It’s a refrain so familiar that it’s almost a cliché: “Arts criticism in the Twin Cities is awful!” Yet as common as that complaint is, seldom have I seen any proposed solutions, or even much of a conversation about what exactly the arts community wants out of critics. Personally, I don’t believe Twin Cities criticism is worse than that of any other comparable metro, but I’d agree that mainstream critical standards have fallen across the board, due largely to competition from the internet and the corporate cost-cutting of once-independent media voices.
With all of that in mind, Playlist is launching an occasional series looking at the state of theater criticism around town – reviewing the reviews, if you will. As both a working artist and a longtime arts critic myself, I bristle every time I hear creative types rail against the institution of criticism as a whole. I could write volumes about my feelings on the co-dependence of art and criticism, but I'll spare you and just say I think each side needs the other. I’m not interested in tearing down individual critics or publications. I'd rather try to figure out what is and isn't working in the critical sphere as it stands. Obviously there's no guarantee the critics will cave to theater people's demands - if they did, they wouldn't be doing their jobs - but maybe we can at least start some conversations and bridge the divide between creative people and critics.
One of the toughest things to remember as an artist perusing mainstream arts criticism is that this stuff is not meant for you. Things that stand out to you as oversimplification or even misrepresentation probably don't look that way to general audiences. By and large, theater reviews in larger publications are aimed at the more casual patron – albeit a patron who cares enough about the arts to be reading theater reviews. As nice as it would be for reviews to provide usable notes that might help actors and directors make improvements, the aim is more often to help readers decide if a play is worth leaving the house for.
That's definitely the hook of Ed Huyck's City Pages write-up of Nimbus Theater's production of The Lower Depths, a review that epitomizes the difficulty of dealing with a limited word count. When you're given only 300 words to assess a reimagined, century-old classic with a 14-person cast, and those 300 words are expected to include a plot synopsis and a certain number of bullet points (set design, standout performers, etc.), you're not left with much room for insight.
Huyck does his best with the space he has, squeezing in praise for director Josh Cragun's faithful but creative adaptation, Zach Morgan's set and Andrew Sass' acting, but the format doesn't allow him to go deeper than a few fleeting adjectives for each. It's up to the brief closing paragraph to shoulder most of the qualitative analysis. Huyck's professionalism is on display here, as he does a fine job of telling readers what makes the show worth their time even as he wedges in a few more scraps of information about the play itself: "In a season full of heartwarming treacle about the importance of family and sharing, it's heartening to see a show that honestly deals with those issues, alongside vital topics like economic disparity and the plight of those on the margins of society."
(And there you have 200 words critiquing the 300-word review form. I can see already that this column will open up endless rabbit holes of irony and hypocrisy for me.)
Sophie Kerman at AisleSay takes a similar tack, opening with "If you’re sick and tired of Christmas spirit, it might be time for a change of pace." Kerman's review follows roughly the same lines as Huyck's, but her 500+ word count allows a little more breathing space. She can devote an entire paragraph to set design – by all accounts one of the most striking facets of the production – and not just praise Morgan's work but also dig into what makes it meaningful: "The sheer volume of stuff arranged throughout the space – and the fact that each item seems realistically damaged and appropriate to Depression-era life – is in itself an accomplishment, but Morgan’s arrangement of each character’s living quarters also creates subtle hierarchies that, in fact, contribute to our understanding of the relationships on stage."
Kerman's review also benefits from AisleSay's target audience. Writing for a theater-specific publication allows her to skip over some of the "who-what-where" required by bigger outlets and instead spend more time on why a play does or doesn't work. 500 words still isn't enough for any kind of scholarly treatise, of course, but at least Kerman gets a little room to explore Nimbus's handling of the themes of economic inequality that make Gorky's play so enduring.
Over at Vita.MN, Rob Callahan is working with a 600-word range. Now we're getting closer to a limit that could allow a critic to make some legitimate, provocative points. Unfortunately, that butts up against the Vita.MN target audience, an even broader swath than City Pages. A daily paper entertainment section in 2013 doesn't have much use for critical deconstruction or attempts to spark high-minded arts dialogue. These reviews are understandably utilitarian, so the extra word count is devoted more to description. The set decoration gets some wonderfully vivid detail ("weathered wood, dirty clothes, soiled sheets hanging from frayed clotheslines"), more of the performers get individual accolades, and there's even room for some reflection as the closing paragraph praises the play's rejection of oversimplified morals.
There's also space for some backstory about Nimbus, which sets up an odd divergence that bothers me: Callahan credits the company for producing "shows that are consistently higher in quality than you'd expect in a small venue... [The Lower Depths] rivals the work being done at the city's biggest venues, but without their overhead driving its ticket prices up. In essence, it is Guthrie quality theatre at a Bryant-Lake Bowl price."
I get what Callahan is going for here. It is extra impressive when a smaller-scale production delivers a huge punch. He goes on to praise the meticulously grungy set and Cragun's handling of the large cast, both of which are tough to pull off with limited space and budget. It's as tricky as, say, injecting hardcore analysis into a 300-word theater review.
Still, that attitude does a disservice to our amazing small-theater scene. I've seen plenty of excellent small venue performances that would have lost their impact if translated into a big budget production in a major space. Heck, the Fringe Festival is more or less predicated on the idea of creating high-caliber work specific to smaller stages. Holding up The Guthrie as the standard of quality to which all other Twin Cities theaters are compared just doesn't make sense. I suppose it's accurate to say that Bryant-Lake Bowl productions aren't the same quality as those at the Guthrie, but only because BLB shows aren't generally attempting to do anything remotely similar to what the Guthrie does. Neither is Nimbus, so it seems a peculiar point of praise.
So what's the ultimate point of this project? Well, we all know that artists are going to talk and complain about reviews no matter what. Hopefully this column can evolve into something more productive than random griping on Facebook or at the bar after the show. Maybe we're all still just hollering into the abyss of the internet, but at least this gives us an umbrella to do it under.