The Continuing Saga of Critics vs. Bloggers, Tweeters

For at least three years, it has been discussed as to whether or not bloggers were making theater critics, and critic in general, obsolete. This is a topic that won’t die, like whether or not print journalism is dead. In fact, the discussion of the irrelevance of print and broadcast theater critics prompted me to discuss this topic in a crudely drawn comic last year.
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Do Critics Matter Today?

There’s recently been some discussion and complaining after John Simon remarked that bloggers are “the vermin of this society.” After attempting to write a post, I found that the best way I could discuss this was through a comic. As a result, I drew the following comic. Please remember: I don’t draw comics or cartoons, so this is a first for me.

I present, “Do Critics Matter Today?: A Cartoon”

Do Critics Matter Today? Page 1

"Do Critics Matter Today?" Page 2

(Click to enlarge)

Proof That I Don’t Have That Much Power Over Theater

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a production of Pippin and said something along the lines of that the actor playing Pippin couldn’t sing in tune and thought that yelling his lines was the equivalent of acting. (Although, I later said that actor did a good job in Cedar Falls Community Theatre’s Kiss Me, Kate.)

I found out that the actor that I said didn’t do that great of a job in that production got into Juilliard.

So, could everyone please stop acting like I have that much power over theater in Iowa? I’m just a blogger.

Throwing Rocks at “Birdie”

“…if you’re tone-deaf, then go with my blessing.”Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal

“The show is a candy-colored, poptastic hoot. Not that you’d know it from the boneheaded revival that crash-landed at the brand-new Henry Miller’s Theatre last night.”Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post

“‘Bye Bye Birdie’ has not been on Broadway since the original hit in 1960. And on the basis of the busy and boring revival chosen to open the new Henry Miller’s Theatre, the absence is easy to explain.”Linda Winer of Newsday

“‘Bye Bye Birdie’ may be the most painful example of misapplied talent on Broadway since the Roundabout’s production of “Hedda Gabler,” starring Mary-Louise Parker, last season.Ben Brantley

When the Roundabout Theatre Company announced that they were doing “Bye Bye Birdie,” my immediate thought was, “Why on earth would they want to do that show?”

After reading the reviews for “Bye Bye Birdie,” my immediate thought was, “Why on earth did they decide to do this? Other than that Todd Haimes wanted to do it.”

Michael Riedel Doesn’t Have Any Answers, But He Has Some Ideas

riedel

(You have no idea how long I have waited to use that picture.)

Tuesday, Matt Windman wrote on amNY’s website, “And Michael Riedel, if you’re reading this, get to work and figure out what the fuck happened.” Well, Riedel’s column doesn’t tell us really tell us what happened.

He does dismiss the “conflict of interest” explanation that the Tony Award management has given. The comp ticket theory isn’t really debunked. He writes,

Producers have long balked at having to shell out so many free tickets at Tony time. Eight hundred pairs of orchestra comps have a street value of about $225,000. Thin the voting ranks, and you save some money.

Besides, the press already gets freebies when the show opens. Why give them more?

And there are a lot of schnorrers on the press list.

“You wouldn’t believe how fast they have their hands out for their Tony tickets — and many of them want three or four tickets,” a publicist says.

At least this quote is suggesting that the cost issue is a very possible reason. He also writes that there are some members of the press list that only go to the major shows, but a lot of people that aren’t on the press list only go to the major shows.

After discussing these possible reasons for the dismissal, Riedel wrote this,

But in the end, the Tonys are run by and for the commercial theater. They’re marketing tools, and any hue and cry about “integrity” is beside the point. If the producers don’t want journalists around, well, it’s their party.

Which is not to say the press shouldn’t take its revenge.

I’m all for a down and dirty fight. Broadway’s a lot more fun to write about when there’s acrimony in the air.

First of all, I think anyone who reads Michael Riedel’s column somewhat regularly knows that he likes a down and dirty fight. It’s something to dish about. I can also, sadly, say that his column is much more interesting “when there’s acrimony in the air.”

So how should the critics fight back? Well, Riedel has four suggestions.

One is to not see the show at the press preview or on opening night. His reasoning is that a show might have several weeks of previews, but the producers still charge full price. What if the critics wait a couple of weeks, see the show and then file their review? Personally, I’m not so sure about this because there might be some artistically brilliant show that could suffer if there aren’t reviews hailing it. The big movie adaptions wouldn’t suffer because of a recognizable name if this happened. Yes, it’d be a great way to get revenge on the producers, but think of the artistically worthy plays that would suffer.

