When A Theatre Review Condescends

March 3rd, 2014 § 33 comments

Fact: America’s newspapers are locked in a struggle for survival, fighting for financial stability and relevance at a time when money and attention increasingly focuses on online and video outlets.

Fact: Philadelphia’s newspapers are locked in a singularly ugly battle for survival, because after several instances of ownership turnover in recent years, the Inquirer and Daily News are now owned by a partnership in which the partners are suing one another over control of the business.

Fact: While newsroom cuts are the norm at papers across the country, and arts positions are being lost everywhere, Philadelphia is the largest city in the country which does not have a full-time theatre critic on staff at its daily newspapers, despite an array of professional theatre production in the city and surrounding area.

I lay these items out as preface for consideration of a single theatre review (which I hope you’ll read in its entirety), Toby Zinman’s Inquirer critique of the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Water By The Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the play which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This review has been the subject of a great deal of online comment as a result of a blog post on a site called “Who Criticizes The Critic?” The essay itself is “Critical Case Study #1: A Brutal Lack of Investment,” written by a pseudonymous author identified only as “criticcrusader.”

Armando Batista and Amia Desanti in Water BY The Spoonful at Arden Theatre Company

Armando Batista & Maia Desanti in Water By The Spoonful at Arden Theatre Company (Photo: Mark Garvin)

As the blog post circulated on Twitter and Facebook this past week – though it and the review are from late January – I saw a range of responses, from many who applauded the critique and from some who took issue with its legitimacy because of the anonymity of the author. I initially chose not to share it on social media because I’m troubled by criticism, let alone attacks, by unnamed voices on the internet. But I kept returning to the original review, and the critique of it, repeatedly. Then, by coincidence, I saw Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last over the weekend at Second Stage, which brought the review to mind yet again; Song is the final piece in a trilogy of which Spoonful is part two.

I feel compelled to weigh in on Zinman’s review not because I make a habit of critiquing critics, but because I think her piece repeatedly crosses professional boundaries, in terms of what theatre, and all of the arts, should hope for from those who are paid to critique them, especially by major media outlets, even wounded ones. I know I’m echoing “Critical Case Study #1,” but I hope a bit more dispassionately. Those who discount “criticcrusader” for writing under an alias can make no such charge at me.

For transparency: though I went to college in Philly, I haven’t worked professionally in the city in 30 years, save for moderating some talks at the Philadelphia Theatre Company and doing some site visits for The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. I do not know Toby Zinman or her editor Rebecca Klock. I have never attended the Arden Theatre and so I did not see this production. I cannot recall having ever spoken with the company’s leaders, though it’s possible I did at some point in the past.

And so.

It seems that the least we can hope for from a critic, whether staff or freelance, whether well-compensated or paid the pittance that is the shameful norm for most freelancers, is an informed opinion. Since Spoonful has received one of the highest awards given in theatre, it is not unreasonable to expect a critic to have a basic knowledge of that pre-existing work before attending it. Zinman has a Ph.D. in theatre and has written several books on the subject; she also teaches English at Philadelphia’s School of the Arts. She is far from a novice. Yet of Water By The Spoonful, Zinman writes:

“I imagined it might be about the global water crisis:

Consider the recent chemical tainting of residential water in West Virginia. Consider the drought and raging wild fires in California. Consider that more than 1.2 billion people on earth now live without a reliable source of fresh water.”

Why is this in a review? Even if Zinman elected to remain wholly ignorant of the work, what is the relevance of her musings on the title? Our water crisis is a perfectly legitimate concern, but it has nothing to do with the play. Print space is limited in any paper, so why use precious column inches on an irrelevant topic? Her aside accounts for more than 10% of the word total of the review.

“This play is about a bunch of crack addicts who do awful things and are, with the exception of Hudes’ recurring character Elliot, utterly boring and unsympathetic characters.”

In only the second paragraph of the review, Zinman has dismissed several drug-addicted characters as unsympathetic, without making any effort to explain why. Are struggling drug addicts, in fiction or in life, merely to be written off for their failings? As a central element of the story, this deserves as least as much space as the world’s water problems.

“Presumably, part of the script’s interest for Philadelphia audiences would be the local place-references, but mentioning Jefferson Hospital doesn’t redeem the play for me.”

Sure, audience members at the Arden might experience the odd frisson over hearing the name of a place they know mentioned, but given the productions the play has received in other cities, its locale seems hardly central to its existence or any production. To suggest it is only produced in Philadelphia because of its Philadelphia ties is callously dismissive.

