Since you’re reading this blog post, you may be aware that over the past few months, Peter Marks of The Washington Post and I have struck up a series of impromptu, friendly debates on Twitter on a variety of theatrical topics, all in the limited forum that Twitter provides to explore any idea at length or in depth. I think these discussions take on a greater meaning in light of a Huffington Post blog from earlier today by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, in which he bemoaned the fate of the professional critic and confessed to being scared of the cacophony of individual voices making their opinions known online.
I happen to think what has sprung up between Peter and me — and the various people who follow or join our conversation — is almost an ideal of what social media can achieve and proof that the barrier between critic and audience, amateur and professional need not be stringently maintained — as if it could be. Both sides benefit from the interaction, and I applaud not only @petermarksdrama, but also @terryteachout, @davidcote, @wendyrosenfield, @krisvire, @moorejohn, @jimhebert and other critics for their willingness to step off what once once a vigilantly guarded pedestal and enter the fray of theatrical discussion with working professionals and the general public alike.
While Peter and I will finally meet in person this weekend (at Arena Stage in Washington, and also online live at 5 pm eastern time via New Play TV), I thought more of the public — and with a little luck, Mr. Kaiser — might enjoy reading what has emerged on Twitter. I don’t suggest it’s an easy read, since there are frequent time lags between questions and answers, delays between thrusts and parries, but in this online improv, I think some worthwhile ideas emerge out of engagement, not Balkanization. This conversation, which revolved largely around the role of the critic, took place on November 1 (I will be posting a second transcript shortly).
Tips on reading this: the transcription is imperfect, so the occasional comment may have been lost; typos are endemic to this kind of typed rapid-fire conversation, and most importantly, you must start at the bottom of this post and scroll upward for the proper chronology. For those unused to Twitter, the convention is that the name in bold is the person “speaking”; names that follow are efforts to address specific people in the conversation. And in case you can’t guess, I am @hesherman. My thanks to those who joined the conversation and whose input is included here. Now go to the end and work backwards!
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LMDAmericas 12:50pm @Dramaturgs @HESherman @seanjbryan Agreed. Difference between work in a journal and work on Page Six.
HESherman 12:50pm @Dramaturgs Has that role changed? is it same as classic European model? Lloyd Richards said he introduced dramaturgy to US in the 60s.
seanjbryan 12:48pm @Dramaturgs @HESherman yes that’s very true too. Should ‘critics’ thus now be referred to simply as ‘reviewers’ unless it’s true criticism?
LMDAmericas 12:48pm @Dramaturgs @HESherman @petermarksdrama Love the conversation! don’t know how to join in… crix as tastemakers or prof. audience members?
Dramaturgs 12:47pm @HESherman @seanjbryan There can be a substantial divide between #dramaturgical criticism (essentially analysis) & the typical connotation.
seanjbryan 12:45pm @HESherman If now the critics role is only for the public, what’s the point? Listings and editorials could probably sell as many tix.
seanjbryan 12:43pm @HESherman Ahh I see. Shame really. All should be working together to create better art. We all have our parts to play.
Dramaturgs 12:41pm @LMDAmericas Doing quite well, thank you! There’s a lively discussion between @HESherman and @petermarksdrama you might want to check out.
seanjbryan 12:41pm @HESherman or at least did, at some point in time.
HESherman 12:41pm @seanjbryan Crix observe and do their own work based on what they see, but their writing is completely private from artists. Or was.
seanjbryan 12:39pm @HESherman Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the O’Neill Centre bring in critics to assist the development process of new works?
petermarksdrama 12:39pm @dloehr @HESherman It will ever be thus. I should start wearing an opera cape and a monocle.
dloehr 12:38pm @petermarksdrama Great. @HESherman has me doubting my toys come to life when I’m not here. Thanks a lot.
petermarksdrama 12:38pm @BurlingameT @HESherman Haha, I fell right into that one.
dloehr 12:37pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman I wonder if that caricature made it more effective or less? Or if it was ok, ala shorthand of Wicked Witch, etc.
petermarksdrama 12:37pm @HESherman @dloehr What a cynic!
dloehr 12:35pm @HESherman Next thing, you’re going to tell me Bambi’s mother was asking for it…
petermarksdrama 12:35pm @dloehr @HESherman Me, too, even if the cartoon figure of critic was caricature everyone carries around. (But O’Toole’s voice made up 4 it)
HESherman 12:32pm @dloehr Two words: Fiction. Cartoon. (Just being glib after 45 minutes of furious typing.)
dloehr 12:31pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman One thing I loved about “Ratatouille” was the end, w/ the critic’s rave, the joy & wonder in sharing like that.
BurlingameT 12:30pm many of us do. “@petermarksdrama: @HESherman We should make this a regular gathering place.”
