Logo art for The Los Angeles Times' "Culture Monster" arts section
Newspapers are a dying medium. The last five years have seen a movement toward alternative news sources, such as blogs and social media, rather than daily papers. Not surprisingly, this correlates with a change in how the arts are formally critiqued.
It used to be that theaters invited the major press players in town to their opening nights, and that a review from a prominent critic could make or break a production. Currently, although these major reviewers are still wielding some influence over the prestige of a production, the overall movement of the "millennial" generation is toward peer group criticism, as seen through popular websites such as Yelp and Facebook. Media sites now almost always allow for comments to articles and stories, and the cloak of anonymity that the Internet creates permits freedom of speech, sometimes to the point of cruelty. Is this helpful or harmful for a theater's reputation?
Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC wrote on Monday, November 14 about the "scary trend" of popular opinion gaining relevance over reviews written by experts. He argued that professional critics often have a high level of knowledge about their field that allows them to write thoughtful reviews that are of greater value than those of the average arts consumer. He sums up his article (which, ironically, is a blog entry on the Huffington Post) by saying, "No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best."
To an extent, I agree with Kaiser. As Director of Publicity for California Repertory Company, I have often debated the value of press reviews at Cal Rep, arguing that a good review from a major paper will not only cause a surge in ticket sales for that particular production but will also raise the status of the theater company in general. At Cal Rep, we entertain a variety of critics, both those who write for established news sources and those who maintain their own blogs. I, personally, find value in all reviews. And, unlike Kaiser, I think it is still fairly easy to separate professional critics from amateur ones. The Los Angeles Times still carries weight over the "Long Beach Acting Examiner" blog, for example. But I don't devalue the opinion of theater bloggers. I believe that arts bloggers, specifically speaking now of bloggers who devote their entire website to arts and culture, as well as writers for established arts websites such as TheaterMania, do have some level of expertise or they would not be devoting themselves to writing solely about art.
In an interesting embrace of the peer review culture, Barrington Stage Company debuted iCritic last year in the lobby of their theatre. Developed by Laura Roudabush, Marketing Director for the company, after seeing a similar setup at the museum, iCritic is a video booth set up in the lobby for patrons to record three minute videos of themselves discussing the plays that can be uploaded to YouTube or other social media sites. Launched during their mainstage production of Guys and Dolls, they recorded over 150 videos that were viewed more than 4,400 times. Embracing the reaction of the audience and using it as part of a theater's publicity campaign is an ingenious idea that merges theater with newly forming technologies.
I am not advocating for audience reviews to replace press reviews, but I think ignoring the change in the media climate in which we are living would be detrimental to a theater company's publicity strategy. There is definitely value in a feature in Backstage, or a critique in The Los Angeles Times but a strong social media campaign with positive audience reviews can also sell tickets and raise the profile of the theater. Rather than lamenting about the death of criticism, we should welcome the opportunity to engage our audience. In embracing the audience, however, it is important that we do not let their opinion dictate artistic vision, but rather inform it. Careful monitoring of patron feedback in addition to critical reviews should illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of a company and help them grow in the future.