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.
This past weekend, director Julie Taymor spoke at the Theatre Communications Group, TCG, conference in Los Angeles. Taymor is known for the stage version of The Lion King, as well as the films Titus, Frida, Across the Universe, and a little musical called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In regards to the Tweets and message board gossip about Spider-Man, she said, “Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you. It’s very hard to create.” (That quote comes from a New York Times article.) Although she failed to mention the rancorous remarks on message boards such as All That Chat or the press surrounding the show, her point about the scrutiny theater artists are valid. If an artist is on Twitter, they can instantly receive feedback on their show through @ replies, although there’s the option of keeping an account private or blocking people.
Enter New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, who wrote the following:
The tweeters are crickets, not critics; they put nothing in context; they are rarely informed about the process or accurate about craft and generally are merely mouthpieces of ill-written opinion. This may threaten reviewing in American journalism—but not criticism, which is a rare commodity in American culture. As newspapers and reviewing jobs shrink, Web opinion-makers increasingly substitute the conventional journalistic notion of a critic with a reviewer—a consumer guide for the readers who exists to tell the reader what it is, when it happened, and if he should part with his sponduliks to see it. The writing has nothing to do with thought, interpretation, or connecting what is seen to the theatrical past of the community. That more insightful kind of writing is now what the Web calls “long-form essay,” and it’s so not the Tweetocracy.
I’ll admit that when you’re restricted to 140-characters, you can’t give a detailed analysis of a play. After seeing Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Death of a Salesman, I simply tweeted that it was a beautiful, haunting production and to try to see it before it closed. On Saturday, after seeing the film Beginners, I gave a bit more detailed of a Tweet-review. If someone in a class asked me what I thought of that film, I’d probably say exactly that. I wouldn’t start orating a full-fledged review five minutes before lecture begins. The problem with his argument is that, especially in the New York area, there are several terrific theater blogs that give very well-written, analytical reviews of plays. There are also several theater blogs that will tell you about a production, but not explain why a critic feels that way. Furthermore, there are quite a few theater critics in New York City that do use Twitter, including Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and Adam Feldman and David Cote of Time Out New York.
I will agree with him that being careful about the opinions a director or playwright listens to is important. If I were a director or playwright, I would care more about what Chris Jones, Hedy Weiss, or anyone at the Chicago Reader thinks of my play than Jenny Anybody at thisplayiscool.xanga.com. (Xanga’s still a thing, right?) However, some smaller companies might only be able to be covered by Jenny Anybody at thisplayiscool.xanga.com and will have to settle for her criticism. Going with both Lahr and Taymor’s comments, tweeters and bloggers seem like they’re destined to being lumped in with “I never read the reviews.” But would most directors even care what a Twitter user thinks of their play? It seems unlikely. I’m sure that some companies and PR firms would appreciate positive press, but who wouldn’t? Ultimately, blogs and tweets can easily be avoided by not looking for them, or even advising Facebook friends to not tell you about the posts. Bloggers and tweeters are as much of a threat to dramatic criticism and the creative process as my cat is to a human being.
Nice try, Lahr.
Meanwhile, on WBEZ’s theater blog, Onstage/Offstage, Jonathan Abarbanel, one of the station’s Dueling Critics, wrote a post on actors needing to project, even in small venues. (Disclosure: I had Abarbanel as a professor when I attended UIC, in addition to being involved with 2amt in its infancy.) In pops someone identifying themselves only as 2am who attacks Abarbanel, mentions his pan of Halcyon Theatre’s Trickster, and suggests that the post and the aforementioned pan mean that he hates new work. Abarbanel responded with this:
[Y]ou reveal YOUR attitude and bias by your reference to TRICKSTER, which I reviewed negatively but fairly. Bold? Yes, it was. Innovative? Maybe to a degree. New? Yes, of course. New work accounts for close to half of all shows produced in Chicago, which is one of our glories. Of course, you assume I hate new work without knowing that I’m a co-founder of the National New Play Network and have served as dramaturg in the creation of over 300 new American plays and musicals. These are not boasts, they are facts.
