But Did You Like It?

In a time and place that values positivity over honesty, we need serious critics more than ever.

“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs,” playwright John Osborne wrote in London’s Sunday Times in 1977.

Osborne had just created the arguably tongue-in-cheek “Playwrights Mafia” to take revenge on critics who’d said unkind things about him and his work. With that invented quote from one of the group’s imagined meetings, he summed up nicely the popular perception of the relationship between artists and critics, which persists to this day.

But Osborne owed as much to critics as they’d taken from him. While the majority of London critics panned Osborne’s bleak 1956 play Look Back in Anger, Kenneth Tynan saw beyond the pleasant escapism of then-popular drawing room comedy and into the grittier possibilities of modern realism. “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,” Tynan wrote in his review for The Guardian, effectively shoving Western theatre into a revitalized era of artistic growth and crowning Osborne one of the voices of the new British stage.

But 50 years later and an ocean, continent and digital revolution away, why do we need professional criticism in Seattle? In today’s democratized media market, everyone can be a critic and feedback can be immediate and public. Should we still value certain voices over others?

As Seattle Arts Commission chair Vivian Phillips said to raucous response at the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony, we’re a city that’s “nice, but not necessarily honest.” That truism manifests in the distance between what we post on Facebook and what we say in the bar after a show. The fear that thoughtful honesty will lose you friends or job possibilities. But thoughtful, honest criticism can spread the word of the great work being made here to theatre-makers and consumers beyond our city limits. Inadequate criticism—whether it champions boring work, coddles subpar work or is just poorly written—hinders Seattle from becoming a top-tier theatre city.

Dishonesty is bad for artistry and bad for building audiences. If a mediocre show is touted as magnificent and a sometime-theatregoer attends, they will resent the bait-and-switch. If someone is flogged as a genius, they stop growing. If someone is flayed as a hack, they stop working. Hyperbole is provincial. Evisceration is fun but lazy, and very rarely warranted. And neither does anyone any good.

Film critic Pauline Kael, who’s as formative to American criticism as Kenneth Tynan was to British, put it succinctly: “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

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The National Critics Institute, which has been held at the bucolic Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut every summer since 1968, is one of the few chances for like-minded people to get together and talk about criticism, what it is, and how and why to do it. This year, I spent two weeks with a dozen other writers from around the country, practicing this weird job we all get to do and hashing out our place in the modern arts landscape.

As the voice of unquestioned authority gives way to a more personal, but still authoritative narrative, the role of the critic is shifting. The myth of objectivity and the idea that there are empirical truths about art are breaking down. You can be an expert without being a tyrant.

These days almost no one, save the muckety-mucks at the New York Times, is exclusively a critic. Those lucky enough to have staff jobs also write features and news stories and do interviews, meeting people and generally immersing themselves in the scene they write about. And that’s a good thing, because greater context yields greater insight, even if that time consumption occasionally gums up the critical works. (As I write this essay I have two half-written reviews languishing on my desktop, bumped back in line for more pressing deadlines.)

Other external factors stand in the way of thoughtful reviews. The media market plays a big part in shaping critical response and driving measured reactions to extremes. Funny, nasty reviews get clicks, and so do glowing ones because artists circulate them among friends, family and fans. But what about the unsexy moderate review, a thoughtful piece about what worked and what didn’t?

“It’s very hard to write a mixed review, but almost everything I see deserves a mixed review because nobody’s infallible,” says longtime Seattle Times critic Misha Berson.

Show me a longstanding art form and I’ll show you a dozen think pieces about why its dead or dying. Arts coverage is being slashed at many regional outlets, and the recent bloodbath in professional theatre criticism isn’t helping. The New York Post let go longtime first-string critic Elisabeth Vincentelli earlier this year, right on the heels of Jeremy Gerard’s dismissal at Deadline. Last month, the New York Times quietly decided to stop covering theatre outside the city in the greater NYC region. When Berson retired from her staff position at the Seattle Times at the start of 2016, this city lost its only full-time, professional theatre critic.

“They call theatre the fabulous invalid—it’s always dying and it’s always reviving,” Berson tells me. “But as long as there’s vital theatre that people want to write about, understand and interpret, there’s going to be some form of criticism.”

But that criticism has to contend with limited print-column inches and the web’s fear of tl;dr. Timing is a factor—short runs and conflicting opening nights make it difficult to get to every show. And there’s a quality vs. quantity problem: When time is limited, is it better to review everything and do it quickly or to review fewer shows and take more time doing it?

It’s not just the seismic shifts in the media industry that are shaking up critics. Social changes in the country and the arts are filtering into criticism—and none too soon. Digital democratization marks a necessary shift toward inclusion, toward a theatre market that welcomes and supports traditionally marginalized voices and fosters plays that aren’t only about midcentury white families with dark secrets and dinner parties.

The word “professional” gets people into trouble. It’s been vilified the way conservatives have poisoned the word “elite.” What’s wrong with aspiring to be professional or elite? Here’s what: Criticism is historically a rarefied world (read: old, male and white), and because professional avenues are historically self-perpetuating, white dudes beget white dudes. No fresh critical perspective means no evolution in a form that should grow as much as the art it purports to represent. So forget the old standards of “professionalism,” from trade union membership to publishing in print. The more voices in this conversation, the better.

