The Playgoer: Be Nice to Critics Day

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Be Nice to Critics Day

Old-Schooler Jeremy Gerard over at Bloomberg adds his ire to the Tony Awards' "defriending" of the NY critics from the voting pool. "Kicking my colleagues and me out of the club wasn’t just dumb," says he. "Along with the other choices made, the Tonys edge ever closer to irrelevancy" Couldn't agree more.

Also, two reviewers document their current forays into theatre-making for a change. Oddly, both David Cote and Terry Teachout are both premiering opera librettos! Who knew.

Teachout quotes this admonition from John Lahr:

Lahr raised a ruckus when he tartly pointed out that most of his colleagues on the aisles of Broadway "have no working experience of the theater, have not written a professional play, a sketch, or even a joke; have never worked in a theater, taken an acting class, or published any extended piece of work. They are creative virgins; everything they know about theater is book-learned and second-hand."

Lahr then went on to claim that criticism is "a life without risk; the critic is risking his opinion, the maker is risking his life. It's a humbling thought but important for the critic to keep it in mind -- a thought he can only know if he's made something himself."
As Terry says, "That's putting it a bit too strongly." But point taken.

Then again, Lahr--like many artists and many readers--probably underestimate the degree to which most critics have at least experienced the process of making theatre (beyond the high school level) even if they never achieved great heights or no longer practice.

Teachout lists many great critic-artists from the past, and I would add from, both past and present: Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Michael Feingold. Among my younger contemporaries: Alexis Soloski and Helen Shaw have both dramaturged and continue to do so periodically; Stevel Leigh Morris out in LA is a playwright; and, before he started writing operas, David Cote acted for years downtown, for Richard Foreman, among others.

There are doubtlessly others, so excuse me if I don't know everyone's background well enough.

As for me, while we're at it, I got an MFA in Directing, though never ended up doing much with it professionally (surprise!), and worked as a full time Literary Manager for a regional theatre for a couple of seasons before turning to writing and criticism more. I still harbor hopes of penning some literary adaptations (yes, playwriting's poor relation) and maybe even translations.

Point is, most people who give a damn about theatre to begin with either got that way from participating in it, or their passion for spectating has led them at some point in their secret past, at least, to tread the boards or make some such stab. Whether it "succeeded" or not is beside the point if what matters is a first-hand experience.

And rather than scorn such former or part-time artists under the cliche of "those who can't do, criticize," I prefer to believe that that little part of our brains that holds us back (for whatever reason) from being stars in our own right, might just be the x-factor gene that makes a good critic.

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