The role of the theater critic

Diversity Onstage: A Critical Issue

Theater critics have responsibilities that may or may not align with those of artistic directors. You want butts in seats? Not my problem. Pull-quotes for your marketing material? Good luck with that. Theater that widens and deepens the scope of our regional scene? Now we’re talking.

Blanka Zizka, founding artistic director of the Wilma Theater, shows how it's done.

If you, Mr. Artistic Director (of the 967 people who joined the Directors Guild of America in 2009, 72.1 percent were Caucasian males and 8.3 percent were minority males) choose to present an all-white, all-male season of playwrights and directors, all set in and around 20th-century upper-middle-class living rooms, you have no obligation to do otherwise — not to me, not to your audience. You can produce this season and occasionally do. Some might argue that there’s a larger cultural obligation here — that art is a mirror held up to nature, and if you’re only showing your own reflection, you’re undermining its entire raison d’être and subsequently damaging your community by appealing to an insular and false version of the area you serve. But I’ll let that bit slide for now.

If I, Ms. Theater Critic, attend your theater and see a good but traditional production of The Odd Couple, or maybe Glengarry Glen Ross, or especially, Lend Me a Tenor, I am obliged to explain how and why this production works. However, as a critic tasked with analyzing the work in its larger sociopolitical context (Why this play? Why here? Why now?) I am also obliged to wonder, in print, why you’re producing these old ringers, and how, in the case of the third example, you can in good conscience, in a city whose population is 58 percent African American, present a farce whose conceit relies on blackface and an Afro wig, unless you are deliberately thumbing your nose at the neighbors. (This last example refers to a production in Wilmington, Delaware, but I’m not picking on anyone; that was only one of three Tenors this season alone.)

The invisible woman

Anyway, there’s no shortage of other examples of artistic directors’ obliviousness to issues of race and gender. The Lantern Theater is presently taking some heat for producing a Japanese-themed Julius Caesar that includes no one of Asian descent. And this week in Washington, DC, critic Peter Marks hosted a conversation with artistic directors about representation of women and people of color onstage, at which Ford's Theatre's Paul Tetreault said, out loud, “plays by women don’t exist,” and Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rillette added the ones that do are “feminist,” and thus, “outdated.” (I don’t believe he went on to explain why, conversely, Brecht’s Marxism or Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English remain relevant.)

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art. 

If you are passionate enough about theater to spend your professional life critiquing it, you’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the form’s survival. Advocate for the kind of theater that reflects our surroundings. Just 17 percent of plays produced in this country are written by women. Since 2000, the annual list of the top 10 most-produced plays averages three female playwrights. (An interesting side note: there’s far more ethnic diversity among these women than there is among their male counterparts, which is great, but leads me to wonder whether this is because such playwrights enable artistic directors to check off more than one “diversity” box.) 

Better in Philly

In the Philadelphia area, at least eight, maybe more, theater companies have female founding or artistic directors. They’re all white, but even so, this makes us something of an anomaly. While women’s leadership doesn’t always translate into diversity or gender parity (for example, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current season consists entirely of works written by white men), it helps.

We ought to be championing the Wilma Theater’s Blanka Zizka as a national model of how to get it done right. The Wilma presents a solid season featuring three female playwrights out of four (half of these shows also feature female directors): Lisa D’Amour, Danai Gurira, and Paula Vogel. D’Amour is a young writer; Gurira, African American; Vogel, with a world premiere, is an out lesbian and one of the few women whose work is regularly produced. Zizka presents them alongside Tom Stoppard, with whom the company has enjoyed a long producing relationship. 

The Wilma hasn’t announced a diversity initiative, and they haven’t sent out press releases trumpeting their season as a hard-won triumph that bucks the system. Maybe they should, so more people will realize the quiet game-changing that’s taking place along the Avenue of the Arts (and to a lesser, but also influential extent, off-Broad Street, at companies such as InterAct Theatre, whose mission has always been one of supporting diversity and producing new work). Even if they don’t, though, that’s something we critics are obligated to notice, not just because it widens and deepens the scope of theater in our region, but because there are still artistic directors who say they just can’t find any decent [check whichever box/es you like] playwrights. It’s the critic’s responsibility to show readers there are and also where they can be found.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on February 23, 2014

Affirmative action for women and minority playwrights and directors may improve the quality — or at least the scope — of American theater. But where is it written that critics are obligated to "advocate for the kind of theater that reflects our surroundings"? Critics come in all shapes and sizes and pursue a broad variety of approaches and agendas. Some of us strive to serve our readers, as opposed to the cause of art. (I speak only for myself, of course.) Must we squash diversity among critics for the sake of promoting diversity onstage?

