Critics as co-creators?
One of the notions that's stuck with me from the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater six months ago is something put forth by Erik Ehn on the first day of the program. (Ehn is dean of the School of Theater at CalArts and also head of the Writing for Performance program.) Ehn stressed the idea of the critic as "co-creator" or "co-maker" of the theatrical experience, not merely a recorder of something frozen. He also argued that it's not the critic's job to sort out good and bad, but to create, right alongside the performers themselves, the meaning of the theater work.
Frankly, I wish I'd felt a little more lively when our group met with Ehn. After waking at 4 a.m. and heading hundreds of miles west to make it to L.A. from Madison by noon--not easy to do, even with the time zones working in your favor--I was drained. I agree with some, but not all, of what Ehn had to say, and that's why I find his thinking so intriguing.
This idea of a work of art being unfinished until a viewer/audience member engages with it is not new, especially to those with a background in visual art. And, on some level, all audience members are always (mentally, internally) co-creating an evening's performance given what they as individuals bring to a performance in terms of life experience, knowledge (or not) of the playwright or script, etc. But I feel Ehn took things a bit farther than the basic truism that we are always co-creating art in our minds along with the artists who've put it out there. Since Ehn was talking specifically to a group of critics--those of us with the privilege of "co-creating" publicly and in print--this idea of co-creating takes on higher stakes.
And not only was Ehn talking specifically to journalists, but to journalists from smaller markets (the focus of the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes). At its worst, co-creating could turn into pandering or picking up slack for plays that fall short of the mark (along the lines of "What they really meant to do was..." or "What they were really trying to say was..."). At its best, however, co-creating keeps us in that frame of mind that truly is criticism, not just reviewing. We think not just about what happened or how well things were executed, but a performance's larger meaning and context.
Where co-creating gets thorny is when our own personal ideas don't match up with the playwright's (artist's, dancer's, etc.) ideas. We may disagree with the ideas being put out there, but still admire the originality, rigor and passion with which those ideas are conveyed--and this is perhaps why it's hard to let go of notions of quality (conveyed, one hopes, in a way that goes well beyond mere "good" and "bad"). I can dislike something on a personal level yet still appreciate its quality or significance.
One final thought from Ehn, worth revisiting at another time, that has also stayed with me: "If theater is a conversation, where are the real conversations [in our local communities] being had?"
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