Anthony J. Piccione
I love playwriting, and the creative rush I get from writing so many plays – and often, seeing them produced – is practically what I live for. I’m also a theatre critic, and thus have the chance to see a diverse range of shows and offer my analysis and opinions of them. Depending on which person you talk to, if they’re familiar with my writing, they might know that I’m a playwright and a critic, but they may know me better for being one over another. There also may be some who know me only as a playwright, but have never read any of my reviews; or perhaps they’ve seen my past reviews of shows, but are totally unfamiliar with my work as a playwright.
I’ve heard some people argue that it is hard, if not downright impossible, for an active playwright – or for that matter, an actor or director – to be an objective critic in the same industry that they are working in. Indeed, while I go into every show with the intent of providing readers with as fair and as accurate of a review as possible, regardless of who may be in the show, I’ll admit that I myself am aware of how people might think this about active playwrights who are critics. Nonetheless, at the end of this day, I think such a blanket statement about all playwright/critics couldn’t be more wrong.
While not all artists or critics are created equal, I believe it is absolutely possible for someone to be active as a playwright and still be an objective critic. If anything, I think it can often be an aspect that makes one a better, more informed critic, as opposed to one who hasn’t had much of a background as an artist themselves.
Any critic who reviews a show ought to have a good understanding of what makes a good play, in terms of the text itself. Most playwrights will tell you that the bulk of our time working is spent not simply on writing dialogue, but before that on creating outlines and storylines, and after that, on massive amounts of rewrites, cuts, and additions until we finally feel we’ve reached the closest we can to a perfect play. Aside from perhaps a dramaturge, few others can relate to that, better than the playwright. The reality is that simply reading and analyzing a script, while it can help give one a good understanding, it cannot compare to the work that experienced writers do, as they pursue the quest of creating a wonderful story for theatergoers and critics alike to enjoy.
Not only that, but another point worth mentioning is that, like anyone in such an important position in any industry, any qualified critic of theatre ought to come with some degree of expertise in all aspects of the art form. While I can’t speak for all playwrights, I think I speak for the vast majority of us when I say that – at some point or another, in our careers – we’ve spent time not only writing plays, but also acting in them, directing them, stage managing or assisting with them, ushering them, etc. Is it necessary to have been in all of these positions, as a critic? Not necessarily. It doesn’t hurt, though, when you’re trying to give an informed opinion and analysis of how others handled each of these individual aspects of the production.
Then, there’s not only the expertise of the art or even of the production process, but of the ins and outs of the industry itself. I can understand why it might be controversial for a critic to have ties to others in the industry, but as long as those ties don’t get in the way of preventing an honest assessment of the production, and there’s a way of proving that’s the case, I find it refreshing to get the informed opinion of someone who has themselves been in the shoes of the artist, and perhaps might be familiar with the realities of what’s going on in the industry that they are critiquing. Of course, no matter what the situation, you always want to provide an honest assessment of the show, what you thought of it, and who amongst the readers may or may not like it. Yet fairness matters, too, and it’s important to also provide a reader with context on the company and the artists presenting the work, who they are, and what they may have been trying to do with the piece. It’s not impossible to reconcile those two responsibilities, as far as I’m concerned.
Furthermore, let’s be honest: While this isn’t true in all cases, the reason many of us come to love watch theatre in the first place is because, at one point or another in our lives – even if it was just through school or community theatre – we were ourselves involved in theatre as more than just an audience member. With that in mind, in the case of critics who review anything other than Broadway theatre, where exactly should a line be drawn? Does everyone first need to be required to move to another community? Should there be a certain period of time away from the stage that should be enforced? Even in the case of many commercial Off-Broadway and regional theaters, there is always the potential for overlap, in terms of actors who may also be involved in so-called “amateur productions”. It would seem that these are all things that can be resolved by enforcing – either on the part of the news outlet, or the critic themselves – some form of ethical conduct that ensures responsibility, without necessarily forcing the critic to distance themselves from being involved in theatre, in other capacities.
Now, are there bad, petty critics out there who can’t always be objective in their reviews? Yes, of course! Anyone’s personal feelings regarding a certain individual, show, or style of theatre, even if they’re not an artist, could easily get in the way of someone being able to go a good job at critiquing a show. That’s arguably true even for critics working for the New York Times. Yet even when you put that aside, the idea that just because someone is themselves an actor/director/playwright/etc. they’re bound to have a skewed view of certain or any shows is absurd. There’s very little concrete evidence that suggests that that’s true, the vast majority of the time.
Obviously, anyone who is clearly failing to give an honest review should be terminated from their position right away, and ideally, if you’re also an artist, you should also set personal standards for yourself that you think will help ensure that there are no potential conflicts of interest that would lead to bad analysis and criticism being given to readers. For me, one example would be to recuse myself, so to speak, from reviewing any particular shows in a festival that I myself have a play currently involved in, while that particular production is going on. On that same token, as a playwright, I also never have any press releases or review invites sent to OnStage Blog for my own shows, for obvious reasons. For others, it may or may not mean a similar practice of not reviewing shows at companies that one has a currently existing relationship with. In any case, of course, what matters is that there is never any reason to believe that you are using your position simply for the sake of anything but providing readers with an honest and objective analysis of a theatrical production.
So while I’d certainly make sure to take a look at each critic’s history, as well as what they have to say about individual shows at individual theaters, there’s plenty of reason why newspapers and magazines should not only not be discouraged by critics also being artists, but should also perhaps give them extra consideration, because of that history. This is true not just for playwrights, but also for actors, directors, producers, designers, technicians, stage managers, dramaturges, and anyone else in theatre that I may be leaving out. Of course, it takes a certain level of responsibility on the critic’s part, and on the part of whoever hires them, to make sure they are always being fair and impartial, regardless of where they are reviewing a show. However, in most cases, there’s plenty reason to believe that the readers of this blog – and of other similar news outlets – will likely be getting a better informed opinion and analysis if it’s coming from someone who themselves is involved in the arts, contrary to what others might think.
Anthony J. Piccione is an award-winning playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the Hudson Guild Theatre, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His short drama “What I Left Behind” was named the NYWinterfest’s Best Short Play of 2018, while his avant-garde one-act “4 $tages” is set to premiere this summer at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.