The city of Chicago now only has one full-time theatre critic. In the wake of this news, the Chicago Reader published a piece with the (presumably) intentionally click-baity title “Do we really need theater critics?” (yes, I am taking the bait). Though the column ends on a tentative yes, it spends a lot more time in the middle arguing for no. For one thing, artists don’t care: “From their perspective, critics are unreliable, arts reporters are unreliable, and they’ve found that they can drive ticket sales on social media.”
Even the concluding rallying cry in favor of critics is depressingly pragmatic: “They’re an historical record; they have value for advancing the careers of playwrights, directors, and actors, and for theater companies applying for grants.”
If all people think theatre reviews are for is generating ad copy and pull quotes for grants, no wonder they don’t mind if critics disappear. Social media’s better at both of those things, anyway. But that’s also not actually why theatre criticism matters.
If theatre artists aren’t scared of losing critics, they are scared of losing relevance. Does theatre matter anymore? Why are audience numbers falling? Is there anything live performance can do in the face of endless entertainment options you can access from the comfort of your own home? If theatre wants to reclaim a place in the mainstream of American culture, critics are how that will happen. They are the people who articulate the relevance of the work the theatre does to what is going on in the world, who explain why these local, unscaleable pieces of art are part of a bigger, broader conversation.
In 2016, after the Chicago Reader revealed years of systematic abuse of young actresses by the leadership of the local Profiles Theatre, Christopher Piatt, one of the co-authors of the exposé, wrote a mea culpa. An actress he contact for the story said she assumed the press must have known what was going on, given the subject matter the company continually presented. Yes, Piatt agrees in the column, they should have. He writes, “The city’s theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what [predatory artistic director] Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way.” This is another potential power of the full-time critic, though one that was not used in this instance. And it is a power that depends on full-time, or close to full-time work: the ability to see a company or an artist’s shows consistently enough over a long enough period of time to notice patterns– and, of course, to have a recognition from their editors that their job is not just consumer reviews, but to report, in a sense, on the state of the local industry.
This sense of continuity is what smaller markets in particular need, and what they are least likely to have. There’s plenty of coverage of Broadway and London. Critics will swoop into the regions if there’s a show that seems destined for the commercial pipeline. But smaller cities are having their own conversations. Artists in smaller markets know this already, obviously. But a strong local critical corps is how that conversation gets lifted beyond individual shows or groups of friends talking amongst each other.
So let the bloggers do it, you may say. I love bloggers– I am a blogger and have been a blogger, after all. And I’ve been a freelance critic. And so I know that it’s very difficult to do this kind of broad-scope work without the time and resources to see a whole lot of shows. Like all the time. Like as if it’s your job, say. And it is a job, one that’s fundamentally based in the belief that theatre is good and wonderful and important, and thus worth thinking deeply about.
If you want theatre to matter, critics have to matter, too.