That’s just a portion of the response that he gave. One might think that after this response—I recommend you read the entire comment thread—that “2am” would have stopped. But this is the comments section of a blog for a news site and the trolls come back. The next time “2am” commented, they linked to the website for the theater clique 2amt.
Before I continue, I should explain what exactly 2amt is and why that is important. On 2amt’s website, the following explanation is given:
2amt. You’re wondering why this is called 2amt. What does that have to do with theatre?
2am is when the ideas start to flow.
In January 2010, over on Twitter, a group of theatre folk started talking, brainstorming, tossing out ideas and testing to see how they’d float. Or if they’d float at all. And even though it was late, the conversation kept going. As it went on, it started to pick up more and more people from more and more places. It was one of those conversations.
Free of ego, free of distraction, we were all able to talk freely about our ideas and each others’.
Having read 2amt’s Twitter feed as time has progressed since the initial conversation, it’s become a bit more difficult to describe. I once described it as being like the Batsignal for theater artists, but that no longer accurately describes the feed. If you’ve ever wanted to find out how long theater artists can caterwaul about something the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts said, 2amt is the place to go.
But 2amt panels and presentations have been given at theater conferences and events in Chicago and some people in American theater that are on Twitter seem to have some respect for them. However, that doesn’t justify attacking a theater critic in the comments section of a blog. I would like to add that I don’t know if the person identifying themselves as being associated with 2amt is one of the primary users of the Twitter hashtag, someone that occasionally uses it, or if it’s just someone trying to diminish the credibility of 2amt. If anyone that is with 2amt knows, please leave me a comment.
Now back to this comment thread. “2am” came back and continued to try to pick a fight. Later, the commenter returned and called the critic an “elitist white man.” Come Monday, Abarbanel responded with another sharp rebuttal. The next day, there’s a post written by him that starts off with, “I had such a good time last week annoying blogger “2AM” with my comments on actors who don’t project that I thought I’d try to annoy 2AM again this week with Hey, you! Actor! Part II.” Sure enough, “2am” responded, thus continuing the cycle. (By the way, Torvald Helmer never slaps Nora around in A Doll’s House.)
For the most part, Lahr’s post and the fight between someone possibly with 2amt and Abarbanel are very different things. Lahr’s post lamented the existence of tweeters and bloggers, possibly causing some fights, although there’s currently only one comment on his post at the time I wrote this. Abarbanel’s first post was a piece that led to a tweeter/blogger/unknown person throwing the first virtual punch, which led to “Hey, you! Actor! Part II,” a post that seems closer to saying, “You want to fight? Fine. Let’s fight.” But in the sentence that I quoted, he mentioned that the commenter was a blogger as if the status changed who he was. He wasn’t just some anonymous troll, but an anonymous blogger that decided to go after a theater critic.
The odd thing about the Abarbanel vs. “2am” thing is that on WBEZ’s website it seems as though WBEZ has to approve the comments before they appear online. (I took a screenshot of the message after I posted a comment earlier today on a different post.) Since the message says that they have to be moderated by site administrators, I would like to know why comments that are attacking one of their contributors without anything constructive to say are being approved.
Yes, these are two completely different situations. As I said, one is of a critic seeming to dismiss bloggers and tweeters after a director slammed them at a theater conference, while the other is of someone that is either a Twitter user or posing as someone associated with something based on Twitter decided to throw the first punch. As children like to say when getting in trouble for fights, “They started it.” The belief tends to be that the old media—broadcast and print journalism—hates the new media, the bloggers. I don’t expect theater critics to hold hands in a circle with bloggers and people on Twitter and sing “Kumbayah,” but the fights or complaints should at least try to be constructive, and Lahr’s seems to be the closest thing to that. In the second instance I gave, conversations between theater artists and critics should be constructive. Those conversations shouldn’t be like the time Neil LaBute responded to a Time Out Chicago review with comments. (Sadly, the comments are missing since TOC shifted to their new web design.) Stereotypically, critics and theater people shouldn’t get along. It’s perfectly okay to disagree with anyone on what they write, but attacking them is going overboard.
As for the perpetual fighting between the two groups, I don’t think that will die down anytime soon.