His second suggestion is to ignore the “crass commercial shows.” By this he means “9 to 5,” “Shrek,” “Legally Blond,” and, next season, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” This is something that I’m not as questioning of, but the producers for those shows probably don’t even care if critics like their shows. Those shows, again, sell by name recognition. Joe Schmo from Waverly, Iowa probably doesn’t care if Elisabeth Vincentelli thought the performances were stunning.

The third suggestion is for the press to ignore the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. I really don’t have any comment on this because I don’t think I have the place to discuss this.

The fourth suggestion is for the Drama Critics Circle Awards to be beefed up. This is because those awards recognize the shows that the critics that are members of the organization feel are the best shows of the season. I would like to see the Drama Desk Awards to get a better coverage and to see a better awareness of the Drama Critics Circle Awards. The Drama Desk Awards because it honors off-Broadway and Broadway productions, as does the Drama Critics Circle Awards. The Tony Awards only recognize the shows on Broadway and, as a result, ignore some great off-Broadway productions.

I think Michael Riedel might be trying to incite a revolution against the producers, or at least a firm reestablishing of the critics’ power in the theater.

A reestablishing of the power is what he seems to imply in the final sentences of his column:

It [the theatre press] still has platforms, it still has power.

It can put its boot on Broadway’s neck and break it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think that this is the major topic in theater that will keep evolving as time goes on.

A WHOLE NEW BALLOT GAME

Outrage!

TonyAward

I don’t even think that 24-hours have passed since this piece of news was announced and I already feel late to the discussion of this topic. That’s because Garrett Eisler at The Playgoer, Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals and a couple of critics have tackled this before me.

The piece of news I am talking about is a decision the Tony Award Management committee made last night that would keep critics, journalists and editors from voting on the Tony Awards. According to the letter that members of the First Night Press List received, one of the factors was because, “certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists.”

I don’t work in the theater or write about theater for a publication in New York, but the only publication that I know of that does not allow their critics to vote for any awards is the New York Times, which has had a policy barring all critics from voting on such awards from 1989-1996 and then from the 2002-2003 until now and possibly the end of time.

In her post on the New York Post’s Theater Blog, Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote, “If critics who don’t vote for this reason are such a problem, take them off the rolls then. But there’s a lot of us who dutifully attend all the shows and take our voting responsibilities seriously.” Vincentelli brings up a very good point because if there are critics on their roles that do fall under that category, they should be removed. Although, I would hope that the New York Times doesn’t have any writers on that list because they haven’t been allowed to vote for a few years now.

And the matter of attending all of the shows is a very important point. It’s well noted by people who follow theater news–or read Michael Riedel’s column on a regular basis–that several of the Tony Award voters don’t even make it to a large number of the shows that are in the season, none the less the shows that are then nominated. The members of this First Night Press List make it to most, if not all of the shows that open on Broadway that season. They actually see all of the shows! I don’t know if the issue of people who actually see the shows voting on the awards is a big issue for the Tony Awards management committee, although it should be.

And Vincentelli, Adam Feldman, who writes for Time Out New York and is President of the New York Drama Critics Circle, and Matt Windman of amNY all point out the critics actually vote for the shows that deserve to win. The remaining voters include actors, directors, playwrights, producers, theater owners, choreographers, designers and a few other groups. A producer is probably going to vote for their own show. I don’t think that critics hold grudges like people in the above categories. At least, I haven’t gotten that impression from critics and I don’t hold a grudge towards a certain theater. In their job critics have to be objective; I don’t see why they wouldn’t carry that objectivity into their voting.

This sudden irrational decision is mind boggling. Is this to attract more viewers? Because I don’t think that Sally from Readlyn, Iowa is going know who votes for the Tony Awards. How many people who do watch the Tony Awards know that the critics vote for them, other than me and other theater bloggers? Is this because everyone else that votes has a bone to pick with the critics?

But ultimately, what this decision comes down to, regardless of the reason that the committee came up with, is that this diminishes the credibility of the Tony Awards. And for those of you unaware, the Tony Awards have been losing their credibility over the years, notably this year when they had touring productions perform. By this decision, two things are accomplished. One, the Tony Awards will no longer be voted on by the people who would be the best and the most unbiased with deciding what represents the finest Broadway events. Two, the American Theater Wing now has the pat-on-the-back infomercial that, after this year’s telecast, the awards seemed determined to become.

