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Published on February 13th, 2014 | by Critical Stages

Criticism 2.0: Benefits and Challenges of Theatre Criticism Web Sites

Criticism 2.0:

Benefits and Challenges of Theatre Criticism Web Sites

Russell T. Warne[1]

Abstract

In the United States the full-time theatre critic’s job has been a casualty of the economic crisis facing American newspapers. Consequentially, in most American cities there are fewer reviews than ever being published, and a dearth of criticism has developed. However, the internet has also fostered the creation of theatre reviewing web sites that are filling this void in criticism. In this article I discuss the creation of these web sites, their reception, and their challenges through the lens of my position as managing editor of one of these sites, Utah Theatre Bloggers Association (UTBA). I also discuss the unresolved issues that face UTBA and other theatre reviewing web sites, including questions of authority, quality, ethics, and identity. Finally, I make recommendations to bloggers, theatre artists, and traditional media writers that should foster high-quality criticism on the internet.

The advent of the internet has changed theatre criticism and made the economic model of the full-time theatre critic in the United States increasingly unviable. Whereas in the 1990’s most large American cities had multiple theatre critics working for local media outlets, today only eleven American cities have at least one full-time theatre critic working in traditional media: New York City, Washington, Chicago, Sarasota, Miami, Pittsburgh (with two critics), Louisville, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco.

Therefore, the number of theatre reviews has decreased and the theatre critic profession is endangered.[2] Yet in Salt Lake City, Utah, the number of theatre reviews has skyrocketed. In this western American city, far from the major cultural centers of the nation, a group of online non-professional writers has created a surge of theatre reviews. Consequentially, reviews are being written for theatre companies that have never been reviewed before and theatre criticism is experiencing a local Renaissance.

One site at the center of this increased reviewing activity is Utah Theatre Bloggers Association (UTBA, www.utahtheatrebloggers.com), which is an organization of “civilian internet writers” (to use terminology from Moore1) that in 2012 published 252 reviews—far more than any other media outlet in the state. The purpose of this article is to explore theatre reviewing web sites[3] using UTBA as a case study to explore the creation of these sites, their reception in the local theatre community, and the unique struggles they face.

Context

To understand UTBA, it is necessary to understand the media and theatrical context in which the site was created. Salt Lake City is the capital of the state of Utah, and although the city itself has only 186,443 people, the metropolitan area is home to 1.12 million of Utah’s 2.76 million residents (according to the United States 2010 census). The Salt Lake City metropolitan area has two major newspapers: the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, which have a Sunday circulation of 135,380 and 183,049, respectively.[4] Like other newspapers throughout the United States, both have experienced financial turmoil that has led their owners to reduce arts coverage and reviewing. Both newspapers have not had any full-time staff members writing play reviews since 2013 and 2007, respectively. In recent years the Salt Lake Tribune has continued to cut staff,[5] and the Deseret News has moved to a model reminiscent of the Huffington Post to rely on low-cost content generated by outsiders.[6] Utah is therefore typical in the United States as a place where “. . . the economic model for the professional critic has fallen apart.”[7]

Utah has only four Equity theatre companies: the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company, Plan-B Theatre Company, and Salt Lake Acting Company. The latter three are located in Salt Lake City, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival is located about 400 kilometers south of Salt Lake City in a rural part of the state. A large number of non-Equity theatre companies exist, most notably the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City, which is the nation’s largest community theatre.[8] Compared to other parts of the country with similar population, Utah has a disproportionate number of non-Equity companies. Utah County (an area at the southern end of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area with a population of 516,564), for example, has over 25 theatre companies each year producing over 100 productions, none of which are Equity productions.