BurlingameT 12:30pm Thank you @HESherman for engaging such an interesting convo and @petermarksdrama for such candor. #theatre
petermarksdrama 12:29pm @HESherman We should make this a regular gathering place.
HESherman 12:29pm @petermarksdrama Yes, practice not blinking for 5-10 seconds at a time, so you don’t miss me. That’s going to be key. Thanks for the convo.
seanjbryan 12:29pm Love opinionated theatrical discussion! (Like that with @HESherman and @petermarksdrama I just had) This is what the arts are all about!
petermarksdrama 12:28pm @HESherman (And the good ones CAN be fun.)
TOFUCHITLINS 12:28pm @Dramaturgs @HESherman Thanks! This was interesting.
corteseatwork 12:27pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman @dloehr I’ll admit to enjoying a well-written pan of a piece that isn’t stage-worthy…provided I’m not in it…
HESherman 12:27pm @petermarksdrama It’s the idea that pans can be fun that always worries me. Why can’t the good ones be fun?
petermarksdrama 12:27pm @HESherman We’ll discuss this further, HS. In meantime, I’ve got LAW ORDER SVU-watching preparations to make.
dloehr 12:26pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman @corteseatwork I can imagine.
HESherman 12:26pm @petermarksdrama I think you can express displeasure without making it an attack. I’m not naive and I have my own strong opinions.
HESherman 12:25pm @petermarksdrama Vile is in the eye of the beholder. Critical opinion and public opinion often wildly divergent.
petermarksdrama 12:25pm @HESherman @corteseatwork @dloehr Just for record, some pans — Dance of the Vampires, e.g.–are fun to write. Others disturb your sleep.
HESherman 12:24pm @petermarksdrama I’m going to have to wrap up. Didn’t mean to provoke dissection of critics. Wish more were open to this discussion like u.
T_Gibby 12:23pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama THAT I’d buy a ticket to.
petermarksdrama 12:23pm @HESherman No, not attack when you can. But when something is vile, many–not you, apparently–want you to tell it like it is.
petermarksdrama 12:22pm @HESherman re monolithic of outlet like WP. I think that’s absolutely true. No one remembers which critic at a paper wrote review.
corteseatwork 12:22pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama Believe me, I always give it a good “Yale stretch” before I open my mouth…
HESherman 12:22pm @T_Gibby @petermarksdrama That’s another whole area. Want to save that for when Peter and I are face to face.
HESherman 12:22pm @petermarksdrama Who demands? And so do you intentionally attack when you can? Is the writing more important than reasoned judgment?
petermarksdrama 12:21pm @corteseatwork @HESherman Ahaha. In vino veritas!
petermarksdrama 12:20pm @HESherman And you are a serious Kool Aid drinker if you think everyone doesn’t demand from you a delicious pan now and again
HESherman 12:20pm @corteseatwork @petermarksdrama I take it you don’t observe the “three-block rule”? You never know who’ll overhear you
HESherman 12:20pm @petermarksdrama But crix aren’t seen as “one person.” Seen more as “The Washington Post” for example, not a byline…
seanjbryan 12:19pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama when you create you’re in a bubble, sometimes for years, you grow attached to a piece, you don’t see it’s faults
T_Gibby 12:19pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman I agree but I think that moves into ticket price. “If Isherwood likes it……”
corteseatwork 12:18pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman I was always under the impression that what we say at the bar, post-show, was off-the-record!
petermarksdrama 12:18pm @HESherman I’ve always said that if they let actors review plays, there’d be no theater left.
HESherman 12:18pm @seanjbryan @petermarksdrama Criticism is part of creative process? Perhaps in classical dramaturg role, but why must artists accept crix?
dloehr 12:17pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama It’s not different from other audience, only in that their opinion will be broadcast more loudly.
petermarksdrama 12:17pm @HESherman Oh, come on! Have you ever heard a playwright or actor discuss another’s work? Would make Simon blush!
petermarksdrama 12:16pm @HESherman @T_Gibby re imo: isn’t that self evident? I’m ALWAYS amazed people make their theater choices on basis of what one person says
T_Gibby 12:16pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama exactly.
HESherman 12:16pm @petermarksdrama Using a word like bullets, even as metaphor, is why many theatre artists so dislike critics.
HESherman 12:16pm @T_Gibby @petermarksdrama Crix scoff at this, but most newspaper readers can’t distinguish between reportage and criticism.
HESherman 12:15pm @T_Gibby @petermarksdrama I used to dream that all criticism would be legally required to begin, “In my opinion.”
seanjbryan 12:14pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman criticism should definitely be part of that creative process, that’s what I was taught in theatre school.
