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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Critics Say. . .
57 Theater Reviewers in New York and Beyond Discuss Their Craft and Its Future
By Elyse Sommer
A leitmotif running through The Critic's Say. . ., Matt Windman's compendium about theater criticism, is that fewer and fewer people read reviews any more. While the theater for years dubbed "the fabulous invalid" is still very much alive —both off as well as on Broadway— more and more of those buying tickets do so based on word of mouth, the names of TV and movie pop music stars on marquees, not because they've read or been influenced by a review. The reviews they do read are as likely to be online and not just by the critics employed by the city's remaining traditional media. Reviewers working for web publishers or publishing independently on their own blogs are very much part of the conversation.
Given the death of so many newspapers that once covered theater, the diminishing influence of and smaller audience for "traditional" reviews, begs this question: Are there enough readers who would want to buy a book in which critics discuss why and how they do it?
Windman's interviewees represent some of the best known and respected practitioners of the craft. However, the thinned review reading audience prompts another question: Are there enough readers who would be familiar with any but perhaps the chief critics at their cities' newspapers?
Given the changing media market place, writing about the theater is hardly a hot career opportunity. Yet, The Critics Say. . . does provide helpful how-to tips and clarifies the difference between reviewing and criticism. However, the advice about making this an economically viable career goal adds up to a unanimous "No."
All the above notwithstanding, people in the theater, will find this a "good read." That includes other scribblers, who review theater. The "good read" factor is buoyed by the fact that the people interviewed generously, and with remarkable frankness, shared their experiences and feelings with Windman; also that his questions are well organized and wide ranging.
Though The Critics Say. . . focuses on a specialized segment of the media world, the details given here about buyouts and jobs abruptly eliminated will resonate beyond that narrow niche — with other staffers at newspapers, print magazines, and in book publishing whose jobs were eliminated, downsized or disappeared along with the publication. This book in itself reflects on the difficulties of earning solid royalties from a book at a time when even successful large chains are closing, and most of a book's sales now come from on-line sales which are usually priced far below what's listed on the cover (The Critic's Say. . .publisher McFarland's cover price is $35-- Amazon and other on-line sellers offer it at less than half that. Obviously this will have a ripple effect on the author's potentially being properly remunerated for the many hours he spent on this book).
All this pessimism aside, whether still relevant to a large audience or not, theater criticism is a part of our cultural history that deserves commemoration. To wit, the opening chapter, "Why We Exist", begins with this comment by former Newark Star Ledger chief critic Michael Sommers: "Theater criticism goes far back, even in informal ways — like the English court wits that sat around and made cutting remarks during performances in the 17th century." Sommers added that he was sure that "there was a lot of grumbling on the amphitheater steps at Epidaurus."
In a chapter titled "Online" the participating critics comment on the up and downside of the Internet. The majority agree that while online publishing has contributed to the shrinking of theater criticism as a paying enterprise, it's also expanded the options for theater enthusiasts to be heard. Unlike in-print critics whose space has been cut down because their publications have less advertising to support editorial content, the Internet has no such restrictions. For "traditional" reviewers that means that the consumer guide aspect that's part of any review of a currently running show leaves less room for more thoughtful evaluation of a work that might have a life long after the production being evaluated. No one, however, seems enamored of the star system used by many publications as a bottom line thumb up or down guide,
That online chapter would have been even more informative if it had gone deeper into the different approaches critics have taken to tap into the online world. (This would have been a lot more interesting than the long re-hash about the critics breaking the "official" review date for the troubled the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). The simplest way is a blog on which an individual writer can post reviews. This is a low or no-cost proposition but unlikely to find a large enough following to attract advertisers or job offers. Another approach is represented by theater websites that function as news disseminating magazines such as Broadway Stars. Most ambitious, are also more full-bodied web sites like TheaterMania that post theater news and reviews and make money selling tickets.
If more about these different online publication outlets had been included it would have been clear that once a web site invests in the resources to be commercially viable it's likely to run into periods calling for belt-tigtning. At TheaterMania that resulted in multiple, painful layoffs.
While a website like TheaterMania can weather storms, many launched with hopes of becoming profitable simply fold when those hopes don't materialize. Case in point the abrupt disappearance of New Jersey Newsroom, where Michael, Sommers, served as New York theater critic after accepting the Star Ledger's buy-out. Since Michael's explanation for writing for another website (page 193) rather than running a website of his own explains that he's not Elyse Sommer who did opt to do so with CurtainUp.com (a confusion about our identities through which we became friends years ago), a word from me about that enterprise which started around the same time as TheaterMania but with much more modest money making expectations. Like David Finkle, who told Windman than he's at a point in his life where's done enough to be able to live with Huffington Post's not paying for theater reviews, I started Curtainup in 1996 after years of more profitable work. I envisioned and developed Curtainup to include diverse viewpoints and features as well as reviews, and I've enjoyed the editing and managerial aspects of running a theaterzine as much as my duties as critic in chief.
At any rate, the many ways the Internet has opened as well as closed doors for new as well as established critics has author Windman conclude his book on a note of optimism. He sees the Internet as making theater criticism into more of a meritocracy. As he puts it "In the past, a critic got access to readers only by being published in a newspaper." Bottom line according to Windman: The theater will change. Theater criticism will change. But if reviewers hold onto their ethical standards, and those who join them on blogs and in chatrooms follow those standards, "there could be a meaningful future for theater criticism.
The Critics Say. . .i s published by McFarland publishers in Jefferson, NC, www.mcfarlandpub.com