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When the Critic-Artist Line Becomes Especially Murky

January 31, 2008

One of the dilemmas that I've been grappling with as a theatre critic in recent years is the business of writing about productions created by people with whom I'm personally acquainted or even friends with. This issue is becoming increasingly apparent in my life because the arts community is small and close-knit here and I find myself running into actors, directors, playwrights, and producers etc all the time.

I guess I could keep people at arm's length in order to maintain a sense of so-called "critical purity." But to my mind this is a stressful way of going about writing about the arts. It would mean such things as dashing out of the theatre immediately after shows, not responding to any emails from artists, exchanging inane pleasantries with theatre makers when I happen to see them instead of having real conversations and other annoying behavior that seems unhelpful both to me and the people I write about. And it would invariably lead to drab writing. What's more, the critics I most admire - people like Kenneth Tynan and G B Shaw - weren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and get themselves involved in a good skirmish.

My general feeling is that if I write from a place of honesty and make my case well, then I should be able to keep on track from an ethical standpoint as a reviewer. So far, this way of doing things seems to be working. I've gotten into a few fights along the way, but in general, things have been OK. I've been worried about the "perceived conflict of interest" issue in the past too - about people thinking I can't be trusted on the grounds that I may "know" someone in the cast or crew. But I've decided I can't waste time worrying about what other people think of my approach to criticism. Hopefully people who know my work know that I'm not the sort of person to bestow praise or undue criticism on a work just because I know the artist.

But what about cases where the critic-artist relationship is even less well-defined and more blurred? I'm speaking of times where I've gone to see a friend's show without having a formal review to turn in afterwards. In other words, instances where I'm more in the audience out of curiosity and/or to support my friend than to necessarily publish a piece of critical writing based on the experience.

Things get ethically muddy because I also keep this culture blog. I often feel compelled to offer my thoughts on a production online and my first instinct is usually to write a blog review about the experience of seeing a show. But my artist friend may not know that I'm intending to blog about the show. So the usual "transaction" between artist and critic subtly changes. The question is, does this matter or not?

A few days ago, I went to see a dance theatre production created by a friend. I wrote a blog post about it and published it. 15 minutes later, in a fit of angst prompted by my husband, I took it down. "Why do you feel the need to blog about everything you see? Is it absolutely necessary?" the spouse asked.

All good questions. I don't think it's always necessary to blog about shows I experience. Sometimes I don't bother writing about a production at all. But if the show illustrates a broader point I want to make about the arts or society or whatever, then why not stick some comments up on the blog? Then again, perhaps in this case my comments are better delivered privately to my artist friend, should she request feedback, rather than through the public forum of the blog?

Hmm. Food for cogitation.

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