feels qualified to review theater?” Following this, a prompt for a show of hands. One hand shot up. I sat on mine. I waited to hear what sort of qualifications the questioner had in mind. It turned out that they felt actors would be a very good bet as theater critics. The idea being that actors know their business and we should probably look to someone with that insider’s perspective for any truly informed opinion.

This is a provocative notion. Beautifully symmetrical, limited, possibly specious, but provocative. Extending this standard to all critical writing and opinion-craft in general, we consider the ramifications.

By these lights, one imagines you’d have to be a murderer to express an informed opinion on murder. Or find yourself sitting at the control board in an ICBM missile silo to have any valuable insights on nuclear proliferation. And you’d have to be God to write anything truly insightful about spiritual values.

Further, just about every editorial board in the world would have to keep its trap shut on any topic that is not editing.

Most theater critics I know have no desire to be actors or directors or playwrights. (We find a marvelous exception to this in Mr. George Bernard Shaw, who, as a young man, wrote theater reviews by the cartload, often despaired of what the London theatrical community foisted on an unsuspecting public, and later made it his life’s work to rectify the shortcomings he perceived there.)

The notion tends to fall apart in practice, too. Fact is, opinions dog us all day long. An insider’s opinion is valuable because it offers that perspective. But it is not, and never was, the only perspective to which we lend our ears.

On one level, a critic is sitting in for someone who has not yet purchased a ticket. That, the panel agreed, is among our principal obligations. To become a trusted source of opinion, however, is a bond of trust earned over time. Those who bother to entertain a particular critic’s opinions will get a sense of that individual’s like and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, whether they agree with most of the opinions or not, they’ll soon learn whether this person is truly in their corner or some other agenda motivates their work. As a friend of mine likes to say, it’s not rocket surgery.

Earning trust is the key. Keeping that trust is another matter. It’s always great fun to play “Catch the Critic.” As in any human endeavor, mistakes do crop up. Simple typos can be safely dismissed, but nothing severs confidence more definitively than a “this idiot has no idea what they’re talking about” howler. Sensible critics augment their aesthetic preferences with solid research before getting anywhere near a show. That’s part of the job. Being present as an audience member, honest in your assessments, articulating how you felt about the work before you (and why), those things are the bulk of the critic’s task.

Is a review a doctoral dissertation? No. It’s a report and reflection upon one event. How do you prepare for such a thing? Being a sincere amateur, in the original (one who loves) sense of the word, helps. Putting yourself in the path of a lot of art is essential, too, since that develops and educates one’s capacity for what used to be called “finer feeling.” Most importantly, there is Beauty. Yes, with a capital B. Steadily training oneself to be open to its most fleeting expression, we become attuned to it. Recognizing and reveling in it when it’s there, lamenting the loss when it is absent. That’s a great gig.

Two other notable issues about criticism surfaced.

One of them was the idea that as members of a small community, the critic’s relationship to local artists is “incestuous,” meaning, in part, that we all know each other. It’s true. Some of us can identify one another on sight. It’s appalling. Of course, that’s what being part of a community means. We could no more divorce from each other than the pen can divorce itself from the hand. What is the purpose of one without the other? Zip. Once again, this is where trust comes to the fore. After you’ve plunked down your hard-earned buck for a show that your go-to critic loved but you hated, did you walk out feeling betrayed by that critic? Did it seem like they’d been unjustifiably kind to that show, possibly for suspect reasons? You’d be justified to kick that hack to the curb. Or at least entertain suspicions about any subsequent review.

On the other hand, if that critic points out a challenging work and develops a coherent argument about some of its merits persuading you to give it a try, you might feel the minimum standard of integrity had been met. In this scenario, you’re less likely to come away from an unhappy experience feeling bitter and stained by betrayal. Instead, you might be delighted with your courage for having at least tried something new. Lesson learned. On to the next thing.

All of this, the next issue argued, could be moot anyway. It turns out that thanks to the damned internet the days when one critic’s negative review could close down a show are well past. The blogosphere is full of opinion makers for every taste, and that sound you heard was the last server farm crashing under the weight of it all. Beleaguered professionals! Woe is us. Maybe. Once again, trust is everything. Trust, incidentally, also fosters community.

Whether it presents us, as critics, with some ethical challenges or not, we are part of a community. Charleston is blessed with an accomplished, diverse, and intriguing arts scene that leapfrogs its own ambitions year after year. Some things get even better than they were. Others fade or move on. It is a privilege to witness and report and share some opinions about it all. Our mission is to celebrate the triumphs, commiserate over some of the might-have-beens, and, in rare cases, spare you some agony where only agony can await you.

In the end, all the critics on the panel agreed, we are woefully overworked. Pity us, readers! We labor on your behalf. At least, we hope to.

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