Recently, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times wrote a column in which he explained why he was hoping to take a break from reviewing any plays by Adam Rapp, whose work he doesn’t generally care for. The column led to many great exchanges on Twitter–none of which, for what it’s worth, Mr. Isherwood seems to have participated in, since (as far as anyone I know can tell) he isn’t on Twitter. One of those exchanges included the following back and forth I had with Peter Marks, the lead theater critic of the Washington Post. Note that Peter began by asking a hypothetical question of the Twitter-verse at large, not specifically of me. I responded, then he tweeted back, and we were off and running.
Peter: Practical question: What happens now, if an Adam Rapp play is under consideration for the Humana festival, and fest. expects NYT to cover?
Peter: And NOT saying top flight crix like Zinoman and Genzlinger cant step in. They can! This just adds another layer of politix where shouldnt b
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama For me, it raises the question of whether a critic should be matched to a play/playwright. Which suggests a question to me:
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama When you make assignments, do you think “Nelson would be good for that play” or “Celia loves that playwright’s work?”
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama How do you determine whom to assign to reviews? Are there practical matters that determine choices? Artistic? Journalistic?
Peter: @gwydions i will let Jason tell u how times works may have changed since i was there. At post, i do assigning and i try to find matches of..
Peter: @gwydions crit with interests and experience. Eg celia speaks chinese so she was natural at kencen china plays. But this is not scientific
Peter: @gwydions and yes a lot depends on availability…sometimes a reviewer will say they know someone in cast, etc and will recuse him/herself.
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama Follow-up ?s: Would U have let Ish publish that piece? Would U have pulled him from Rapp b4 then? Would U let him stop now?
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama All of those asked out of curiosity, mind you. No agenda behind meine frage. (Just slipped into German for some reason.)
Peter: @gwydions great questions! Im relieved to say that chief crit @ times picks his own shows and then the second critic picks from what remains
Peter: @gwydions so second could have “passed” on a Rapp play. But were i editor, i would not be in favor of crix absenting on acct of dislike
Peter: @gwydions but i do think it is perfectly fair for critic 2 say: i am going to let someone else rev next play by x. Just not blanket policy
Peter: @gwydions i may be idiot but i always think: next one might be the breakthrough #theatersucker
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama I like your positivity! Though I also wonder how you self-assess: how you ask “Is it the play, or is it me?”
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama BTW: This whole conversation should be archived somewhere…
Peter: @gwydions your gut tells you, and then you work outward from there–I think the only diff bet u and me is I have to “sell” my gut to readers
Peter: @gwydions meaning bet u and me as playgoers.
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama I think another difference is that I don’t have pesky playwrights asking me questions about my gut. 🙂
Peter: @gwydions your process sir is far more intriguing than mine!
Gwydion: @petermarksdrama Okay — if you don’t mind, I’m going to take this string of tweets and put it on my blog. You okay with that?
Peter: @gwydions absolutely feel free
I’m sharing our dialogue not, to be clear, because I think it’s particularly scintillating, though I did enjoy having it. I’m sharing it because I think it reveals our city’s main theater critic to be an outgoing, accessible, thoughtful person: not nearly the bogeyman some might make him out to be. He engages on Twitter regularly; he’s willing to answer tough questions and discuss virtually anything theatrical. He doesn’t hide behind the Post’s masthead. This is all to his credit… and it could be to everyone’s benefit as well.
I believe criticism ought to be a dialogue, not a monologue… and not the simple back-and-forth exchange of “You spoke to me through your work, artists, and now I’m going to speak back to you through my review.” Like any conversation, it should amble, wander, grow, fade off, resume, resurge, cover strange territory, return to familiar ground, and take leaps as well. It should make both participants smarter. It should enrich us all. It should make Peter Marks better at what he does, because he serves a vital role in a healthy theatrical ecosystem, and it should help us contextualize and understand the feedback he gives us in his reviews, too… thus making them more useful for us and making us better at what we do, too.
I wish more critics would follow Peter’s lead. I enjoy following Terry Teachout and Jason Zinoman, for example, and the exchanges I’ve had with Suzi Steffen and Kris Vire and Wendy Rosenfield have been very enlightening. I think that if other critics did hang out on Twitter more often—and if my fellow artists took the risk of engaging with them, positively—we’d all find the dialogue fruitful. We’d realize, I think, how connected we are, as devotees of different stripes. The fictional distance between us—a relic of the pre-digital world we’ve now emerged from—would collapse. And that would be a very good thing.
P.S. If Isherwood *were* on Twitter, I’d have told him I thought his parting shots at Rapp—whose work, it should be said, I don’t particularly connect with myself—were uncalled-for, unnecessary, and demeaning: if he wanted to recuse himself, he should have done it quietly. And if he wanted to write a column about the need to recuse himself, in general, he could have and should have done so without naming names.