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 (For some reason, the May/June issue hasn't been archived online yet, otherwise I would provide a link.)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.