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.”
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.
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.