Thursday, July 25, 2013

Where Have All The Critics Gone?

Cartoon Courtesy of The New Yorker
Maybe you haven't heard:

The readership for theatre reviews just wasn't cutting it for major publications like Backstage, who recently cancelled both online and print reviews.  That's not all.  The Village Voice also recently let go of both Michael Feingold and Michael Musto - big time reviewers and supporters of the New York Theatre Scene.  That's just the tip of the iceberg.  There are cutbacks everywhere you look.

We have had major reviewers come see our shows, who are now relegated to blogging.  Don't get me wrong - blogging is great!  And I'm delighted that many reviewers have chosen to support the arts community in any way they can.  But this is a major issue.  It's a major loss for the arts.

Once upon a time, a critic's job was more akin to talent scouting for the world at large.  As such, reviewers would see shows all over the place and try to connect art with its appropriate audience.  Unfortunately, that's not happening much anymore.

In a city like New York, there are plays popping up everywhere you look.  There just isn't time (or money) for reviewers to see them all.  And with rampant budget cuts, there is special pressure for publications to consider the marketability of their reviews.  Don't worry, though.  Broadway and Off-Broadway will always get their fair shake.  After all, that's where all the credible work happens in NYC, right?

But the harsh reality for Off-Off Broadway is that in order to draw the larger publications to see the show, there had better be a major gimmick - four actors playing 40 roles, interactive media performances streaming online, performance art pieces set in an apartment that you have to watch with binoculars and headphones.  The list goes on and on.

Once upon a time, publications like Backstage and Show Business Weekly were paramount in sharing all kinds of work with the world, but obviously those times are gone.  And so there is a great pressure in the indie circuit to produce new work.  The unfortunate reality, though, is that most new plays aren't all that great.  And they are often being work-shopped during rehearsals, so that actors can't really sink their teeth in and tell a story.  There's too much up in the air.  It's just not productive to build a writing ensemble and an acting ensemble at the same time.  So, audiences at the Off-Off Broadway level come to expect a focus on the writing and design of a show - which is also the common focus in more commercial theater in NYC.  So, Off-Off-Broadway shows are constantly hoping to springboard into an Off-Broadway extension.  And so, we have created a mentality that says that the goal is Broadway.  And anything that challenges the hip commercial norms goes largely unnoticed.

When was the last time anyone heard of a major acting ensemble in NYC?

In our community, we tend to minimize actors on the indie-theatre level, so actor-driven companies often go unnoticed by the larger public.  When I say "actor-driven", I mean to say that the focus is the behavior of the actors (not just the words they are saying and the design elements that bring the production together).  As an actor-driven company, The Seeing Place tends towards published works - or "revivals" as we were told by a very prominent theatre critic while pitching our last season.  The New York press seems to believe that there's no reason to see Off-Off Broadway revivals because they have already seen these shows on Broadway or Off-Broadway - with "A-list actors and designers".

There are the rare occasions that one actor-driven show will pop through the cracks, but it's rare.  Usually, when we hear about acting, it's in relation to a celebrity, a great star turn, or a real scene-stealer.  We hear about the strength of a single performance, rather than a company of people.  Most of the time, if there is a strong ensemble in NYC, it's in a show that has transferred from somewhere else. 

I firmly believe that there is great ensemble work that happens all over the place in this city.  I only wish I could hear about it.  With dwindling support for reviews in our community, how exactly can upstart companies hope get the word out anymore? 

Any ideas?