“Yazmin (Maia Desanti) is the sanctimonious rich white girl who is, in ways I couldn’t follow, Elliot’s cousin/romantic interest/best friend.”

Yazmin is very clearly a Latina character. Zinman’s definition of her as “white” involves judging her based solely on the skin tone of the actress playing the role, ignoring any context within the play. Does Zinman doubt that individuals of differing skin colors can be related?

As with any critic, Zinman has every right to dislike the play. She has every right to dislike the production. But the reader has the right to expect some level of rationale for each, or for that matter a distinction between the two. From the review, it is impossible to know the source of Zinman’s poor opinion, save for her calling out of two lines which we can infer she finds wanting, and her mention of a slow pace. She neglects any mention of the physical production. Reading the review gives me the impression that Zinman was annoyed by the whole experience of seeing this play, and made no effort to engage with the play on its own terms.

The Philadelphia theatre scene has increased enormously since my days as a Penn student, filled with theatres and options that didn’t exist 30 years ago. While I will be the first to say that critics have zero responsibility for promoting or selling work for theatres, I think, and I hope most critics would agree, that theatres are deserving of reviews and critiques that adhere to professional standards, regardless of the hardships of the professional outlets that publish them. In my estimation, this review by Zinman fails, but the failing is not hers alone. Did her editor ask her for clarification of her points or suggest excising the extraneous? While presumably copy editors aren’t acting as fact checkers, the erroneous assertion about a character’s race could have been easily clarified by numerous online sources, let alone the readily available script.

As a blogger, I have no editor, no copy editor, no fact checker. I am solely responsible for the accuracy of what I write, and my integrity rests on that. At a professional newspaper, there are ostensibly more checks and balances, but – in my opinion – they failed in this case, in a way that no mere correction can erase or excuse. It calls into serious question the accuracy and validity of this critic’s voice in this case; I do not believe that this is emblematic of the state of theatre criticism nationally, which I value as an arts professional. But The Arden and its production, as well as Hudes’s play, deserve better than they got in terms of fair consideration of their work, regardless of whether the show was liked or not.

On a final note: this review follows on the heels of a very thoughtful piece on the role of a theatre critic by another freelance Inquirer critic, Wendy Rosenfield, writing for the Broad Street Review, in which she speaks of her support for “Theater that widens and deepens the scope of our regional scene.” I applaud that sentiment, but would like to paraphrase it, because Philadelphia – and all communities – deserve journalism that widens and deepens the scope of the city’s arts scene too. The two go hand in hand.

Update March 4, 11:30 am: As this post has circulated online, Jason Zinoman of The New York Times expressed his feelings that if I claim to be someone who believes in mutual respect between arts organizations and arts critics, I had failed to demonstrate it in this piece, by not sufficiently disavowing the tone, language and certain sentiments employed by the anonymous “criticcrusader.” It was my intention that the tone and content of my piece represented my approach to such dialogue, but I was indeed not explicit. Should anyone doubt my commitment to mutually respectful dialogue, let me make clear that the piece by “criticcrusader” was harsh, hyperbolic and unnecessarily personal, hardly the tone to be adopted when attempting to lobby for more considered and accurate writing; the anonymity is counterproductive as well. The thoughts in my piece, which may overlap with the earlier essay, are my own and I stand by them; however, to have not acknowledged what prompted me to write would have been dishonest.

 

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  • blue

    Your first mistake is assuming this reviewer was paid for her work. It’s very probable that she wasn’t. And if she saw work that was boring and cliched, which it sounds like she did, she had every right and responsibilty to say so. It’s not her job to care about awards.

    • Howard Sherman

      I confirmed with a representative of the Newspaper Guild of Philadelphia that Inquirer freelancers are paid; it was not an assumption. I also never suggested the critic had to care about awards, but merely that the attention they brought to the work would suggest that it is hardly unknown to those writing about or working in the field of theatre.

  • Alexander Offord

    This is a great post, Howard. Couldn’t agree more.

  • beth2027

    I often see reviews of shows that feel prejudice for whatever reason. This person sounds like she didn’t want to see a show, so she found nothing nice to say about said show. Even if I don’t like a show, I look for things to praise. I may be honest about it’s downfalls, but I point out the things that deserve praise. And there’s always something.

    And if you don’t mention things about the show like costuming, lighting, set design, etc, it feels like you’ve not given the show a fair review. Many times, these are the things that make a great show fantastic, or make a fair show, great.

    • Howard Sherman

      I would say that a critic may dislike absolutely everything about a production; there is no protocol under which it is necessary to find something to praise. But I would suggest that explaining the reason for one’s disdain is appropriate.

