Thursday, October 29, 2009

Theater criticism a dying career in its current form

By Jessica Bakeman

David Cote has experienced four species of theater critic.

The Time Out New York theater editor said the worst type is the critic vampire, who uses a play as something to “lob jokes off, to riff off of,” he said.

Then there’s the critic hack, who doesn’t have a streamlined interest in theater, but marches to Broadway so he can file a story, any story.

The critic enthusiast likes to look at the stars.

But the critic advocate, he said, goes to the theater to advocate new playwrights and companies, to immerse himself in international theater, to hit the theaters “below 14th street,” to “have an experiential investment in the health of the scene.”

While it would be unacceptable, Cote said, for a New York Times film critic to review the latest Pixar movie but be unable to review films from Russia or France or Italy, it should be the same in theater.

“I don’t trust most theater critics in this town,” he said of New York reviewers. “If you sort of lived on a diet of off-Broadway drama and Broadway musical, you really know nothing about what was going on in the theater world.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Cote didn’t have theater criticism in mind as a career goal when he attended Bard College for English and theater.

Theater critics often fall into their positions.

Randy Gener, senior editor of American Theatre magazine and member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, saw himself writing novels and plays, not theater reviews. He pursued journalism while studying at the University of Nevada Reno for some money on the side.

After college, a friend helped him get an internship at the Village Voice, where he was later hired.

Critics agree that not only is there no clear course of action for the pursuit of the career, there may be no opportunities for success anyway. Sentiments of hopelessness are widespread among notables currently in the profession. Particularly, Madeline Shaner said she wouldn’t recommend the career to anyone.

Currently writing for Backstage in Los Angeles, Shaner has written for virtually every paper in the city except the Los Angeles Times, she said. She was educated in England and joined the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle in 1990.

As far as advice for her followers, she said, “Good luck, because there are less and less publications and less and less places to go.”

Christopher Rawson, chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and senior theater critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, gives the following suggestion for aspiring critics: “Inherit some money.”

While decades ago, full-time, salaried criticism was a viable career path, the economic difficulties suffered by newspapers and magazines today no longer provide that option.

“All the theater critics I know are either supported by a husband or a wife or for the most part they have job-jobs and theater criticism is something they do in the evenings,” Shaner said. "I don’t see it getting any different; I only see it getting worse.”

As critics who started working 30 or 40 years ago desperately try to keep their jobs, young people have few opportunities to break into the field.

“Theater critics aren’t really good for anything else,” Cote said. “One out of every 100 of them (can do something else). Mostly they just sort of hang out until they’re 80 years old, completely useless, and then they die. So if you have someone in that position, they’re going to hang onto it with their bloody fingernails.”

An option is for a young journalist to start out as a general assignment reporter and show editors prowess in theater criticism.

“The usual way to get a theater critic job is get a job writing on a paper and show you know something about theater and move yourself in that direction,” Rawson said.

Caldwell Titcomb, president of the Boston Theatre Critics Association and retired Brandeis University professor, said he sees this as the future for merging newspapers.

“They’re obviously going to combine jobs where they can do it because they can save money,” Titcomb said.

Titcomb wrote theater reviews for the Harvard Crimson from 1953 to 1982, and wrote 50 short articles for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, published in 2003.
Age is not the only barrier to potential critics’ success.

As an Asian American, Gener has had to prove himself, writing unpaid pieces to show his ethnicity doesn’t inhibit his ability to write about traditional American playwrights, for example.

“Nobody in their right mind, at least in the beginning, would hire me to write about Arthur Miller, (so I wrote) thoughtful, engaged, sometimes cranky articles for journals,” he said.

Gener said sexual orientation and gender can also be determining characteristics for review assignments.

“If you’re gay, you’re sent to the gay plays,” he said. “If you’re the young person, you’re sent to the solo shows,” if you’re a woman, you’re sent to shows written by female authors.

Success, though difficult to attain, can only be reached with the most important element of a review: good writing.

“Drama criticism is no good at all unless people will read it, so you have to learn to write well,” Titcomb said.

Cote agrees; readers will flock to good writing.

“If the writing is interesting, if the lead paragraph is grabby and analysis is well considered, people will read it,” he said.

He suggests blogging for practice.

“Whatever you see, write something about it,” he said. “Keep a blog and take a little time to write something. If you have the time or inclination and want to write a 400- or 500- or 1,000-word review, put a couple of days into that, and put it up.”

As a general rule in criticism: “Read, read, read; see, see, see; write, write, write,” Cote said.

Critics feel there is a responsibility associated with the work they do.

Titcomb maintains that a critic can become a trusted, familiar source of information and advice for readers.

“A critic is a kind of teacher of the general public about theater,” he said. “And if you have people reading the same critic week after week, month after month, you get to know what that person’s criteria are, opinions are, so that one can judge whether to be guided by the particular person or not.”

Shaner particularly enjoys the power.

“There’s a certain personal power that I like but I don’t always admit that,” she said. “I like to be able to say what I feel is good and what I feel does not work from experience. That gives me a deal of pleasure.”

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