Personally, I’m a bit annoyed about this because it seems irrational, not to mention there’s not a good reason given as to why this is occurring. There were about 800 Tony Award voters; the journalists, critics and editors made up 1/8 of that group. That’s 100 people who made it to several of the shows on Broadway; 100 people who voted without an agenda to support their own show. 1/8 might not seem like a large ratio, but 100 votes could be enough to reward a show of true artistic merit an award, as opposed to a big, splashy musical.

By the way, Windman provided readers with email addresses, phone numbers and mailing addresses to contact Tony Award Productions to show that you do not support the decision.

Where Are the Female Theater Critics and Bloggers?

The other day on Parabasis, Isaac Butler posted some thoughts on female theater critics and bloggers. That post and the comments on the post caused me to start thinking about that topic.

I’ve written about this topic before, but I think that now my thoughts may be a bit more organized. So, I’m not even going to link to that post I wrote.

It’s true that there aren’t a lot of female theater critics at print publications. Of the 20 members of the New York Drama Critics Cricle, five of them are women. Those writers are Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, Linda Winer of Newsday, Elysa Gardner of the USA Today, Alexis Soloski of the Village Voice and Melissa Rose Bernardo of Entertainment Weekly. There are other female critics that aren’t part of this group that cover theater in New York: Helen Shaw of Time Out New York, Anita Gates writes for the New York Times, there are female freelancers at other publications. But still, a majority of the critics are male.

Same thing goes for Chicago; while Hedy Weiss is the chief theater critic for the Sun-Times and there are female freelancers that write for the Tribune, freelancers for the Reader and Time Out Chicago, most of the critics are men.

I honestly don’t know why there are more male theater critics than female critics. I could make a suggestion that maybe women prefer to be involved with the actual production of a show instead of writing about it, but I have a friend who’s male who was a critic and liked being onstage more than writing about the show. The fact that there aren’t a lot of female critics is also puzzling because at least for Broadway, 65% of tickets are sold to women. Just from casual observation, I would have to say that at the theaters I’ve been to, whether it’s a show at the Gallagher-Bluedorn, a play done by the Cedar Falls Community Theatre or a production at the Merle Reskin done by DePaul University’s Chicago Playworks, most of the audience members are women.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, who was the arts and entertainment editor at Time Out New York before becoming the chief theater critic at the New York Post, wrote in the comments of Butler’s post, “[M]ost of the pitches I got were from men. Men were also more aggressive in terms of pitching and following up, and, well, this all translated as more male bylines. I don’t know what the solution would be: to encourage women to pitch more? To encourage women to be more assertive with their opinions?”

I think that Vincentelli brings up a good point. If you pitch a story idea and follow up, chances are more likely you’ll get published. And if you do that, you might have a greater chance of being published multiple times. In regards to her suggested solutions, I think encouraging women to be more assertive with their opinions would probably work the best because I think that timidness is what is keeping women from stepping forward and writing about theater for pring publications.

But while people have to pitch ideas or they have to be hired by publications for full-time writing, anyone can just sit down and start a blog. I know that my blogroll is not representative of all of the theater blogs but looking at that, there are only four theater blogs I read that are written by women and two of them are written by Vincentelli. Most of the blogs I read are written by men. Come to think of it, most of the writers for large blogs, like the Huffington Post, are men. There are blogs that are geared towards women that have female writers, but I think it’s safe to say that there are more male bloggers than female bloggers.

I asked Ellen Wrede, who served as one of the editors-in-chief and the online editor of my high school newspaper, about this topic because she blogs at Smallsimplicity. Ellen commented that when she started blogging it was purely for journalistic purposes, but it ended up being a place where she could write about her life and a few general interest topics.

” It’s not quite a journal, because I have one of those and it is nothing at all like my blog,” she remarked.

She also said that she doesn’t blog regularly, like I do and some other bloggers do, and it’s because she doesn’t have a set subject matter. “[It's] a little more of a task to think of a topic. In addition to that I just have very small motivation to post all the time,” she said.

A few weeks ago, there was a piece in the Styles section of the New York Times discussing the “failure rate” of blogging. Wrede is aware that people read her blog. I can look at the count of views when I log in to update my blog and that tells me that people are reading, even if they don’t comment.

I’ve been blogging for three years and I really didn’t get noticed by a lot of people until I moved my blog from LiveJournal to WordPress, which could be purely coincidental. I could have easily stopped blogging because no one other than my friends were reading my blog when it was on LiveJournal. There might be some people that want to make it big as a blogger, but you have to start off small, write well and write regularly. Bloggers are not going to become big immediately. If someone finds a new blogger’s blog, it might get on their blogroll and more people are going to read it.

