An Ode to the Theatre Critic

By: Kent Brown

“Oh my God! The critic is coming tonight!”

These words (minus a possible expletive here or there) can be heard from actors and directors in every major city on any given night before a theatrical performance. While theatre critics might not have as much power as they once did, say in the 18th and 19th Century in Europe or even in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th Century, critics still hold the reigns in potentially blasting or praising a show audiences have yet to see. For this reason alone, theatre critics often serve as the pariahs of the industry. As I mentioned before, history is not on the side of the theatre critic – as far as winning over the sensitive emotions of other theatre practitioners such as playwrights, directors, actors, and designers, (unless, of course, the critic awards a show with a glowing review in all of the above mentioned categories). Throughout history, critics have brought shows to their knees, directors and actors to tears of rage, prompted early closings, and helped to cause struggling theatre companies to go bankrupt. With all of that said, I felt the need this holiday season to shed some light on the world of the theatre critic – to hear their side of the story, to dissolve any misconceptions that might exist. After all, the review of a show is an important aspect of the industry, and we generally trust these people to analyze, judge, and critique theatrical performances on many different levels.

To get a real impartial view of what it must be like to be known as a critic, I searched to find someone who is well versed in many aspects of the theatre world, rather than just interviewing someone that serves only as a critic. I wanted to speak with someone who could give an intelligent insight on the necessary qualifications, attitude, and discourse that a critic must have to effectively perform that potentially awkward position. My journey led me to Mark Charney – whose accomplishments in American theatre over the past twenty years are too daunting to list in one article, but I will name a few. Mark currently serves as the National Coordinator of the Critics Institute and Dramaturgy Initiative at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. where he has won both Gold and Bronze Medallions of Excellence. He is a six-time Board of Trustees Award winner for Faculty Excellence at Clemson University where he is the former Chair of the English Department and current Director of Theatre. Mark has written several plays including 37 Stones or The Man Who Was a Quarry, Double Hernia, and Catch Scratch Fever which have all been nominated for many awards and either produced or had staged readings in major cities. He has directed and reviewed countless professional and university productions, so I certainly consider Mark an expert on the subject. I was able to ask Mark some questions about the life and responsibility of the theatre critic, and here’s what he had to say:

Mark, you've written plays, directed plays, and have been a critic and judge for many plays. What are some of the major differences from directing a play and serving as a theatre critic?

There are countless differences my friend. Directing a play means taking a script and finding its premise, making sure you share that with the audience (taking the audience and your available talent into consideration). As a critic, you come to a play ready to learn, be entertained, and be actively involved. You bring to each evening your complete knowledge of theatre. The more you see, the more you read, the more you know. Critics need to have the ability to distinguish between the directing, the acting, the designing, all of the elements, and break them down. As a director, you also understand all of the components of a play, but you use them to your advantage to realize a vision. Then you convince your cast and crew of the validity of this vision. A critic must find the directorial vision and work with it.

Responses to critics seem to lie in two major categories. They either love you for a good review or hate you for a bad one. Is it difficult when you see a play or performance that, in your opinion, deserves nothing less that a terrible or glowing review?

It's always difficult, but you bring to a play a positive outlook. You always hope that a theatrical event will move you, entertain you, excite you, and change you. You cannot worry about what you feel the response will be, but it's the critic’s responsibility to provide not only a reaction to the play, but also a sense of history, some means of preserving what is a passing event. Unlike cinema, soon the play will not exist anymore. Critics respond, record, and preserve.

What are some of the elements you look for when writing a review of a play?

Every element Kent. You look for dramatic premise, vision, design , a sense of context, either provided by the author, the period, or the genre. You look at audience reaction, applicability, acting, everything. Some plays, like musicals for example, call for specific responses - singing, dancing, seamless interweaving of plot and music and song.

Theatre critics are sometimes viewed by theatre practitioners as hacks or unqualified to write the reviews that they write. Can you give us some idea what kinds of credentials critics generally need to have before attaining the position of “Theatre Critic”?

A good critic should have an education in theatre and an education in writing. He or she needs journalistic experience, and also educational background. Critics can be practitioners too, but they don't have to be. They do need to love and understand theatre, all of it, from the design to the execution.

Tell me about some of the best experiences you've had being a theatre critic.

Having a cast and crew tell me that they have learned something from what I wrote. Having a reading audience assure me that they have learned something even if they didn't see the play that the review itself was worth something even separately from seeing the show.

On the flip side, what are some of the worst experiences you've had as a critic?

Having a cast and crew take criticism personally. Having a theatre un-invite you to performances because they assumed a free ticket meant a positive review.

Anything else you'd like to clear up about the oft- misunderstood world of the theatre critic?

Critics are lovers of theatre, not folks who want to close a show down. They want to teach, to reach audiences, to entertain, to find a voice. They are often mistakenly seen as people who have the ability to close down a show, to stop a performance. No critic wants that. Critics are critics because they love the craft, and they want to perpetuate it.

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