Critical Case Study #2: Cognitive Dissonance (and room for growth)

I have to say, dear reader, I did not anticipate this kind of reception.

It’s been some time since you’ve heard from me. When last I wrote–when I started this blog–I had a fire under my ass, a fire sparked by the now-infamous Zinman review and fed by the frustration and fatigued that had been smoldering for months. Since then, the flames of that fire have cooled–but just as I began to settle back into my usual critical fatigue, you found me.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support, the criticism, and the conversation that’s been generated around this blog. It inspires me to know that so many people saw what I wrote while I was seeing read and thought that, within it, there was something worthwhile. I doubt (or rather I hope) that I’ll never be that angry again, but seeing the surge of discussions about the role of the theatre critic, I feel less angry but no less passionate, and am truly excited to write more.


About two weeks ago, Wendy Rosenfield (another theatre critic prominent in Philadelphia) wrote an article about, aptly enough, the role of the theatre critic. In it, she focuses on criticism as calling out, as initiating and participating in conversation about how specific productions and specific plays contribute to the larger social and political conditions of the culture in which they’re performed:

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art.

Rosenfield’s article itself is sort of a review of reviewers, and one I find satisfying in many ways. Critics should inspire conversation, and should challenge the form they participate in. When critics ask “why this play, why now,” (as Rosenfield puts it) they compel audiences and artists alike to reconsider and recontextualize a play within the current socio-politico-economic-historical climate of the city they’re in, the country they’re in, the world they’re in. Plays cannot be performed in a “cultural vacuum;” what makes a play resonant in its original era of production refracts over time, and each time a play is remounted, it should be located within the climate of its remounting. That is what allows a play–and theatre–to transcend temporality: its ability to resonate with something primal, human, timeless.

And yet, dear reader, there’s something odd about this article. It’s not the sentiment: criticism is vital to the continued invigoration of art. It’s the strident dismissal of the critic’s participation in attracting a theatre audience–or, as Rosenfield puts it, “You want butts in seats? Not my problem.” Certainly critics should not be bound to promote specific institutions; to be so would be slavish, self-congratulatory, completely against the critic’s responsibility to challenge the form. But to reject the critic’s role in involving audiences in the conversation of the play outright–well, frankly, it rings false.

I’m drawn to one of the comments on Rosenfield’s article, made by longtime Philadelphia theatre critic Dan Rottenberg. “Where is it written that critics are obligated to ‘advocate for the kind of theatre that reflects our surroundings?'” he asks. “To me, the test is to apply Wendy’s rule to some other forms of criticism. Are political columnists obliged to serve the cause of good government? Are business columnists obligated to improve the economy? Are sportswriters obligated to serve the cause of sport?” Strange as these questions are (what else political columnists would feel obligated to serve–apolitical government? fascist dictatorship?), I’m drawn to them, dear reader, because Rosenfield herself asked almost exactly the same questions almost two months ago.

Jill Dolan–The Feminist Spectator–published an article in early January discussing the backlash Polly Carl, director of HowlRound, received after asking critics, casual and professional, to be “nicer,” drawing from the concept of “critical generosity” that Dolan had outlined previously.  This particular article takes a feminist approach to criticism, particularly regarding the gendered implications of the word “nice;” ultimately Dolan asks our critics for “kindness and [sic] rigor,” for critics to “take care [sic]” with the work they review.

In the comments, Rosenfield asks (and answers) almost the exact same questions as Rottenberg:

Do political analysts have a responsibility to be critically generous with politicians? Do sports analysts need to be gentle to the athletes whose performances they critique? No, they don’t; they have to know what they’re talking about, use that knowledge to analyze what they’ve seen, put it in some sort of context, and, in the best case, this analysis will generate discussion in the public sphere.

Rosenfield and Rottenberg are essentially asking what kind of impact criticism has for any specific field on a larger scale. Right now, Rosenfield’s answer is one of issuing challenges and inspiring investigation–but there’s a distinct cognitive dissonance between assuming the responsibility of invigorating a form, yet refusing to acknowledge how integral your participation is to the preservation of that form.

The reason that sports analysts and political commentators and business columnists don’t feel “obliged” to work kindly and generously toward the betterment of their field is that they work within fields in which their criticism inspires growth, and thus their criticism works towards that inherently. Political criticism, business criticism, athletic criticism–all of these things both inspire audiences to become more involved in that particular field and challenge active participants of that field to reconsider, revise, resolve.

The reason that Rosenfield and Rottenberg, as critics of theatre specifically and art more broadly, should feel “obliged” to work kindly and generously toward the betterment of your field, is because their criticisms and others like them are wielded as weapons to dismiss a form constantly struggling to justify its worth.

Very few people refuse to watch a football game because a sports analyst offered a scathing critique of its racial politics. It is basically impossible not to participate in the economy–there’s always going to be some product you can’t make on your own. And, if anything, I would argue that the abundance of political criticism has only made people more politically aware, if not active. But every day, people find reasons to label theatre as useless, indulgent, wasteful, antiquated, worthless. Dismissive criticism breeds dismissive audiences; dismissive audience breed to dismissive donors; dismissive audiences and dismissive donors lead to death–not to mention unemployed theatre critics.

