5 Ways to Revive Reviewing.

Earlier this month, up North in colder Canada, the Canadian Journalism Foundation put on a panel discussion called “The Walking Dead:  Do Traditional Arts Critics Have a Future?”

Tough title, no?  Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but with the advent of the internet, the role of the critic in theater and all art forms has been challenged.  (Just yesterday, my blog-spiration, Seth Godin, posted this gem of an entry about Critics and my production of Macbeth.)

Will they survive?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “I HOPE NOT!”

Sorry to disappoint.

See while I’ve certainly got some issues with critics, especially in an industry like the theater, overall I’m a fan.  Why?  My mission statement as a theater pro is to amplify the conversation about the theater.  The more people talking about it, writing about, discussing it, debating it, etc. the better.  The louder the conversation, the more likely that the art form will not only survive over the next 100 years, but will thrive over the next 100 years.

And critics help stir up that conversation.

But as the title of that panel discussion tells you . . . even they know they’re in a tough spot.

So I thought I’d come up with five ways to help bring ’em back:

1.  Why have one reviewer when you can have two?

Take a cue from the late great Siskel and Ebert and instead of having one reviewer – have two . . . and have each of them review shows side-by-side.  The public will get two discerning opinions, the shows will have two chances to impress, and the competitive gamification (“I’m right!  No I’m right!”) between the two will make the reviews more fun.

2.  Qualify ’em.

There are a few critic associations out there in the world, but what if papers, etc. only hired those critics that were “accredited” and had a certain amount of education in the theater arts, in writing, criticism, etc?  Critics help shape the future of the theater . . . shouldn’t we make sure that they are well versed in what they’re doing?  A Good Housekeeping seal of approval might give them even more authority than they already have, and might distinguish themselves from the hundreds thousands of other reviewers on the web.

3.  Raise the profile of your critic.

Would you recognize the chief critic of the NY Times if you saw him on the street or in a theater?  What about the critic for the LA Times?  I’d bet money you wouldn’t.  That’s because the critics have always been more “behind the curtain”-like wizards.  They’ve come forward a little more in the past five years, but if I was running a paper, I’d get them out in the world like a celeb . . . at openings, at press events, on twitter, etc.  Pull back the curtain.  People will become more attached, and therefore more likely to read, and more likely to trust.

4.  If you can’t make your critic a celeb, then hire one.

Wouldn’t Cherry Jones make a killer reviewer?  Or what about Harvey Fierstein?  Yes, it’s star-casting, but if it comes with readers, then wouldn’t it be worth it?  I know, I know, maybe they’re not the best writers, but you could get them some ghost writer to help.  Look at this example:  Huffpo had James Franco write reviews of some shows he just saw.  Admit it, when you read James Franco, you were intrigued, right?  I bet most of you click this link to see what he said, just because he’s James.

5.  One reviewer doesn’t fit all.

I’m still shocked that our biz has critics that review Shakespeare . . . and Disney musicals.  Do music reviewers review Opera and Pop?  What if a different reviewer (or even regular person) was assigned to a show depending on what the show was, and who that person was?  A mom of four for a family show.  A professor of literature for the latest Ibsen reviewer.  Let’s face it, if I don’t like family shows, I’m probably not reading a review on a family musical anyway.  So the people reading that review might believe in it so much more if it was written by someone they can relate to.


Criticism deserves a place in our art form, just like it deserves a place in our government, and society as a whole.  But it’s going to take some 2013 ideas to prevent them from being overrun by the criticism of the masses.

You got any of those ideas?  Comment ’em below.


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  • I’d love to see something develop for live performing arts that’s similar to what Rotten Tomatoes is for film – a site that aggregates critical reviews and offers a synopsis of the overall reception. I’ve found this particularly helpful because it gives me, the consumer and a rather discerning movie-goer, a way to judge whether the various reviews are people that have similar tastes and backgrounds as me – the best indication of whether or not I’m going to like a film. The RottenTomatoes synopsis and the quotes from the reviews are some of the heaviest factors in whether or not we’re willing to see a film in theatres, rather than waiting to Netflix it.

    RottenTomatoes also has the public’s score next to the professional critic’s score – a place where I can see whether nonprofessional critics like myself are enjoying the film despite the critical response. Currently with live theatre, I’ve found that the individual reviews I read for shows (NY Times, Backstage) often differ heavily from friends of mine who’ve seen the show. It would be really helpful to have a single location where I could go to see the professional reviews and the public response! I’d feel so much more satisfied about purchasing a ticket to a live show, rather than vaguely hopeful that it’s as good as some people say it is.

  • Daniel Schwait says:

    I like your point about celebrities! Certainly the sports world does that hiring retired players or even still active players whose teams have been eliminated as analysts. Even if the viewers disagree with their opinions, they are still listened to.

