A Critic’s Critic (Part 1) - What is a theatre critic’s job?

A Critic’s Critic (Part 1) - What is a theatre critic’s job?

Matthew Teague Miller

There was an incredible scene in last year’s Academy Award winning motion picture Birdman where Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, bumps into a theatre critic at a bar and has a showdown reminiscent of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

“What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic anyway?” Keating says in an almost stage whisper, “You just label everything.  That’s so F-ing lazy.  You’re a lazy F-er.”  (I admit that it sounds better rolling off of his tongue and with the actual naughty language) “You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”  Finally he punctuates, “There’s nothing in here about technique.  There’s nothing in here about structure.  There’s nothing in here about intentions.  It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions backed up by even crappier comparisons.  You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what… none of this costs you F-ing anything.  You risk nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing. Nothing.  Well I’m an F-ing actor.  This play cost me everything.”

Despite the fact that my wife and I watched the film in a nearly empty movie theatre in the middle of nowhere West Texas, I felt as though I could hear the applause of a million stage actors from various cities around the country.  The animosity that theatre practitioners feel towards theatre critics runs deep and is in no way a new phenomenon.  Nor is the practice of an artist attempting to respond to this “adversary” in his art.  As far back as 1663 Moliere wrote the creatively disguised titled short play called La Critique de l'école des femmes (which translated means Critique of the School for Wives), where Moliere basically tells his critics “you can hate on my play if you’d like but audiences love it… so shut up.”

It is easy to see why some can feel such distain for certain critics.  Theatre practitioners will spend large chunks of their lives pouring their hearts into something they care deeply about only to have a faceless writer sit behind their note pad to write down and publish all of the things that they have done wrong. Even someone on trial for murder has the opportunity to look their accuser in the eyes but we powerless theatre folk are left with nothing but the black and white words on a page or screen.  Someone going online and publically sharing all of the things that they don’t like about you… isn’t that what we call cyber bulling?  How different would reviews be if the critic had to present their opinions to the creative company who worked on a show?  Or better yet, what if every theatre maker got to write criticism of the theatre critic the way that he/she wrote about us (makes me think of Alec Baldwin's response to Ben Brantley in 2013).

As a producer, I feel like I understand the need for theatre critics.  Few things result in a bump in ticket sales the way that a good review does.  While I understand those who refuse to read them, I still read every single thing published about a show that I direct, act in or produce.  I use good quotes from critics in my portfolio, on my website and (when my producer hat is on) in my marketing.  Lots of time when a review of something that I have worked on comes out less than favorable, I smile to myself and think, “you’re right… we never had time to fix that.”  Last summer following a production of Cats that I directed a reviewer commented that they loved everything in the show but one costume which, he said, made one of the characters look too much like Fred Flintstone… I literally laughed out loud when I read it because he was absolutely right (and it was a good thing that he had not seen the costume a few days earlier when the costume designer and I were experimenting with making that character one of those terrifying hairless cats… Flintstone was a major upgrade). 

All of this begs one central question… what is a Theatre Critic’s job supposed to be and what is their role in the evolving world of the theatre? 

When “theatre critic” is typed into Google, the first thing that comes up is the following definition “Theatre criticism is a genre of art criticism, and the act of writing or speaking about the performing arts such as a play or opera.”  There are not too many job descriptions that are as vague as that!  It also seems that there are as many different versions of theatre critics as there are actual theatre critics (perhaps a breakdown of the major types will make an appropriate article down the line “The executioner type” versus “The pep talker” that sort of thing… lets see how many hits we get on this article first).

My favorite theatre critic job description comes from long time New York/New Jersey writer Peter Filichia.  When asked about what he thinks a theatre critic’s job is Filichia says “Not everyone agrees with me, but I say critics should let people know what they’d enjoy.  I endeavor to be an audience matchmaker.  Most of my reviews are positive because I specifically slant them to the people who will enjoy a certain show.”  

Now I want to take a moment for full disclosure.  I have known Peter for nearly twenty years.  He serves as critic-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where I received my BFA in Musical Theatre and over time has become one of my favorite people in the world.

“I see no reason why critics should only give their own opinions.  They’re writing for an audience.  It’s about the reader.  It’s not about me.  I don’t care if I have a good time or not.  I am there to determine who will like this show,” Filichia says.  “I see myself more as a consumer advocate, which a critic should be, given that I’m being I’m read by would-be consumers who are very careful before making a purchase of an item that is a terrible expensive: a theater ticket.”

Ben Brantley, who writes for the New York Times and is arguably the most powerful theatre critic on the planet, says “I’ve seen plays that are, objectively, total messes that move me in ways that their tidier brethren do not.  That’s the romantic mystery of great theater.  Translating this ineffability into printable prose is a challenge that can never be fully met” (New York Times 9-9-08).  

The last sentence is striking and seems like something Brantley himself would challenge if said by a theatre maker.  Should the people who get a bad review from him get the opportunity to defend their work or, at the very least, get to say that “Translating the ineffability of life and putting it onto the stage proved to be a challenge that we struggled to meet with this project?”  This, remember, is the same writer who opened his 2008 review of Little Mermaid by saying, “Loved the shoes.  Loathed the show.  O.K. I exaggerate.  I didn’t like the shoes all that much” (New York Times 1-10-08).   Should Sebastian have had the opportunity to explain why, in fact, his shoes were a very good choice for his character?

Mr. Brantley recently told me, “I think a critic's role is to recreate as fully (but efficiently) as possible his/her experience of the show that's being written about. And there should always be -- to use a sorely overused word -- transparency. By that, I mean the reader should have a clear grasp not only of the critic's opinion but also a sense of the show itself, beyond the framework of the critic's subjective tastes.”  Brantley continued, “When a critic reviews, it's important that he/she consider the potential audience for the show, the ambitions of the company putting it on and -- no small point -- the price of the ticket. So, no you [would not] judge a school theater production by the same standards you would a Broadway show that costs well over a hundred dollars” (GREAT last point!  We have all experienced the small town critic who thinks he/she is writing for Broadway… likewise, we have all experienced the small town actor who thinks he/she is performing there too).

Without a clear job description, it makes complete sense that there are no clear job qualifications either.  Should a theatre critic be a theatre expert who can analyze a production using well-educated theatre theory like the Birdman wanted?  Or is a critic a professional audience member who goes to the theatre and gives us a breakdown about whether or not he/she enjoyed something?  Brantley is a terrific writer (I disagree with Alec Baldwin on that matter) but when I told my students that his B.A. was in English and not Theatre, half of them raised their eyebrows and the other half cocked their head to one side like a dog trying to understand their English-speaking owner.  Most NFL analysts are former players and coaches but the people who we allow to judge our work on a public stage are not required to have any background or expertise in the area (this is probably not the best reading audience for that comparison, I acknowledge that).  On the flip side, theatre is not performed for audiences filled with theatre experts so why should they be the ones critique it?

One more thing that Brantley said was  “Critics will always exist in some form, even if only as the people who discuss the play on the way home from the theater. Whether official (and salaried) or casual, critics are helpful, if not essential, in that they create a conversation about the theater.”  I think he is right.  And conversation about theatre, a theatrical experience or the themes of a theatrical production is, at its core, why theatre exists.  Not to entertain, not to teach and not to dazzle but rather to engage a live audience and, hopefully, provoke that audience to engage with one another afterwards.  That is why we perform it live and watch it in public.

What are your thoughts about a theatre critic’s role in theatre?  Please comment below.   All I ask is that you are respectful critics.  


-Birdman Excerpt

- The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.

-The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.

Photo: Broadwaybox.com

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