T_Gibby 12:14pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama I agree re. strong opinions if presented as opinion.
HESherman 12:14pm @petermarksdrama Or use sufficiently short words. He is a many of many syllables.
petermarksdrama 12:13pm @HESherman re tempering opinion. Times crop up when you want to, in Frank Rich’s great advice, save your bullets.
HESherman 12:13pm @dloehr @petermarksdrama How is that different from any audience member. Notion of critical impartiality, dispassion is a myth.
petermarksdrama 12:12pm @HESherman And Simon would no doubt be hoot on Twitter. If he could take the heat.
dloehr 12:12pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman …and it came out in her review. But I do see ways to improve that script that incidentally address it a bit.
HESherman 12:12pm @petermarksdrama That’s one of the more unique positions about downside of awards I’ve ever heard – that they draw too much attention
dloehr 12:11pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman Full story when I’m in town, but I’d overheard the critic pre-show, knew she was in the wrong mood/mindset…
HESherman 12:11pm @petermarksdrama I took course in criticism from late Philly critic, C. Lee. He said critics 1st responsibility was 2 b interesting read.
petermarksdrama 12:11pm @corteseatwork @HESherman Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame writers for earning decent living. Just sayin’ awards don’t keep ‘em in theater
petermarksdrama 12:09pm @HESherman But the issue was arrogance, a sense that the critic held some secret, special knowledge. Usually best crix just write well.
HESherman 12:09pm @petermarksdrama Most people didn’t like John’s harshest words, for good reason, but his praise sent them running to buy tix
HESherman 12:09pm @petermarksdrama Per my earlier comment, you could read John and decide whether or not his opinion was worthy of your attention.
HESherman 12:08pm @petermarksdrama I know many critics who temper their personal opinions, because public might not find them palatable.
HESherman 12:08pm @petermarksdrama I’ll put in a word on John Simon’s behalf. Say what you will, but what he writes is exactly what he thinks.
corteseatwork 12:08pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama on one level, it’s simple math…I have classmates that make more $ for 1 episode of TV than I make in a year…
petermarksdrama 12:07pm @dloehr @HESherman I’ve heard that before, that really harsh reviews do get metabolized in a diff way.
HESherman 12:07pm @T_Gibby @petermarksdrama Arrogance a very strong word. I’ve worked with many crix & like most. Strong opinions necessary, not superiority.
petermarksdrama 12:06pm @HESherman The recognition that awards confer is not only noted in theater world. The renown gets leveraged, esp for TV.
petermarksdrama 12:05pm @T_Gibby @HESherman re arrogance: You’d think, but it really ain’t so. In past gens, the Simonses might fit template, but no more.
HESherman 12:05pm @petermarksdrama You really think cash awards to artists causes them to shift to other media? Isn’t whole point to keep them in theatre?
petermarksdrama 12:04pm @HESherman Great questions, Mr. S! As a rule, I don’t read reviews be4. Afraid someone else’s thought will stick in my head inadvertently
T_Gibby 12:04pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama Critics who make themselves available are by nature more open, but arrogance seems like a job requirement.
dloehr 12:03pm @petermarksdrama @HESherman That said, I’ll admit, I did get something out of the worst, most scathing, most dismissable review I’ve gotten.
petermarksdrama 12:03pm @HESherman re prizes. The more money given to playwrights, the better! Downside: Inevitably tho award winners migrate to other forms.
petermarksdrama 12:02pm @seanjbryan @HESherman That’s heartening observation, Sean. I guess my perspective is hope I’m not breaking down someone’s creative process
HESherman 12:02pm @petermarksdrama Do you read reviews from other cities, esp. if play is coming to DC?
HESherman 12:01pm @petermarksdrama Whats your opinion of theatrical prizes (vs. awards), say the Steinberg Awards for playwriting?
petermarksdrama 12:00pm @T_Gibby @HESherman I do think crix are often too defensive. U get a lot of nasty sent ur way Twitter has helped me greatly in this regard.
HESherman 12:00pm @petermarksdrama But he was careful to praise value of critics in helping art. Maybe you have a fan.
seanjbryan 12:00pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama critics have a place in the art world. I think if you have the ego to not listen to criticism you’re a fool.
dloehr 12:00pm @HESherman @petermarksdrama I’m only talking about critics in relation to my own work. In general, I do have voices I trust.
_plainKate_ 12:00pm @dloehr @petermarksdrama @HESherman I love that it is becoming more of a dialogue.
dloehr 11:59am @petermarksdrama @HESherman Exactly. It’s more of an “even playing field” in a sense. You know where I’m coming from & vice-versa.