Rosenfield, Rottenberg, and countless others like them are members of the PR department of every piece of theatre out there. Right now, that is how they are perceived, and that is how their jobs are constructed Their reviews are among the first things the average person turns to in order to decide what’s worth seeing–in this cultural climate, their criticisms are currency. From Rosenfield’s scoffing, I assume that’s not the way they want their work to be perceived; I can’t imagine anyone wants to see their work as a piece of consumer fodder. But, rather than thrusting that designation away, I urge them to embrace it–and use it as a means of changing the way audiences talk about theatre. I can’t put it better than Dolan herself:

I believe that we need to take care with the work we see and engage, to honor the impulse that produced it; to see it in a broad context of social relevance and meaning; to consider it through a variety of aesthetic and taste traditions; and whether or not we “like” it, not to dismiss it out of hand, even when we see its flaws and failures. That’s what I mean by critical generosity.  Word count and daily deadlines shouldn’t excuse derogatory dismissal.

Critics should create conversations, rather than making their work cut and dried. Invite audiences in; don’t let them feel comfortable staying home. Their role in art is important: they help people remember art exists, and play an invaluable role in convincing people to consider it. When they write criticism that draws lines in the sand and polarizes art into “good” and “bad,” they simply aren’t filling that role.

Right now, thoughtful, well-meaning critics killing theatre, which is struggling (valiantly) to thrive without their support. But those critics have every tool available to nurse theatre back to life.

Critical Case Study #1: A Brutal Lack of Investment

Enough with the niceties. Time for some fightin’ words.

Two days ago, Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed a production of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water By The Spoonful. Ms.  Zinman is somewhat renowned in the Philadelphia community for her less-than-gracious approach to theatre, but this particular review, dear reader, so perfectly epitomizes everything that’s wrong with American theatre criticism that I simply have to punch it in the face.

First of all, Ms. Zinman seems to have come into this play willfully knowing nothing about it. There is something to be said for viewing a play with fresh eyes: if you know everything about it, can you be objective about it? Can you experience the play as a novice audience member, as many audience members will be? And that’s all well and good. But to be a thoughtful theatre critic, it’s integral that you know something about the play. Maybe not the plot, or all of the characters, but maybe a little something about its history–say, in the case of Water By The Spoonful, that the play is the second installment in Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. Or that the play is set in Philadelphia because Hudes grew up in Philadelphia. Or that the play itself is semi-biographical, its characters modeled after people in Hudes’ own family. Theatres tend to provide little snippets of information like that to even its most novice audience members, through program notes or marketing blurbs or weekly teasers on Facebook. And with a play as prominent as Water By The Spoonful, it’s hard to believe that an audience member might come in with literally no knowledge of what was to come, even if that knowledge comes from reading the program seconds before the curtain rises.

And yet beliefs are made to be cruelly and unapologetically disproved. For instead, Madam Zinman, throwing caution and surely numerous opportunities for casual education to the wind, came to the play expecting it to be about… wait for it… the global water crisis. Because of the title. In and of itself this isn’t such a bad thing–but what makes it a cardinal sin is that Madam Zinman, rather than accepting the play for what it is (a play about community and recovery and loss and pain and family and stuff), decided her version was better.

“Consider the recent chemical tainting of residential water in West Virginia,” she pouts, apparently unaware that Hudes, writing Water By The Spoonful three years ago, could not possibly have been able to calibrate her play’s relevance to an event that happened three weeks ago. “Consider the drought and raging wild fires in California. Consider that more than 1.2 billion people on earth now live without a reliable source of fresh water.  Then consider that this play is about a bunch of crack addicts who do awful things and are, with the exception of Hudes’ recurring character Elliot, utterly boring and unsympathetic characters.”

Set aside for a moment that, apparently, in Miz Zinman’s mind some problems and people are more worthy of being shown onstage than others, and that if Miz Zinman had done even a casual Google search she would have been able to avoid this absolutely insane conjecture. Consider instead that Miz Zinman is essentially rejecting Water By The Spoonful not because of its problems as a text, or because of faults in the production, but because it isn’t about what she decided it should be about. In doing this, she falls into the trap many critics fall into: dismissing something because it isn’t what they thought or decided it would be.

When critics do this, it is unbelievably unfair to the play and to the production. It is a critic’s responsibility to approach a play and a production as if it were a small planet. As a critic, you have to approach every play thinking everything is intentional, set aside your preconceptions, and allow yourself to fully experience the play as translated by the production. Then you can ask what strikes you, what confuses you, what sticks, what slips away. You cannot–you can not–demand that the playwright rewrite an entire play because you have a bee in your bonnet and you feel misled by the title.