Those voices still need to know what they’re talking about, both as writers and play analysts. If reviews are poorly written, run through reductive ratings systems—ask any Bay Area artist about the “Little Man” at the San Francisco Chronicle and stand back—or reduced to book reports, they are not really helping. They have become, as actor and playwright Keiko Green puts it, “glorified Yelp reviews,” boiled down to Loved It or Hated It.

If that’s what criticism too often is these days, what should it be? Criticism should put a work of art into a greater context and assess it on the terms on which it was created—whether or not it achieved what it set out to and whether or not that goal was worth working toward. Remember that innovation is key and that there are still people who’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet. And always, always, remain open-minded. Be open to being amazed.

“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee is quoted as saying in his recent New York Times obituary. “He must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theatre as an art form.”

Not that we achieve perfection. Too much synopsis. Too much analysis. Too much first person. Too impersonal. Too much opinion. Too little opinion. Too funny. Not funny enough. But did you like it?

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Critics have been around since playwrights started charging people to see their work. Aristotle liked to tell people exactly what was and was not comedy or tragedy, and woe betide anyone who mucked with the rules. In the early days of modern criticism, many critics were also playwrights, the most beloved examples being George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, who in 1891 wrote an essay called “The Critic as Artist.” Over in New York, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George S. Kaufman wrote plays and musicals during breaks from his job at the New York Times. Dorothy Parker would leave the Algonquin’s Round Table to attend the theatre, there to address her withering bon mots to some unlucky creatives.

Over time, the separation of church and state between critic and artist became stricter, which has only complicated the perception of critics even more. If a critic has a background in theatre, they’re a bitter failed actor/playwright/director. If they don’t have a background in theatre, they’re an uninformed interloper.

I came to criticism like many people do: with a BFA in drama, an aptitude for writing and an undying love for the theatre. I’m not one to put much stock in pivotal moments, but I do have one that made me want to write about plays: the 2007 New York premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. For two hours I sat in the dark, fanning my face to try and dry my tears and staunch the snot dripping down my chin. It was so lonely, bleak, hopeful, loving. I’d never cried so much at a play before and I haven’t since. People need to see this, I thought. This is important. This is beautiful. So I went to grad school to learn how to write about it.

Pop-culture represents critics as sour, dour turtleneck-wearers, puffed up on their own perceived power. (Thanks very much, Birdman.) But you have to love the theatre, really love it, if you’re going to spend your nights in the dark, missing other events and occasions, ever hopeful that something bright and brilliant waits behind the curtain, something to electrify your brain or liquefy your heart.

Am I justifying my own existence? Yes. But writer, director and former critic Bret Fetzer and I agree about the role of criticism in posterity: “Theatre criticism is actually more important than record, book or film criticism, because when a theatre production is over, the reviews are all that remain,” Fetzer says. “Movies, books and records continue on, and anyone who wants to can experience the thing itself. But theatre evaporates.”

To bastardize a James Baldwin quote, I love the theatre more than any other art form in this world, and that’s the reason I insist on the right to criticize it perpetually.

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Since I left the O’Neill, my obsession with what criticism means and how we can make it better has consumed me. I’ve been genuinely surprised to learn I’m not alone. Every time the subject comes up with someone from the Seattle theatre community, the conversation gets heated fast. People are hungry to talk about the local feedback (or sometimes, feedback loop) that their work receives, or doesn’t.

“The biggest issue for me is that critiques almost always come from a specifically older, white perspective,” Keiko Green says. “Their tastes reflect [their background].”
For actor and New Century Theatre Company artistic director Darragh Kennan, criticism is “one of the necessary ingredients, in that it can at times be the anti-cheerleader, toward creating a barometer for honest and meaningful performances.” For people like Wesley Fruge, founder of new theatre company Forward Flux, it’s one of the only ways to spread the word of what his company is making here around the country. And if it’s not well done, no one looks good.

“A good review won’t necessarily make a show, but a bad review can definitely break a show,” says director Valerie Curtis-Newton, who has had to make her peace with the sting of months of work sometimes being reduced in a review to a glib comment about the show’s pacing.

Reviews may not be written for artists, but they certainly read them. When did we start believing that artists aren’t also audience members, that critics aren’t also artists, that we are all so separate in our intentions and interests?

Critics are both a part of the community and apart from it. A critic’s writing is never for the artist, but is based on mutual respect between the two, an understanding that blind cheerleading is not the best way to support a scene. Tucked into our small corner of the country, we’re used to being isolated, and when we hit on something great we really go for it (see: grunge veneration, the 12th Man). We get easily carried away on the tide of good feelings that success generates. Like standing ovations at ordinary shows, applauding our own work is a form of validation we give ourselves when no one else will.

Engaging our arts ecosystem in thoughtful, tough conversation means forgoing boosterism in search of more ambitious work and higher quality of execution, from all of us, in the hopes of tapping that vein of molten emotion that great theatre can divine. “I want our critics to be held to the same standard as our theatre,” says director and producer Brandon Ivie. “You should help shape our landscape and you have to take that job seriously.”

Just as artists benefit from working in other places, soaking up different styles and working with great artists, so do critics have an obligation to expand, to have the broadest possible frame of reference and hold ourselves to the highest possible standard. Let’s all give up being “good for Seattle.”