  • concenred

    While Zinman has lost it, just to be clear, the script is awful. The talented actors do the best they can, but you cannot transcend hack writing.

    • Guest

      There’s a Pulitzer that would disagree with you.

      • Noodle94

        The same Pulitzer bestowed on “Rabbit Hole”, “Anna in the Tropics” and “Lost in Yonkers”?

  • Dan H

    Howard,
    Being a theatre artist in the Philadelphia area, I am keeping quiet about my feelings on this issue until I can say something as reasoned and well crafted as what you have put forth. I do feel compelled to help you in one small way (seeing as how you admit to having no editor or oversight in creating your pieces). The “criticcrusader” points out that Amia Desanti is not the name of the actress, but a misspelling error on The part of the critic. Maia Desanti is a colleague of mine, and while I don’t feel you must avenge her in your post, you might want a quick double check of the caption to your photograph. Again, thanks for your well considered piece, and keep them coming.

    • Howard Sherman

      Thank you for the correction. I will make it immediately.

    • Howard Sherman

      Thank you so much for pointing out the error. I have made the correction.

  • Hezekiah Stephan Shabazz

    And an entire community of theatre artists cry out, “hallelujah.”

    Zinman has risen to critical preeminence in Philadelphia by being willing to unequivocally trash work she doesn’t care for. That’s a necessary and unpleasant job, admittedly. But the animus that is universally directed at Toby is not because she isn’t a smart and knowledgable theatre-goer– she is– but because she is a demonstrably lazy critic. She so often demonstrates a complete lack of research into the work and then dismisses all elements of a production because she finds that she is disinterested in the themes of the play. If she deems the playwright to have written on a subject that she finds less interesting than some other play she imagines for herself, she ignores the production details entirely. At least she took the time to mention that performances in her review of WBTS. Normally, she’ll skip right over the performances, the direction, the design, and cut to “this production is unworthy of serious and detailed critique because the script disinterests me.” That dismissive, reductive, lazy approach to her crucial position in a vital, artistic community, is an absolute crime.

  • Tim

    I would imagine the anonymity stems from being a professional theatre artist in the Philadelphia area. Criticizing a critic is tantamount to inviting a hungry lion into your home.

    • Mark Cofta

      This attitude, which I’ve seen expressed in nearly every conversation about critics, assumes that theatre critics are thin-skinned vindictive people with no integrity who will take revenge on theatre artists in future reviews. It’s a shallow, nasty, ignorant assumption, and negates whatever such a person offers to the discussion.

      • Bill

        With all due respect, Mark, it is unfair to dismiss Tim’s comment on the basis you suggest – anonymity does not flatly mean that the criticism offered (of critics, in this case) should be negated. In fact, some professional critics, albeit predominantly food critics, use anonymity to ensure that they get an unadulterated experience from which to base their criticism.
        You must consider how difficult it is to make a living as a theater artist. It is hard to earn enough to pay hills, much less live a comfortable life. Reviews of an artist’s work have some serious influence on their ability to continue to get work. That is not to say that it’s the critic’s responsibility to be nice and say only good things; that would be unethical. But the critic cannot, as a professional, ignore the fact that what they write, and how they word what they write, has real consequences. I feel too many critics won’t even admit this obvious truth, and choose to dismiss it outright. I think it’s fair for artists to demand criticism that is thoughtful, balanced, and whether negative or positive, informed, well-written, honest, and vigorous. Too often in Philadelphia, as has been pointed out here about Toby Zinman’s reviews, theatre criticism is none of those things, and, again, whether negative or positive, is demonstrably lazy.
        Given that reviewers have such potential influence, I don’t think it unreasonable for an artist who wants to contribute to a conversation to assume anonymity to protect themselves and their ability to continue making a living, or also to protect other artists with whom they are associated from being negatively affected by their comments in such a conversation. To dismiss comments made in anonymity outright on that basis alone is, I think, unfair. If someone engages in an online conversation anonymously, and what they say is fair-minded and constructive, and they do not use anonymity merely as a means to get shots in or be rude or unfairly attack someone else, I see no harm in that. And it’s not cause to negate what is said anonymously as a matter of course.

