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?


  1. Wow, I gotta process this one. It's thought provoking to say the least. I'm not saying I disagree with you..I just had no idea how bad things had gotten. No wonder I haven't been able to discern what's offered out there a lot less than I used to. Thanks for writing this. Now I've got to figure out how to get the word out....

  2. I think your company has already started the post-newspaper review process by your ongoing blogging and active recruitment of audience members to spread the word. The internet is clearly the go to place for information of all kinds now and the Off-Off Broadway circuit needs to use it to its full advantage.
    The most important first step would be to establish an "official" web page for the the OOB community. If there is one already, or an organization that functions as your hub, than that needs to be broadcast, via Facebook, Twitter and all the other internet mechanisms. Then you need to start cultivating relationships with reviewers and the rest of the support network to focus on utilizing this site. If people recognize it as the place to go for information on the NYC OOB scene than eventually it will pay for itself both in terms of audience generated as well as advertising on the site. People who sign up for notifications whether it be email, FB, Twitter or any of the other myriad possibilities will appreciate feeling the pulse of the theater scene.

    1. Great ideas! We've been cultivating great relationships with experienced independent columnists/reviewers as well as up-and-coming writers who have a deep love of the arts. Your idea for a site is a great one - perhaps something you'll take on...? :)

  3. I wonder how long it will be before there are no reviews in the NY Times Arts & Leisure section. Even when there were more reviewers, I still never really heard about other theater around town and I continue to be amazed at the amount of wonderful theater and great actors without the super star magnet that I tend to hear or find out about just on a fluke. Well since publications don't want to use their real estate for reviews, I guess one would have to rely on a central online Theater Review site. It's there now, but all over the place. Of course I haven't considered the logistics of it all. It's amazing how hard it is still to get the word out with today's technology. But now that I think of it, today's technology is also part of the problem along with people's tweet-attention span. Hashtag-Speaking of which, this is too long.

  4. Great thought provoking article Brandon. After last night's initial meeting of this year's company for The Seeing Place Theater, I left with a feeling of real excitement about the work of an actor driven company and the potential for spreading the word about it through "unconventional" or 21st Century means. If we are going to look to the Howard Kerrs, the Brooks Atkinsons, the Clive Barnes, the John Larhs or the Michael Mustos of the past, we are only going to be as frustrated as those of us who are trying to resurrect the Selectric Typewriter. I am definitely a woman whose roots are firmly planted in picking up the NYTIMES on Friday and Sunday, the NEW YORKER every week and looking for those beautifully written reviews (and even BACKSTAGE for Off Off Broadway commentary), but we have to face our tough economic times and reality. As we all know, commerce, the star system, and TV/film rules the roost. I love the idea of a central location on the internet for posting reviews or comments on OOB. Also love the idea of reader-generated reviews. How many times have you read a review and thought to yourself "That idiot! He/she just didn[t get it!" It could be kind of like the way restaurants are getting reviewed now. Even doctors and lawyers. A "Grub Hub" for theater.
    Anyway, good luck to all of us.

    1. Hey, Joan! A "Grub Hub" for theatre is such a wonderful idea. Perhaps we can figure out a way to set that up!


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