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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2017

Tough Love: A Theatre Critic's Roundtable

Monday, June 19, 2017   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Sam Hurwitt

People have foretold the death of theatre for hundreds of years, and it’s as vital as ever, but theatre criticism really does seem to be on the wane. As newspapers and magazines become fewer and smaller, paying online outlets have failed to fill the gap, and professional theatre reviewers are now few and far between. After a flurry of high-profile critic departures at New York outlets, I talked to local reviewers Lily Janiak of the San Francisco Chronicle, Karen D’Souza of the Mercury News, and John Wilkins of KQED Arts about why they do what they do, and why it’s important. 


Lily Janiak of the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo by Lois Tema.

What do you think your role is in the theatre community?

Karen D’Souza: It’s consistently evolving. Right now I feel like arts coverage and understanding of the arts is really on the decline and under fire in our cultural moment. So I think the role of the critic at this point is to shine a light on the arts, to show that the arts are thriving and vigorous and interesting. 

John Wilkins: Because I’m only writing once a week and not writing on every production, I’m trying just to move around and find the most interesting story, so that people will want to engage and think about the theatre in a fun way—just enjoy the art form in some sense. There’s a pleasure in going out and seeing things and being part of the world, and if you’re writing something that’s engaging, people will want to do that too.  

Lily Janiak: Something specific to my role at the Chronicle is [that] a lot of people really are reading me to see if the show is worth their time and money. And these are maybe not committed theatre people who are willing to see 4 or 5 shows a week every week. Selecting between 20 or 30 shows, which one are they going to see this month? I still feel like I should be also writing a piece that’s worthy of being read even if you have no intention of seeing a show, even if your interest in theatre is marginal or dormant. It should be a solid, engaging, sharp piece of writing that’s entertaining. It should educate, it should tell readers maybe something they didn’t know. I also think of myself a beat reporter in some ways: What did it feel like to be in that seat in that theatre that night? Those are just some of the things ideally I should be doing in a review, and that’s a lot to try to accomplish in 600 words.  

KD: That’s the conundrum, right? Because you’re trying to write for all the different kinds of people in your audience every time, on deadline, really fast—speaking to someone who studied theatre, speaking to someone who will probably never go to the theatre unless you write so well that this time they think “All right, maybe I’ll give it a shot.” 

JW: You know, it’s easy to write about a show like the Wooster Group that was pretty amazing. And when a show’s really bad sometimes it’s easy to write about. But so much of what you see is caught in that middle ground. I think sometimes in criticism it’s too much about hits and misses. “You should go see this because it’s the greatest” or “Stay away from this—this is the worst.” There’s a middle ground that brings in a lot of different people and a lot of different sensibilities, and it’s fun to be around. You can make it through the bad parts because there’s a lot of good parts in it too. It might be one of your favorite moments ever, even though it’s not a great show. I think that’s important. 

KD: A lot of people aren’t careful readers. They’re not sifting through nuance. It’s a culture right now that traffics in superlatives. People just want to know right away, did you love it, love it, love it or did you hate it, hate it, hate it? So if you’re going to do a middle ground with a lot of nuance, it has to be really careful and really engaging. Otherwise I think people get lost and actually can’t tell. 


Karen D'Souza of the Mercury News. Courtesy of the International Women's Media Foundation.

What made you want to go into theatre criticism?

LJ: I was always a theatre kid, much to my parents’ dismay. They should never have let me take a theatre class when I was nine years old. I needed to find my way into this art form that I adore and every day think is magical. And this is the thing that I was at least decent at sometimes, unlike every other thing I tried. I love the power of words and I love that in writing a review, or a feature or a profile, I can make things important. That’s a magical thing that I get to do. 

KD: That’s the best part, isn’t it? When you find something that other people haven’t found, or that there’s a difference of opinion and maybe most people disagree with you, but you can tell what makes something important and what makes it worthy of lasting, and then you get to have an impact on it. I loved American Idiot. Some people were middling and some people hated it, but I loved it so much that the producers later said, “If we hadn’t had your review, we wouldn’t have taken it to New York.” And I was like, hey, all right! I did something. Good for me. Because in the end you can’t control anything else. I mean, I hated Wicked. That didn’t stop it. But as to why I got into theatre, I was young and naive. I loved theatre, and I thought this was a perfect job. Just getting to go to it all the time, for free. At the time I didn’t realize there would be a lot of challenges that would involve in many ways fighting for coverage in the arts. 

