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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Theatre Trade Pubs

My friend Karen McKevitt over at Theatre Bay Area has launched an interesting discussion surrounding some anxious letters-to-the-editor appearing in this month's American Theatre magazine. The question essentially is: can you have honest and open criticism of artists and productions in what is essentially a trade publication?

Karen edits the Theatre Bay Area magazine, which represents and advocates for that region's theatres, so she appreciates the mission of American Theatre (an official publication of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade association of the country's LORT theatre companies) and the fine line it must walk between "cheerleading and relevancy," as she puts it. So good for her for raising the question,
Even though most of us can admit that sometimes our work is not up to par for any number of legitimate reasons or that our risks sometimes fail, do we still think that the job of the industry magazines is to completely disregard these facts and cheerlead instead? Or should the industry magazines paint a more multidimensional picture of the production, the person, etc.?
To me, the issue goes beyond assessing the merits of a particular show, but also must include allowing critical views of the profession itself, of LORT theatre practices, and of the effectiveness and raison d'etre of an org like TCG itself.

Hey, nothing wrong with trade publications. And we hardly expect, say, Cigar Afficianado, to remind us smoking causes cancer, do we. And frankly, this wouldn't be such an urgent question if we had five or ten nation-wide magazines devoted to theatre, all offering different perspectives and missions. But--if the one major national publication (and, no I'm not forgetting you guys at Playbill and Stage Directions)--shies away from self-criticism, then I believe we have a problem.

Karen's initial post led to some fruitful comments, and SF Weekly critic Chloe Veltman follows up as well, so check them out.


The EsoCritic said...

American Theater is less of a magazine and more of a newsletter. Its complete lack of criticism combined with its presumed mandate to promote its constituent theaters has long made it a good intention that is put into practice badly.

And it is sadly one of the reasons the American theater suffers. Think about it.

The Wall Street Journal obviously believes in capitalism and the so-called free enterprise system. And yet it has never been shy about criticizing the occasional business leader, corporation, economic policy, or even Republican. And there is no hand-wringing when it does so because the WSJ and those who read it take their industry seriously. It doesn't need a cheerleader or CPR coverage to remain relevant.

On a smaller scale, and a little closer to home, Backstage does a pretty good job at the balancing act. It features a few too many movie stars on its covers for my taste, but every issue eventually realizes its core readership is the struggling actor who is looking for an audition, agent, coach, etc. And in addition to employing theater critics (who will sometimes cover the plays their readers are in), they have an array of columnists and contributors who aren't afraid to target some people/practices in the field.

If we see the theater as a charity, an orphan, as something sympathetic but not quite useful, then others will believe us. But if we take it seriously and write and perform and work and CRITIQUE on behalf of others who do the same, then that's all the cheerleading we'll need.

Unfortunately for TCG, they would not survive under such a philosophy.

Suzy Evans said...

Criticism and theater go hand in hand. How else do we expect actors and entire companies to improve if honest and constructive criticism of their work is not provided by the people and publications that know them best? Now, that's not to say that American Theatre or Theatre Bay Area should start publishing Frank Rich style reviews or that a feature article is the right place for criticism.

An arts journalist is not a cheerleader nor is he/she a critic. American Theatre has published many interviews, columns and roundtables about the role of criticism. In the July/August issue, there was a roundtable about the changing role of arts criticism in an increasingly multimedia world. However, the emergence of twitter and blogging could mean that these trade publications might need to start providing a more critical perspective. An interesting example of an arts trade publication that does publish reviews is Dance Magazine. In my opinion, this section of the magazine helps rather than hurts the art form and gives the magazine a more complete perspective on its industry.