Below is a response to my previous posts on theater criticism by friend and journalist Brad Hathaway, now Vice Chair of the American Theatre Critics Association…
A Critic Responds
by Brad Hathaway
Vice Chair, Executive Committee, American Theatre Critics Association
In both your November American Theatre Magazine column “Tastemaking in a Post-Newspaper World,” and your December Managing Creatively entry “Criticism and Metrics of Success” you lay out the challenge of the current state, not just of theater criticism, but of the wider category of theater journalism itself.
You propose some common sense actions theaters can take in their own self interest in the wake of the loss of coverage.
Of course, the problems you and your colleagues who operate major theaters around the country face as a result of what you referred to as “the hive mind collective of the internet” are real. They call for corresponding changes in your readers’ approaches to reaching out to their audience, or if you prefer the business school term, their customer base.
But your suggested actions tend to bypass the critical community, exacerbating the problem you decry. I’d suggest that there are some positive steps your readers could take to improve the state of theater criticism and theater journalism in their own regions or cities which would be to our mutual benefit.
Your call for a “post-newspaper communications strategy” seems to concentrate on theaters becoming content producers or providers themselves. Certainly, that is something that has been successful for many of your readers, and it has even provided some additional sources of employment or income, or even outlets for beleaguered former-full-time professional theater critics.
But often the “content” a theater company can create ends up going just to their board members, season subscribers and their box-office’s list of single-show ticket buyers. To the extent this is true, they end up “preaching to the choir” and perhaps add to the cacophony of tweets, posts, blogs, podcasts and texts that can – and do – drown out even the most carefully prepared considerations of their “product.”
There are other ways for your readers to meet the challenges of the modern age. Bear in mind that neither you nor we can un-invent the technologies that are changing our world. One simply has to see the developments as challenges and opportunities, looking for ways to survive, and one would hope, thrive in the new environment. In that, theater companies and theater critics have a common cause!
Here are a few suggestions for your readers’ consideration:
- Expand your definition of “theater critic” or “theater journalist.” We at the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), in recognition of the sea-change in our world, recently changed the criteria for membership in our organization. We went from “membership is open only to any professional writer who has been actively employed reviewing theatre on a regular and continuing basis” – which seemed appropriate when our organization was founded in 1974 – to “Membership is open to any writer who regularly publishes substantive pieces reviewing or otherwise critically covering theater.” You will notice that we used words like “substantive” and “critically covering” to make sure we weren’t simply adopting the “hive.” We continue to have standards – and you should too! But standards for substance and critical judgement must take the place of “print circulation statistics” in choosing who should have access. Try to identify everyone who is reaching a significant portion of the community with reasoned content. Your readers might want to start with a visit to the “membership roll” page of our website to identify our members in their area … it is at americantheatrecritics.org/atca-membership-roll/.
- Help those who are trying to cover the theater community, especially those who are new to the “beat.” Today so many journalists who have covered other areas are now being called upon to add theater to their responsibilities. Arts editors, performing arts writers, movie/music/dance/television critics and even food or bar critics are expected to include theater in the list of topics they write about. Some may have come from another discipline and, as a result, have good basic skills in writing criticism or features, but lack much background in the theater community they now need to cover. Your readers have a vested interest in helping them become better informed on the scope, the history and the nature of their theater community. Your readers might suggest that their companies join with others in their area to host briefings or presentation on these topics for that wider population of theater critics and journalists they identified in the point above. If any of your readers’ theaters would like to undertake such briefings or presentations in cooperation with the local members of the American Theatre Critics Association, I hope they will contact me as I chair ATCA’s Professional Development Committee and we’d be anxious to be of help.
- Take a page from the “golden age of press agentry,” looking back to see some of the techniques the press agents of the past developed. I’m not suggesting that theaters return to ghost-writing features and reviews that less-than-scrupulous writers can publish as their own work – lord knows too much of that has taken place in the past – and no one suggests that the practice is completely unknown today. What I am suggesting, however, is that more ideas for features, leads for stories and opportunities for access be provided to theater journalists. Your readers know their product from the inside out – they should share that perspective with those they wish would write about it from the outside looking in.
- When any of your readers spots a piece that is innovative, original or imaginative – they should encourage the writer with positive feedback and perhaps suggestions for similar pieces. Those suggestions might stimulate additional quality coverage. After all, if the writer has already produced a piece they find particularly noteworthy, he may well be responsive to suggestions for topics of which he had not been aware before.
- Then, if the writer wishes to follow up on it, they should make sure they provide the access needed to do a thoroughly professional job of it.
- Finally, use whatever in-house efforts are available to spread the word about critics and journalists of quality. I’m not suggesting strings of empty compliments intended to flatter critics. I’m suggesting that your readers’ “post-newspaper communications strategy” should include giving quality writing an expanded audience. When any of your readers’ companies use pull quotes, they should make them truly representative of the opinions expressed in the piece they are quoting – and then give full credit to the source. This not only serves to enhance the theater’s reputation for fair and honest promotion, it gives their readers a better chance to find and follow critics and journalists of quality.
We would love to hear from any of your readers who have additional ideas or improvements to the suggestions above. In the meantime, my thanks for your contributions to the conversation. It was my pleasure to work with you when we were both based in Washington DC and I’m delighted our paths have crossed again. All the best for the new year.
Vice Chair – Executive Committee
American Theatre Critics Association