Ever since the blog portion of UTBA’s site was launched, I’ve mostly stuck to writing up interviews and other factual pieces. I’ve hesitated to write an opinion piece for the blog. As one of UTBA’s most published reviewers and the person who trains new reviewers for the site, my opinions and influence already permeate a lot of the content on the site. I’m constantly on my guard not to let my thoughts and opinions dominate the site—one of the things I love about UTBA is the multitude of opinions we have available to readers.
But an issue came up in the theatre critics’ community that I couldn’t ignore. Recently on his blog, John Bent, Jr., a professional Canadian theatre technician, poetically asked why theatre critics can’t be more nurturing in their feedback and compliment the artists. Among his suggestions:
Instead of sending out an army of critics that point out all that is wrong, send out a group of nurturers that write positive reinforcement and suggestions on how to make it even better. Encourage our performers, professional and amateur alike, especially our young artists that are just starting out.
Joff Schmidt, the theatre critic for CBC Manitoba, replied in the comment section of the blog:
I don’t work for the artists. My role isn’t to be a director, a dramaturge, or a publicist for the producer. As much as possible, I try to outline what I think didn’t work (and yes, what did – I do that too) in a piece of theatre. But it’s not my primary responsibility.
I AM there to try to be of some service to the audience – the people who are going to give up their time and money to support the artists by buying somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 tickets this year. I think those people have a right to know what they can expect when they go to see a show, and so my role is to relate what my experience with a show is.
What could I possibly add to this conversation? The personal experience of living in a community where actors and other artists received only the type of feedback that Bent calls for.
From 2007 to 2011, I went to graduate school at Texas A&M University, located in College Station, Texas. With only about 150,000 people in the area, the theatre community in College Station is not very large. During my time in College Station, there were only three amateur theatre companies in the area. There were two academic theatre groups, a community college theatre department and Texas A&M’s Performance Studies Department; the latter of which did not produce any plays that were advertised to the wider community. Finally, the occasional “bus and truck tour”—almost always consisting of non-Equity performers—would visit town.
Strictly speaking, there were no critics in the College Station area. But the actors, directors, designers, and producers of plays in the area did receive feedback, and it was exactly the sort of feedback that Bent thinks critics should always give. There was no critical coverage in the media there, although occasionally a letter to the editor, or even a letter by the editor, would be published in the local newspaper. These were uniformly positive.
In four years, I never once saw a negative comment about any plays in the area, even when the productions were among the worst I’ve seen in my life.
To add to that, every tour that visited town (even the incredibly boring tour of The Wizard of Oz that I saw in 2009 or the dreadful production of The Color Purple I saw in 2011) was called “Broadway quality.” All the feedback that the theatre community received in College Station was the encouraging, adoring, self-esteem boosting kind that Bent wishes critics always gave. I didn’t write public reviews there because I knew I was only going to be there temporarily, while at school for a non-arts graduate degree. (I’m a psychologist today in my day job.) So, maybe, I was part of the problem.
The unceasingly glowing feedback was devastating to the theatre community. Even if these companies produced an atrociously bad show (and I saw many there), they would receive the same feedback that a good production would receive. This meant that there was absolutely no incentive for directors to create innovative theatre or for producers to evaluate whether they should shake up their artistic teams. The plays produced in College Station while I was there were stagnant; almost all of them were musicals or fluffy comedies. Few people took artistic risks, and, in time, almost every play started to look like almost every other one produced in the area.
This pervasive mediocrity had an impact on audiences. Attendance for most of these productions (except the occasional Christmas show or a tour of a popular musical) was pathetically low, and not just because eastern Texas is football country. I can’t blame the people for staying away. Even I—an avid theatre goer who adores amateur theatre—stopped attending locally produced shows because nothing ever changed or improved—from performance to performance, or from production to production. (However, a contact of mine in College Station says that productions there have gotten better in the past year. So please don’t think that a theatre critic is always necessary for the productions in an area to improve.)
Bent wants “a group of nurturers” who build the art. But that’s exactly what organizations like the American Theatre Critics Association and UTBA are. Critics and reviewers are not, as Bent suggests, the joyless, lonely beings who constantly point out what’s wrong with a show. UTBA reviewers and critics for other venues are wonderful people who love theatre. Members of both groups nurture their theatre communities by extolling excellence and providing insight into shortcomings in what they see. Most importantly, they provide honesty in a field where too often people censor themselves because they do not want to damage their careers.
Bent would like to live in a world where critics build up artists and make everyone feel good. In other words, he wants to live in a world where there are no critics. But I have lived in that world, and it’s an awful artistic hell on par with the experience of the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. If a theatre artist wants encouragement, he should call his mother. If he wants useful feedback that makes him a better creator, he should call a critic.