  • Michael Dale says:

    A critic is an invited guest. If producers stopped offering free tickets there would be significantly fewer critics reviewing and those who did review would be seeing far fewer productions. And then you would lose the most important thing a critic can offer; an informed opinion. By limiting reviewers to being Shakespeare specialists and Disney specialists you take away the opportunity to hear from someone whose mission is to be exposed to as much theatre as there is to see. Most theatre-goers only go see the productions that interest them. That makes sense. New York theatre critics see 150+ productions a year and expose themselves to a wide variety of what’s out there. I’m not always especially interested in everything I get invited to review, but you go with an open mind and you educate yourself on what the new developments are among theatre artists. Before I started reviewing I was a member of a papering organization for 15 years and would see shows 3 or 4 times a week. Occasionally it was a big Broadway production, but more often it was something more obscure and the type of theatre (or ballet or opera) I wasn’t familiar with. And I think that’s the best thing a critic can do; offer an opinion that comes from exposure to everything that’s going on, not just the well-publicized Broadway shows. Maybe that’s not the opinion you’re seeking but I know if I’m choosing a wine for dinner I want to hear from the person who has tasted everything.

  • Warning: Disconnected thoughts below.

    ***Great blog Ken. I have nothing to add but you know who to recommend to those celebrities who can’t write, right?

    ***I nominate the post above for post of the month (or below, I never remember how this stuff works, but I mean Michael Dale’s post.)

    ***Somebody could make some good money from a movie critic certification program.

  • Nick Bailey says:

    Way to go Ken, another fantastic entree of food for thought.

  • Lynn Manuell says:

    There are two comments…one is that one of my clients who is a famous celebrity,had a family member suggest to me that all critics should only review shows for about 3 years and then stop for awhile. Why? Because critics see far more theatre than anyone else. They don’t actually understand what people coming into New York from other places might like. They also can’t all then make a decision to dislike a particular composer or actor and keep crucifying them hoping they will go away, despite the fact that their work is creating jobs for thousands of people over the course of a career.

    My second note is that the actual meaning of criticism is to find good in something. You can dislike something but acknowledge that other people do. You can say what you might want to change but you don’t have to be mean spirited or make your job out crueling the other critics.

  • A very sensible blog, Ken. Well thought out and wise. The final sentence opens a whole new issue worth investigating: how seriously can we take, and need we endure “the criticism of the masses”? While it is always possible that a member of the public can add wisdom and sanity to the review of some work of art or theatre, one only has to look at the standard of responses to various Youtube clips, to see that there are many opinions out there that are seriously not worth considering.

  • Kevin Delin says:

    In response to Emily Maixner’s thoughts about an aggregate site, Los Angeles Theater does have such a site, it’s called Bitter Lemons.

  • Get back to basics….. follow the template….Aristotle’s “Poetics” and you can never go wrong.
    That being said, I think musical and drama critics should separate. One size cannot fit all.

  • George Rady says:

    I think the issue is the evolving Internet/Facebook/Tweets… not the “reviewer”

    We are just starting to wrap our heads around the tetonic evolution of mass media… and the only thing that is obvious is that it’s no longer – one – land mass…

    Few people read the “newspaper” anymore, so all the journalists have lost that exclusive hold they used to have on the “news” critics included (maybe especially?) and – in a push for more advertising revenue – a lot of “critics” have sold out… writing PR puff pieces – mostly to support in the more profitable Film section of the Entertainment pages. EVERY show is “cutting edge” “amazing” “breath taking” blah, blah, blah, the mainstream audience has already tuned out. I haven’t heard “Clive Barnes says” in years.

    We must come to grips with the Internet… and that has its own problems…. so many talkers, no one knows who to listen it…

    The “Rotten Tomatoes” – for Theatre – is the BEST way to strategize here… but the potential audience must find it, first, and then it will serve its purpose…. perhaps even BETTER than any critic could have, as one gets a DIVERSITY of Opinions… and not just one fellow, who has their own prejudices and biases and – often times – forgets to set them aside IF the play is funny or tearful… and the audience will enjoy their two hours for $20 (or $100 – but it BETTER be MUCH BETTER!)


  • As an off-and-on again critic for over 30 years, my reviews are informed by my intense interest in the world around me, my 40 years as a professional actor, my Emmy Award for producing and my desire to understand Beckett, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Ruhl, Lloyd-Webber, Shepard, etc. I burned out a few years ago from seeing too much crap. I now protect myself by seeing no more than two plays a week and that has helped. But critic’s have a two-fold purpose: to educate and inform a readership and to give intelligent feedback to the creative folk. And, ideally, write well. We’re not omniscient; we cannot like everything or nothing if we are to have any value in the world. So it’s best to find a critic who shares your values and follow them. And let them know when something hits them well or hard. We can take it.

  • Hi there, after reading this amazing paragraph i am too cheerful to share my experience here with colleagues.

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