By Suzy Evans
Kris Vire, Time Out Chicago theater editor, started an interesting conversation on his personal blog this week about the role of theater critics. While not a new topic by any means, the debate gains interesting perspective in the recession. (However, it doesn't change anything.)
Vire’s post responded to a comment on Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones’ review of Route 66’s High Fidelity, the Broadway flop based on the John Cusack movie and Nick Hornby novel. Although I have not read Jones’ review (I have yet to write my own), I assume from the comment that he did not recommend the show. Commenter “allison” wrote that in a time when theaters across the country are suffering, critics should champion theater in their communities to help save art. However, Vire had something else to say:
Part of what a Chicago theater critic is charged to do is to support and encourage good theater in this town. It does no one any good to encourage bad theater…The absolute WORST thing we can do as critics is to be soft on a show we didn't enjoy because people worked so hard on it.Just because we’re in a recession doesn’t mean critics should promote and congratulate poor theater - that would simply exacerbate the problem. Audiences would go to these “bad” shows, and subsequently, they would get mad at the critic for recommending they spend their hard-earned money on something that wasn’t worth it. As a result, these audiences would lose trust in the critics, who would eventually be out a job. Journalists and critics don’t have the greatest job security at the moment either. In fact, Vire wrote an earlier post on his blog about how arts journalists aren’t any better off than actors, a scary but truthful insight.
Now, that’s not to say that critics should shell out heartless quips just so people will read them. Of course it’s fun to write and read a slam, but an unmerited critique isn’t helping anybody. The relationship between a theater artist and a critic should be symbiotic, as Travis Bedard, an Austin, Texas-based artistic director, eloquently pointed out on his blog in response to Vire.
It is in my best interest to have as rigorous a review of my work as I can get. I may discard some of it as not useful to my future work or as an outlier in reference to this work. But if it’s all going to simply be treacley appreciation for “how hard I tried” I will never be one whit better tomorrow than I am today.Nicely said.
As critics and journalists, we want to know what we can be doing better too. If you think a newspaper is doing a bad job, do you buy it just to save journalism? No. So if you don’t like a show, should you praise it just to save the arts? We’re all trying to make it in a tough economic climate and compromising our values wouldn’t be helping anybody.