Alaina Mabaso

of Elkins Park, PA on February 23, 2014

Nothing about Wendy's article advocates squashing diversity among critics. She's taking the "yes, and..." approach as we improvise a better theater scene with representation of all viewpoints instead of just one or two. Since when does one writer sharing her professional credo imply an attempt to quash others' approach?

Wendy Rosenfield

of Philadelphia, PA on February 24, 2014

Sorry, Dan, I disagree. Critics are obligated to serve both readers and the art form we're charged with critiquing. They're not mutually exclusive. I guess I'm unclear about how advocating for more theatrical perspectives squashes diversity among critics. (And on that subject, I'd argue there's not a whole lot of true diversity among critics anyway. For example, I know of two professional African American critics working in the U.S. right now. Two.)


of Philadelphia pa, Pa on February 25, 2014

Conventional wisdom says that theatre is elitist because of the cost of tickets. A small segment of society can afford to go, so it follows that the stories are targeted at that small. I think the bigger problem however, is that the low pay of theatre counter-intuitively means that almost entirely people from backgrounds of privilege go into it. This means that the majority of the storytellers are actually from this same small homogeneous not representative group of the population that go to see the theatre . If there were truly a middle class of artists, there would be a theatre for a middle class audience.

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on February 25, 2014

In my 40-plus years as a critic of one sort or another, I’ve often encountered Wendy’s contention (above) that “Critics are obligated to serve both readers and the art form we're charged with critiquing.” But I’ve yet to hear a persuasive argument as to why all critics must follow this path, which strikes me as merely one of many diverse and equally valid approaches to arts criticism.
To me, the test is to apply Wendy’s rule to some other field of criticism. Are political columnists obligated to serve the cause of good government? Are business columnists obligated to improve the economy? Are sportswriters obligated to serve the cause of sport? Suppose they just want to share their insights with their readers and let the chips fall where they may?
Some writers obviously do fancy themselves advisers to the people they write about (the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman springs to mind). But I would argue that such a posture can undermine their ability to provide honest and candid insight to their readers.

Wendy Rosenfield

of Philadelphia, PA on February 26, 2014

To clarify: I do not believe critics ought to act as "advisers to the people they write about." I believe the critic's role is to act as a reader's guide through a specific work of art--filtered, of course, through that critic's own perspective. Part of guiding the reader requires putting the work in a larger context, and putting it in context means you need to know and care about the subject at hand. This is true for sports, politics and business. Culture criticism (or any editorial writing), as opposed to news reporting, reflects the perspective of its author. Good culture criticism helps improve the entire cultural landscape, and yes, I do believe diversity improves the cultural landscape, and invites more audiences to join the conversation.

Dan, it seems you're laboring here under the false impression that the chips actually do just "fall where they may." They don't. They fall where you, a culture critic (or sportswriter, political analyst and business writer), place them, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on February 26, 2014

I agree with most everything Wendy Rosenfield says (above), except for her apparent contention that hers is the only acceptable definition of good criticism. There’s more than one way to promote enlightenment; and in the age of the Internet, new and possibly better approaches to criticism (as well as all communication) are sure to evolve.
For better or worse, the Internet has already done much to undermine the traditional concept of the critic as high priest or benevolent authority figure. But the process has barely started. We live at the beginning of history, not the end.
To quote a line from Inherit the Wind, “Ideas are like babies; they have to be born.” The same, I would submit, applies to ideas about arts criticism.

Linda Nagle

of Liverpool, En on February 26, 2014

As a film and theatre critic, I'd like to see critics remaining true to themselves. If they are the type who just can't let an issue go without using a review as an opportunity to raise awareness, then they are the type who should be referring to that same issue in their work. If they are the kind of writer that prefers to separate the art from the issues, then that's good too. If a critic can persuade readers to become an audience and swell the love for the theatre, then the job's done. Diversity applies to critics too; and to suggest that there should be a standardised approach to the ART of critique is like saying there's only one way to cook potatoes*

*The Politically Correct version of skin-a-cat.

Jack Lyons

of Desert Hot Springs, CA on May 24, 2015

On the "Left Coast" we have lots of diversity in theater. One shining example among many is the casting diversity helmed by artists of color, and performed by artists of color at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse under the keen stewardship of 18-year artistic director Sheldon Epps. Granted, diversity of all forms of theater in America is slow in coming, but it is a movement whose time is long overdue. Hang in there, good people. If your readers are so inclined, they can read my review of a diverse Pygmalion at the Pasadena Playhouse by going to: Desert Local

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