Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Monday, July 6, 2009

Advocacy or Cheerleading...Or Both?

The July/August issue of American Theatre hit my mailbox today, and I found an intriguing juxtaposition in its Letters section. I skimmed the page and saw Tony Taccone’s name as one of the letter-writers, and I knew right away he was going to take exception to the feature Karen D’Souza wrote about You, Nero, where she basically rehashed negative criticism of the South Coast Rep performance in a feature that in theory was supposed to be about the second production at Berkeley Rep. (For some reason, the May/June issue hasn't been archived online yet, otherwise I would provide a link.) Now, when I read Karen’s article, I thought to myself, Why would she be rehashing all this negativity—and some of it was fairly below the belt—in an article about new work for a magazine like American Theatre? Tony pointed out the same thing in his letter—that “instead of a thoughtful examination of this topic, the story read like a harsh review of the first production”—and he also went on to support his colleagues at South Coast Rep.

Another letter in the issue referenced a previous letter that took the magazine to task for the “negative tenor” of David Freedlander’s article about Danny Hoch and that said that the magazine should not publish articles that generate negativity. This letter-writer, J.T. Rogers, said, “Wrapped in [this] complaint is an idea I’ve heard put forward by many people in many theatres around this country: that this magazine’s role is to serve as a cheerleader for the work we do. Full stop…. My response to this is: Really?

Naturally, this topic really interests me. While I personally think that Karen D’Souza went way too far in her article—and question American Theatre’s decision to print it as is—I do understand the fine line of cheerleading and relevancy. While theatre does needs advocates, when does advocacy stray into cheerleading and start doing more harm than good? To give a simplistic example: Say a theatre critic always reviews every show she sees favorably. While the theatre community may be thrilled, in the longer term readers may start distrusting the critic because they spent money on shows they thought were awful. So they stop going to the theatre. So, what was the point in cheerleading? (I guess so companies could have good clippings for the funders?) Now, in this example, I’m assuming the critic is praising shows that are undoubtedly awful, not shows that elicit a more subjective response. Like I said, it’s simplistic. It also isn’t entirely relevant to American Theatre or Theatre Bay Area, because we don’t print straight reviews.

This is the gray area. In these two magazines, which advocate for theatre, is even a hint of negativity completely out of place, or does it provide, in J.T.’s words, “a serious response to a serious piece of theatre rather than a hagiographic profile”? Even though most of us can admit that sometimes our work is not up to par for any number of legitimate reasons or that our risks sometimes fail, do we still think that the job of the industry magazines is to completely disregard these facts and cheerlead instead? Or should the industry magazines paint a more multidimensional picture of the production, the person, etc.? I suppose it’s a case-by-case basis, but it seems to me that Karen’s article could have been much more nuanced without losing sight of the complexities of working on a new play that just isn’t, well, working—as well as some of the solutions.

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At July 7, 2009 at 11:15 AM , Blogger Chloe Veltman said...

I think it's possible to write for American Theatre without being a cheerleader. I often do it. At the end of the day though, a feature story for any publication -- whether it's an "industry" publication or a general interest newspaper or magazine -- is not a review. I think focusing too strongly on the words of other critics (or more directly offering one's own opinion) in what's supposed to be a balanced piece about the evolution of a play is not necessarily the fairest or most journalistically interesting way to go.

At July 7, 2009 at 11:50 AM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Agreeing with Chloe here.

Adding: why even discuss a play you think is bad? Why not pick something you find amazing, and write about that? Simplistic I know, but in response to Karen's hypothetical, if the industry mags were to keep writing about things they absolutely loved for good reason, then people who read the article and went to the show would probably not be disappointed. Just a thought.

At July 7, 2009 at 1:03 PM , Blogger Karen McKevitt said...

Hi Carl,
Good point. I should offer a more complex example: Several years ago Theatre Bay Area ran a major feature on a Bay Area theatre organization that does good work mission-wise and serves a great need in the community, but sometimes the product isn't so great, which is admittedly secondary. Now, I chose to allude to that in the article and got no backlash for it (thank goodness). I chose to allude to it because most everyone in the community had the same opinion that the product wasn't so great, and I asked the artistic director about it and the AD replied in print that the organization was working on that problem. If I didn't allude to it, I would have run the risk of sounding naive with my very well-educated and -informed readers. But, at the time I was slightly concerned with bringing up something that was negative, even if not as overt as very negative reviews of a show.