Theatrical offerings in Utah tend to be conservative, dominated by local productions of Broadway musicals and Shakespeare plays.[9] However, Utah has a sizeable community of playwrights and many companies produce at least one new play per year. Some smaller Utah companies produce controversial plays, including Salt Lake Acting Company’s annual Saturday’s Voyeur (a musical satire of local culture and politics) and Plan-B’s recent Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea (a play about two friends—one Mormon and one gay—who grow up amid a backdrop of religious, cultural, and political challenges). There is also a small but notable experimental theatre community in Utah, especially on the campuses of local universities. One notable experimental theatre company is Grassroots Shakespeare Company, which has attracted attention for its blend of modern and Elizabethan production practices.

Enter, from the Audience, the Bloggers

Creation

As a direct result of the reduction in traditional theatre criticism, local theatre reviewing web sites—mostly blogs, but also web sites with more complex designs—have been created in most large American cities. UTBA was started by Dave Mortensen, a local independent theatre producer. After noticing that most Utah productions struggled to get any press coverage or reviews, Mortensen decided to create a web site for theatre reviews. He invited me (a friend and former college classmate) to participate because I had privately been writing informal play reviews on social media. I agreed to give suggestions and edit the reviews. Thus, UTBA was born on January 30, 2010.

But more needed to be done. Mortensen knew that Utah had so many theatrical productions that it would be impossible for one person to review all of them. He contacted people who enjoyed theatre and invited them to write reviews. Mortensen also arranged press tickets to plays and in within a week seven productions had been reviewed. He continued to recruit new people, and I continued to edit the reviews. The site was immediately successful, and at the end of 2010 UTBA averaged nearly 3,500 visits per month. As of the end of September, UTBA averaged nearly 9,000 visits per month in 2013. About 70 people have contributed reviews for UTBA, with about 20-30 of those actively reviewing at any one time. Although this may make turnover at UTBA seem high, it is important to note that 19 reviewers have been with UTBA since its first year.

Theatre companies embraced UTBA because they recognized the problem created by a lack of critical voices in Utah. Many non-Equity companies welcomed a new forum where their work could be discussed—often for the first time. April Berlin, Operations Manager and Marketing and Development Assistant for SCERA (one of the oldest arts organizations in Utah) stated, “With newspapers reviewing less and less and some none at all, I think [UTBA] fills a niche in making sure all theatre companies have the chance to have their work critiqued if they so desire.”

Even theatre companies that receive regular reviews from traditional media appreciated the variety of voices that the UTBA criticism model provided. Anne Madsen, executive producer at Hale Center Theater Orem[10] stated, “UTBA is not stuck behind one person’s preconceived notions about what a play should be. In the past we often felt powerless when there was only one critical voice at the local newspaper. Now we’re not going to get stuck behind a personal bias for an extended period of time because the next show’s reviewer is likely going to be someone completely different.”

Members of the traditional media also welcomed UTBA to the theatre community and treated UTBA members as equals. For example, former Salt Lake Tribune arts reporter Nancy Melich nominated me for membership in the American Theater Critics Association (ATCA). UTBA leadership frequently discusses issues facing the theatre community with traditional media members. Indeed, because UTBA reviewers are also theatre patrons or artists, they often have a perspective that traditional media writers do not.

Challenges

UTBA’s challenges are similar to those faced by many theatre criticism web sites. From a practical standpoint, the logistics of running a web site—scheduling reviews, editing submissions, finding writers, and managing a social media presence—is time consuming, a fact echoed by other American internet critics.[11] UTBA’s three main staff members (Mortensen, myself, and Amber Peck) contribute a total of 10-40 hours per week to the web site, with additional time sometimes contributed by other UTBA members. This is an all-volunteer effort, which means UTBA tasks sometimes must be delayed as members handle their employment and personal commitments.

