Chad Bauman’s column on criticism and a response from a theater critic

Chad Bauman, the smart and experienced Managing Director of the Milwaukee Rep, writes a monthly column for American Theatre magazine. In the latest issue he was asked to look at the state of theatrical criticism in this country. You can read his very thoughtful and incisive column here.

But there is also a response, my response, crafted after over 50 years in the field of journalism. Mine won’t be nearly as detailed or researched as his, but I think it makes some points worth considering.

Mr. Bauman relies heavily on the advent of technology and the changes wrought in the getting the word out about the work of a particular theater company and the weakening of reliance of theater criticism. And nobody would disagree.

He wrote:

“In a recent survey sent to our single ticket buyers at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we asked patrons what drove their purchasing decisions, and their responses mirrored my own hotel searches. First and foremost, patrons must be interested in the subject matter or premise of the play. Next, they check with friends and family to get recommendations, and then consider the ticket price. Only after all that do patrons report that a professional review will influence their purchasing decision. Just a decade ago, I ran a similar market study while at Arena Stage, with patrons reporting that the primary purchasing decision rested on the review of the Washington Post. So what’s happened in the intervening years?”

All you have to do is look at, as he does, the incredible shrinking role of newspapers in the United States today. Let me offer some context, however.

When I started in newspapers we used hot type, articles were written and marked up on paper and then hand carried to the layout floor before being sent to the printers.

Then came computers, and everyone wailed how it was going to ruin journalism. I remember those first classes that were supposed to teach us how to use the new technology.

Now we have the Internet and smartphones and laptops and social media. Newspapers have been decimated. But, and this is an important but, journalism has survived.

All we have here is a sea change in the types of delivery of news and feature stories and all the other stuff that has made newspapers vital to life. The tenets of journalism haven’t changed.

A theater critic is not an artist. A theater critic is a journalist. No different, really, than any other journalist.

Think, if you will, of a political columnist working for, say, The New York Times or Washington Post, both newspapers that are thriving.

The columnist watches events then tries to figure out the truth of them,measured against a standard defined by the columnist by experience and time. Then the columnist writes her opinion of those events.

So, too, with the theater critic.

Ben Brantley, for more than two decades the chief theater critic for The Times, is arguably the most influential critic in the world. He is also a sort-of friend and when I began to review plays, he gave me 10 pieces of advice. Numbers 1 and 10 were the same.

“Never forget who you are writing for,” he said. “It is for the people who go, or may go, to see plays.”

An arts critic, no matter what the subject, treats her work as an individual thing. A sportswriter tries to represent all the fans. A critic represents nobody but herself. Hopefully, a serious critic has some standards for success against which any production is measured.

But a real critic cares almost nothing about any reaction to a review.

I have been involved in any number of controversial journalism endeavors over the years and have never – ever – been overly concerned about how readers or subjects react to something I’ve done.

If an egregious error has been made, I’m good with talking about it. But other than that, the review is out there, it’s what I think, and a reader can choose to believe it or not.

I have heard athletes say that they never read stories about their team. I have heard actors say they never read reviews. I think both of those reactions are silly. If you are devoted to your craft,  you want as much input as possible, and it’s up to you to determine if it has anything of value.

One of the big differences between covering a sports team and a play, of course, is that with a score, you can determine which team wins and which team loses. Impossible in the theater.

Every time I walk into a theater I hope it’s going to be a play that knocks my socks off. I have things that I think are important to a play, and the biggest is that I want to get moved – to laugh, to cry, to think, to fear, to feel something.

When that doesn’t happen, I can’t be positive about any production. When it does, there is a glow to a review.

I think Mr. Bauman raises a number of good points, especially in the way theater companies have changed their outreach to audiences and potential audiences.

But good journalism isn’t going away anytime soon. There will always be a place for serious theater criticism, it’s just that you won’t get ink stains on your fingers when you read it.


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