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The Grey Area Between Advocacy And Criticism

July 8, 2009

Karen McKevitt started an interesting debate recently on Theatre Bay Area's Chatterbox blog about whether trade publications should publish "negative" articles about artists and and their work. Here's the gist of Karen's commentary:

"The July/August issue of American Theatre hit my mailbox today, and I found an intriguing juxtaposition in its Letters section. I skimmed the page and saw Tony Taccone's name as one of the letter-writers, and I knew right away he was going to take exception to the feature [San Jose Mercury News critic] Karen D'Souza wrote about [Amy Freed's play produced at Berkeley Rep] You, Nero, where she basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep."

At the invitation of TBA marketing manager Clay Lord, I offered a few initial thoughts on the topic on the comments section of Chatterbox.

The first was this: "I think it's possible to write for American Theatre without being a cheerleader. I often do it. At the end of the day though, a feature story for any publication -- whether it's an "industry" publication or a general interest newspaper or magazine -- is not a review. I think focusing too strongly on the words of other critics (or more directly offering one's own opinion) in what's supposed to be a balanced piece about the evolution of a play is not necessarily the fairest or most journalistically interesting way to go."

I returned to the comments section of Karen McKevitt's blogpost later and wrote this: "I'd like to add something to what I wrote earlier. In Karen D'Souza's's defense: her piece was for the Critics Notebook section of the magazine, which isn't necessarily supposed to be a section for straight reporting. Although the articles written for this section are often feature-like in style, the magazine wants critical insight into the work/artists in question, so I think there is a bit of leeway for editorializing. That being said, there's still something odd going on in the case of the You Nero article: Karen didn't so much give her critical opinion of the SoCal production as give many other critics' (negative) opinions of the work. Which is maybe the root of the issue here. Criticism is disguised as reporting in the article, which may come across as being disingenuous."

This morning, I've been mulling more deeply over the complex issues at stake and here's a new thought: Just as actors and directors get cross with critics for making ill-informed assumptions about the production process based on the final product, so TBA and various other members of the theatre community may be guilty of the same thing: Only Karen D'Souza and the editors at American Theatre Magazine know the nature of the assignment. So to label it as a "feature" is to make assumptions about the kind of piece that Karen was commissioned to write that may not be correct. When Karen McKevitt writes "[D'Souza] basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep," she's making all kinds of assumptions about the nature of the assignment. Her take may be wrong. I've never personally written a Critics Notebook piece for the magazine, but I'm guessing that the critics who are commissioned to do these pieces are asked to assert their opinions in some way.

This leads to more questions such as a) should American Theatre publish opinion pieces at all? and b) if yes, should the writers be more up-front with their feelings (both negative and positive) rather than disguising them as "impartial" reporting by purloining the (negative) words of other critics?

In answer to part a), I say YES. American Theatre Magazine and other media like it should publish opinion pieces. It is possible to both support an industry and be its gadfly, though that line might be tricky to walk sometimes. Sycophantic writing about the arts in any context is boring and pointless. One of the things I most relish about writing for American Theatre Magazine is that I'm able to paint honest pictures of my interview subjects. I don't feel like I have to be a cheerleader. So, at least to a degree, the editors are open to broad-minded reporting.

In answer to part b), I say YES too. If the magazine is going to publish a Critics Notebook -- which, right or wrong, implies the solicitation of an opinion in its title -- the editors should encourage the writers to be honest and take ownership of their criticism rather than try to pass it off as straight reporting. Again, I am not party to the process that went on between Karen D'Souza and the editors at the magazine. So it's difficult to tell why the article was spun this way. But if the writer had personal doubts about the success of the Berkeley production of Freed's play, she should have voiced them (or been allowed to voice them) herself rather than couched her disapproval through a bunch of other peoples' quotes.

At the end of the day, this debate will hopefully cause the magazine to think more carefully about the role it plays within the industry and help theatre makers to reassess their relationship with the magazine. These outcomes can only be good in the long run. Down with cheerleading! Up with in-depth, sparkling, engaged prose!

