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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2014

Critics and Playwrights: In It Together?

Thursday, July 24, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Lily Janiak

Recently I had the honor of serving on the panel "Critics and Playwrights: In it Together," which was hosted by 3Girls Theatre Company and moderated by its artistic director and one its resident playwrights, AJ Baker. This was in my capacity as theatre critic for SF Weekly; the other panelists were Rob Hurwitt, theatre critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Jean Schiffman, likewise for the San Francisco Examiner, among other publications. The panel was broadcast on HowlRound TV; you can watch the whole thing here (I'm the one with the bright red cowboy boots).

Rob Hurwitt, Lily Janiak and Jean Schiffman. Photo: AJ Baker 
The three-year-old company, which was founded by Suze Allen, Baker and Lee Brady (the three girls!), is dedicated to "putting women's work onstage…where it belongs." This event was part of the company's Third Annual New Works Festival, which featured staged readings by Baker, Brady, Patricia Milton and cowriters Caroline Altman and Robin Bradford. It also included LezWritesan evening of short works by local lesbian playwrightsand a visual art show. It was a busy week!

The title of this panel discussion reminded me of the much-publicized speech local playwright Lauren Gunderson gave at the American Theatre Critics Association National Conference at the Humana Festival this year. (Gunderson was the first-ever playwright invited to give this annual Perspectives in Criticism address; you can view the text of it here).

The word "together" appears 10 times in the speech. Gunderson asserts that playwrights (and all artists, really) and critics are fighting on the same side, partners in a shared art form, equally invested in its success:

"I'm not going to accept that there is an inherent antagonism between critic and theatre-makers. Because we're all theatre-makers. We are all audience-builders, and art-advocates and theatre champions."

From that premise, that critics and playwrights are in it together, Gunderson argues that, because critical reviews hurt plays, they hurt the art form as a whole, which means they indirectly hurt the critics who wrote them, too. She thus advocates a different kind of criticism, one that's more conversational and more revelatory of where critics come from—their background, their preferences—in writing their reviews.

In many ways, 3Girls is the perfect organization to help keep this conversation going. The company is dedicated to new plays, which was the focus of Gunderson's speech: "I can tell you that sometimes new plays die too early because of poor critical reception,” Gunderson says. "We all know this happens. I hate this. I'm sure many of you do, too." Additionally, many have argued that women artists—whom 3Girls champions—receive a disproportionate amount of negative press. In 2010, the playwright Theresa Rebeck shared an almost career-destroying anecdote along these lines in a keynote address for the Laura Pels Foundation; last year, I wrote a piece for HowlRound asking whether I was unfairly biased against women artists in my own criticism.

All this went into my thinking as I prepared for the panel discussion. Baker sent the critics questions to mull over in advance: "Why are you a theatre critic? The title of our program is 'Critics & Playwrights: In It Together.' Do you agree that we're all in it together, or do you see your role vis

à vis playwrights in a different way? What's your focus/goal when you review new work? How does it differ from what you bring to established productions (if it does)? From your perspective, what is the purpose of a writing critical review of a new work?" And, just for fun: "What's the coolest thing that's happened to you as a critic?"

Although Hurwitt, Schiffman and I differ greatly in our writing styles, our interests and our tastes, as many regular readers of our criticism already know, we had remarkably similar things to say about why we're critics: we're wildly in love with the art form, and we deeply enjoy the challenge of writing a lively persuasive essay about an ephemeral performance. For me, getting to share that feeling reminded me how lucky I am, which I sometimes forget amidst declining space and freelance rates. Through criticism, I practice a religion of theatregoing. Once or many times a week, I go through the same ritual: I enter a darkened room with fellow spectators; we sit down and watch magic together. Then, I go home and, through my writing, evangelize.

Much of the panel discussion centered on the idea of bias. We had a tricky time even defining it: Is bias simply the subjectivity that any individual brings? Is it taste? Is it a belief that a production or an artist is unlikely to succeed? One thing is for sure: It's never a desire that a production not succeed. Nicole Gluckstern, theatre critic for the SF Bay Guardian, wrote a fantastic article about this in the September/October 2013 Theatre Bay Area. Critics, she writes, "are in it for the love. We love the theatre as much as you do. We love theatre because we know no other art form holds as much capacity to surprise, to move and to connect artists immediately with their audiences—which includes us, a silent yet watchful minority, pens aloft, waiting to be transported and transfigured. Hoping for it."

One of the things that surprised me about the panel, especially once Baker opened the discussion to the audience, was just how hungry artists seemed to be to understand our processes. How do we decide which part of a show to write about, or what style to use in writing? I feel that our answers to questions like these must have been frustrating: We don't use systems or rubrics. Hurwitt had a great line, describing each successive review as a whole new project.

When I taught theatre criticism at SF State, I used to tell my students that criticism is my art. I get deep creative and intellectual fulfillment when I write a review I'm proud of.

And in that way, perhaps critics and playwrights really are in it together.

Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound