Should theater critics specialize?

First, let me say that the idea I’m going to propose below probably isn’t practical anymore.  Unfortunately for all of us, the number of theater critics has dwindled in recent years.  I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, “But Ken, I thought you’d be an advocate for less critics, and more of the popular voice!”  Regardless of how I feel critics affect or don’t affect the life of a show or regardless of whether or not I feel they echo the sentiment of the theater-going public, the fact is that the more critics there are, the more articles and therefore the more discussion there is about the theater.

One of my missions is to amplify the conversation about theater . . . and well, theater critics start that conversation everyday . . . so having less of them ain’t helping any of us.

Keeping theater in everyday conversation should be all of our goals, and critics help do that, whether or not we agree with them.

So pretend the papers and the media companies out there like The Times and The Post and NY1 had a few critics to choose from . . .

Wouldn’t it be more interesting and more accurate of an analysis if they specialized?

Theater is divided into three niches:  musicals, plays, and those that don’t belong in either category.

Musicals are very different from plays.  And classic plays are very different from contemporary ones.

So what would theater criticism be like if there was a reviewer of classical plays and a different reviewer of contemporary musicals?  Surely in other art forms there are these distinctions.  Does a classical music reviewer also review the latest Madonna album?  And since our world has the same sort of extremes between the commercial and the non, shouldn’t we be afforded a similar judgement?

This blog is a bit of a non-starter, because of the current plight of the critic.  We’re lucky we have critics at all, and despite the fact that we may disagree with them at times, we should all be lobbying for their survival.

But it does make me think . . . with an art form that has so many different subsets, how can we paint the most accurate pictures of their quality for our theater-going public?


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)



– Win 2 Tickets to New Mondays at the new hotspot,  54 Below.  Click here to enter!

– LA “Get Your Show Off the Ground” Seminar announced!  Click here for info.

– Win an iPad in our Tony Award Pool!  Click here to play!

  • Such an interesting idea. I run a statewide theatre review website with about 40 reviewers right now. I think the idea of specializing is very intriguing.

    We have certain reviewers I’ll send to Shakespeare productions, others I’ll send to Equity shows, and still others that I feel know how to write responses for community productions. But we haven’t gone quite to the extreme of saying Bob is our reviewer over New Plays, or Melissa is our specialist over contemporary musicals.

    Is there a benefit to that? Maybe.

    Does specialization build a better critic? Or does the need to respond to different genres do that?

    Very interesting conversation.

  • Alan Katz says:

    There has been much discussion over the critical sphere on the DC theater scene recently, particularly in the field of specialization. There are many different kinds of forays into specialization that artists in this city want. There is a push for the Helen Hayes Awards to recognize the split between smaller growing theater companies and big budget productions. But perhaps more curiously there’s a great want for critics to specialize in the time that they see a production. Critics in DC uniformly see a play very early in its run, which can give theaters that can afford long previews a better shot at perfecting a show. Specialization in form has been discussed as well, because we have so many companies and plays that fall into the “other” category (Synetic’s brilliant Silent Shakespeare, a plethora of Theater for Young Audiences, and a host of site-specific and interaction-oriented productions).

    However, the movement that interests me the most as a dramaturg is the re-purposing of the critic as a something more than someone who says whether or not a general audience member should see a show. An informed and fair critical voice is an essential component of new play development, giving playwright’s the useful feedback that is often lacking in misled talkbacks. Moreover, a critic who can consistently patronize a theater could be a great benefit for producers in season planning, by not only considering the show that they saw that night, but also how that show fits in the context of all of a theater’s programming. These are the kind of things that the Ben Brantleys and Peter Marks’ of the world may not be willing or able to do.

    • The critic as a dramaturg is another great discussion.

      It seems to me that critical responses should be more than whether or not someone ought to attend a show. There ought to be room for writing about why a play is successful or not. I’d extend that to not just new plays, but existing pieces in the canon as well. If a production fails it could be in the mere misunderstanding of the weaknesses inherent in the work.

      It’s difficult to succinctly address the everyday patron, the artists involved in the production, the producers, board members, and the larger theatre community within a single review. But when you come across a response that does, well, that’s worth reading.

      I agree that critical voices are necessary and increasing the discussion is vital to the continuing success and growth of the theatre. Now, where’s the new funding model to support it? That’s what I’m looking for.

  • Eric Grunin says:

    If any theater critic in New York is musically literate, they’re hiding it well.

