So, you think you're a critic?

Reflections as the American Theatre Critics Association comes to Chicago

June 14, 2012

"Everyone's a critic, Jonathan," someone at the station said. "No, they're not," I replied firmly. "Everyone has an opinion, but that doesn't make him a critic."

Of course, I am a critic. I know this because (a) people tell me I'm a critic, (b) I define myself as a critic and (c) for many years people have paid me money to be a critic, which seems to confirm (a) and (b). Whether or not I am a good critic is for others to judge.

The difference between mere opinion and criticism is knowledge based on continuing study and research, and discrimination based on diverse and continuing experience. Criticism is personal opinion, but it is supposed to be informed opinion, perhaps even erudite opinion on occasion. This applies to any field of endeavor, and my particular field happens to be theater.

In part, my job is to point out that the emperor has no clothes. I flatly declare that not every big Broadway musical is a great show just because it is big and Broadway, even though many people think so. You may pay $100 or $150 for a ticket to a production but that doesn't mean it's good, yet many people equate price with merit. At the other end of the scale, not every shoe-string store-front show deserves praise just because it's staged by sincere and eager young kids. The time to nip their bad artistic habits in the bud is when they are young.

Friday morning on Eight Forty-Eight, Tony Sarabia, Jonathan Abarbanel, and Kelly Kleiman were joined by the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout to discuss the art of criticism on Onstage/Backstage. Our dueling critics also reviewed Theater Seven's Exit, Pursued by a Bear

The job of the critic is to be frank, professional and neutral. It's easy to be smart-ass and witty when lambasting a show ("And then I tore her heart out and stomped on it," we like to say), and sometimes it's fun, but it rarely makes for good criticism although it frequently makes for lively writing. Neutral does not always mean nice, but the voice of the reviewer (in print or on-air) never should sound like personal attack or a sermon, whether of the soapbox or high pulpit variety.

Of course, every critic has personal views on politics, religion, education, art, etc. and it's worse than disingenuous for a critic to claim that his/her reviews are unbiased. It’s equally false for a critic to strike an omniscient attitude. When interpreting a play with strong themes or ideas a capable critic should state or reveal his/her biases and limits, commenting on the play in terms of his/her own life experience. Theater is, after all, one of the humanities and not a science.

Over the long haul, the best service a critic can render the public is consistency of perspective. Those who follow a critic over a period of time easily should come to know if he/she is liberal or conservative, pro-choice or anti-abortion, religious or not, a fan of Mozart or rap, vegan or omnivore, pro-military or anti-war (although one can be both) and so on. From this, an individual reader or listener can make up his/her own mind about a particular production.

For myself, I rarely declare any show to be either "Don't Miss" or "Stay Away." Theater almost never is all-black or all-white but is some shade of gray, just like life itself. My job is to point out what works in a play or production and what doesn't work, and to take what I see and hear at face value. If I understand it, I will say so; if I don't understand it, I will say so. In either case, I will try to explain why, and to convey my emotional and/or intellectual reactions.

All of this comes to mind because the American Theatre Critics Association is holding its annual conference in Chicago June 13 through 17, during which reviewers from Seattle to Sarasota, from Palo Alto to Pittsburgh, from New York to New Mexico will see up to eight local productions and meet with local artists and directors, and gather reams of information from the League of Chicago Theatres and the Chicago Office on Tourism and Culture.

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) is the only nationwide professional organization for theater critics, with several hundred members across the country. The principal purpose of the annual conference is to gain a deeper understanding of the theater industry in a particular locale. Chicago is the only city which has hosted four ATCA conferences, the last in 2002. Chicago also is the only city in which five theater companies have received the annual Tony Award for an outstanding regional theater. It's not a coincidence, as ATCA participates in the selection process for that award.

This Friday June 15 on Eight Forty-Eight, my Dueling Critic colleague, Kelly Kleiman, and I will be discussing the place and role of theater critics in a changing media world. Our notable guest will be Terry Teachout, theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

Very few theater critics are anything like Addison DeWitt, the tart-tongued narrator of the classic film, All About Eve, although I admit that some critics do deserve the murderous punishments handed out to them by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. The problem today is that the expanding number of media platforms makes it all-too-easy for any yahoo with an opinion, but without knowledge or discrimination, to declare him/herself a theater critic. The critical profession is diminished by such individuals as well as by the shrinking role of the daily paper, and the reduction of space allotted to theater news and reviews in most platforms.

Theater criticism may not be as important as the Euro crisis or the rights of Guantanamo detainees or protecting women from so-called honor killings, but it is symptomatic of educated opinion slowly drowning in an ocean of voices and messages put forward without editorial standards or intellectual rigor. It is something of value, and it's being lost.