Collaborating Critics

Given the size of our community, we have a wealth of theater critics.

The daily newspaper that I write for has three freelance critics who share most of the reviewing duties plus a staff writer who occasionally writes a theater review. The alternative newspaper in town rotates its reviews among six freelance critics. A local television broadcaster makes it to nearly every single show and posts reviews on his Website as well as on the air. Depending on the semester, the college newspaper will have a critic. Then the Detroit papers send critics to town for the professional shows. An alternative newspaper has three critics that come to town and the Free Press usually sends someone.

We are also blessed that it is a fairly collegial community and we enjoy good relations with each other.

Last fall, Don Calamia, the critic from Between the Lines, a Detroit weekly newspaper, and I were discussing how Patrick Shanley's Doubt was dominating the 2007-2008 professional season. Three groups were performing it in a four month span, with two of the shows opening within a week of each other. The first was in Lansing, the second in Detroit, and the third in Ann Arbor. While these are somewhat spread apart in distance, they are all within an hour of each other and there is some overlap in audience between the three groups.

During this discussion, we agreed that we would each see all three shows and then do some sort of joint discussion comparing the three productions. We didn't know what form that would take when we started, but we eventually turned to our respective blogs: Don's Confessions of a Cranky Critic and my Front Row Lansing.

This week--on April Fool's Day to be specific--we began a week-long blogfest comparing the three productions. On Tuesday, we independently created our own all-star casts drawn from the three productions. On Wednesday, we revealed which of the three productions we thought was the best. On Thursday, we discussed whether the priest was guilty or innocent--and came up with different answers for each of the three productions. Finally, today, we arranged to have a live chat free-for-all and post the transcript on our blog.

We didn't come up with the idea for a live chat until the last minute, so our invitation for our readers to join us didn't get out until less than 24 hours before the lunchtime chat--not really enough time to give people notice. However, both the director of the BoarsHead show and the BoarsHead artistic director was able to join us.

It was a fun way to look at theater in a larger context than an individual show and we had a lot of fun discussing our different takes on the show. It's something we're both planning to do again, though we're still brainstorming what the next topic will be.
April 4, 2008 12:29 PM | | Comments (4)



We've been getting really good feedback about it. One organization wrote about it in their newsletter. At another show, someone came up to Don and told him he thought the exchange was some of the best, in-depth theater criticism he's seen locally for a long time.

I liked the discussion aspect of it--plus we had plenty of time to really think about the shows, given that we saw them over several months.

this is a really great idea! I can imagine a confluence of ideas happening like some sort of Criticpalozza!

Seriously though, criticism can be so sporadic and seems to be undertaken by freelancers more and more that it seems like great idea to get together and share ideas. I'll have to mull this one over some more as it strikes me as just tremendous concept!

Thanks Suzi! We really had a great deal of fun doing it and are already brainstorming ideas for our next collaboration. We didn't get a lot of comments on our blog, but we have heard people talking about it. The one theater (whose show hasn't closed yet) also quoted us extensively in a marketing piece that went out over e-mail to all their subscribers.

We really do have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to critics in this town. I've enjoyed every collaboration I've been able to do so far. Back in December, I did a radio show with a fellow critic where we looked at the year in review. A few months before that, I was on a symposium of critics at the local university. That one was fun because the audience (including the actors who came out after the performance of the huge cast show) was able to ask questions, and they did!

I loved the Hedwig review! Wasn't that an amazing show? I love how you brought in both a music and a theater person to do it.

All of these things, I think, can make coverage more interesting to readers.

Bridgette, this is the coolest damn idea. We don't have a ton o' critics (two? maybe three for the daily and five of us [two staffers, including me, and three freelancers] for my paper), but this is just, like, such a great idea. Of course, we don't get that kind of overlap in Eugene although the Oregon Shakespeare Fest did On the Razzle last year, and a community theater company in Eugene has it right now, but those are not really comparable because of the vast disparities in funding and professional experience.

When the other arts editor and I both attended a Hedwig production here (she's the popular music person, which was kind of important ... ), we did a sort of IM-like dialogue as our review. A bit stilted since IM certainly doesn't use full sentences, but fun. Here 'tis, should you want to read.

I've wanted a "theater summit" for a while, but recent events (about which I will post on Monday) have gotten in the way. Still, I don't quite know what to do about getting the daily folks involved. There's a fulltime "high arts" guy, whose beat closely matches mine, and there are the freelance reviewers. I think the daily emphasizes, er, the positive in its reviews, and I tend to be ... one of the theaters' general manager described me today as "honest." But it would be good if we could meet each other and describe to our (admittedly small) audiences why and how we do what we do. At least I think it would be good. As in, "This is what I look for as a theater critic and why I think it matters." Lunchtime chat sounds like a great place for that!

I just got back from the second night of really long plays. Both of them had first acts that lasted around 70 minutes, but one was agonizingly long, and the other only grew tedious at the very end. I long for more people to talk to about why. Yes, even other critics. (After we post our separate reviews.)

Thanks, Bridgette, for great ideas. — Suzi

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