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.