LJ: I like how you say “for free” as if you weren’t toiling for hours into the night afterward. 

KD: Still, I was used to sitting in the balcony, having partially obstructed views. I still think it’s nice work if you can get it. You get to write about this thing that we’re all kind of insane about. We’re really lucky that we get to see all the things we get to see. 

JW: I do very much love the theatre, and I like conversation. I like talking to random audience members too and try to find out what they’re thinking. Two thirds of the way through Annie Baker’s John, I turned to the people next to me and asked if there’s anything in the third act that could redeem what’s gone on before for you. And they’re like, there’s no way anything could happen that could make up for the three hours we’ve lost. That felt good, just that feeling of knowing there was someone next to me that understood the pain that I was going through. The ongoing conversation about the theatre is something that I find very exciting. 

LJ: That’s part of what makes theatre so special. It is this communal event happening in real time, and we’re all in there together. How often in other aspects of one’s daily life do you get to have that experience? Other critics have said this too, but for me it’s really my church. 

KD: Absolutely. We have this strange thing that binds us all together in dark places several times a week. It’s a wonderful ritual, even when it is horrible. I remember one time in Ashland it started raining, and everybody went running for what little cover there is in the Elizabethan, and we all stood there cowering for warmth. We all felt like we’d shared something traumatic, but also euphoric, because nobody left! Everybody stayed and went through that to keep watching the show. 


John Wilkins of KQED Arts. Photo by Jacob Wilkins.

How do you think we should be addressing the challenges the field faces? 

JW: I try not to get sucked into the notion that theatre is a dying art form or in need of protection in some way. One of the things that turns people off the most is when a show is unduly praised, and they go and see it and it just doesn’t seem to be lively or engaging. I think the sense that there’s a community and that you’re in this together and you’re having fun together, you’re having different opinions together, is part of the drama of criticism. Those are the experiences that we should be championing, because those are the things that I think people actually respond to and want to be part of. 

KD: The way you can’t champion the art form is overpraise. That’s not going to help anyone, because it’s lying, essentially. I think you champion in every way you can outside of a review, whatever you can do to give somebody some ink when you think it’s a worthy endeavor. But when you get in there, what you see is what you see. I completely agree that pretending something’s good when it’s not is just insulting to everyone. Honestly I believe the arts will always be fine, but I think the cultural conversation is shifting. It’s a pretty profoundly anti-intellectual moment in America, and you can’t pretend that that doesn’t impact the theatre and the arts. 

LJ: I think all the time about how I can better make the case for my beat and for my reviews. This is not that say that I feel particularly embattled at the Chron. I actually get a lot of support from my editors and from my readers. One thing I love about working for a daily paper is, let’s say that I don’t feel like I nail it in this particular review. I have a chance to try again in 12 hours. I also want to always be in conversation with readers. I try to do that by responding to every email I get, by opening a review up to conversation on social media. I try to constantly think about ways I can get theatre on the front page with trend pieces and larger stories about what’s going on. Even if I can’t review every show at a small theatre, I try in the little preview blurbs I write not to just talk about SHN and the Curran and Berkeley Rep and ACT but talk about what’s going on at Custom Made and the EXIT and Inferno Theatre. I think all of those things help constantly remind readers just what a vibrant and endlessly fascinating art form this is. 

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theatre critic for the East Bay Times and the Marin Independent Journal. His short play Cereal Offender will be part of PianoFight’s ShortLived competition in July. 


Elizabeth Finkler says...
Posted Thursday, July 13, 2017
I found this really interesting. Before I moved to the Bay Area in 1995, I wrote on theater and music for community and alternative weeklies in Philadelphia. I liked to convey the experience of seeing a particular show, of letting people know what to expect. And, yes, occasionally telling folks to STAY AWAY or GO SEE IT.
Marvin Glass says...
Posted Thursday, June 22, 2017
JW...A phrase like "want to engage and think about theater in a fun way," is patently banal and at best promotional. Imagine yourself saying something like that to Stella Adler. I am an older actor and a serious student of the theater. As far as theater critics are concerned: what shortage? there's one for every little weekly paper in every county in the bay area. And when is the last time TBA wrote a serious article about Bay Area Theater instead of the usual cheer leading pandering. Marvin Glass