July 2010 Archives

Inside the 2010 American Theatre Critics Association conference there was a lot of what's going on outside the conference: hand-wringing about the future of theater criticism. Back in 1999, when I attended my first ATCA confab--conveniently located in Philadelphia--the room was filled with full-time staffers who visibly bristled at the dirty, dirty f-word: freelancer. Just 11 conferences later, I can count the staffers who make their living as full-time theater critics on one hand, and even if I include this year's keynote speaker Michael Phillips, who's technically a film critic these days anyway (no offense, Michael), I'm still not certain that covers every finger. 

(Below: from left, Jay Handelman, Lauren Yarger, Andy Propst, Leonard Jacobs)

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I sat on a panel titled "Critics in the New Age," moderated by Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman, with AmericanTheaterWeb.com founder Andy Propst, ClydeFitchReport.com founder Leonard Jacobs (you may recall him from this Drama Queen-related debacle), Gail Burns, founder of GailSez.org, and Lauren Yarger, whose theater blog Reflections in the Light tackles Broadway reviews from a Christian perspective. Of all the panelists, only Yarger finds herself in the enviable position of having to turn away potential advertisers. The lesson: You gotta have a gimmick. I'm not saying Yarger is cynical or that she doesn't believe wholeheartedly in her mission. It just helps that her mission occupies a clearly-defined niche that appeals to a very specific (and populous) segment of the American theatergoing public. Amen to that, sister!

Andy Propst also suggested a useful idea: ATCA ought to start offering badges to approved theater blogs. Sounds snooty, I know, but here's the thing, in a filthy, crowded internet, it's nice to find a safe bedbug-free haven where you can try out critics' opinions and know they've been vetted for quality control. As Propst said, "it could be like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Any idiot can tell readers what they thought of a play or musical, but it's the job of a qualified critic to provide context, do research and send you back to the review afterward to uncover additional insights. In theory, anyway. 

There's some disagreement about the specificity of those qualifications (blogger Jonathan Mandell discusses them in terms of ATCA membership, but I imagine the criteria would be pretty similar), but I think it's a great idea, and one that could possibly help generate some ad revenue too, since blogs with an imprimatur are--again, in theory--worth more than those without. 

So, are you more willing to read or lend credence to an officially sanctioned critic? And before you respond with a rant about democracy, please remember that official sanction used to come in the form of a paid position. These days, there are critics with 20 and 30 years of professional experience who have been laid off from their newspaper jobs and are now forced to jostle alongside the Yelpers, Tumblrs and Wordpressers. I say it's time to fumigate.  

July 21, 2010 2:05 PM | | Comments (9)
If you can stand any more of this, here are seven minutes from the American Theatre Critics Association's panel on new media, during which Clyde Fitch Report founder Leonard Jacobs, Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman and I run down the Love Jerry debacle, and discuss artist/critic online interaction.

Special thanks to cinematographer/Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute fellow Mark Costello.

July 21, 2010 12:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)

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