    We would never accept a dramatic critic who couldn’t read a script. Why do we tolerate a critic of musicals who can’t read a score?

    This is not just pedantry. To cit some obvious examples, it seems ridiculous that no critic points out that Wildhorn’s shows are flops because his songs are full of harmonic missteps; that the current Porgy and Bess is disfigured by stylistically obtrusive interpolations; that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson failed because fine composer Michael Friedman was too concerned with supporting the lyrics (his own) and seldom let the music drive the show; that Once succeeds by turning what might have seemed a very meager musical palette into a series of recurring motives;…and so on.

  • Starr says:

    In local places we’ve been trying to encourage the conversation via services such as Yelp which allows independent audience members to write reviews. It’s very difficult for theatre peeps to write these reviews when your in the area. The line between honest criticism and friendship constantly blurs and when the ego gets involved, look out. I wish we were in a society where people were okay with it, but I don’t think it’s realistic. When people are paid for this, they are “established”. So their opinion matters, regardless of whether they are qualified or not.

    Movies do this pretty well. RottenTomatoes.Com specifically. How do we empower the audience, the director, the critque, the actor and everyone around the process to begin to communicate in public?

  • Anthony Porter says:

    Very interesting ideas. I can see the advantages of specializing, but at the same time, as a theater lover and critic, I would hate the idea of being “pidgeon-holed” into one genre.

    I am one of about 40 reviewers for Dave’s site, and I have been to many varied types of shows over the two years I’ve been a critic. I have seen everything from community theater to Shakespeare to Equity tours, and quite frankly would not relish the idea of only being able to review classic plays or contemporary musicals. I might be able to limit myself to Shakespeare, for a while.

    One of the things that drew me to my current (part-time) gig is a love of theater, all theater. And I keep trying to push our group to include opera, but haven’t quite got that through yet. And with the varied talents and perspectives we have with our group of critics, it’s insightful, I think, to see the different takes that we have to shows based on our experiences.

    Granted, we’re in an area of the country that doesn’t usually figure on the radar of New York or LA, but we have a huge number of theater companies here.

  • J says:

    This is actually a great idea. I tend to cringe when I see a review of something modern written from the perspective of an almost sixty year old theatre critic.
    You want younger audiences? Let’s also start getting reviews and advertisments published in non-traditional places like “The Onion” for example.

  • Like Anthony, I’m also a member of Dave’s organization (Utah Theater Bloggers Association), and this post is spawning quite a bit of conversation among us this morning.

    When trying to match up reviewers with shows, we do try to make sure the reviewers are qualified–which doesn’t always mean that the reviewer is an expert in the field. Sometimes that’s easy (we have a professional playwright among our ranks; we also have a person who wrote a dissertation on Utah playwrights). Other times it can be a struggle; as far as I know, nobody in our organization holds a degree in music.

    I agree with Anthony, though. It would be a shame to pigeon-hole our reviewers into one type of show. On the other hand, we definitely don’t want to send someone to a play for which they are not qualified to critique. I hope we strike that balance for all 200+ reviews the organization produces per year.

  • Douglas Hicton says:

    Inasmuch as performers, writers, designers, directors and so on move from musical to play to concert to whatever without anyone thinking anything of it, there’s no reason why critics shouldn’t be able to do the same. You don’t really need more critics, you just need more well-rounded ones, and the best way to become well-rounded is to take in as many different types of theatre as you can.

  • For gosh sakes, no! People should have breadth as well as depth — all the more so for people who write about theater. If they don’t, who would have breadth? And if nobody — if this is also so arcane and individualized, what’s the point anyway?

  • Eva Heinemann says:

    This discussion is right up my alley.I have about 4 reviewers on my show and we do specialize becuase I want the play to get the most positive response. I hate’dead baby’ plays so I send Mark. I like treacly soap opera comedies so I cover those. Press Agents willl even say to me. Send Mark you will hate this.
    While it would be nice to be an expert in music, most audience members like critics aren’t either. So we can say if you like Rock you’d like Bloody Bloody and if you want an old Fasioned musical you’d like Nice Work.
    And if you ask producers they think there are already too many critics in the Drama Desk and Outer Critics and hate having to give us tickets; Especially for small theaters.
    We do follow certain companies that are our favorite. I love The Queen’s Company and the Debate Society which just got an OBIE and Mark likes Blessed Unrest and Target Margin.
    However sometimes I am forced to see a Sam Shepard play and once I even enjoyed one (Buried Child with James Gammon)So you never know which is what makes theater so wonderful. The element of Surprise and BTW most critics don’t get paid unless they work for a major newpaper.They do it for sheer love of theater.

