TCG Conference Coverage 2019: What is a Review(er) Good For?

The Theatre Communications Group Conference took place on June 4-8th, and for the first time ever they included an arts journalism track. My conference journey began with co-facilitating a session with Brian Herrera of the Sol Project titled “What is a Theater Review(er) Good For? A Critical Look at the Role of Journalism in Theatre Today.” This session was a lab that took place before the official start of the conference, and was a three hour round table discussion. In addition to the obvious title question, we chose to investigate what our present relationship to reviewers was, and try to shape what it could be. This article is an attempt to summarize these rich and invigorating hours of conversation.

“What is a Review(er) Good For?” was a session that Brian, whose work I very much respect and reached out to me with encouragement when Rescripted launched two years ago,  had initially generated. I was invited to collaborate as a reviewer who has both started their own platform and done freelance writing. Brian and I are tackling the question of what a reviewer is good for from very different angles but with similar intentions. He is a scholar who often critiques in academic journals, while I primarily write for online outlets, but we are both artists who seek more depth and more truth in our reviews. The first thing to discover in our group, which at a 9am start totaled about ten people including ourselves, was identifying everyone’s current relationship to criticism in their city.

A staff member from the New Play Network spoke to their member theatres’ needs from critics, stating that in the midst of large newspapers disappearing, these theatres did not know what to do or expect from critics any more. In addition, there was concern about the growing animosity and tension in many communities between their most powerful or prominent critics, and the artistic community. Theatres are finding themselves bound and dependent on a journalistic system they “no longer care for that doesn’t care for them.”

A managing director from a theatre in Minneapolis talked about how it was wonderful that their blog and independent review scene was growing, but that it could be difficult to determine how to cultivate their press lists from show to show. This was for two different reasons, one was quality control in regards to ensuring pieces are published in a timely fashion as well as their written quality. The other was in reference to ensuring a diversity of critics are able to see the play, including critics who may belong to the intended audience of the play, without straining the seat occupancy of the theatre. Another concern, and one that I shared, is what is the relationship the critic and their review has, if any, to the theatre’s marketing needs?

Emerging critics expressed that they were constantly seeking examples for what our role should be as critics to both audiences and theatres. The failure of print journalism makes this an especially stressful question to be answering as a young writer. An established critic voiced that he thought the critic’s job was to establish whether a show is worth an audience member’s money and time.

My stance on a critic’s position is that their job is to provide context for a work of art from a cultural and artistic viewpoint, to frame the conversation on a work of art in a way that gives the audience the best chance of enjoying it, and to document that performance for historical record. As a Black critic historical record and cultural context become especially important to me, when I research early Black theatre companies the first thing I look for is reviews, and they are much less reviewed than their white counterparts, meaning it is harder to find and place them in history.

What was very clear was every person in that room needed something different from a critic, and the critics all had different stances on what it was their job to provide.

A recurring topic during our conversation was the idea that there was a lack of trust between critics and audiences. This was further defined as a lack of community accountability. Here in Chicago critical discourse is certainly something we struggle with, there is very little opportunity to debate a critic’s position on a piece even if it is seen as offensive by the artistic community. As a group we defined part of the problem: critics often are not seeing the work that is being created, but instead writing about the play that they wish to see. When artists see critics that miss the goals of a piece, intentionally or not, it only reinforces the idea that critics are not supporting their work. This can really foster distrust between the critic and the community, something I saw expressed in Chicago at the non-equity Jeff Awards where a running joke of presenters, nominees, and patrons alike was a local review that missed the point.

We took a moment to look to other art forms to see how reviews functioned, and came to the conclusion that one of the biggest differences between theatre critics and critics of other types of art is that our work is considered separate from the community. Videogame criticism was brought up as an example, video game critics are respected members of the community and their reviews have impact on audiences because they are personal. A video game critic is trying to communicate both objective facts about the game as well as their personal experience of why they loved it, often employing first-person (“I” statements) to do so. Film critics were also mentioned. I know when I am trying to decide whether to see or spend money on a film, I am most interested in what my friends have to say, and only read reviews after I have seen the movie to spark my thoughts. Chicago has begun to flirt with audience reviews out of necessity, but with the emergence of aggregate reviewing platforms such as ShowScore I wonder if this where our field is ultimately headed.

This introduces the final and potentially most potent point Brian Herrera broached during the course of our conversation: whose responsibility is it to critique a show? We have depended on print journalism, an enterprise that hardly benefits if theatre does well, to promote and critique theatre. Now that permanent positions and freelance stipends are shrinking or smaller than ever, the majority of newspapers are shifting their remaining staff to the topics that bring in income. The question Brian rightly posed was: is it right for us to expect these institutions to do the heavy lifting of both analyzing and marketing our work if there is little economic benefit? (Morally of course, they are the best chance of the arts and therefore culture being recorded at all, so they should really just write about it, but I digress.)

