Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Why I'm Sometimes Embarrassed to Be a Critic

This kind of piece, found in Backstage, makes me cringe.

I had high hopes upon starting it. I thought it was going to be about how critics perceive theatre differently because they go so often. It's a worthy topic, and one I'll ponder in writing at some future time. I'm in a somewhat interesting position because I'm a binge theatre-goer. For certain years of my life, I'll go to the theatre hundreds of times, while when I'm off making some cash instead, I'll attend maybe a dozen shows in a year. My expectations and perceptions -- in fact, my very theatre-going experience -- changes.

But this piece quickly deteriorates into the petty gripes of Los Angeles theatre critics, which include friends of the actors hanging out in lobbies before a show and laughing too loud during it; bad phone rings; shopping bags that don't coordinate with the appropriate geographic grocery stores for the setting, etc.

Yes, sadly, this really is what local theatre critics in Los Angeles talk about when they get together.

I should note that I have read, and in some cases, met and talked to, some of the critics mentioned in this piece (as far as I can recall, I don't know the author, Wenzel Jones). And at least a couple of them are actually very competent critics. To them, these items are undoubtedly merely distractions -- they're annoying because they take focus away from what's really important in a play, such as the quality of the writing, the acting, the sense of narrative drive, etc. Not to mention the passion, the sense of purpose, the style of theatricality, the feeling evoked, the tension created, and more etc.

There are critics though -- plenty of them -- who think that reviewing a show really is about assessing the quality of the phone ring or the label of the shopping bag. And articles that present critics this way, or, as this piece does, put the emphasis on these small items rather than what really matters, do a disservice to both critics and the theatre itself.

It's enough to give critics a bad name!