A Theatre Critic’s Critique

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theatre critic

Photo by Lisa Jane Persky

What role do theatre critics play in the performing arts today? To delve into that question, we caught up with veteran theatre critic Jonathan Mandell via email regarding his thought-provoking article “Are Theatre Critics Critical? An Update”.

Journalistic Roots. Mandell is a third-generation journalist whose family tree includes a sports writer, general assignment reporter and a magazine editor. He reviews Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions in New York City. When asked to name the favorite part of his job, Mandell quotes novelist Cynthia Ozick, who said she loves fiction because you meet interesting people you’d never meet in person.

“This is also true of my job as a theatre critic,” he explains. “And I encounter interesting ideas as well.” Mandell’s earlier role as a feature writer provided him the opportunity to interview many different newsmakers including American presidents, playwrights and performers.

His article raises three questions about theatre criticism: Is it valuable? Is it too negative? Is the field dying out? While touching on elements of each answer, we’ll mix in our own opinion and encourage you to check out his entire piece.

Crucial Role? The proliferation of arts-related bloggers, including Mandell, makes the definition of “theatre critic” difficult to pin down. Even organizations like the American Theatre Critics Association wrestle with criteria for membership and professional guidelines.

A good critic, according to Mandell, should follow independent judgment, write articulately and persuasively, and also share the general taste of the target audience. He describes their role like this:

“Theatre critics can help careers, boost morale, and even aid a creative team in refashioning a show. But they do not exist to inspire and enrage theatremakers. Their purpose is to guide theatre audiences, to provoke thought and discussion, and to offer an independent assessment of an evanescent experience, for posterity.”

We believe this final point is especially notable – a good review serves as a time capsule, preserving the performance to enable future comparisons and critiques that are helpful, for example, in tracing the arc of a particular performer’s career.

Too Negative? But when a review is negative, can it stunt a career or help torpedo a new production? Certainly yes, and yet some theatremakers likely need to develop thicker skins and not give critics too much power over their own psyches. Of course that’s easier said than done and likely explains why critics often become easy targets for anger.

This hostility has been evident in numerous dramatic productions over the years, from stage to film, where Mandell notes that critics are often unfavorably portrayed as “intimidating, pompous, unpleasant, condescending and sometimes villainous.”

Critics make easy villains because performers, directors and venue managers may feel their future livelihoods are at a critic’s mercy. To fully understand a critic, it’s helpful to recognize the perspective successful critics must bring to their craft.

“Critics are writing primarily for theatergoers,” Mandell explains. “And their concerns only overlap those of theater artists; they aren’t 100 percent the same.”

Theatremakers also likely overestimate the power a critic wields over a specific show. Mandell quotes critic Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal: “We only have significant influence in certain narrowly defined circumstances.” But if you’re a young actor targeted in the circumstantial crosshairs of a negative review, it can be painful.

We suggest that balanced criticism illuminates the art it’s critiquing, without resorting to disparaging or mean-spirited comments. The “golden rule” of social media seems relevant here: You should not write something you would not say to someone’s face. The theatremakers pouring their hearts into their art are human beings too.

Dying Art? Mandell ends his article wondering if theatre criticism is in “critical condition” – on life support. He cites several prominent media outlets that have reduced or eliminated their staff of critics. When the Associated Press’ theatre critic passed away in 2010, his successor’s job description was broadened to also include reporting on pop culture.

With celebrity culture grabbing more headlines, online news sources proliferating and print circulation figures in decline, the review sections of many major Sunday newspapers are being slimmed down or eliminated.

The fewer number of critics who remain find it very challenging to make a living, especially while online bloggers are creating content for free or minimal charge. The current Associated Press critic, Mark Kennedy, foresees a future of “omnivorous” critics “going from Miley Cyrus, to Tom Stoppard, to Interstellar, and readers would follow them from CD to stage and screen.”

In his own future, Mandell doesn’t expect another full-time job as theatre critic, but he’s found writing opportunities with new and different outlets.

We hope the symbiotic relationship between theatre critics and theatremakers continues, because both benefit. Without the voices of critics and the publicity they create, overall awareness of the theatre will diminish, along with ticket sales.

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