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Howard Sherman: US theatre criticism is moving with times but there’s still a way to go

King Kong on Broadway King Kong on Broadway
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The travails of arts criticism have been well chronicled, but the constantly shifting sands and changing players in the US warrant a status update.

These days it’s only possible to keep up with informed critiques of theatre if one knows where to look, unless the interested observer is satisfied with the edited highlights of review round-ups.

One of the more significant developments for New York readers is that the New York Daily News, having deposed critic Joe Dziemianowicz, is now running reviews by the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones. Jones has been regularly reviewing Broadway shows for his paper, so he’s no newcomer to the scene.

It’s been interesting to see Jones’ critiques afforded more space, online at least, than Dziemianowicz’s brief reports. In the meantime, Joe D’s thoughts have been available on occasion, as a freelancer, in the New York Post, arch rival of the Daily News.

At the same time, an array of critics have landed at the new website New York Stage Review, which features writing from Elysa Gardner (late of USA Today), Michael Feingold (Village Voice), and Jesse Oxfeld (NY Observer), among a roster of eight.

As previously reported in this column, Charles Isherwood, a veteran of the New York Times and Variety, can be found at the online Broadway News, sharing critical chores with Elizabeth Bradley, with Jeremy Gerard (whose career has included Deadline, Variety and the New York Times) providing investigative reporting and analysis.

‘There remains a significant dearth of critics of colour and there is still a gender imbalance at the largest outlets’

New – dare I say younger – voices have managed to join the critical chorus, even at legacy media outlets. At the Houston Chronicle, Wei-Huan Chen is one of the relatively few critics of colour at any major media outlet (previously he was at the smaller Indianapolis Star). His perspective on portrayals of racial issues on stage have earned him acclaim and some pushback, the latter most evident when he wrote about yellowface casting in a revival of Nixon in China.

Two major publications have hired female critics: Lily Janiak at the San Francisco Chronicle and Sara Holdren at New York Magazine. Janiak previously wrote for Theatre Bay Area, an arts service organisation, among other outlets, and Holdren has pursued a career as director. Like Chen, they haven’t been afraid to challenge conventional wisdom: Janiak recently questioned whether it was time to retire Miss Saigon from the musical theatre repertory, and Holdren first drew attention for her sharp critique of Joan of Arc: Into the Fire for the website Culturebot.

There remains a significant dearth of critics of colour and there is still a gender imbalance at the largest outlets. As a counterbalancing effort, American Theatre Magazine, long an impartial reporter on US theatre as an arm of the Theatre Communications Group, has provided a platform for Diep Tran and Jose Solis with the video series and podcast Token Theatre Friends, set up to provide the perspective of people of colour.

These ventures, both entrepreneurial and mainstream, show that there is still an appetite to examine theatre, and hopefully the readership (or viewers) prove sufficient for these outlets to sustain their efforts. This recap is surely incomplete, demonstrating the need for arts patrons eager for insights to look beyond their local, best-known outlets.

‘Realigning arts criticism to be more inclusive and representative , at a time when resources at major outlets are being reduced or withdrawn, is an obvious challenge’

At last month’s celebrity gala The 24 Hour Musicals, representatives of the Lilly Awards announced plans for a new arts publication modelled on the New York Review of Books, bringing cultural commentators from other disciplines into the conversation about theatre.

That’s not to say high-profile criticism, and discussion of it, has disappeared. Online commentary has had a great deal to say in the past week about tag team reviews by the New York Times’s co-chief theatre critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, who have engaged in critical dialogue over the St. Ann’s Warehouse production of Oklahoma!, which they both liked, and Broadway’s King Kong, which they did not. Some have questioned whether the format is appropriate for what is still viewed as the paper of record, especially when the critical opinions align.

Indeed, the back and forth might prove more illuminating when the critics disagree. I, for one, cannot honestly knock the style choice, having co-written a film review in the same back and forth format. Then again, it was for my college newspaper. I was 20 and my partner on that piece was 21. But at least we were diametrically opposed in our opinions on Alan Parker’s movie The Wall.

Realigning arts criticism to be more inclusive and representative of an array of perspectives, at a time when resources at major outlets are being reduced or entirely withdrawn, is an obvious challenge. Hopefully those who still have fully funded professional berths will help the field to evolve, even as those disenfranchised from it, or aspiring to it, craft new outlets for critical consideration. Hopefully, in both instances, readers – and audiences – will find value in the results, playing an important role in keeping the arts a vital part of our cultural conversation.

This week in US theatre

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has proven enormously popular at US theatres, so it’s important to take note of her newest literary adaptation. Hamill’s version of Mansfield Park makes its official premiere tonight (November 16) at Northlight Theatre outside Chicago. The cast of eight is directed by Stuart Carden.

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem makes a slightly delayed New York debut (the play had its US premiere in early 2016 at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia) on Monday at Lincoln Center Theater, a regular home to new Stoppard works in the city. Jack O’Brien, who staged The Coast of Utopia and Hapgood, among others, for the company, is the director.

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