Mark Shenton: How to be the New York Times’ next theatre critic
Last week, the New York Times laid off its second-string full-time theatre critic, Charles Isherwood, who, since 2004, has covered the theatrical beat alongside chief critic Ben Brantley for the paper. In that time, he has cut a contentious figure, as critics often must, but has provided a singular voice. His encouragement of such plays as The Realistic Joneses or musicals Disaster! and Tuck Everlasting led directly to their transfers from out-of-town or Off-Broadway try-outs to Broadway, where his enthusiasm wasn’t matched by that of other critics and they quickly expired.
A critic can only speak to his or her own taste and isn’t there to predict the commercial prospects of shows they have championed. That’s for producers to take a punt on. But it’s certainly true that many have been emboldened by one of Isherwood’s raves. The New York Times has a policy that the first critic to review a show will continue to do so when it turns up on Broadway, thus preventing the other critic from completely contradicting his colleague. Having said that, Isherwood has made his lack of enthusiasm for Hamilton, strongly championed by Brantley, perfectly clear in other editorial.
I will certainly miss a critic who can champion, as Isherwood did, The Realistic Joneses with these words: “Plays as funny and moving, as wonderful and weird as The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno, do not appear often on Broadway. Or ever, really. You’re as likely to see a tumbleweed lolloping across 42nd Street as you are to see something as daring as Eno’s meditation on the confounding business of being alive (or not) sprouting where only repurposed movies, plays by dead people and blaring musicals tend to thrive.”
What about the confounding business of being a critic in this environment? Though the New York Times and Isherwood have yet to comment publicly on his departure from the paper, an immediate concern that it was an attempt by the paper to save money by removing a staff job from its roster was scotched when it immediately advertised the position.
The job advert says a lot about the burden of responsibility that the paper places on its critics and how that role is changing. “We are seeking a critic with a deep appreciation for plays, musicals and theatre history, but it is equally important that this person is able to connect the themes and issues on stage to those of the wider world. The writer must be gifted at assessing performances and stagecraft, but also eager to help readers understand the ideas that drive the work,” it says. So a critic needs to be able to contextualise work they see both within the art form itself, but also outside it to make it relevant beyond it.
The critic must also be a talent-spotter: the paper is looking for someone who is “curious, discerning, open-minded and energetic about seeking out the emerging voices and talents who are narrating and challenging life as we know it”. It has surely ever been thus; critics help set the cultural agenda, and the young artists they champion today may well turn into the stars of tomorrow.
But it is the final item on the paper’s wish-list for a new critic that is particularly interesting: “As the Times expands its audience around the globe, the critic must be open to experimenting with new story forms, be willing to collaborate with a large staff of editors, reporters and fellow critics, and be open to engaging with readers when appropriate.” The idea of ‘new story forms’ sounds a bit ominous – the New York Times has hitherto only required its critics to file considered, erudite reviews and occasional commentaries. But now this suggests a positioning within a wider conversation and collaboration, both within and outside the paper. No man is an island (it is said) and clearly the paper wants more direct engagement beyond the filing of the review.
As a freelance London-based critic, I am already wrestling with many competing claims on my time: as well as reviews, I write a daily online editorial column, regular features and news stories for this and other outlets. I also regularly host public theatre events and teach at Arts Educational Schools London.
As a result, I find myself frequently engaging in conversations around theatre that go well beyond the shows I am seeing. And more than anything, it has made me keenly aware that critics are just part of a wide-ranging conversation around theatre, not the beginning and certainly not the end of it. We are not the gatekeepers, but an informed part of a dialogue between artists and cultural consumers that helps foster that conversation.
A good critic states his or her position clearly and passionately, but also becomes something for others to respond and react to. Isherwood, an astute and witty writer, sometimes polarised readers; but he wouldn’t have been doing his job if he hadn’t.