For my most recent Managing Expectations article for American Theatre Magazine, I was asked to share some thoughts on the current landscape of theater criticism in the United States. The article entitled “Tastemaking in a Post Newspaper World” can be found here. Since writing the column, I’ve continued to ruminate on criticism, particularly in light of the metrics that we use to define success in the American theatre.
While acknowledging the important role that critics serve and their significant impact on my career and the development of new plays that I’ve produced, I’m perplexed why any individual critic has so much power to determine success and quality in our field. A critic is one person. A human being who, like all of us, brings preferences, biases and worldviews with them to the theater. A large regional theater can serve more than a quarter of a million patrons annually, have 20k+ subscribers and potentially 5k+ donors, so why do we accept the pronouncement of quality or success from any one person?
Historically, we’ve looked to singular authority figures for the diffusion of knowledge and information. Naturally, a critic’s power grew because of their reach – the larger their readership, the more influence they have and often historically, the critic from a community’s largest media outlet was the only source that could reach millions of people at once. But with rapidly declining circulations of many newpapers and technological innovations that can harness the voices of the collective, the communications power structure has flattened and hierarchy is diminishing.
Like with many things related to technological innovation, as a field, we are behind. Almost every other field has adapted to this new reality. In film, it has gone from Siskel and Ebert to Rotten Tomatoes. In education, students select professors based on RateMyProfessors.com. Travel has TripAdvisor. Health has WebMd and Healthgrades. And then of course there is Yelp, Google and Facebook reviews for all else. Personally, Rotten Tomatoes is my favorite as it aggregates both professional and lay person reviews, so the reader can consider both given that professional and user generator criticism play separate, but equally important roles.
While crowd-sourced reviews certainly have their limitations, they have not yet risen to the level of influence within the American theater as they have in other industries. As such, the traditional model remains predominant, along with its inherent challenges…
Lack of Diversity. Critics around the country have called for a better representation of women and people of color in theater leadership and plays selected for production. This is absolutely a fair criticism given recent research and the lack of progress over decades. However, as we look at the various systems of power and privilege in the American theatre, we rarely discuss the lack of diversity amongst critics in the country. Critic Lyn Gardiner, in her excellent article “Criticism needs to Change,” highlights the various issues lack of diversity causes and in an excellent series on theater criticism in American Theatre Magazine, Maya Phillips in her article “Black Bodies, White Writers” shares her observations as well. In looking at the top 10 newspapers by circulation, consider that 80% of the chief theater critics are white men.
Personal Bias. We all have preferences and we bring our whole selves to work, preferences and all. For some of us, we can tailor our preferences to fit our jobs. For example, I prefer live performance, the ability to produce a variety of work, and love developing new plays. I have my perfect fit where I work and probably wouldn’t be as happy working at a theater festival that focuses exclusively on the classics. Therefore, I’ve always wondered if a critic with a strong preference for a particular genre can ever equally appreciate the breadth of work found in our field or if they dislike the body of work of a specific artist, can they give a production that features that artist a fair shake? Particularly assuming that most journalists, including critics, are assigned what they cover by editors, and therefore must review in many cases outside their personal preferences.
Credibility. As revenues fall for print publications, publishers are looking for expense cuts. Newsrooms are being decimated and fulltime journalists are being replaced by freelancers, some of whom are highly qualified, and others are clearly not. If readers are going to seek professional criticism from a singular expert, don’t media outlets have the ethical responsibility to make sure the writer is competent in the field assigned? I’ll never forget years ago when I greeted a new reviewer who had been assigned to his first review, which happened to be a high-profile world premiere. I didn’t know him, so I personally welcomed him and gave him a tour of the theater. In the first couple of minutes, he said they had just downsized their newsroom and he was now reviewing theater even though he was the food critic, because his editor thought that food and theater would “pair well together.” I remember thinking…I like to eat. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But I’m fairly certain I’m not qualified to write a professional food review.
Beyond Criticism. In the course of a review, I’ve seen instances of critics venturing well beyond the professional realm of artistic critique. Over the years, communities have protested perceived instances of body shaming, racial insensitivity and social commentary on tangentially related topics. Probably the most visible in recent times was the bruhaha in Chicago over a review of Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced critics stepping away from criticism to offer up a wide body of other advice from plays they want the theater to produce to which authors they like and what should be the theater’s strategic priorities. Are these meant to be helpful suggestions or instances where a critic is trying to influence artistic direction? Can theaters politely ignore the suggestions if we disagree, or even worse if it is well beyond their missions, or will the critic take offense?
In our field, even with the above, we continue to use professional reviews as nearly the only currency when measuring artistic worth. When applying for grants, funders ask theaters to submit reviews. When looking to program our seasons, we read reviews particularly for newer work. When marketing our shows, we plaster review quotes all over our ads and websites. I don’t mean to suggest that professional reviews don’t have a considerable place in evaluating work, only that they shouldn’t be the only metric considered.
We have to start looking at other objective and wholistic measures of success. Here are some suggestions (and don’t suggest awards…there’s a separate article coming on that)…
- Audience Surveys and Market Research. In making any business decision, would you ever rely on a focus group of one person? Why not solicit feedback from audience surveys or conduct focus groups? I’ve used Shugoll Research on multiple occasions to better understand what our audiences think of our programming, pricing, service and a multitude of other factors.
- User Generated Reviews. Why not ask audiences to post their reviews on user generated review sites and then promote their candid assessments? A collective of voices will represent a greater diversity of people and statistically offset personal bias with a large enough sample size.
- Assessment Tools. How does your theater assess mission achievement? Have you designed sophisticated assessment practices to determine progress toward strategic goals? Are you measuring to gauge the impact of artistic, engagement and educational programming?
- Attendance, Loyalty and Demographics. Are your audiences increasing or decreasing? Do you have high subscription renewal rates and are you able to convert first time attendees to multi-buyers? Are you widening the demographics of patrons served?
- Peer Review. Does your theater invite experts from the field to observe and evaluate your programs, productions and business practices? Do you have a body of external experts that advise, counsel and coach?