The other thing we at the magazine have to take into consideration is that to the best of our ability, throughout the year we try to cover a wide scope of companies, shows and people. And this means we do cover things that we don't absolutely love, because we're human--we don't personally love everything. And what we don't love, someone else may love. If we only covered things we loved, many companies, shows, people would be left out. Now, it seems one has to parse the word "love." "Love" is to an extent subjective. I may respect/see the value in/admire/know the newsworthiness of a show that I may not personally love. Does this mean I don't cover it? I think our readers would say, No, you cover it!

At July 7, 2009 at 2:13 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Oops, logged in as the wrong account. This is the same comment as was listed above, hopefully now deleted.

So, Karen, here's my question then (and you knew this was coming, as we've chatted about this many times) -- where's the line between advocating for and offering commentary on the community and its products? This, of course, gets more complicated when you overlay the fact that we at Theatre Bay Area also deal with patrons. Up until now, "dealing with patrons" has essentially meant pushing out positive content (often company-generated) on TIX and via our weekly e-newsletter. But as we're discovering in talking to patrons (and simply watching the web), patrons are no longer simply seeking the hype -- they want a discussion, commentary, some direction on whether they're going to enjoy what they're seeing.

When asked, patrons to TIX ask for more information almost universally as their number one criticism of the site -- and when you delve into it, they're asking more and more for things like links to reviews, capsule blurbs, etc.

And ultimately, I think, we may be doing a disservice to companies and patrons alike by not engaging in some level of discussion about the work -- whether that discussion is full-on reviews, user-generated ratings, capsule blurbs, or simply links to off-site commentary.

At July 7, 2009 at 3:32 PM , Blogger Chloe Veltman said...

I'd like to add something to what I wrote earlier. In Karen's defense: her piece was for the Critics Notebook section of the magazine, which isn't necessarily supposed to be a section for straight reporting. Although the articles written for this section are often feature-like in style, the magazine wants critical insight into the work/artists in question, so I think there is a bit of leeway for editorializing. That being said, there's still something odd going on in the case of the You Nero article: Karen didn't so much give her critical opinion of the SoCal production as give many other critics' (negative) opinions of the work. Which is maybe the root of the issue here. Criticism is disguised as reporting in the article, which may come across as being disingenuous.

At July 7, 2009 at 4:22 PM , Blogger rebecca longworth said...

Whether or not Karen D'Souza's article should have been published where it was, or should have been more nuanced in other ways, I found it refreshing for this reason: her tone seemed to regard artistic flaws as opportunities for improvement, rather than failures to be either defended, disowned or ignored.

I think that I felt "refreshed" because Ms. D'Souza's article seemed to be alone in its willingness to have a look at something that failed without running away or holding its nose, ready to give the show a second chance in a new incarnation.

Her article made me more interested in seeing You, Nero because I had gained some insight into its development; and this insight seemed entirely appropriate to find in an industry publication. I think the acknowledgment that every artistic career has highs and lows, and creating work involves some degree of hit, miss and struggle, helps make for more honest criticism and a more vibrant artistic dialogue -- the multidimensional approach Karen McKevitt mentioned. Whether this helps get butts in seats or increase public interest in arts criticism, I can't say -- but it works for me.

At July 8, 2009 at 11:31 AM , Blogger Chloe Veltman said...

I just posted a recap of my thoughts on this topic so far plus further thoughts at and about this topic. You can find my latest blog post here:
or here:

At July 8, 2009 at 4:17 PM , Blogger Paul said...

It seems there are quite a few really interesting issues embedded in this discussion as a response to Karen D'Souza's article:

What is the role of the arts journalist in the promotion of the art form?
What is the critics role in the promotion of the art form?
How (or should) the critic/journalist balance his/her interest in preserving and improving the art form with the essential need to cast a critical eye upon it (and I use critical in it's broadest sense)?

And finally, as terrifically pointed out by Chloe in her blog:
How can we be clear about from which vantage point we are actually writing so that it is less likely that people will jump to unsupported assumptions and conclusions about motivation/strategy?

I actually think this last question is really fascinating. While the other questions at hand have been debated by great minds in the field and in the academia for years and deserve worthy consideration (especially if an art form is to be taken seriously in it's attempt to reflect the complexity of the world around it and if artists are to have any measure of feedback on the quality of their craftsmanship) I think the point that Chloe brings up about our quickness to jump to conclusions about the intention of a creative act (as journalism is as well as theatre making) with very little data has big implications. Implications for audiences, "art-makers", journalists and critics alike.

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