        And while most critics, like you, are ethical, and are not shallow, vindictive people, some in fact are, like some people in all professions. As a theatre professional here in Philly, I personally know of several cases in which a given reviewer has displayed an obvious negative bias toward an artist or company. And that bias was displayed both publicly in print with consistent, rip-you-apart reviews that often went against massive praise, or at least reasoned negative criticism, from other reviewers, as well as in public conversation. And Toby Zinman has, to my knowledge, been particularly flagrant in this regard. I personally know of several instances. Here’s one: Zinman recently printed a highly negative review of Theatre Exile’s True West. At the same time, however, and I’ve confirmed this with several reputable sources, she expressed to several of her UARTS classes that she actually really liked the production. So, why the harshly negative review? Perhaps because a negative review attracts more readers and more attention? Perhaps because she revels in living up to the “Bitch Of Broad Street” persona that she herself coined? Not sure, but it does make trusting her reviews suspect. And is it not reasonable, then, to worry about whether she might write with an agenda and not be ethically motivated?

        I’m honestly interested in what you think about this.
        And I promise this is not meant to be snarky, but I am commenting here in anonymity, so I hope you won’t dismiss my comments with that in mind.

        Thanks.

        • Mark Cofta

          Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful reply, Bill! I was more dismissing Tim’s comment because of his assumption that critics lack integrity, but I stand by my distrust of anonymity. Food critics may hide their identities at the restaurant in order to have an authentic experience, but they still put their names on their reviews.
          I cannot speak for all critics, but those I know personally would never stoop to writing personal attacks for mean, unsubstantiated reasons. Yes, reviews have some impact (though not as much as you imagine — do you really think Toby’s review has hurt the Arden’s sales?), but that doesn’t mean that critics are wielding this power irresponsibly. Of course, when people disagree and feel wounded, they often invent motives that don’t exist. I’ve been accused of writing negative reviews because I wanted to direct at a theatre, for example, which is truly bizarre: why would I want to direct at a theatre that I reviewed negatively? How would my negative review lead to a job offer? “Obvious bias” is a matter of opinion and interpretation; we cannot see into each other’s minds and hearts, and meanings are easily twisted, especially out of context.
          I have known Toby Zinman for over 20 years and consider her a friend as well as a colleague. I believe she approaches every review with sharp intellect, vast knowledge, and a passionate love for theatre. This last thing is what results in her infamously harsh reviews; she is very impatient with failure (as she perceives it — we don’t always agree).. However, this guarantees that her positive reviews are seriously considered and sincere.
          Sure, some discussion can be quite civilized among anonymous people. But more typically on the internet, anonymity leads to insults that would never be uttered in person. (I was called a “gurgling half-wit” by someone earlier today online who, of course, gave only a screen name.) I decided a long time ago to always include my full name, and I sincerely believe that theatre professionals have nothing to fear from doing the same.
          If you assume critics have no integrity, how can we discuss anything? Why even read our work at all? Yet when Toby, or whomever, writes a positive review, the news is shouted to the rooftops! Suddenly the critics are geniuses.
          Either what we do is worthwhile, or it isn’t; either we’re to be feared and held in contempt, or we’re colleagues who can reason together like adults. As long as you’re anonymous, part of me knows that you’re clinging to the paranoid notion that a critic is the bogeyman.

          • Christopher Munden

            Well put.

          • Bill

            Thank you for your response, Mark. I do appreciate your thoughts, though I’d imagine that there’s no way we’ll get to agreement here. I will offer one last side comment on anonymity and it’s usefulness: there are a small number of food critics that write in total anonymity, whose real names are never known publicly, and whose reviews are as such considered highly trustworthy. Probably the biggest example of this is The Phantom Gourmet of New England fame – over twenty years of totally anonymous restaurant reviews, and his/her stamp of approval or disapproval is considered a good standard in that area of the country. Just an interesting sidebar, I think. Best wishes.

          • Mark Cofta

            That’s fascinating, Bill. I confess I don’t know much about food critics.
            I’m still very troubled by the many theater professionals who have said, not only in online discussions but in personal conversations, that they fear retribution from critics. I really want to believe that we’re all bigger and better than that.

          • Bill

            Well, I guess I’m a bit of a foodie.

            Mark, I know you want to believe that we’re all bigger than believing that the retribution of critics isn’t a reality. But it does occur, and I know this all too well. Not all critics act with integrity, just as all artists do not. There are some who perpetuate this idea through their actions. It’s sad to say, but it does happen; it’s not something I’m simply imagining.

          • Mark Cofta

            It seems like a difficult thing to prove, or to know with certainty. As a critic on the other side of this, I have suffered people inventing outrageous personal motivations for what I’ve written, conveniently overlooking the obvious reason for a negative review: the show was bad. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this point!

