Op-Alt: Crritic! A proposal for cross-fertilization in theater criticism

ESTRAGON:

That's the idea, let's abuse each other.

They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.

VLADIMIR:

Moron!

ESTRAGON:

Vermin!

VLADIMIR:

Abortion!

ESTRAGON:

Morpion!

VLADIMIR:

Sewer-rat!

ESTRAGON:

Curate!

VLADIMIR:

Cretin!

ESTRAGON:

(with finality). Crritic!

VLADIMIR:

Oh!

He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

About a decade ago, I worked as a second-stringer critic for The Village Voice in New York. I saw it as a great way to get free theater tickets, but after a couple of years of sporadic work, I decided I didn't want to do it anymore.

It was making me mean. And it was making me hate the theater.

It was making me hate the theater because, as one of a number of second stringers (the Voice's Michael Feingold was the chief reviewer at the time) I was sent to—I don't know how else to put this—the shittier shows. Feingold got the Public Theater and New York Theatre Workshop; the rest of us got the dregs.

I wanted the shows to be great, but they weren't, and as a frustrated artist myself—I had taken a break from directing plays to take a real job as a journalist—I realized that I was acting out. So, I quit.

The thing is, I failed. I failed myself, and I failed the art form. I failed, because as someone with a decent background in the area, I was more than qualified to engage in a conversation and help the art. But I was more centered on being cranky and making myself sound real smart.

I've revisited this thought recently, because I've been thinking about the usefulness and the limits of criticism. And I've been thinking about how Baltimore could be a testing ground for something new.

There are basically three approaches to criticism: consumer protection, documentation, and dramaturgical critique. Each one of these approaches is legitimate, and in an ideal world they would be combined. But it's hard to do. For one thing, the critic needs to be well informed and have to have a relatively decent background in whatever they are talking about. They also have to know how to write. And they need to be enthusiastic to a kind of weird and obsessive degree.

The Baltimore Sun does pretty well on the consumer protection end of things. It reviews Center Stage, Everyman, and the Hippodrome, and while I personally believe that it too often gives these institutions a pass, The Sun generally does an acceptable job of warning people against blowing their hard-earned cash on expensive bad theater. (These institutions are really the only ones whose ticket prices are high enough for this to be a real issue.)

There is, of course, a whole other world of theater and performance in Baltimore that is mostly ignored by The Sun. The alternative press (such as City Paper and Bmore Art) covers it, but stuff is still constantly being overlooked and left out, and I'm afraid that without the documentation, it will be lost forever. I don't believe this is due to lack of space (especially in the online world), but because of the lack of manpower. Alternative theater is also covered by bloggers, but this is usually done anonymously—which seems cowardly—and the writers often appear more interested in espousing their own personal aesthetic—the first role of a critic is to at least meet the artist halfway—and proving how clever they are (much like I did for the Voice).

Baltimore is not alone with these problems. Criticism as an institution needs an overhaul in this country. But it does seem like this city is in an ideal place for experimentation. I'm not sure what that would be, but Smaltimore is the perfect place for seeing how artists and the critical establishment—whatever that might be at this moment—could interact and cross-fertilize. Wouldn't it be great if artists and reviewers could actually converse with each other about the work that is going on? Perhaps artistic perspectives could be combined with editorial ones. Artists have, of course, written for City Paper in the past, but what if this was less a one-off and more of a dialogue?

I know it goes against "journalistic integrity" for critics and arts writers to be actively involved in the art form. But in an artistic community as tight as this, those with the deepest knowledge of the form tend to also be active participants in making the art. For example, take City Paper's Baynard Woods, who has had to pull back from reviewing to write a "Conflicts of Interest" column. (And speaking of conflicts, full disclosure, my wife is editor of CP.) So, what if we embraced the claustrophobic and incestuous nature of the Baltimore art scene and tried to create some kind of new model?

I suppose it's too much to ask of artists to actually evaluate each other's works—I suspect many would feel weird and queasy about that, worrying that some cigar-chewing producer would yell, "You'll never work in this town again!" But part of me wonders whether that's true. Certainly, artists respond to each other's work all the time behind closed doors. But what would be the point of airing our dirty laundry?

Well, for one thing, if artists were actively involved the critical world, it would result in better reviewing from critics (they can move out of the simple consumer reports or documentary models). This would also give rise to a smarter, more informed, and more engaged audience.

This sounds a bit nuts, I suppose, but I'd pay good money (I know, I know, City Paper is free) to read Kwame Kwei-Armah's perspective on The Annex Theater's last production "Insurrection: Holding History." And, on the flip side, I'd really like to hear what Stillpointe Theatre's Ryan Haase had to say about Center Stage's "Pride and Prejudice." You've got to admit, it'd be interesting to hear them mix things up a bit.

And even if it wasn't artists reviewing each others' shows, what about a public conversation among artists about the issues of the day—such as the disconnect between the smaller, scrappier theaters, the big daddies like Center Stage and Everyman, and the perennial organizations such as Arena Players or Spotlighters. Or the usage of non-traditional—aka female—casting in the upcoming Center Stage production of "As You Like It." (Perhaps the folks at the Annex would like to point out that they already ventured into that territory with Sophie Hinderberger playing the title role in Annex's production of "Macbeth" a couple of years ago.) City Paper editors Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman are both artists and the paper ventured into similar territory last week with Sheila Gaskins' open letter about the lack of diversity in the arts in this town—and has done this before with such contributors as Abdu Ali and Terence Hannum—but it should happen even more. Conversations between artists—like Andy Warhol's old Interview magazine—would be a step in the right direction.

The title of this piece is not only a reference to a scene in "Waiting for Godot"; it's also a reference to a title of a series of articles in Village Voice about 20 years ago that were an attempt to cross the divide I'm referring to. After about four pieces, the endeavor withered on the vine. New York was probably too big and too institutionalized to really affect this kind of rethinking of the artist/reviewer relationship. But Baltimore is a different beast. Perhaps this town is fertile ground for this kind of experimentation.

Let's see, shall we?

Stephen Nunns is an associate theater professor at Towson University and a co-founder of the Acme Corporation.

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