This question gave a voice to something I had been noticing which is the increase in artists taking responsibility for reviewing their own work. Since the start of Rescripted two years ago, I have seen several other artist critic platforms, and independent ventures by established critics emerge across the country. Perhaps there is a collective understanding that we, as an industry, are in many ways on our own. However, it is important to acknowledge why these innovations have arisen.

Almost none of us set out to be critics, and at least in Chicago it was extreme distrust and anger from our community that prompted me to try to form a company that could reshape arts criticism into a form that centers empathy and respect. It is hard for me to say if these relationships between critics and theatres can be repaired. I got into this business genuinely believing that they could, and yet critics and artists alike seem to be digging their heels in further on both sides. Why would the critic be enthused to write about a demographic they feel don’t like them, and why would the theatre be enthused to receive a review from someone they feel doesn’t respect them? Without drastic efforts toward communication and accountability between critics and theaters I believe that either criticism as we know it, or theatre as we know it, will cease to exist.

So, what is a reviewer good for? This is what I’ve got so far:

1) To see the artists’ reason for telling the story in the first place, then evaluate the framework in which they chose to tell it. In the critics opinion, did the story and the methods used to tell it achieve what the artists seemed to be hoping it would? Why or why not? Then, with an empathetic lens very honestly lay out what you saw, not a synopsis, but how it made you feel and how the details wove together to leave you as an audience member with a specific message or feeling.

2) Declaring any critical biases or lack of understanding on topics or art forms. Wise people know what they don’t know, and don’t try to be authoritative about it, either.

3) Advocates for theatre as an art form, and documentarians of its existence. Creating intellectual lineage and framework for audiences who are not immersed in theatre.

4) A critic’s duty is to be radically hospitable to those they are critiquing. Radical hospitality meant something very specific to me when I was studying comparative mythology at Santa Clara University, as a religious concept it has a lot to do with a gracious spirit and a sharing of resources. Since working with Anna Deavere Smith and doing audience engagement and safety work over the years, I have shaped a form of radical hospitality for the theatre. Radical hospitality is the willingness to open the doors not just for a conversation but for an investment. Are you letting the seeds in with the intention that they should settle, be watered, and grow? Or will you let them blow past your door and off in the wind to flower at an institution that will listen and nurture their gifts? For a critic, being radically hospitable means knowing the cultural context and the economics and mission of a theatre, and meeting the work they are producing with the abundant hope they will succeed every time.

Radical hospitality, love, and respect sounds very pleasant I know. But much in the way that only your most loved friends can tell you if a shirt you want to buy just isn’t working for you, a good critic should be able to tell you that play just was not what you hoped it would be. You are able to take in or accept input from your friend because you know them and they you. A true friend is critical only to help you be your best self, their intentions are based in respect and believing you can be better. Even in the instances where a friend gives the wrong advice, at their core they are saying everything they are because they want you to succeed. That kind of relationship comes with trust, transparency, and time.

Time is a tricky thing. As I mentioned up above this is a failing industry. At TCG it was oft lamented that young writers have no expertise, but most of our critics started as a beat reporter in an entirely different department that began writing about theatre. They were given time, decades even, to become experts. But this is 2019 and nobody is giving a Black trans person that kind of time to become an expert (the life expectancy of black trans women is 36!! Time is a-ticking!). So here is my ask of the Chicago community:

I want Rescripted readers to take this opportunity to tell me directly what, in your wildest dreams, an ideal critic artist relationship would look like. What do you want from your reviews? What do you use them for? What is a useful review in your opinion (not good or bad, but useful)? What expertise can I try to achieve or what can I research in order to better understand your work or your theatre?. Some suggestions that will help me maximize all conversation:

1) I am only one critic, and I can speak for myself and take action from this outlet (Rescripted) only.

2) A component of our mission is to reprogram the way we critique each other through a lens of empathy. I will be meeting all of your input with as much empathy and understanding as I can, however that is my job and I understand if that’s not where you are in the conversation. I merely ask that you all understand I am asking because I really want to know, and engage with me knowing I am asking this question in good faith – because I want to know the answer.

3)  Speak from your own lived experience, it is the seat of your personal expertise. I share this in my workshops and classes. I want to know what you think, and how what I do affects you and your job and your life and your art directly. There are no wrong answers.

4) Please use the company e-mail contact rescriptedreviews@gmail.com, and not my personal accounts, for both safety and record keeping purposes.

You can contact me, Regina Victor, by e-mailing rescriptedreviews@gmail.com. If expressing thoughts via email is not accessible for or inclusive of you, drop a brief note to that address expressing your circumstances and a preferred contact method. We will always find a way to talk.

I learned a lot at TCG about what a theatre reviewer’s potential could be, but the most important thing folks from around the country expressed was that there was not enough communication and accountability between critics and artistic communities. Chicago, let’s make conversation and accountability the new normal, together. Contact me at rescriptedreviews@gmail.com.

Photo: L to R, Diep Tran, Brian Herrera, Regina Victor and Rob Weinert-Kendt

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