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The Role of Theater Criticism

An interview with Time Out New York theater critic David Cote.

Illustration of The Columnist
(© Ran Xia)
Words are weapons. Chinese novelist Lu Xun used to say that he fought with his pen. His satires and stories made a whole generation of youth stand up and fight for what they believe in. There's a lineage of those who held their quills tightly, serving the people with honesty and observational eyes. They gradually adopted ink pens, and later typewriters, and now Mac Pros. No matter in what direction technology leads us, writers will always be the voices of the public…that is, if they do their jobs right. Cornelius Ryan covered the historical events during WWII and changed journalism entirely. Through his accurate, truthful, yet compassionate words, we go back in time and see people in the battlefield so vividly as if we had been to the trenches. It's a documentary in text, depicting ordinary people who happened to be the faces of significant events.

Joseph Alsop, the recently dissected character in MTC's The Columnist by David Auburn, was also a critical figure of American journalism. The Alsop brothers produced their own thrice-weekly column "Matter of Fact" after the war. His works were opinionated, powerful, but focused on "fact." That's why they had large readership throughout his career.

Theatre critics are the interesting bunch amongst writers. They write in an analytical and interpretive fashion about something elusive. They're powerful because readers depend on them to make choices. Their words can partly decide the life or death of a piece of art. To get more insights, I corresponded with David Cote, theatre editor at Time Out NY. He shared with me his ideas on the role critics play, their power, constraint, and how to excel at their jobs, which coincidentally come down, again, to being factual.

The Critic's "Voice"
I never wrote with a pompous, pseudo-objective institutional tone. A casual, humorous, smart-alecky mode has become the default. Time Out New York critics tend to avoid a stuffy or snobby tone; we try to establish an informal, clever, occasionally snarky approach. The idea is to balance enthusiasm, critical distance, skepticism, understanding of the scene, hunger for innovation, respect for tradition and the desire to entertain and inform the reader.

The Functions, Roles and Impacts of Reviews
The goal is to succinctly communicate the honest reaction to the major elements of the production. We need to identify the artist's intentions, measure how well they succeeded and place the work within a larger context of culture and our own taste. A critic's enthusiasm can be infectious and leads to ticket sales. The notion that a pan in The New York Times can close a show is mostly a myth; there have been numerous examples of shows that survived and thrived despite negative reviews. Our role is to honestly and impartially assess what's in front of us. Good critics should be intelligent, informed, balanced and insightful. Worse critics are ignorant of history and believe that their job is to deliver "zingers." The judgments are based on the quality of the language, designs, acting and the general impact of the piece in dramatic terms. It's necessary to weigh separate elements in the analysis and distinguish the efforts of different creative team members.

Reading the Opinions of Other Critics
I generally avoid reading my colleagues' work on shows I cover. I enjoy reading some of the great theater critics (Kenneth Tynan, George Jean Nathan, Walter Kerr, Alexander Woolcott, Stanley Kauffmann, Robert Brustein) for tips on style or for research purposes. I'll chat with fellow critics at intermission but we tend to avoid talking about the show at hand. I like to hear my companions' opinions. They help get you out of your cluttered little mind.

Groupthink is never any good when it comes to art. "Public taste" is sort of an oxymoron. The majority of people don't necessarily gravitate toward excellence or complexity. As a critic, I try to report my reaction to a piece, as passionately (or dispassionately) as possible, with the most accurate and persuasive language I can muster. Social media is a different issue. If a show is small or complex or weird or innovative, social media can be a great way to reach audiences by circumventing traditional media and marketing structures. However, it's a cliché but it's true: no matter what critics say, how many ads are run, the box office runs on word of mouth.

In the theatre world, critics are people of influential words. Their professional integrity is crucial to both the artists and the audiences. Being on both sides, the only principle we can, and should, follow is to stick with the truth.