Another difficulty has been maintaining consistency in the quality of reviews produced by dozens of writers. Indeed, this is the most common complaint I hear about UTBA regardless of whether the person is a theatre patron, a theatre artist (such as Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre), or a UTBA member (such as Dave Mortensen himself). Inconsistency in quality may exist because most UTBA members had never written a theatre review or received any journalism training before joining UTBA. To remedy this problem, new reviewers undergo a brief mentoring process in order to learn appropriate content and tone for a UTBA theatre review. Although mentoring new writers is another time commitment from staff, it has been instrumental in improving UTBA’s professional image. Careful editing and feedback also increase review quality. Every review is edited by at least one staff member, and UTBA members receive feedback from one another on their reviews. However, UTBA still continues to receive the complaint that review quality is inconsistent.

One difficulty that UTBA faces is authority. UTBA—with the word bloggers in its name—is an inherently different sort of media outlet compared to traditional journalism. According to Zinoman,6 newspaper-based critics gain authority from their journalism education, the prestige of their publication, and the juxtaposition of their review next to serious news stories. Internet-based critics have none of that. Instead, internet critics must establish their own authority through a professional attitude, a willingness to write negative reviews when necessary, and building a reputation of fairness and toughness.6 We have fostered these qualities in our writers, although not all writers have been equally successful at adopting them.

Another problem is that UTBA reviewers provide feedback to theatre artists, but often do not get feedback themselves.[12] This is because many reviews do not generate responses from readers, a problem mentioned by other critics.[13] One reviewer, Johnny Hebda, commented when he joined UTBA that as a reader he didn’t trust some reviewers’ opinions but that the site as a whole was strong enough that he wanted to become part of it. Given the comments received from readers and theatre artists, I believe that UTBA’s overall image is a positive one, but that the reputation of individual writers varies.

Finally, there is the perennial challenge for any arts endeavor in the United States: money. UTBA was financed for its first two years through personal funds from staff. Only recently has the site started to sell advertising to cover costs. Mortensen has taken steps to incorporate UTBA as a non-profit in order to receive donations and grants, but the process has been slow.

Unresolved Issues

UTBA must deal with many issues related to internet criticism, some of which are unresolved. First, there is the basic question of identity. Are UTBA members critics, or just reviewers? Although readers may think this is merely semantics, it is an important question. Lahr[14] explained that reviewers’ purpose is to tell readers whether they should pay money to see a production, whereas critics interpret performances “. . . in a larger historical, psychological and theatrical context.” At UTBA we have decided to call our writers “reviewers” because we do not believe that all of them analyze productions at the level that critics routinely reach. We reserve the term “critics” for those writers who have joined ATCA and regularly produce the analysis that Lahr writes about.[15]

Second, there has been regular internal debate among UTBA members about the scope of the site’s mission. Officially, our goal is to eventually review every theatre production in the state.[16] Some members, such as professional dramaturg Janine Sobeck, question whether every production merits a review while other members believe that every play deserves the public response provided by a review. Moreover, debates about reviewing specific types of productions—e.g., youth theatre, experimental university student productions, opera, and staged readings—often occur. The tendency has been for UTBA to be more inclusive about what to review, although operas and educational productions outside of universities have never been reviewed.

Another hurdle to UTBA’s credibility is the low esteem of the internet as a medium for criticism. Some traditional critics[17] have heaped scorn (some of it deserved) onto internet reviewers because anyone can become a blogger and start writing their opinions about a play, a concern of Utah theatre artists like Anne Madsen. Early on UTBA staff believed that publishing high quality reviews would distinguish it from other competing sites, which is why we edit every review and mentor new members. In other words, we distinguish ourselves the way theatre companies do: by creating good work and letting that work speak for itself.

There is the question of whether UTBA is diminishing the value of theatre reviews by providing its service for free. Not charging for reviews sends the message to readers that our product is literally worth nothing—a belief that UTBA members do not share. Moreover, reviewing so many productions, especially the large number of non-professional productions, perhaps leads to “review inflation,” where the large number of reviews makes each individual review means less, just as every dollar printed causes each existing dollar to have less value.

