Following a trend seen across the country, The LA Weekly recently downsized its space for theatre criticism. Economic factors were noted up as the cause, but I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect it has more to do with audience reaction and interest – and I’d like to put that concept to a test.
After all, what is a critic? Elementally, it’s an animal, one which some consider carnivorous, and others warm fuzzy teddy bears. Some have been touted as champions of theatre and others view critics as nothing but parasites. But to be honest, those reactions come from the perspective of theatre makers and are based upon time-honored dogmas that hold reviews as essential for attracting audiences.
What function does theatrical review/criticism serve? (Reviews and criticism are being used herein synonymously; these in fact are two different styles of writing) Academically, it’s an educated deconstruction and evaluation of a piece of work. Socially, it’s a starting point for a conversation about a show. For an actor, it’s hopefully a spotlight. For a show, reviews are part of it’s marketing plan – and in fact, a pretty big part of the marketing plan.
The diminishment of reviews has been of great concern within the theatre community. So with the added nail in the coffin of the LA Weekly announcement, a great rumbling has finally brought the situation to the forefront. So much so, that there’s now a plan being floated where theaters would pay for a website whose sole purpose would be for the publishing of legitimate reviews.
For a monthly subscription fee, credentialed critics would provide their services. But here’s the rub — if a theatre pays for a review, is it an unbiased review? The very principal, freedom of the press, comes into play. Will a theatre support an organization that provides a negative review? Will a critic write what might be perceived of as an unkind word if they think it may endanger their livelihood? Will a critic even cover a theatre that doesn’t subscribe?
A case in point, a local newspaper in greater Los Angeles, which will guarantee a review if you place an ad in their paper. There is no guarantee that it will be a good review, only that a review will be published. While I can’t say that they have never published a negative review, I have never seen one. I can say that within the theatre community those reviews by most are considered a joke, and critics label the pieces editorial-advertising at best.
As a form of disclosure, by policy FootLights has never, nor will it ever publish a review. It’s simply a conflict of interest. It’s not that we don’t want to write about plays we see, believe me I have more than my share of opinions on shows, but our job is to act as an intermediary the theaters and you, their audience. Reviews are opinions educated or not, about an event, and should be covered by parties without any skin in the game.
This all leads to a question I’m sure has been asked, but not necessarily asked of the members of the audience:
Are credentialed theatre critics relevant in today’s culture?
Theatres are lock step in assertion that critics are essential. And while I totally agree that they are, I don’t think it’s for the same reasons. Theatre’s generally view critics as the pied piper to lead audience to a show, and I see critics as an essential moderator and guide that can offer insight into a show. However, what’s really important is what you ‘the audience’ thinks. So let’s try that, let’s ask you.