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!