  • Wayne Paul says:

    No. Let critics bring the full range of their experiences, study, etc. to…the theatre! Perhaps Producers should specialize in the shows they produce?

  • George Michael(India) says:

    Hi Babu’s ,
    I am from India ,do anybody have studied Indian artistic culture and its ancient civilization. A theatre critic is a two legged ( sour grape )Fox .if anybody would have gone through ‘ America’s Sweet Heart – Mary Pickford’s biography , well that critic would play a mouth organ for life !God Bless !

  • Mark Briner says:

    I would like to see us develop a national system like that incorporates all reviews PLUS audience input and gives an average for each while access to as many individual reviews as possible. The flaw in the system now is that one critic and pretty much one alone in any given city is the soul voice that gets all attention. This is particularly detrimental in NY where if the show gets slams and closes, we may never have an opportunity to see it produced in other towns or tours. And Brantley is the worst, particularly when it comes to musicals. It reminds me of seeing 9 to 5, which I ended up seeing 4 times due to a friend in the cast and it being one of my favorite movies. All the “theatricale” critics panned it all around. Was it innovative? Did it break new ground? Was it even necessary? No all around. But it was VERY fun and entertaining, and boasted the only score that season that I could hum on the way out, and catchy is NOT a liability in my book. Also, no one mentioned the amazing chemistry between the three leading ladies in already defined parts. The difference was that I have never heard the number of people that exited each time exuding how much they loved it and how much fun they had. The review guaranteed that very few others had the opportunity. If a forum for those audience members to be heard had existed, that show and many others would have the opportunity to share their good nature with many other potential audience members. The single review system is the only real “commercial” Broadway shows get–even their local TV commercials are poorly representative of the product, and there’s no equivalent of the trailer system when you see a movie, or the endless TV promotion. This needs to change, and a site that could incorporate audience evaluation also would be a welcome change. I would basically use RottenTomatoes as a blueprint–it works perfectly for the movies.

  • Yvette Heyliger says:

    With regard to specialization– As an African American, the proposing of critique tailored or specialized for cultural subsets would be very much welcome. Since I started in the theatre, I have been hearing complaints about critics who, by and large, do not understand work that is not from their own culture. These critics are deemed to be not qualified to give an informed critique of the work because they know littl about it and are looking through the lens of European standards and values. Should white critics review Black plays, or Hispanic plays, or Chinese plays? Would it be more helpful to have a critic from that specific cultural background review those shows? I think so. I think it would make for a more well-informed critique for sure, with insights into the history and culture that would then provide a foundation upon which to critique the work within the context of its unique artistic cultural expression. I certainly can’t hurt and might help a great deal. I think specialization would build a better critic and I wish colleges and universities would promote the need for diversity in this area, encouraging students to consider criticsm as a profession as a much needed service within their artistic cultural groups.

  • A few thoughts about this: I work for American Theatre magazine and I run the website StageGrade, which is inspired by sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. I love the theater and it’s a great and rewarding field to cover, but I will say that I already feel plenty specialized as an arts journalist who covers just theater. In today’s arts/entertainment journalism marketplace, the advice I’ve gotten most often is to diversify. And I’ve thought about it–I’m a musician and a composer, and I’m really interested in religious topics and some aspects of politics, so it’s not like I don’t have other areas of interest/knowledge–but I seem stuck, mostly happily, in the writing-about-theater niche. In short, I think that most of us theater critics/journalists would benefit from broadening our focus, not narrowing it. But that’s my just two cents!

  • David Rigano says:

    There are critics like Stephen Holden, who seem to be able to take anything they see/hear for what it is and astutely critique it on its own merits. But those are few and far between. I suppose that things tend to be more fluid among the subsets in theatre than they are in other artforms. A classical cellist won’t usually play a rock album or a jazz show (Yo-Yo Ma being the big exception and the Stephen Holden of his field). But in the theatre actors, designers, directors, etc. are expected to be able to handle plays, musicals, Shakespeare, etc. So, perhaps critics are expected (incorrectly?) to also be able to handle any genre or subset. But it would be nice to read a Shakespeare review from a Shakespeare scholar, a musical theatre review from someone who knows which clef is which, etc.

  • Stephen Buckle says:

    The more publicity and media coverage for Theatreland the better, good, bad, or ugly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *