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Do Critics Have Sell-By Dates?

September 26, 2008

Like dairy products, theatre critics come with sell-by dates. At some point after you've been in the game for a while and have covered shows on similar subjects by the same companies over and over again, you wake up one day and realize that you've said just about all you have to say about these plays and players. You find yourself repeating yourself. The word choices, sentence constructions and themes that once seemed so fresh now seem stale by dint of endless repetition. You've gotten to know people in the business, making the job of being honest about their work more of a challenge. You continue to walk the straight and narrow anyway because your first priority is to tell it how it is. But you don't revel in your unflinching honesty as much as you once did because the director whose show you just trashed has long been a keen reader of your blog.

It takes a brave critic to admit all this to themselves and an even braver one to take action. For those lucky few with staff jobs, the possibility of moving on to another beat makes the prospect of hanging up their reviewers' notebooks and pen-lights more palatable. Those staffers with a strong attachment to the theatre can always kid themselves that they're taking a sabbatical rather than moving on for good.

But for freelancers (and most theatre critics these days aren't on the payroll) the idea of giving up writing about a performing arts community they've come to know and love, the career-building power of a regular platform, and a steady paycheck seems particularly daunting.

Getting a similar gig at another media outlet probably isn't the solution for people who are enough in tune with themselves to face the reality of their predicament. For you'll still be writing about the same shows and producers, albeit for a different editor and maybe a different core audience. Moving elsewhere is a possibility, but getting in on the tiny number of available jobs usually takes living in that place for months first if not years. Theatre is an intensely local genre, so unless you're one of those very few reviewers who manages to snag a job in another market in spite of having no prior knowledge of that city's specific arts environment, you're kind of stuffed.

There are few things worse for the health of a theatre community (and I'm including audiences in my definition of the word) than stale, jaded journalism. Knowing this is one thing. Doing something about it, however, is quite another.

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