Critical Discourse - The Role of the Theatre Critic

Written by 

April 2011

"Critics are commonly spoken of as if they were a race apart—like numismatists, taxonomists or hangmen," says Irving Wardle in his book Theatre Criticism. "Everyone, certainly every theatre-goer, is to some extent a critic. Some speak their opinions, some publish them; some pass through criticism and create material for the rest of us to criticize. The better we do it, the greater our chance of turning a transient pleasure into a permanent possession."

That's not a bad starting point for an academic discussion, but there are other questions of more immediate interest to Bay Area theatre-makers: How do our local theatre critics view their role, and how do those roles differ based on size of the news organization or coverage area? How seriously should performing artists and directors take the words of these critics? To explore these questions, I talked to some of the key critics from Marin down to Santa Cruz and places in between.


Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle looks to his decades-long career as theatre critic to form his thoughts on the importance of the role. "I subscribe strongly to the idea that all criticism should be constructive. You're not in the business of tearing people down. Part of your responsibility as a critic is being a consumer advocate. You have to make judgments as to whether a show is something people want to spend their money on. If you're not 100 percent honest on that level, why should readers trust you to be honest about anything else? Constructive criticism means being completely honest about what you feel and not taking cheap shots. Ideally, you're part consumer advocate, part educator."
Nicholas Dromgoole concurs in his book The Role of the Critic. "The critic should be humble. Critics are dealing with the work of professionals who have in most cases devoted their lives to what they create. They deserve respect. A critic may not always feel that an artist has succeeded, but he is not handing down judgments from some lofty throne. Any critic who uses a perceived failure as an opportunity to have an ego trip all over the page is behaving dishonorably."
Karen D'Souza, theatre critic for the Bay Area Newspaper Group, believes the role is, in part, to champion the arts in an environment with much competition from canned media and the digital age. "We need things that bring us together as a community in the old Greek sense—a place to come together to ponder the human experience." D'Souza goes on to emphasize that another role of the critic is simply to see what's happening and say if you should go see it. "Can you imagine what would have happened to the debut of Angels in America at the Eureka if no critics had gone to see it? It makes you wonder how many wonderful shows are out there that are getting missed."
Rachel Swan, who is the music editor for the East Bay Express but who also covers theatre once a week, believes her role is to bring a slightly younger audience to theatre. "The median age at a lot of shows is 40-plus. I'm often younger by 10 to 20 years, and I think part of my job is to introduce people to a wide range of theatre, not just what's playing at Berkeley Rep or ACT. I like to cover things that don't fit into the traditional domain, such as experimental theatre and even standup comedy. I'm trying to take it out of a rarefied institutional world and make it more accessible and wide-ranging to a younger, more diverse demographic."
In terms of the process of conducting a critique, SF Weekly's stage columnist Chris Jensen says he always starts with his visceral response. "What did this do for me? Was it thrilling? Maddening? 'Meh'? Where did that response come from? What triggered the way I feel? The review always starts with your visceral response when you walk out of the theatre."

Apples to Oranges

With 200 to 300 new shows popping up around the Bay Area each year, how does a busy critic with limited editorial space choose what to cover? And given the wide swath of theatre companies in this area ranging from tiny hole-in-the-wall boxes with no budget to national tours at the Orpheum, how do standards differ from covering show X on Friday night to show Y on Saturday?

Jensen reports that he tries to approach every show he sees in terms of intent, regardless of the size of the house or price of the ticket. He cites an example of a show he recently saw at New Conservatory that offered filthy sendups of Broadway tunes. He enjoyed the show for what it was. "The show was small, clever and entertaining; not all the voices were great, but based on what it was trying to do, it was a success."

"You don't judge a tiny ramshackle theatre the same as the Royal Shakespeare," adds D'Souza. "At ACT or Berkeley Rep, you know they had the time and money to pull off what they set out to do. If a tiny company doesn't do a good job, I wonder if there's a point in ripping them a new one. It's more notable to point out when they do something wonderful. If RSC lays a big fat egg, they deserve to hear about it."

Theatre Bay Area editor-in-chief Sam Hurwitt, also a theatre critic for the Marin Independent Journal, says in practice you never do hold two companies to the same standard. "You're informed by your expectations of a particular company's work, usually based on past experience, and you may be pleasantly surprised or disappointed based on that expectation." He goes on to say that the idea that there's a set standard that critics hold companies to is a myth based on the misunderstanding that critics are supposed to be objective. "Criticism is opinion—informed opinion, yes, by people who see a lot of theatre and may have some familiarity with the oeuvre of the artists involved, but opinion nonetheless. Am I consciously more forgiving of small companies compared to large ones? No. I expect everyone to show their best work."

Robert Avila, theatre critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, says that ultimately, the question to ask is whether a show is worth an audience's while. He says the standard has less to do with budget than how engaging the show is. He says he can be extremely forgiving of a low-budget set or uneven acting if the material and other performances are compelling enough to make it an experience where you come away with something. "The standard for me is whether what's happening engages my imagination to the degree that I can recommend it to others."

Bad Review vs. No Review

So when a show really stinks, is it better to say so publicly and steer audiences away or opt to not run the review? Do theatre critics have a vested interest in the vitality of the community in which they work—a community that has seen record numbers of theatre closures in recent years?

"I don't think that a bad economy is an excuse for bad theatre," says Jensen. "A bad economy affects the audience too. They have less money to spend. Pointing out that something isn't worth their money is more valuable in an economy like this than when people have money to throw away. My primary role is not to be a cheerleader for local theatre, but to be of service to readers."

