Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Word (Or Is It?)

My reaction to most things these days.

It's officially at the midpoint of summer, and it's also around the time when the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer. Instead, all my brain wants is play with my niece, have sangria and make strawberry cake.

Which is why I have been meaning to write this post earlier, but then I couldn't quite wrap my head around what I wanted to say about the topic in question. Because the humidity makes 85 degrees feel like 100, I feel like my brain is one hop, skip and a jump away from melting into a giant puddle. Not to mention the fact that on Twitter, a lot of people had many things to say about it, some very emotional, others very astute, others all of the above.

But this past week has been an interesting one for criticism and it's made me ponder one question: Who has the last word these days?

First, let's recap. A critic named Lily Janiak for "HowlRound," a theatre blog that is read primarily by theatre artists, wrote a review of "American Nights" at California Shakespeare Theater. Criticism of said review came from staffers of the theatre (including the artistic director Jon Moscone), and other artists. Criticism of the criticism also followed.

And then editor Polly Carl posted up an apology, saying that, "There is a way that the tone of Lily's piece can be read as disrespectful. This is not a tone we want to promote on HowlRound." I initially saw the apology as an abandonment of the writer, because in the journalism world, to quote Mitt Romney, there are "no apologies," unless you spell someone's name wrong or report a false fact.

But in the ensuing hubbub, I now just see it as an editor's comments to her readers. And for those who read "HowlRound" regularly, this kind of clarification of intentions is common on the blog. Call it transparency.

In the same week, one of my favorite people on Twitter Jason Zinoman of the "New York Times" gave an address at the annual American Theatre Critics Association Conference, where he said:

It’s important to note that because of the internet, which has destroyed the fundamental economic model we depended on, interest in criticism has grown, not shrunk; that the places to read it are a click away and are greater than ever. More people are engaged in debates. The potential for a writer to reach an audience larger than their circle has never been greater.... 
Informed theater criticism is a scarce resource with a growing audience. In economic terms, the supply is small and demand is high. So while the fundamentals of the economic model are shaky, the fundamentals underneath the fundamentals are actually strong.

There is a fear in the American theatre of criticism. It's this old fashioned thought that the word of the theatre critic is the last word on the play, and a less-than-stellar review as the cause of panic. It's the fear that, if a critic wrote something scathing, then those words will go down for the age as the record on the play until the end of time/zombie apocalypse, and it will affect audience turnout, which will affect ticket sales, which will prematurely end a play.

Or, in Dr. Carl's words, the negative tone has "the power to close down, diminish, and dismiss."

But that's no longer a hard and fast rule. And the work can be dismissed, but only if the artist allows their work to be. Two words: social media.

As contemporary critics in a digital landscape, we are more accountable for what we write. Because for everything we put online, there is an instantaneous opportunity for feedback and push-back. There's an opportunity to reach a wider audience with your opinions, but there's also an opportunity for them to tar and feather you verbally in an online, public forum.

In the old days, such as when Frank Rich could destroy a play just by a stroke of his typewriter, the critics were the very last word on any play because there was no avenue for instantaneous reactions. And the ones who spoke back, their reactions did not get as much exposure as the initial critical voice. Not to mention that typing words on a computer screen is a lot faster than sitting down, putting pen to paper, and paying for postage.

You also see the fruits (grapes) of your labor immediately in the Internet age.

In this digital landscape, a theatre critic is no longer the last word on a particular play. Instead, the conversation lives on in the comment boxes, on Twitter feeds where people can follow the critic and Tweet at him/her, and on e-mail (if you want to be retro about it).

Or, if they have substantial things to say, they can write an essay, submit it to the editor and then have it posted online. Or write a blog post (hi!).

And as a critic, once you hit publish, you have to be prepared for the consequences, and don't apologize for it. It's a job that involves giving your opinion. Not everyone is going to be happy with your opinion, the best you can hope for is that you phrased your viewpoints in a cogent way, filled with evidence. For me, as a fellow young theatre writer, it was refreshing to read Janiak's review and to find such an energetic and acerbic voice on "HowlRound." And she got people talking about her work, and her name, which is the first big step in journalism.

Was Dr. Carl's apology unnecessary? I think so. Sometimes there are stumbling blocks on the way to finding a style as a writer. But not all of it needs to come with a grand apology. A critical opinions will not always hit a soft cushion. Sometimes the place where you drop your truth bombs is hard concrete.

Pick up the pieces and continue working. Do better next time.

And remember, there are no last words, not on the Internet.


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    1. Nathan, thank you for your comment. My apologies for not responding to your sooner, I wanted to give what you wrote some thought (and I also have a busy day job).

      I would be glad to talk about your play in more detail. It's difficult to get across nuance in a 200-word review (which was the limit), so I can clarify my thoughts if you wish. Just send me an e-mail at

      Also, congratulations on Fringe Encore!

  2. Nathan, I have not seen your play. Your lengthy comment does, however, lead me to question whether the play actually achieves what you say you intended. A work that stands on its own shouldn't require this much explanation.

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