5 Comments:

  • I think that we agree more than it first appears. While I did have some personal opinions about Karen's piece and AT, a good portion of my original post raised questions about the line between advocacy and cheerleading. This is slightly more subtle than the question of whether to publish negative articles or not. I, like you, do personally believe that, in general, honest writing in industry magazines is a good thing. Now, as you pointed out, Karen gave *other people's* negative opinions, which was different than her giving her own opinion. This is what seemed odd to me, and it appears Tony felt it was problematic as well.

    What also seems to be lost from my original post was that I was juxtaposing Tony's letter with another letter, which was about another article that some people deemed too critical for the magazine, but might have been wrought much more subtly than Karen's. I was juxtaposing the two letters as a comparison and as an illustration of how two AT articles handled, for lack of better words, the writers' truth and opinions.

    (I should add that I believe Karen is on vacation right now, and I feel a bit badly about continuing the conversation without having her jump in.)

    The assumption I made of the process was based on Tony's letter, where he indicated what the scope of the feature was as he understood it at the time Karen spoke with him about it.

    The assumptions of process based on product is a huge heady one. If I'm following the logic correctly, which I may not be, it seems that I shouldn't have had any opinion about the product (the article) unless I knew the process (what went on between Karen and the editors) behind it. You compared this to the assumptions critics make about the artistic process. So, should critics not have an opinion of the final product unless they know the process of creating that product? That's a whole other blog discussion!

    Thanks for picking up the discussion, Chloe.

    By Blogger Karen McKevitt, At July 8, 2009 at 3:41 PM  

  • Hi Karen
    thanks for your comments.
    i think an awareness among theatre-makers that there is a process to article-writing is a good thing. i don't expect people to know about it or understand it. but heightened sensitivity is desirable. however, at the end of the day all we can do is judge the final product, whether it's a play or a feature article. i think one of the problems with the whole American Theatre debate here is that the magazine's intentions look muddy. the lack of clarity about what karen was trying to achieve with her use of all the other critics' voices is partly what seems to be causing the debate here. and i agree that it would be good to have karen comment on all of this when she gets back from vacation, if she feels like weighing in.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At July 8, 2009 at 3:50 PM  

  • "i think an awareness among theatre-makers that there is a process to article-writing is a good thing."

    What an intriguing idea for an article, esp in an industry magazine.

    By Blogger Karen McKevitt, At July 8, 2009 at 5:00 PM  

  • I enjoyed reading Karen D'Souza's article, and thought its candor about the history of Freed's play's reception was a fruitful aspect of the overall discussion. As a playwright myself, I did wonder what Freed might have thought about the reiteration of her play's mixed reception. But it didn't strike me as wrong that D'Souza referred to other critics' opinions, since they are a matter of the historical record and why not refer to them as one might any other aspect of a production's history. If that sort of referencing is good enough for the scholars, why not for the critics and artists as well?

    Frankly, until more recently I've always thought AT Mag was too much of a brochure for the American Theatre, and too lacking in critical thought. That seems to have shifted just a bit over the past handful of years. But the subject reminds me of a Prague-based Czech theater magazine, written by Czechs but published in English, that is refreshingly critical about the Czech theater. The writing is detailed and openly opinionated, pro and con, about specific artists and productions. I found that it gave me a great window into contemporary Czech theater. The level of engagement expressed by the articles was exciting, and prompted me to seek out more information about the artists and their work.

    Why, really, shouldn't AT Mag feature more critical points of view? And why do we assume "critical" means "negative," as opposed to what I understand to be its true meaning as a reference to detailed, thoughtful, engaged consideration. Sarcasm and cheap personal stabs at artists are negative, but not at all critical, and I can't imagine this is the sort of thing the folks at AT, or its readers, would be interested in. But critical appraisals of our nation's artists and their work? Why the hell not?

    Sounds like a topic for the next Theater Salon. Hint hint!

    Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 11, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

  • Mark I'm with you all the way. The Magazine should publish more critical writing about theatre. There is no good reason why not. Definitely a topic for a future salon!

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At July 11, 2009 at 1:09 PM  

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