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Theater in WNY / Should reviews dictate your theater choices?


There was a time when every large American city had multiple daily papers and each paper had a resident drama critic. No more.


The rise of digital media has had a huge impact on all aspects of journalism, including theater criticism. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1990, 62,328,000 Americans read a newspaper every day. In 2017, that number was down to 30,948,419. At the same time, drama critics at daily papers have been disappearing like dinosaurs. Still, to proclaim the death of theater criticism or of daily newspapers would be as premature as to announce the death of theater itself.


When it comes to the arts, it seems the rise of the Internet has merely exposed a lack of commitment that has long characterized daily print media. Whereas the arts were always the mainstay of alternative weekly papers and regional magazines, it has always been a battle to convince city editors at the dailies that the arts are an important part of current events, and that qualified writers should be assigned to cover them.


When the chips are down, the arts are the first to go.


In 2015 and 2016, the Daily News, the New York Post, and USA Today all eliminated full-time theater critics. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the nation’s largest newspapers, announced the elimination of reviews and features related to film, theater, and visual art from their suburban editions.


Since the 1990s, we’ve also seen the erosion of drama criticism as a specialty. Newspapers increasingly assigned a single writer to all the arts. In recent years, for example, the Chicago Sun-Times obliged veteran drama critic Hedy Weiss to cover the arts beyond her actual area of expertise, while limiting her to a single page a week. Finally, after thirty-three years, she was laid off and not replaced. Her final piece for the Sun-Times was not about theater at all; it was a review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.


This year, Buffalo’s remaining daily newspaper, the Buffalo News, eliminated the position of full-time arts critic. The nation’s only association of professional drama critics, The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), of which I am a member, has felt an urgent need to address this situation.


At my first ATCA conference, I watched as the membership split along generational lines: younger members objecting to the burden of paper handouts; older members protesting that they did not know how to “download” files. Veteran members protested that “bloggers” could not be true “journalists.”


In a few short years, all of this changed.


At a recent meeting of the membership, topics ranged from the ATCA logo (which features a drama critic depicted as an elderly white male) to a proposal to use the American spelling of “theater” in the name of the organization. The most pressing priority, however, was to refresh and diversify ATCA’s aging membership, and to move the organization into the digital age.


Western New York has not been left untouched by the digital revolution. In an age when absolutely anyone can publish online, there has been a rapid upswing in the number of online theater “reviewers” in WNY. Their reviews have quickly and indiscriminately been snapped up by local theaters looking to promote their shows. We now see the inevitable pull-quotes from these sources, written in the kind of spritely journalistic prose that brims with the hyperbolic praise and clever barbs that are the mainstay of every amateur’s Addison DeWitt/Dorothy Parker fantasy.


Is this a degradation of drama criticism? I suppose so. On the other hand, it’s always been a pretty tawdry profession. I’d say, in fact, that after you wade through the hacks, the explosion of Internet reviews might actually hold the possibility of something better than before. With bloggers, the public gets a heavy dose of passion for the theater; they get multiple opinions; and there is even a chance that some of those bloggers out there might actually have the expertise to do the job well!


Yes, readers must learn to discriminate between reputable and unqualified sources, but that was always true of print, too. Anybody can voice an opinion on a play. In fact, everybody usually does, starting at intermission. But from a bona fide critic, readers have a right to expect a certain level of expertise and insight.


Here are some questions to ask when assessing a theater review:


Does the review provide any useful information and analysis, or is it merely a thumbs-up/thumbs-down appraisal couched in clever prose?


Is the review just a rehash of the plot?


Is the review more than a roster of cast members with their character names and a few vivid adjectives attached?


Does the writer have any knowledge of the theater deeper than what you might get from a quick Google search?


Does the review consider the production circumstances? For example, does the review get lost in the lavishness or minimalism of the scenery, without considering its effectiveness and appropriateness?


Does the reviewer consider that a new play presents different challenges from an established classic?


Is the writer able to see past personal taste and life experience to assess what the artists have actually presented?


Does the review, good or bad, deepen your understanding of the play, or is it written to be a stand-alone reading experience, intended to amuse readers with its scathing wit, or to provide public relations fodder to a theater that provided free tickets?    


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