It was late afternoon on Friday, and I had nothing to do. So I decided to go to the Nov. 7 Theatre Artist and Critic Symposium at Towson University. I had been alerted to it by a woman who was getting me in contact with a lawyer to help out with a parking ticket. Present were five theater critics and, in the role of chief conjugator, Marc Steiner, host of the acclaimed radio show, the Marc Steiner Show. The critics included David Cote, theater critic for Time Out magazine; John Freedman, editor of the Moscow Times; Jim O'Quinn, editor of American Theatre magazine; Andy Propst, founder and editor of American TheatreWeb.com, and J. Wynn Rousuck, former theatre critic for the Baltimore Sun.
The discussion, organized by the Towson University Theatre Arts Department, was Towson's "first international symposium to respond to the need to better understand criticism's role in responding to new works of theatre," according to the event's press release. Like any journalists' symposium, though, the topic of conversation gradually shifted to the elephant in the room: critics. No one much likes critics to begin with. Now the economy's tanking, newspapers are dropping "nonessentials"--such as local arts coverage--like hot potatoes, and Generation Zzzz isn't exactly flocking to the theater. And now we have a president elect who appears to have taken a strong stand against drama. So, whither criticism? Or better, is criticism withering?
I do a little freelance theater criticism myself. I'd even brought a few of my newly printed business cards. But this didn't have the aura of a job fair at all. It was more like five cowpokes toasting marshmallows around an open (and dying) fire--some of them apparently continuing conversations that they'd had on the train down from New York--wondering, as Steiner bluntly put it, "Where is it going to go?"
Predictably, there weren't many answers. First, it was duly noted that in a blog-driven world, the theater critic is only one voice among many of people who give the thumbs up or thumbs down. There seemed to be a consensus that the theater critics' role is tending away from judgmental and toward advocacy and dialogue. The prolific Cote noted that, if anything, he's worried that theater is driven by a passion for the classics. Critics should be snooping out new writers. That seemed to be seconded by most of the other panelists.
There was also a consensus that the voice should be less solo than dialogic. That more democratic view was embraced by Propst, though Rousuck expressed some uneasiness about people who lack the "wealth of information and experience" that, say, a professional journalist might have. Propst noted that, in his experience, younger audience members have provided him with fresher insights into productions that may escape reviewers (including himself) who have longer resumes. Rousuck responded that she worried about blogs and that "the more you see the more informed you are."
Finally, there was the obligatory embrace of internet technology. What new multimedia additions--including video--can turn criticism into a more lively art? Propst had a little to say about the inclusion of performance clips in video, which might add to the mix. But someone in the audience noted, correctly, that often theater looks lousy on video.
Are there things that theater critics should not do? Freedman, in a more self-critical mode, noted that for a few years, he'd become a little overly enthralled with the sound of his own voice, and with his role as an arbiter of taste. Rousuck recalled an incident in the city's "alternative weekly" from 1994, when a critic apparently urged, in jest, the decapitation of an Iranian playwright who was already under fatwah. That was followed in the post-show chitchat by a longer discussion of the snarkiness generally attributed to criticism employed by the lower half of the fourth estate. Hey, at least we got mentioned.
There were a few flashes of urgency, however, including one provided by O'Quinn. As he noted, if critics are going to get people to come to the theater, they need to work a little harder. "This is the last place where people actually gather together and really respond to spoken words," he said. "Until the discourse that follows is completed, it's not over." Without someone to continue that discourse, it may be a dead art, or worse yet, a museum kept on life support by rehashing classics. Not to tell Steiner how to do his job, but two important questions remained unasked and unanswered. First, as critics, who are you talking to these days? And, second, what exactly is the "new theater" you're supposed to be responding to?