There’s nothing that really prevents people from blogging other than maybe their unwillingness to do so. If a blogger has nothing to write about, then don’t write. Readers are probably not going to panic if a blog goes without an update for a couple of weeks.

Because of the ability for people to blog freely, I see no reason as to why women shouldn’t be willing to blog. I personally think that something preventing women from blogging is that they fear that their friends might judge them. If a blogger writes under an alias, chances are likely that people who aren’t familiar with their writing style won’t know it is written by that person unless the blogger says “Hey, that’s my blog!”

Maybe women could just write reviews and comment on news. One doesn’t have to write a lengthy review like the critics at the Times or The New Yorker. It could be a short little blurb about what was good, what wasn’t good. Maybe they could go a bit more in depth, but some knowledge on the topic is recommended. A good blogger shouldn’t go around giving the wrong explanations for theater superstitions. Who knows, that way, maybe a theater editor or critic will take note of one’s writing and said writer might get some recognition and it could make the pitching of ideas a bit easier. At the very least, women might make blogging a habit.

There is a very clear lack of female theater writers and bloggers, who might view some shows differently from their male counterparts, although I don’t know if this is true since I don’t like a lot of plays viewed as fitting in to a female niche. The main thing that prevents women from blogging about theater, none the less writing about it for a print publication, is that it might seem too hard and they’re afraid of people judging them for having the guts to say that a show isn’t that good or a show is good. Hopefully, women will be a little more confident with pitching ideas for writing about theater and blogging about theater.

Enter the Female Drama Critic

I’m going to start this off with an anecdote.

When I was in eighth grade, my family didn’t have that much money. So, for Christmas, my dad went out and purchased a copy of the New York Times and gave it to me as a present. After that, I started buying a copy of the Times or, when I was too poor to go and get a copy, I would read the theater reviews in my junior high library when a class I was in would be there. I got in trouble a few times for doing this and they eventually blocked the website.

That same year, my guidance councilor asked me what I wanted to do as a career. “I want to be either a theatre critic or an epidemiologist,” I replied. “Why an epidemiologist?” she asked. “I think diseases are really interesting,” I answered.

She looked at me and said, “Stick with the epidemiologist idea.” So I tucked my desire to critique theater as a career in the back of my head until my senior year, when I said I wanted to be a playwright and a drama critic. My high school guidance councilor told me to get a degree in “something useful, just in case.”
———–
I was watching an episode of Theater Talk yesterday and one of the critics they talked to, Barbara Hoffman of the New York Post, who I didn’t know wrote reviews (my fault), commented that most of the critics didn’t like “9 to 5″ because most of the New York critics are men (true) and couldn’t relate to the female bonding story. She also compared it to “Wicked” in the female-bonding-men-can’t-relate-to manner.

Four things popped into my mind. The first was, “Wait, John Simon enjoyed ’9 to 5′.” The second one was, “Why didn’t I like ‘Wicked’? Because I’m female and I don’t like it.” The third one was, “Why are they not mentioning Elysa Gardner?” (Her review of “9 to 5″ was a bit of a meh) And the final thought was a reminder of a comment someone left on The Theater Loop in reference to John Beer being named the new theater critic for Time Out Chicago. That comment was, “Oh good. Heaven knows we need more middle-aged white male critics in Chicago.”

While that comment is directly in reference to the critics in Chicago, most people could apply that to critics anywhere. Four of the major New York critics are female. (I’m counting the woman at Entertainment Weekly.) Two of the critics for print publications in Eastern Iowa are female. The critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is female. Those are the ones immediately coming to my mind.

The fact that there aren’t as many women that are drama critics is not something I lose sleep over.

How many girls, or boys, wake up one morning and come bouncing to the breakfast table going, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, I want to be a theater critic when I grow up”? I’m going to guess very few. That’s not a career people are probably going to steer children or teenagers towards. Especially with the fate of print journalism. From my own casual observation, more young girls would much rather be actresses than critics. Or directors, stage managers, or stage hands.

And I don’t think that if we have more female theater critics we’re going to suddenly have a better understanding of female problems and struggles and friendship on the stage. I don’t like “Steel Magnolias” nor do I like “Wicked.” Although, I don’t like “Wicked” as an objective analysis of the show. I know a lot of guys who like more chick-flick type shows.

Does anyone disagree with me? Agree? Do we need more female drama critics?