That could have ended the discussion. I could have been content to contain my fury at that offense. But Miz Zinman takes her complete and utter disdain for her profession a step further by blatantly refusing to pay attention to the play she’s reviewing. One by one, Dame Zinman rattles off a laundry list of the characters (as if that’s supposed to reveal anything about the play), boiling them down to a few words:  Chutes&Ladders plays it safe, Fountainhead’s a rich addict, “Yazmin (Amia Desanti) is the sanctimonious rich white girl who is, in ways I couldn’t follow, Elliot’s cousin/romantic interest/best friend.”

Stop right there and shut your mouth, Zinman. Yazmin is not white, nor is she rich, nor is she Elliot’s romantic interest. She is–as is expcitly stated in the play, both in casual conversation and in monologues that are crucial to the character’s development–Elliot’s Puerto Rican cousin who grew up poor and married rich and struggles with that rift in her identity. If Zinman had bothered to engage with the play she was supposed to be reviewing, she would have been able to “follow” Yazmin’s nuanced, tender relationship with Elliot–and maybe would have been able to follow the play, global water crisis or no.

Zinman can’t even be bothered to get the actor’s name right. The actor who plays Yazmin is not “Amia Desanti,” a woman who does not exist even according to the Internet; it’s Maia Desanti, seen all around Philly from InterAct Theatre Company’s MicroCrisis to Angels in America at the Wilma. I can hear you now, dear reader: “It’s just a typo, Critic Crusader! It doesn’t mean anything!” But that typo means that not only was Zinman careless enough to let her article go to press without doing even a simple Google search to check her facts, but the Inquirer was careless enough to let it go to print. That speaks volumes for the lack of interest the Inquirer has in this subject, and the lack of care Zinman takes in her reviews.

Zinman is allowed to dislike this production. She is allowed to dislike this play. She is allowed to think whatever she wants–but she has a responsibility to talk about the play thoughtfully. What she does instead is talk about it brusquely, reductively, and disrespectfully. Essentially, what M’damn Zinman’s review boils down to is a brutal lack of investment. She can’t be bothered to meet the play halfway; she can’t be bothered to think about what the play itself might have been trying to do; she can’t be bothered to consider the piece she saw as the product of a play and a specific production; she can’t be bothered to consider the play as anything other than how it relates to her specific perspective. People–potential audience members who might have different reactions–are going to read this review knowing nothing about the play and decide it’s not worth seeing because it’s not about what M’Damn Zinman thought it should be, and who wants to watch that Amia Desanti be a sanctimonious white girl anyway. This is the type of criticism that stifles conversation. This is the type of criticism that kills art.

She should be ashamed of herself for writing such vitriolic dreck, and for her critical complacency. There’s a way to criticize plays without cutting them at the knees for your capricious satisfaction.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet (and laying down some ground rules)

There’s a problem with the way we look  at theatre.

It’s not that a lot of people don’t like theatre, or “get” theatre, or haven’t been “educated” enough to “get” theatre. It’s not that theatre is too highbrow, or too intellectual, or too expensive. All of those are separate and important problems, but they boil down to one thing: the gatekeepers of theatre don’t know how to talk about theatre.

Theatre critics are the people who stand between the play and the people. They’re the ones you trust to tell you what’s going on, whether it’s “worth” seeing. They’re the ones who experience the play as the every-audience member, approximating every person’s potential experience with their own. And precious few of them know how to write about theatre in a way that does justice to that responsibility. They know how to shred it apart or put it on a pedestal; they know how to sound quippy and incisive and cruel; but ultimately, most theatre reviews are next to useless, aesthetic click bait for news outlets to publish online in hopes of seeming cultured.

It’s not totally the critics’ fault. A lot of it is how undervalued theatre is in America, or how few words critics are allotted to talk about the things they see. But it’s also how unprepared critics are to talk about theatre as an art form. They go into a play expecting it to be like a movie, or unwilling to contribute to the cycle between art and audience that is essential to art’s continued existence. With an ill-formed phrase or an ignorant brush-off, they condemn a play to ignominy and kill its chances at circulation.

With this blog, dear reader, I seek to chip away at these problems. Keystroke by keystroke, I will challenge those reviews which tear theatre down rather than allow it to grow, and dare critics to be better.

I predicate my criticism of critics on the absolutely astounding Elinor Fuchs essay Visit to a Small Planet.” The essay asks any “visitor”/reader of a play to take in the play as a totally objective observer, and learn the “rules” of that planet. What do you think the play is trying to do? What is the reality of this play? And as you try to work the play out, try to work out the process of your working it out. When does the play confuse you? When does it move you? Why? Regardless of whether you like it or not, your job as a reader, first and foremost, is to try and understand what the play is before you check in with what it does for or to you.

This blog is pretentious, dear reader. It’s high-falutin. It’s probably mostly going to be wrong. But I read these reviews and I watch the opportunity these critics are squandering and I want to rip something apart. Because critics can do better. They must do better. American theatre deserves and should demand that they do better.