Does a review that no one paid for have value?

Ethics for theater critics: The Craigslist critic

5 minute read
An actress, an “actress,” and a critic: Davis, Monroe, and Sanders in “All About Eve.”
An actress, an “actress,” and a critic: Davis, Monroe, and Sanders in “All About Eve.”

In the world of arts criticism, reviewers usually receive two complimentary tickets to a performance. It’s common practice for the reviewer, if he or she will not be bringing a companion, to let the theater know (the earlier the better) that they are free to fill that extra seat however they choose. It is definitely unusual for a reviewer to sell that ticket in the “Men Seeking Women” section of Craigslist in the hopes of both finding a date and scoring a profit.

Once upon a time, the rules were clear. The critic, employed full-time at a major newspaper, attended a show on opening night with tickets paid for by the publications, then ran into a smoky, booze-soaked writing room to pound out an analysis before a 10:30pm deadline, dictating copy over the telephone to a waiting stenographer. Lines were never crossed; the booze never arrived gratis, courtesy of an anxious producer; and no one ever leapt over the footlights in search of romance.

Which is all to say, of course, ethical lines have always been crossed, in life and certainly onscreen. Long before All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt talked Marilyn Monroe into a few dates, or Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson used her powers for evil, the ethics of criticism occupied a gray area somewhere between what critics should do in theory and how they actually behaved in practice.

Should critics ever review a preview? No! Unless it’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which racked up nearly 70 previews while charging full price for tickets. Should theater companies pay for a review? Hell, no. Unless you’re Los Angeles’s Bitter Lemons and you’re looking for a new independent online model that pays critics for their work. Should critics tread lightly, offering only positive feedback? No way, unless you’re hoping your website will be a gathering place for theater professionals. Should you fraternize with the hired help? Of course not, unless you’re John Lahr. Can a critic work both inside and outside the theater? Never! Unless they’re George Bernard Shaw; Kenneth Tynan; or, more recently, Terry Teachout, whose playwriting success required a new conflict-of-interest policy; and David Cote.

What’s at stake?

But the problem with selling a comped ticket is larger than blowback from a lady who realizes her date just charged her for a freebie. When newspaper employees received a written code of conduct and knew their jobs were at stake if they violated those codes, they were less likely to do so. Seattle’s Craigslist critic, L. Steven Seiden, continues to write for the Huffington Post (and receive comps). HuffPo doesn’t pay its reviewers, so neither the site nor Seiden really has anything tangible to lose if something goes awry. Even if the site cut him loose, he could start his own blog or put up a shingle on some other non-compensated writer’s clearinghouse.

However, in the macro sense, something tangible does get lost: credibility, for the person and the profession. By literally devaluing critics’ work, or through ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing, a profession becomes a hobby. If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong?

I am. It’s not a hobby. If you knit your grandmother a three-armed sweater, she’ll still thank you and try to wear it before she saves it with the mothballs. If you review a preview (for free), get names and facts wrong, sell your comp on Craigslist, proposition the actors, and trash their physiques because one turned you down, you might lose your goodwill at that theater, but you might also make it harder for other reviewers — whose pay has been reduced because you’re giving it away for free — to gain entry. You will contribute to the idea that critics have no ethics, that ethics no longer matter, and that therefore arts criticism can’t be taken seriously. Your error-filled, mean-spirited, and unethical review will live on in the SEO ether, popping up on every search of the company, because Huffington Post pays someone to bring them traffic — just not you.

Clarifying expectations

At the recent American Theatre Critics Association meeting in New York City, its Executive Committee wrestled with an update of the group’s code of conduct, which was originally adopted in 1997, just when everything was about to change. (Full disclosure: I am a member of both ATCA and the committee.) But even back then, the first condition listed was this: “I will respect the intent of complimentary items (tickets, merchandise) given to me in the course of my job and not use them for financial gain.” Other critics and organizations have crafted their own set of rules, and just as there are many approaches to theater criticism, the variety of perspectives evident in these lists shows the difficulty in governing an ungovernable profession.

The Canadian Theatre Critics Association asks for critical objectivity, which many would argue is an impossible ideal, and says, “The critic should give full consideration and attention to all elements of a production. The work of supporting players, designers, musicians, and technicians is important, as well as that of leading players, director and author.” Good luck with stuffing all that consideration and attention into 400 words or less. The International Association of Theatre Critics’ code of practice created a more realistic list, although anyone who has spent time in the social company of critics knows the difficulty of maintaining this standard: “Theater critics should not do anything that would bring into disrepute their profession or practice, their own integrity or that of the art of the theater.” It sure would have been tricky for Tynan.

Here’s the thing: These codes aren’t dealing in absolutes. They’re guidelines, which means guidelines exist. If you write about theater and don’t belong to one of these organizations (several, including ATCA, now accept non-paid reviewers), you may continue writing about theater, but thanks to their efforts on behalf of the profession, you can’t claim ignorance, not even if it might get you a date.

Editor’s note: Broad Street Review pays its writers for their work — including this essay.

For a response by Christopher Munden, whose website, Phindie, generally does not pay its critics, click here.

For Dan Rottenberg's commentary on this debate, click here.

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