Blogger-Critics, Artist-Critics, and Documentation: ATHE 2010

12 08 2010

As a PhD student, I attend a fair number of scholarly conferences. Last week, I attended and presented at ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education), whose 2010 conference was themed Theatre Alive: Theater, Media, and Survival. Taking place in the cultural hotbed of Los Angeles, the conference sought to tease out the ever-complicated relationship between theater and new media:

Theatre in higher education has never been at a more precarious point. Economic challenges face all of higher education and arts are often the first to suffer significant cuts and even elimination. While theatre educators take pride in the interdisciplinary nature of our discipline, theatre programs have often operated as reluctant partners of, or separate from, programs that teach media arts. In an era of dwindling resources, how do we keep our field vital and alive to our students, embrace our partners in related media and other fields, and strengthen the significance and impact of theatre across the academic landscape?

As an active part of the Music Theatre / Dance group, I attended several panels on – what else? – the shifting place of theater criticism in the age of the blogger-critic. I thought I would share a few notes and follow-up thoughts.

On the panel Broadway and the Critics, Thomas Connolly – a theater professor at Suffolk University – mourned the silencing of the Broadway critic in print publications. Connolly recalled the heyday of theater criticism, from Brooks Atkinson’s “relaxed, detached, authoritative but not assertive” reviews in the 1930s-60s to Walter Kerr and Clive Barnes in the 50s and 60s. Theater gossip, news, and reviews received extensive coverage in print during this era. Yet today, criticism has increasingly become an “adjunct” rather than an essential part of the newspaper. Writers are often expected to cover “the arts” in general and cannot specialize. (To play devil’s advocate, I want to point out the danger of too much specialization, particularly when reviewing interdisciplinary arts. Why are music critics sent to opera and theater critics sent to musicals? Why not theater critics at opera, music critics at musicals, or dance critics at either? Shouldn’t a critic of these interdisciplinary works have at least some working knowledge of all the arts involved?) Connolly is also frustrated with the increasing pressure on arts critics to write feature articles as well as criticism. He wonders if interviewing and mingling with the practitioners taints good, “objective” criticism. We will come back to this conflict-of-interest question in a bit.

While the extent of arts coverage in print is tragically declining, other ATHE participants find hope in the blogosphere. On the panel Broadcasting and Blogging Broadway: Talk Shows, Tony Awards and Cybercriticism, Playgoer Garrett Eisler – currently pursuing a PhD in Theatre at CUNY – pointed out at least five ways in which the Internet has transformed Broadway:

  1. Ticket sales
  2. Marketing (from individual show websites to social networking)
  3. Fan sites (run by independent fans)
  4. Chatrooms and message boards
  5. Bloggers

In contrast to critics who are employed by a media outlet, Eisler defines bloggers as unaffiliated or independent theater critics. (The NY TimesLA Times, and other major newspaper sites often include a “blog” for more casually-written, immediate arts news and reviews that may not be published in print – but this is distinguishable from Eisler’s concept of the independent blogger-critic.) Eisler is another testament to the increasing presence of theater scholars online: qualified to be critics, yet blogging instead of working for a traditional print publication. Quite simply, medium does not dictate the quality of the message.

Eisler is also interested in the possibility of “peers critiquing peers” through blogging: practitioners commenting on one another’s work, or artist-critics. Authors often review one another’s work in major print publications: why should theater practitioners be barred from doing the same? (Even more radically, why should we draw a line between the blogger-critic and the artist-critic?)

Connolly might consider peers critiquing peers a serious conflict of interest, since even mingling with practitioners seems to be a questionable practice in his idealistically “objective” world of theater criticism. The collaborative nature of theater versus the independent process of writing could be another argument against the artist-critic; the artist could easily end up collaborating with whomever he is critiquing on a future project, whereas an author is more traditionally a separate, individual artist. But if we are engaged in the art of constructive criticism (rather than intentionally malicious and destructive criticism), why shouldn’t a practitioner share a valuable and intelligent comment on a fellow practitioners’ work? Ideally, a constellation of critiques provokes discussion and allows us to work collectively towards an improvement of our art.

These two ATHE panels were valuable – but do you notice a trend? Broadway and the Critics. Blogging and Broadcasting Broadway. Living in and attending the conference in LA attuned me to this Broadway bias of many Music Theatre / Dance panels, particularly those on criticism. While print criticism may be declining, there is no great dearth of theater criticism for Broadway: even Charles McNulty travels to the Great White Way to cover new productions for the LA Times. Blogging about Broadway – whether as a critic, artist, or both – amplifies this consistent mainstream coverage; it offers an array of valuable alternative perspectives. But for me, the question of blogging and criticism becomes most interesting on the margins and in the voids: off- and off-off-Broadway, the 99-and-under theaters in LA, and in other cities and small venues throughout the world.

Returning to the theme of the conference – Theatre Alive: Theater, Media, and Survival – brings me to a question of documenting performance. Scholars traditionally delve through library archives of rehearsal scripts, drafts, production notes, playbills, videos, reviews, and more when tackling a new research project. Yet these documents only ever supplement the original performance; they point to the original, but can never fully capture it. I like the idea of constellations to describe documentation of performance: the documents form a pattern and outline, but never fill in all the gaps. As the archive goes digital, blogging helps to flesh out the “authorized” documentation with new and different perspectives, filling in a few more of those gaps in the constellation of any given performance. With arts criticism increasingly cut from print, blogging could even be the only documentary means of survival for many performances. So my fellow bloggers, keep writing!

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