Avila agrees. "I would not hold back a review because it's negative—that isn't serving audiences or theatre-makers, and it contributes to undermining your value as a critic. The point is to always encourage the best and point people to the best. That also means leveling negative criticism where it seems appropriate."

Ann Bennett, who retired from the Santa Cruz Sentinel last year after spending 40 years of her life reviewing theatre, finds the practice of withholding negative reviews appalling. "I've given companies what they think is a bad review, but I've never written one to be bad. I always try to pinpoint what was wrong, what was expected, and not just say this is a bunch of shit."

Swan wonders if there's pressure on critics to be nicer nowadays because they have to write so many tales of woe with theatre closures, lost funding, etc. "It's possible that we're not just critics anymore, but champions of an art scene that is suffering in a bad economy. I feel as a culture writer that I'm looked upon by my audience as an arts booster—that they expect me to promote a scene rather than just critique it. In local theatre, you're in the same economy as the people you're writing about."

Because of the fact that he writes for the highly visible Chronicle, Robert Hurwitt feels the responsibility for looking at the impact his coverage has. He says he is faced with anywhere between 16 and 30 openings every week and can't review even half. Certain theatres he is required to cover, like ACT, Berkeley Rep, Magic, TheatreWorks and Marin Theatre Company. "That leaves me very few slots where I can look at smaller companies. I try to choose the ones that look most interesting. Of the small companies that I review, the chances that it's going to be positive or middling are very high, because I've already selected out of the 'OMG' shows. There have been cases where I've decided there's no point in kicking a company while it's down. I've seen terrible shows and can't think of any justification for writing about them. However, when you're dealing with the main stages, it's an important part of the long-term story of that company [to write about what you see]. If you're dealing with a big commercial operation, it's part of your consumer advocate duty to say whether the show lives up to expectations. You have to ask, 'Is this show worth $100 a ticket?'"

Just Another Opinion?

How seriously should actors and directors take critique of their work? Most of us are all too happy to embrace a positive review, grabbing its quotes for our marketing purposes. But what about a bad review? Do we take it to heart, believe it to be the gospel truth, change our performance based on it? Or do we just write it off as one person's opinion?

In his book The Critics' Canon, author Richard Palmer argues the importance of audience and critic-as-spokesman reactions. "To the extent that the reviewer serves as a spokesman for the audience, with the ability to articulate or exemplify its reactions, contempt for audience and critic alike shows a failure to recognize audience tastes as a necessary ingredient in any formula for theatrical success. The theatre, perhaps more than any other art form, depends on the immediate feedback of its audience. Denial of the importance of the audience or the critic ignores an essential, unavoidable variable in the dramatic experience."

Robert Hurwitt jokes that he's constantly offended by how little effect his words have on theatre companies, who ignore his prior comments when selecting works for an upcoming season. "They should take it as the word from Olympus." On the other hand, he humbly recounts an experience where he provided comments on the staging of a new play and the theatre took the comments to heart and rewrote it. When he went to see the new version, he realized his suggestions weren't the way to fix the play.

"I've always assumed actors treat reviews as just another opinion," says Swan. "When people criticize what I do, I sometimes take it into consideration if it's valid. But you can't listen to all the criticism about you or you'll never be able to move on."

Jensen agrees that actors and directors shouldn't take reviews of their work too seriously. "It's one person. I don't feel like I'm there to do a service for them and they shouldn't interpret it that way."

Sam Hurwitt notes that the local nature of theatre criticism (vs. national criticism of movies, for instance) ensures that the people you're reviewing are more likely to read what you write. "That doesn't mean you have to be any kinder in your reviews, but it does hold you accountable. You mustn't soften your criticism of an artist's work just because you're likely to run into the people at the next opening, but I think it does make you less likely to go for ad hominem stuff about how dimwitted or funny-looking someone is. Some people are always going to take criticism personally, but it shouldn't actually be personal."

So a question then arises for theatre artists about the merit or qualifications of the critic who seemingly wields substantial power over filling or not filling seats. In his book, Palmer purports that while some critics suffer as targets of convenience for malcontented theatre artists and producers, others earn abuse. "Practically everyone in the theatre who ever seriously performs for any length of time suffers at some instance from indifferent, insensitive, inaccurate, or even biased criticism. In spite of some systematic efforts to improve the quality of professional reviewers...chance continues to determine the theatrical education of most practicing reviewers, whose primary qualifications for the job continue to be an already existing position on a newspaper staff and willingness to go to the theatre."

Robert Hurwitt has formed some strong judgments around the requirements for good critique, particularly in his former work as an arts editor. "I think the most important thing is the ability to write well. The next most important thing is to be an open receptor of what you're seeing, because one of the most essential parts of being a critic is to be a good reporter. Get the names right, get the facts right. Anyone who's reviewing any kind of art has to have a relationship with that art form. You can tell the difference in music critique between someone who plays music and someone who doesn't. With an art as collaborative as theatre with its long, deep history, it's important for the critic to have some practical understanding of what goes into it."

So is theatre criticism the best job in the world if you love theatre, writing or both? Most everyone concurred it's a great gig—though not without sacrifice. Committing weekends and nights to seeing shows without end isn't always easy. Says Avila, "It has been a great, weird ritual to go to the theatre almost every night and sit in the dark with the audience. It's a nice way of life. I'd have a hard time giving it up. I have to do other work to pay the bills, which is why I identify with and have compassion for people putting on theatre. We're in the same boat in that sense…we do it because we love the art form. Sure, there's some built-in antagonism, but really, we're part of the same family."

Kristin Brownstone is a freelance writer, marketing consultant and actor based in the Santa Cruz region.