  • Anne Frey

    As a former theatre professional in Philadelphia I would like to add that the laziness is also on the part of the newspaper who would hire an uninformed critic. Academic credentials do not necessarily make you a good critic and they are the only possible reason that this critic is working. As far as I remember her critiques were always laughed off by the theatre community as insubstantial and often ill informed. Guess they can’t find a real critic.

  • zolo

    I’ve no idea how she stays employed. A reviewers job it to let theater goers know whether or not they’d get their $25 worth from a show. Saying “I’ve always thought X was a terrible playwright / genre play” tells that theater goer nothing other than that the reviewer isn’t the right person for the job. Her reviews often make it seem like she’s the most unhappy person in the venue, tasked with the tedium of watching plays by some vengeful god.

    • Mark Cofta

      So the right person for the job is the one who likes the play before he or she sees it?

  • Christopher Munden

    Interesting piece. But when criticizing a reviewer, the attacks are often harsher than anything the reviewer would write, and I think the attacks on this piece are unwarranted. “The reader has the right to expect some level of rationale”, and this review delivers.

    “Why is this in a review?” : it’s a device, she’s comparing the graveness of this issue hinted at in the title with the uninvolving subject matter of the play. Another viewer might disagree, but her comment is relevant to her critical opinion.

    “dismissed characters as unsympathetic, without making any effort to explain why”: In your quote, she says the characters “do awful things”, which would explain why a critic might find them unsympathetic.

    “To suggest it is only produced in Philadelphia because of its Philadelphia ties is callously dismissive.” To suggest that she is suggesting that the play is only produced in Philadelphia because of its Philadelphia ties is callously dismissive. She just says it is “part of the script’s interest for Philadelphia audiences”

    “Does Zinman doubt that individuals of differing skin colors can be related?” Are you suggesting that her confusion, perhaps in part a result of casting and poor explication, means that she is racist? Is that a fair jump to make? (For reference, on the US census, you can be “white” and “hispanic”.)

    • Marlon

      So, all the critics here are on Team Toby, and all the artists are on Team Not Toby. I give up.

      • Marlon

        Ok, I won’t give up quite yet: Christopher Munden, the reviews on Phindie are, whether they lean positive or negative, overall far better written, more thoughtful, and better supported than virtually any review of Zinman’s that I can remember. One main reason is that most Phindie reviews are at the least, factual. Zinman consistently posts wildly off-base claims about shows and factual inaccuracies in her reviews. And this is not simply for shows she reviews poorly; her positive reviews are nearly as schlocky as the negative ones. She has a reputation as a scholar and is given a pass as someone who knows what she’s talking about. Doesn’t regular evidence to the contrary mean anything? She’s either simply not a good writer or is too lazy and unconcerned to care enough about writing well. Why support her? She brings down the standards of criticism overall in this community. Why can’t ONE critic admit this? It’s so blatantly obvious when you look at her work as a whole. Stop closing ranks and start setting standards that are worthy of defending.

        • Mark Cofta

          My comments have not been about “closing ranks.” Every three years or so, someone gets cranky about a Toby review and starts a witch hunt. I’ve heard it all before. As Chris said, no critic, Toby or not, has been as nasty and personally insulting as the anti-critic ranters. You ultimately have all the power, Marlon: just don’t read her reviews, and be happy.

          • Marlon

            Maybe this happens every few years or so because there’s a pattern. And for the umpteenth time, it’s not just about her negative or trashing reviews, it’s about her taste and style of writing overall. Again, even her positive reviews are poorly written. I haven’t been nasty here, but I care deeply about the state of theatre in this town, and so I’ll fight for a better critical environment within which that theatre is represented.

  • m

    “everyone’s a critic”

    -anonymous

    • s

      yet a very interesting discussion, and a worthwhile one to someone attempting to understand the role of a critic and the role of an artist in the same city

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  • Ian Thal

    So what’s the point of this article? Does finding one piece of theater criticism objectionable mean that the entire genre of writing must be dismissed? After all, I see a lot of bad plays, and I still think theater is an important art form.

    I am assuming, of course, that this is the same Howard Sherman who led the twitter conversation about critics and criticism in which critics were suspiciously absent (perhaps because twitter is an inadequate medium for articulating an argument but it’s great for the dissemination of memes.)

    https://storify.com/HESherman/contemplating-critics-and-criticism

    Good critics are lovers of the art form they criticize– but because of their intimate knowledge of the form, they are not beholden to producers and their marketing and branding consultants.

    This, of course, makes Sherman’s more recent plea that people who care about the arts support arts journalism ever the more ironic.