Another concern is whether UTBA is driving professional critics out of the field. A cynic might say that it is not coincidence that the last full-time arts reporter in Utah was terminated from her newspaper job weeks after UTBA published its 750th review. However, there is no evidence that UTBA has directly led to anyone losing their job. But we see ourselves falling into the same trap that newspapers did in the late 1990’s: providing content online for free and then asking—after readers are used to paying nothing—how to get people to pay for it.

Thoughts on the Future

In Utah and elsewhere, internet criticism is here to stay. As technology has led to the demise of many full-time positions in criticism at traditional media venues, a vacuum of criticism has developed. In most communities someone is going to fill the void of providing public feedback. To avoid this reality is—I think—foolish for theatre artists or traditional critics. So, here are my suggestions for how bloggers, traditional critics, and theatre artists can all improve the quality of internet-based criticism.

First, bloggers should read as many reviews as possible—even for productions they have not seen. Theatre criticism is a specific writing genre with its own conventions, and it is difficult to teach one’s self how to write a review without reading others’ reviews. Bloggers should also read essays written by critics in theatre, film, dance, and the other arts in order to understand current issues and how critics think. Interviews of critics[18] can also provide insight into how professional critics form their opinions and interact with their theatre community.

Bloggers must also be willing to write negative reviews. Zinoman6 stated that some of an internet critic’s authority comes from the willingness to pan a production. If a fledgling critic really does like everything they see, then they likely do not have the insight necessary to give useful feedback to theatre artists. Bloggers should be aware that a web site that produces only positive reviews loses credibility when readers attend a terrible production that was highly praised.

Bloggers should also be transparent about their ethical standards. For example, UTBA does not let members review productions that they cannot evaluate fairly and publicly state what situations qualify as “conflicts of interest.” Advertising revenue can also invite ethical situations that undermine a review’s credibility. It may be necessary when selling advertising to explicitly state that the purchase of advertising on a site does not influence review content. At UTBA we have chosen—like traditional media—to keep the review publication process separate from the financial operations of the site.

Finally, bloggers should write in a community. That community may be homegrown— like UTBA—or a professional organization like IATC. Communities make bloggers aware of developments in criticism and provide a support system. Becoming aware of other critics’ work also prevents a blogger from becoming repetitive or insular in his or her criticism.

This brings me to my advice for traditional media critics: welcome bloggers into your midst. Given the very small number of full-time theatre critics in the United States today, bloggers are the future of theatre criticism. If traditional critics want to have an impact on 21st century theatre criticism, they must wield their influence on bloggers. This does not mean that bloggers should be accepted unconditionally. Poor writing, shallow analysis, and prejudiced opinions should not be tolerated in budding theatre critics. But an elitist attitude from traditional media critics will only hurt the field and engender unnecessary antagonism.

Finally, theatre artists need to recognize the value of feedback from a multitude of voices. As I have stated before,[19] a theatre community without critical voices risks becoming stagnant. UTBA reviews have prompted theatre artists and companies to make improvements to their plays and operating procedures. UTBA writers have also extolled excellence and vindicated artists taking risks in an otherwise risk-adverse theatre community. Theatre artists in Utah have seen the benefits of internet criticism, and I believe that theatre artists in other areas can enjoy these benefits if they embrace high quality internet criticism.

Conclusion

The field of theatre criticism in the United States is experiencing major changes because of the creation of blogs and other reviewing web sites. UTBA is an example demonstrating that internet-based criticism can benefit the field of theatre criticism, local theatre companies, artists, and patrons. But struggles for internet critics remain, especially in regards to quality, authority, and economics. Despite these struggles, I find it exciting to be part of this movement and to deal with the challenges that face UTBA and other internet-based theatre critics.


