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.

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Continuing Saga of Critics vs. Bloggers, Tweeters

  1. I should think you’d know the 2amt site and those of us actively writing for it to know that:

    1. we don’t comment anonymously, we always use our real names and stand behind what we say, and

    2. we don’t attack critics or blog posts like that.

    On top of which, the actual 2amt twitter account exists to post links to articles of interest, new posts on the site, events that we may be involved with and/or to ask questions that spark discussion. It also exists to retweet practical questions or requests for help to a wider audience to see if anyone can help. The account’s bio clearly identifies who maintains the account–that would be me–and when I do post an opinion or weigh in on a topic beyond pointing to it, I use my own twitter account instead.

    As for the tag itself, as it’s grown in popularity, it’s grown in people retweeting things multiple times, people adding the tag itself to theatre-related tweets, etc. As with anything like this, there is what Travis Bedard calls “churn,” where new people who’ve just discovered the tag and the site ask questions or start discussions that a lot of us have been through multiple times on the tag. But considering the fact that good conversations do go on there every day–and about much, much more than Rocco’s “supply/demand” talk from January. relevant though that talk may be in the wake of Intiman and Florida Stage–and considering how people have come together increasingly for in-person meetups, I’d say your original “Batsignal” description still holds true, “clique” less so. The conversations on 2amt are open to everyone, as they always have been. That’s never changed and it never will.

    The conversation has also been open to–and welcoming to–theatre critics and journalists.

    Lastly, depending on the blogging or commenting software that WBEZ uses, the link to the 2amt website may have been automatic. In WordPress, when writing a post on the 2amt site, it creates hotlinks to the 2amt site whenever it sees “2amt” typed out. I’ve never told it to do that, it’s simply automatic. I’m not saying that’s what happened in the WBEZ case, but it’s possible. It’s just as possible that someone wants to discredit the site. What I do know is that this doesn’t sound like anyone who actively engages in 2amt conversations on either the site or on the hashtag.

    At the 2amt site, we moderate comments as well, and we don’t approve anonymous comments. If you can’t use your name to stand behind your comment or opinion, it can’t be worth much.

  2. David, I don’t know the site, the feed, and the people behind both anymore, which is why I had to ask for someone to verify whether or not that was anyone with 2amt, and I do appreciate your response. My “clique” comment stems from me having heard from several people that they have been dismissed or ignored on either the website or blog, although the instances on the website have been because those people aren’t on Twitter. I would also hope that the conversations have been open to theater critics and journalists since Kris Vire was one of the people in the original conversation.

  3. The “people behind the website” and maintaining/guiding the tag are the same as day one. Yes, we have more writers for the site. Yes, more people have joined in on the tag. But the editors behind the curtain? Still myself, still Travis. As for the actual Twitter account, that has only and ever been me.

    I’m not aware of anyone who been dismissed or anyone who’s been dismissive, but that’s not our style. It’s possible that, in the rush of tweets that one might get ignored, but we do our best to follow up on direct questions & comments.

  4. In regards to your “We don’t attack critics or blog posts like that” remark, I really have a hard time believing that because a simple search on Twitter for “#2amt” showed me one of the people using the tag discussing the aforementioned critic and the other critic for WBEZ not giving a comprehensive overview of West Side theater in Chicago. Of course, that person fails, as well as all of those people complaining on the article, to realize that a radio segment has time constraints, so both of those critics couldn’t have brought up all of the West Side theater companies, especially since they had to also give a review of New Leaf Theatre’s Lighthousekeeping.

    I have been informed by far too many people about the dismissive nature of 2amt, some of whom are with some of the oldest and most prolific off-Loop companies in Chicago. There are some people that have eventually been accepted, but it took a while.

    Now my question is this: Why are you telling me that it isn’t anyone with 2amt? I am not an employee of WBEZ, nor am I an intern with WBEZ. (Although I do pledge money to them.) I can’t relay to them your defense and it’s not my job to do that. It’s entirely possible that various people in the city of Chicago, not to mention the suburbs, might be getting their first introduction to 2amt through those negative comments, even if you’re saying that it isn’t anyone associated with 2amt. If this fight keeps continuing, then more people might think that this really is someone with 2amt and that could be problematic if you don’t want to make yourself look like a community of caterwauling.

  5. I mention it here because you brought it to my attention.

    You’re conflating the people behind the site & try to guide the tag with everyone else who is free to use that tag in their tweets. The only “we” I can speak for are myself and Travis.

    If you’re referring to Aaron’s most recent post, it uses hyperbole to make its point. It is most definitely not an attack on anyone.

    As for Tony–who I presume you’re referring to above–I wouldn’t call that an attack but an artist with a genuine concern and criticism. If it’s baseless, someone can call him on it directly by pointing out the time constraints of radio reviews. (As for Lighthousekeeping, would it have received time if it weren’t playing at the DCA theatre? I’d hope so.)

    As for the “dismissive nature” of 2amt, all I can say is that people will get from it what they put into it. I’ve heard complaints from people who’ve posted a lone comment and then complained that no one bothered with them. If this were truly a clique, it would not have grown beyond the initial Chicago/Louisville/Austin/Vancouver/Queensland conversation, it wouldn’t continue to grow, and it wouldn’t converse in the open.

  6. I actually was not referring to Aaron Anderson’s most recent post since I have not read it yet. I was referring to Tony Adams, who has, as you put it, been showing a “genuine concern and criticism” for that particular critic for quite some time. I don’t think it’s justified criticism because, as I said, there are time constraints with radio broadcasts and theater is not the main focus of 848, just like theater not being the main focus of the Chicago Tribune‘s cultural coverage.

    I think that Lighthousekeeping might have been reviewed even if it wasn’t playing at the DCA theatre because the Dueling Critics have reviewed at least two other New Leaf Theatre productions, both of which were performed at New Leaf’s home, the Lincoln Park Cultural Center. I’m not sure how it is decided as to what plays the Dueling Critics will review on the air, but they decided to review Lighthousekeeping. Generally, I think they tend to review plays that are not performed in the Loop.

    “The only ‘we’ I can speak for are myself and Travis.”

    Then I assume that it’s not you or Bedard writing the comments, which is good to know, although I didn’t think that it would be either of you.

  7. OK, I’m a little behind in my google reader, so I just saw this post, and the comments for the other one you mentioned. But I would hope you’re not insinuating that I wrote some anonymous attack on WBEZ’s blog. If that’s what you’re thinking, rest assured I use my own name whenever I speak/write/comment.

    And for the record time constraints are a feeble excuse for not being able to talk about any of the theatres on the west side (ETA is decidedly not on the west side), while listing most of the summer stock companies the following week.

    Also fwiw, I pretty much agree about the volume thing. Far too many actors fail to project their voices in houses of any size. Even with only 40 seats actors need to project and I’m constantly giving that note to actors.

  8. Tony, I have no clue who is behind the comments. That’s why I even mentioned in my post that it could be someone trying to discredit 2amt. I also checked WBEZ’s website before writing this response and there is an explanation as to what theaters were chosen for discussion and why.

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