Tag Archives: art critic

Backstage to End All Theater Reviews


When Backstage “let go” Los Angeles theater writer Dany Margolies last January for “restructuring” reasons we knew it was a bad omen of darker times to come for the 53-year-old theater industry trade publication. Now, more bad news arrives: As of the April 11th print edition, Backstage will stop printing theater reviews, online or in print. Any of them. All of them. Gone. Done. Period. 

Last week, The Executive Editor Daniel Holloway of Backstage sent the following memo:

An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.

Got that? No more critical analysis of the art itself. No more artistic assessment or creative survey of what is actually happening on stage. Who wants to read that? Apparently, no one. Instead, we want  “advice, news and features”. The dumbing-down of American culture continues. 

To Halloway and Backstage, “metric data” and investment resources appear to be more important than remembering that the name of their publication includes the word “stage”.  

Ironically, the announcement from Backstage on Friday came after HowlRound — committed to modeling a commons-based approach to advancing the health and impact of the not-for-profit theater — devoted the week on a discussion of theater criticism.

In the ether of our online reality, are “User Comments” and Yelp reviews written by “people like us” holding more sway than a studied critique by an arts journalist?  Do we now trust home-written blogs more than art experts? In the lightning-fast instantaneous tech-world of Tweeting and texting and Instant Messaging, are critical reviews being left behind and lost in the dust like relics from another era?

Or is the evil of Corporate Thinking overtaking and poisoning our art form? Are CEO’s of Arts Organizations — and Arts Publications — focused only on the bottom-line and not enhancing the art form they are meant to serve? 

Or does the problem lie at the feet of the quality of dramatic criticism itself?  Without question, the time has come to take a fresh look at and, perhaps, reinvent a new form of dramatic criticism that can respond in new ways to what happens on stage. What is that fresh approach? What will it look like? Which journalists  have the skill, intelligence and artistic sensibility to lead the way?   

The arts community has been complaining about the quality of dramatic criticism almost as long as it’s moaned about the dying of theater as an art form itself. As both art form and journalist run the risk of becoming more and more marginalized in today’s Info-Age, the more vital and essential both are revealed to be.

Intelligent and insightful arts journalism and dramatic criticism is essential for a healthy dialogue between the journalist, the audience and the art form we all love. The sad announcement last week from Backstage is another stab in the heart of the theatre community and a further silencing of the critical voice. Let’s not forget that the word critical not only means “to judge, find fault or criticize”. It also means “crucial, indispensable, and urgently needed”.      

Should Art Serve Only the Elite or Cast a Wider Net?

George Saunders

George Saunders

by Colin Dabkowski

In a profile that ran a week ago in the New York Times Magazine, Syracuse-based author George Saunders devised a little thought exercise to describe his ideal audience.

Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.

But, he continued, “If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.

His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders’ words are a reminder to send out more invitations.

Saunders’ thought experiment isn’t good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it’s great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.

Saunders’ idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.

“Duchamp’s nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn’t play ‘4’33’ sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John’s ‘Numbers’ fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn’t like modernism. Let it be.”

The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era.

The mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.

But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders’ so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.

Colin Dabkowski writes for the Buffalo News

Is Everyone a Critic?

Arts Criticism versus “User Comments” in the Blogosphere

Who do you trust more? A professional critic or a fellow audience member? Which do you now read more — and pay more attention to — in deciding which play to see: a printed review in a newspaper or a “user comment” on a website or blog?

We now buy everything online. Cars, books, electronics, major appliances. Before clicking “submit payment” and buying the product yourself on a site, don’t you first read the “user comments” from other buyers who have purchased the same product and are now using it? To get their opinion of the product, their experience using it?

Is it now the same thing when buying a ticket for a play or any arts event?

One of the substantial changes in the arts environment that has happened with astonishing speed is that arts criticism is no longer a spectator sport. It is now a participatory event. Everyone can now be in on it.

A good thing or bad? One thing is certain: there is no going back.

Every artist, producer or arts organization used to wait for a handful of reviews in newspapers to determine the critical response to a particular project. But in the vast immensity of today’s Web Universe,  a larger portion of arts projects today have become somewhat immune to the opinions of any one newspaper journalist.

Even in New York and Los Angeles, one “make or break” review from “The Theater Critic” in the major newspaper  in each city — while still important — is losing its power and relevance to box office sales and popularity. The mega-hit musical Wicked got a bad review in the New York Times: “Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.”

Why are newspaper critics having less impact? Three reasons.

First, far fewer people are getting their news from print media. There is a reason the newspaper industry is in trouble. Advertisers are spending less in print media because fewer people are reading hard copy newspapers. And for those arts projects aimed at younger audiences, hard copy newspapers are no longer a central element of a marketing strategy. Younger people get virtually all of their information online, through news web sites, social media and chat rooms. And older people are increasingly getting their information online as well.

Second, because serious arts coverage has been deemed an unnecessary expense by many news media outlets looking to pare costs, there are fewer critics and less space devoted to serious arts criticism. The Los Angeles Times’ arts section is dominated now by features and reviews of popular entertainment — television, movies and pop music — rather than serious opera, dance, music or theater.

And third, the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors.  Locally, the theater site Bitter Lemons lists 63 blogs devoted to theater coverage in Los Angeles alone. Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

The result is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

One side:  Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater does not mean they have expert judgment. It is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.

No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.

The other side: People now have the opportunity to interact with their art experience. Tweet, text and blog about it. Going to the theater has always been a shared experience between actors and audience. The blogosphere has taken it a step further.  It is now a shared experience between actor and audience — and the audience’s electronic web network of online friends.

The magic of live performance – even the most traditional forms – is that the audience is never really a passive watcher – they are engaged and their response informs the performance. The internet as a forum for authentic feedback and reaction is vital to the growth, development and continued relevancy of the discipline.

Anyone can create art. And now, anyone can comment on it.

The audience for the arts – and the people who are passionate enough to frequent cultural institutions, comment on their sites or start their own blogs – are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs. They are artists and former artists, they are friends and families of artists, they are people who grew up or into an appreciation of the arts for any number of reasons but because of the necessities of making a living are relegated to “amateur” status. Sure there are some ill-informed writers and commenters out there, but arts writing on the internet has evolved over the years. The quality of writing, the knowledge of the writers and the vitality of the discussion can sometimes be  invigorating, stimulating and exciting.

Newspapers are never again going to be a dominant force in our lives. And the economics that made it possible to subsidize newspapers (and full-time professional arts critics) via ads and real estate listings are not likely to return. The speed of internet/blog/tweet comments and reviews is instant.  Hundreds or thousands of audience members can now post their comments on a play seconds after seeing it. A newspaper review can take days, sometimes one week, to appear in print.

Like it or not, our Smart Phones and the internet are fast becoming our new content delivery system and our primary circuit of commerce and communication (about the arts, and everything else). Theaters and arts organizations that don’t recognize that the internet train left the station years ago — and don’t get on board — are being left behind on the platform, by themselves. Alone.

What do you think? Care to “leave a comment”? Blog about it?