 

[1] Russell T. Warne is the managing editor for Utah Theatre Bloggers Association, which published its 800th review in October 2013. He is an active participant in the American Theater Critics Association, which he has been a member of since May 2012. He earned his PhD from Texas A&M University and works full-time as a quantitative psychologist teaching social science statistics and research methods and psychological testing for Utah Valley University. He has published studies on academic testing, nutrition, medical education, and intelligence. He can be contacted at russell@utahtheaterbloggers.com

[2] John Moore, 4 April 2013, “Critics’ Love for Sale: Why Journalism’s Demise is Bad for Theater.” Retrieved 3 October 2013, from HowlRound at http://www.howlround.com/critics%E2%80%99-love-for-sale-why-journalism%E2%80%99s-demise-is-bad-for-theater

[3] Examples of other cities with reviewing web sites include New York City (e.g., http://newyorktheater.me), Los Angeles (e.g., http://www.latheatrereview.com/), and Dallas (http://www.theaterjones.com/).

[4] Numbers retrieved 24 September 2013 from the Alliance for Audited Media web site at http://www.auditedmedia.com/free-reports.aspx

[5] See, for example, the latest announcement of staff cuts at the Salt Lake Tribune: Tribune Editors, 12 September 2013, “News release: Trib changes leadership, reduces staff by nearly 20 percent.” Retrieved from the Salt Lake Tribune at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/56863517-78/editor-tribune-news-newspaper.html.csp

[6] Sara Jane Weaver, 1 September 2010, “Deseret News set to lead, innovate.” Retrieved 3 October 2013, from the Deseret News at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700061704/Deseret-News-set-to-lead-innovate.html

[7] Jason Zinoman, 22 July 2013, “Jason Zinoman, Perspectives in Criticism.” Retrieved 3 October 2013, from the American Theater Critics Association at http://americantheatrecritics.org/homepublic/2013/7/22/jason-zinoman-perspectives-in-criticism.html

[8] Ben Fulton, 2 March 2013, “Hale Centre Theatre’s bid for more taxpayers’ money creates drama.” Retrieved 3 October 2013, from the Salt Lake Tribune at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55921762-223/theater-hale-million-community.html.csp

[9] Of the 13 plays that have been reviewed by UTBA five or more times, eight are musicals and four are Shakespeare plays. Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is the other play.

[10] Please note that this theatre company is different from the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City mentioned above. Both organizations are completely independent; the similarity in names is due to the fact that both companies are run by different branches of the same extended family.

[11] The time commitment of running an arts web site was a major topic of discussion at the American Theater Critics Association’s panel on internet reviewing during their 2013 conference in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

[12] It was the fact that critics themselves need criticism that prompted the creation of the New York Times Critic Watch. See http://nytcriticwatch.com/

[13] For example, Wendy Rosenfield, 1 April 2013, “But I really don’t want to direct.” Retrieved 3 October 2013 from HowlRound at http://www.howlround.com/but-i-really-don%E2%80%99t-want-to-direct

[14] John Lahr, Winter 2013, “The Illumination Business: Why drama critics must look at and look after the theater,” Nieman Reports. Retrieved 3 October 2013 from Nieman Reports at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102827/The-Illumination-Business.aspx

[15] Currently, I am the only “critic” for UTBA, although I believe that some writers could qualify for ATCA membership and gain the “critic” label.

[16] Jerry Rapier said, “The greatest strength of UTBA in particular is the commitment to review any show requesting one [a review].”

[17] Michael Feingold, 16 August 2013, “The Critic, the Worker, and the Business Model: Some striking similarities.” Retrieved 3 October 2013 from TheaterMania at http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/08-2013/the-critic-the-worker-and-the-business-model_65795.html See also Moore (above, note 1).

[18] See, for example, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (ed.), Under the Copper Beech: Conversations with American Theater Critics (Millville, Pennsylvania: Foundation of the American Theater Critics Association, 2004).

[19] Russell Warne, 31 July 2012, “What if there were no critics?” Retrieved 3 October 2013 from Utah Theatre Bloggers Association at http://utahtheatrebloggers.com/12316/what-if-there-were-no-critics


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