David Cote vs. Terry Teachout vs. the Obama’s Seeing “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”

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Left, Terry Teachout; right, David Cote

For those of you unaware of the event, on Saturday night, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Belasco Theater.

Since then, ticket sales have gone up considerably. Which makes me happy because this means that people are going to see a show that should be very good. More importantly, people will be going to see August Wilson. And since it seems as though a certain theater critic is not going to stand in Times Square wearing a sandwich board, this is pretty good.

The issue has been brought up that the trip will cost taxpayers about $24,000. I mulled this number over in my head and thought about how much of that is for the Secret Service, the motorcade, the police officers being brought in? Granted, the use of Marine One probably factors in heavily, but I would have to imagine that security factors a great deal into that figure.

Monday, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, who is a critic that I greatly respect and I enjoy reading, discussed the Obama’s attending the show. While he was thrilled that they attended a show he raved about, he wished that they had seen a show in Washington D.C.

However, First Lady Obama had apparently made President Obama promise her to take her to a Broadway show once the campaign was over. Or so I’ve read. If he had taken her to a show in D.C., it wouldn’t have been a Broadway show. But more importantly, it was a date night.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter of regional theater. Remember, I’m the one that tells people to at least see a show at the Steppenwolf instead of seeing a big glittery Broadway in Chicago show. I have to rally around the mostly community theaters here.

Quite frankly, this is a two sided issue. Yes, it would have been nice if they had seen a play in Washington D.C., but it’s nice that they saw a play that has quite a bit of artistic merit. And while Teachout brings in to the discussion the issue of cost, I personally don’t know how much of it would have been discounted by seeing a play in D.C..

Tuesday, Teachout posted a rebuttal to an anonymous drama critic who sent him a rather scathing email. Teachout does make some good points and while to the best of my knowledge, former President Bush never attended any Broadway plays or any shows in D.C., he did do somethings to support the arts. (On a side note, it is my belief as a journalist that the media is a bit focused on Obama, on both sides of the spectrum. I have yet to turn on my TV and hear about the fact that today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which I read about in this morning’s New York Times.)

Yesterday, David Cote, the theater editor for Time Out New York, came out as the critic who emailed Teachout. On TONY‘s theater blog “Upstaged”, he staged a smackdown of the Journal critic.

I respect both gentlemen as critics and I read both of their reviews. However, Cote has presented an argument that hinges on a hypothesis that Teachout’s reviews are biased due to political feelings of conservatism. (Cote uses “Republican” to label Teachout, but I know some liberal Republicans, such as my own mother, and I think the term he’s looking for is conservative.)

In the Wikipedia article on Teachout, it says that he is “a political conservative with wide-ranging cultural interests and sympathies.” And I remember hearing an interview with him on the American Theatre Wing’s program “Downstage Center” where he apparently told the two hosts to read his Wikipedia article before the interview. I think it’s safe to say that Teachout has a good idea of what is on this article.

But Cote suggests that Teachout uses his political ideologies to bias his reviews. He panned “Billy Elliot“, “Black Watch”, and “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” But he also panned all of the other musicals that opened on Broadway this season. As a commenter on Cote’s post points out, he raved about “Avenue Q”, which has the line of “George Bush is only for now.”

You could suggest that Teachout pans shows based on political ideologies. But you could also suggest that John Simon is the lone voice when panning shows because he’s a cranky old man. You could suggest that Charles Isherwood might be the lone voice panning a show because he’s a snob. You could suggest that Chris Jones goes gaga for only big, expensive shows. The last one is a bit of a hyperbole, but I don’t think that Teachout does review shows using his political views as a blinder. If so, I don’t think he would have raved about a production of “Old Times” by Harold Pinter, who bashed Bush in his Nobel Prize in Literature speech.

And from reading his review of “Billy Elliot”, it seemed to be based on problems with the book and music. And the fact that it does spend some time bashing Margaret Thatcher. I listen to the music and I think “Thank you, I understand that a lot of people didn’t like Margaret Thatcher. May we please move on?” Sure, that’s a part of England at that time, but could we please move on?

In short, while it might seem as though Teachout pans shows based his political views, it’s just an assumption, a hypothesis. I believe that Noel Coward once said something about if you write a political piece, it can’t seem as though you’re forcing the views on the audience.

And for what it’s worth, I, an independent with some rather liberal views, read the Wall Street Journal, along with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. My rather conservative grandfather who reads the Journal on a daily basis was unaware of the existence of Teachout until I told him about it.

(It also seems as though someone is posing as me in the comments section of “Upstaged”)