Monday, February 09, 2009

Theatre Reviews: Why Bother?

There's a fascinating discussion going on over at the website for the Oregonian on the efficacy of theatre reviews. The piece opens like this:

Everyone knows that this is an era of shrinking resources at your local newsgathering operation (which we once called a "newspaper"). That means fewer staff members and less space in the paper for just about every section and department. And that in turn means a reconsideration of almost all of the coverage habits that have been developed over the decades.

The arts and culture department hasn't been excluded from this, of course, either at The Oregonian or at other operations across the country (where the trimming often has been more radical in arts than other sections). We're not going to go into all of that now, but a couple of posts we picked up on ArtsJournal do single out and discuss one of those coverage habits in the arts -- the daily review.

The piece then goes on to look at some of the posts on ArtsJournal, and specifically begins to zero in on some thoughts published in the Minneapolis performing arts magazine PlayList by Melodie Bahan, director of communications for the Guthrie. (As I type this I'm thinking to myself, "What does it mean that Minneapolis can seem to support a performing arts magazine and New York seems to support...?" But that's another story, time and subject.)

After Bahan does some nuzzling up to Frank Rich and Ben Brantley, she argues -- well, here's how the Oregonian summarized it:

Here is her argument. It starts from this observation: newspaper reviews aren't very good -- they are shallow, cursory, quickly written. Readers don't read them (she estimates 97 percent non-readers), and the reviews don't add to our overall understanding of the theater scene -- either the individuals or the institutions inside it. Because reviews form the backbone of what critics do, they don't have time to develop and tell these longer stories. Her solution: Stop reviewing and start reporting.

My, them handles is chaste silver, ain't they, Mrs. Lovett? I mean, first I have to say that for the director of communications of any theatre -- least of all a particularly well-heeled institutional nonprofit -- to start making value assessments regarding the quality of theatre reviews is a little like asking the inmates to figure out their leisure privileges. This is something that's so endemic to the theatre: people who are so sure they know more about people's jobs than the people who actually do those jobs actually know. What if a Minneapolis theatre critic said Bahan should stop whining about the quality of review coverage the Guthrie receives and start developing unique, forward-thinking models of communication that help the theatre deliver the message it clearly wants to get out? Naturally, I imagine, she'd take some offense.

Second, I would argue that all theatre reviews, even bad ones, add to the overall understanding of a theatre scene -- I do believe in the axiom that there is no such thing as bad press.

But wait a minute -- I haven't even gotten to something from the Oregonian story that's actually even more key to all this. Here's an actual paragraph that Bahan wrote:

Does the average newspaper reader even skim - much less read - a review of the latest production from a small theater company she's never heard of and has no intention of seeing? Probably not. But she might well read movie reviews and almost certainly reads feature stories about the movie industry, even if she sees only two or three movies a year. I believe it's because, in part, newspapers provide stories about the film industry that explain and inform, yet provide little real coverage of the theater community in this town.

If there is such a thing as an average newspaper reader (something the article questions openly), and if that person has no intention of seeing the work of a small theatre company, how is it that it is singularly, indisputably, inarguably the fault of the theatre critic? Once again, for the director of communications of an enormous theatre to somehow refuse to acknowledge that, gee, might it also be a small theatre's lack of resources -- of marketing resources, of advertising resources, of board resources -- that creates this problem is just ridiculous. Leave it to the rich to blame the poor for their situation. Or just blame the critics. How reductive and facile.

Bahan also writes this:

I'm not against theater reviews; I'm against theater reviews that are poorly written, thumbs-up-or-down laundry lists of actors and designers that don't do anything to illuminate the production or give readers a real sense of the experience. Maybe it's not fair to compare our local critics to Frank Rich, but I think there's a solution: Stop writing reviews and start writing news.

Poorly written reviews are, I would say, unfortunate. So are poorly written press releases. But to suggest that writing news instead of reviews is somehow going to alter the dynamic is to play, if you think about it, with fire. After all, if you want news, how do you know that the news you're going to get is the news that you want reported, as opposed to the news you'd rather keep under wraps?

Now, true: laundry lists of actors and designers does not a good review make. But there is also a difference between reviews and criticism, and I'm not seeing Bahan's express an understanding of how to tell these apart. Frankly, if Bahan wants criticism and not reviews, or better written reviews, why is she unwilling or unable to put the Guthrie's mighty marketing and advertising budgets behind them and go to publishers and demand it?

Think of it this way: Did the greatest fundraisers in nonprofit history spring up overnight, fully formed and brilliant in the way they ask the "ask"? No, they learned by coming up through the ranks, by trial and error, by absorbing and exemplifying best practices. Why does Bahan think critics are any different? If she wants, needs and expects better quality in reviews, does Bahan not have a responsibility, rather than moan, bitch and complain, to do her part and work with publishers, editors, publications, and bloggers; to work with dramaturgical organizations and, in fact, with anyone who believes the American theatre deserves the finest criticism it can get to develop the avenues and pathways by which that can be achieved? Surely that can't be achieved by carping as the world of arts journalism collapses in on itself, awaiting rebirth? Why can't she be part of the solution instead of pointing fingers at the problem? Sounds to me like she might be in need of a communication overhaul.

You know, come to think of it, my friend and mentor Dan Sullivan, who runs the National Critics Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, lives in Minneapolis. Why doesn't she go speak to him? The Critics' Conference could surely use her support, input and attendance.

In fact, here's what I'll say: If she'll go to the O'Neill, I'll go anywhere she asks me to in order to learn all about communications. Until then, I would advise a little less convulsive kvetching and a little more creative, constructive engagement. Everyone in the theatre deserves no less.

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Anonymous said...

Bad press? Behan's lucky she gets any press these days. Here in Knoxville, TN, the Clarence Brown Theatre (a LORT, like the Guthrie but smaller scale) can't get the local daily to review their shows at all! And this despite the fact that the theatre spends thousands every year to advertise in the paper!

Zev Valancy said...

I can't think of anyone better than Dan Sullivan to school this woman in why criticism is necessary and how it's done well. And I KNOW there's nobody better than Dan to help a critic do what they do well. Is Dan Sullivan the solution to the predicament of the contemporary arts media? Maybe.