HESherman 11:59am @T_Gibby @petermarksdrama Broad statement, but not necessarily to pervading truth. Do you feel differently with folks online like Peter?
petermarksdrama 11:59am @_plainKate_ @HESherman & that is y crix in place like Chi and SF ARE influential–they’re canaries in the mines.
_plainKate_ 11:59am @petermarksdrama @HESherman I would concur that praise is more impactful, unless it is a pan in the Times, for instance.
_plainKate_ 11:58am @HESherman Because Artistic Directors cannot always see work first-hand, they may look to reviews to be surrogate. / @petermarksdrama
HESherman 11:58am @dloehr @petermarksdrama Most people never meet or communicate with crix. But for film, I’ve grown to appreciate certain critical voices.
petermarksdrama 11:58am @dloehr @HESherman That makes a lot of sense from artist’s pov. Someone whose voice you trust enuf to let it affect your work in some way
dloehr 11:58am @petermarksdrama @HESherman Have. Have interacted with.
T_Gibby 11:57am @HESherman @petermarksdrama Except critics don’t like their opinions challenged and dismiss as uninformed any dissent.
dloehr 11:57am @HESherman @petermarksdrama I will say, the only critics I pay attention to with my own work are the ones I know & interacted with.
HESherman 11:56am @petermarksdrama Could influence be restored by more critics entering into dialogue and not handing down judgments? It couldn’t hurt.
petermarksdrama 11:56am @HESherman @_plainKate_ I think the praise by critics has more impact on a director’s career, e.g. than does negative assessment.
petermarksdrama 11:55am @HESherman @seanjbryan Maybe sean is being ironic.
HESherman 11:55am @seanjbryan “instant perfection” from @petermarksdrama? You genuinely feel that way?
HESherman 11:54am @petermarksdrama I share your distrust of praise, and extremism in all forms ticks me off, but constructive criticism…
seanjbryan 11:53am @HESherman I only wish I could achieve the instant perfection in my work that @petermarksdrama must have. Criticism helps art grow.
HESherman 11:53am @_plainKate_ @petermarksdrama So here we have an example of how reviews directly impact artists livelihoods.
petermarksdrama 11:53am @HESherman And at the same time, “influence” of crix is waning. Is there a connection?
_plainKate_ 11:52am @petermarksdrama @HESherman (And yet, as a director, I am dependent upon those reviews to open doors to future gigs.)
HESherman 11:52am @petermarksdrama Or should I say…accountable?
HESherman 11:52am @petermarksdrama Conversation ”with” is fairly new. Used to be one-way street. And many critics are still not accessible to artists, public
HESherman 11:51am I ask about “top lists” because journos create them, yet are quick to bash awards processes. Have been on receiving end of this.
petermarksdrama 11:51am @HESherman Do you like reading about yourself? I sure don’t. Harsh words depress me and praise makes me suspicious!
petermarksdrama 11:50am @HESherman There are a few things crix can help with — too long, e.g. By and large, we are writing for conversation with everyone else
HESherman 11:49am @petermarksdrama So are you writing solely for audience? So many crix seem to want to speak directly to artists, esp. when they don’t enjoy
HESherman 11:48am You heard it here 1st, folks! RT @petermarksdrama: Artists are well advised to ignore crix. Reviews are for everyone else. #2amt
petermarksdrama 11:48am @HESherman Artists are well advised to ignore crix. Reviews are for everyone else.
HESherman 11:47am @petermarksdrama What’s the internal rationale, not that’s it’s in any way unique to @awshingtonpost. Is this just “same old, same old”?
HESherman 11:47am @petermarksdrama But the question is who is influenced. Public, perhaps? But do we know that artists are influenced most by major outlets?
petermarksdrama 11:46am @HESherman Yup, we do the top 10 DC productions or whatever. I loathe list-making.
HESherman 11:46am @petermarksdrama What is the journalistic fascination with lists? Everything is the top 10 this, the top 25 that. Do u do this at year end?
petermarksdrama 11:46am @HESherman People read that as something to be congratulated for. I thought list was pretty self evident w/ one or two omissions
petermarksdrama 11:45am @HESherman Haha. I think actually @DavidCote was id’ing most influential crix in the entire solar system. It was vehicle for making list
HESherman 11:44am @petermarksdrama However, if you’d like to be set upon by fighting dogs, I’m sure it could be arranged (if it weren’t illegal)
HESherman 11:44am @petermarksdrama I didn’t say baiting, I was merely speaking of rousing you from critical torpor, since Mondays are usually dark nights
HESherman 11:42am @petermarksdrama So now that you’ve been named one of the country’s most influential critics, should we all be more impressed by you?
HESherman 11:10am If you’ve never read @petermarksdrama & me debating on twitter, I’m planning to “poke the bear with a stick” soon. Follow him as well to see