Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mark Ravenhill's Prescription for Theatre Criticism

I had an initial reaction after I read Mark Ravenhill's pseudo-bloggy-op-ed today, and I thought about writing a response that would have demonstrated that writing a book this past summer has not dimmed my affection for fire and brimstone. But for some reason -- inertia? the meds kicking in? -- I decided to wait and re-read the piece tonight. Mr. Clyde is watching the news in the bedroom and I'm here at my desk enjoying the quiet and reflecting on what Ravenhill wrote, and I think I have some non-brimstone thoughts that might be useful for discussion.

Because it's probably not politically intelligent of me to write too much about the inner workings and doings of Back Stage, I'm going to disclose the following in the name of furthering Ravenhill's discussion -- also, the following isn't all that proprietary. When we were overhauling the east and west coast print products and the website, one of the things we looked at was our theatre coverage. We asked and attempted to answer a lot of questions: How much theatre should we cover (thus: what should our budget be and what can we afford)? How much space, in print or on line, should be alloted to our theatre reviews? Should they be of standard length or should they vary? If they vary in length, who decides? What are the determinants? Are there new determinants, new methodologies, new approaches that are worth investigating (sorry if this seems like academese)? Is there recourse for critics, higher-up editors, and companies and productions that disagree with the editorial decisions reached -- or should there be? What is Back Stage's obligation (or any publication's obligation) to the artist? I'll touch on some of these in a moment.

Let me say that I think Ravenhill's point is well-taken: it's ridiculous to argue that the revival of Grease on Broadway, just to take a local example, is worth as much real/virtual ink as Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of the Magical Thinking. However, let's equally acknowledge that there's something uncomfortably highbrow about the argument. Who is to say that the performers and technicians and designers of Grease -- people who see themselves as artists just as Redgrave, Hare and Didion do -- are not artists at all? To what degree should assigning editors be in the business of playing the tastemaker: "that musical is a piece of middlebrow, mainstream, over-revived crap, so let's give it 200 words by a mediocre writer" vs. "that play is a piece of highbrow, elitist refinement, and it's a new play so let's give it 600 words"? These are rhetorical questions, of course, that are important to ask, debate and discuss.

Now, if my job involved assigning theatre reviews at Back Stage (it isn't), I personally would not have a problem playing the tastemaker -- I rather think that what Ravenhill is getting at actually harkens back to a more old-fashioned ethos of journalism that is out of favor. Like Ravenhill, I don't think all theatre is created equal; even if you had an environment in which an editor could leverage unlimited resources (budgets, time, writers, space), that still doesn't mean all theatre intrinsically demands the same attention.

At the same time, there's something to be said for diversifying coverage, and I'll explain what I mean by this in a moment. Before I do, let's note that Ravenhill is not a critic or an editor or an assigning editor and I think it shows in his argument: it's very much "I'm a serious playwright and I deserve more column inches than that crappy musical over there." Not to beat the proverbial horse, but Ravenhill doesn't consider that all those people involved in that crappy musical think they're artists -- and since it is likely that it'll be their show running for years and years, not his; that it'll be their show generating advance sales of millions of dollars, not his, it's all the more reason why the crappy show should (perhaps must) be covered. News is news, and ignoring the elephant in the room doesn't mean it isn't there.

Ravenhill also need to distinguish between types of publications. If you're The New Yorker, for example, you can argue it's much better to have Hilton Als or John Lahr devoting more column inches to richer fare than Grease -- if you count up the column inches those men devote to the gloss and the dross, I think you'll find that to be the case. But Ravenhill isn't prattling on about magazines so much as major dailies, and here you're back to the whole question of how these publications are going to survive in this media-rich environment. The New York Times has to appeal to those readers who want their highbrow reviews of Broadway, their review of the art at the Metropolitan Museum, their reviews of the ballet and the symphony at Carnegie Hall, but they have little choice to appeal to those who want headbanging and poetry slams and Britney's new album and Grey's Anatomy and Taylor Mac.

Hence the argument that word counts should be (relatively) standardized, that the goal is to provide the most broad-based, diverse, anti-tastemaking-oriented coverage possible. Now, I'm quite aware that the Times is totally a tastemaker in NYC, and that has as much to do with perception as anything else. That's a debate for another post.

The real question to me is not whether coverage should ditch covering cheesy musicals so that we may cover edgy plays -- editorially robbing Peter to pacify Paul. Rather, there should be a larger conversation involving critics and artists (and editors) that begins addressing the same questions we found ourselves debating at Back Stage. This is hard stuff; I'm not suggesting we were especially successful. But at least the conversation happened.

Let me go back for a moment, since I implied there would be titillating Back Stage dish with this post. Basically it was me and a few others saying, once again, not all theatre is created equal, and therefore someone must decide what's worth 100, 300, 500, 700 words -- or no words. There was resistance to this, however -- resistance to the idea of playing editorial God. I understand the reasons for this -- one good one is a critic doesn't know the value of something until he or she sees it. And even then, of course, this is only one person's opinion -- is it really efficient or sensible to talk on the telephone after every critic sees every production in order to debate the merits of adding or removing 100 words? Seriously: no critic is going to write shorter reviews voluntarily so longer reviews can run elsewhere. That's just human nature.

To me, somebody's little known first-time-out-of-the-box revival of Marlowe should only get 200 words because, one presumes, they'll be back to offer another production; in the meantime, the 15th revival by the Keen Company, which has proven and time-tested its value, deserves 600 words; so does the new Stolen Chair show that everyone's talking about. To me, an editor ought to be able to make decisions based on instinct, on having been immersed in the field, on a sense of balancing coverage with the intention of being fair. Not everyone is comfortable with that, though, and I must say I do respect the opposing view. And that's the view that prevailed -- all our reviews are 300 words except for the first-string reviews (mine and David Sheward's), which can be 500-600. And yes, I see there's an inherent contradiction in that -- to Ravenhill's point. Absolutely, yes. I'm just shedding some light on how these things are dealt with.

So I guess I don't think the question is how and when and why we should penalize musicals in favor of Pinter (or Ravenhill). I think the question is to what degree major dailies (or trades) are willing to demonstrate the courage, the scope of vision, to look at the scene as a whole and pose creative questions regarding what they should cover and why. Sometimes, yes, that's going to mean covering Grease. Indeed, a decision not to cover Grease will never persuade people to see somebody's 16-hour Kabuki version of Mourning Becomes Electra. But smart editors will cover Mourning Becomes Electra in some way. Just not by punishing one genre to prop up another.

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