In an ongoing series of posts, I’m examining the current state of affairs for those of us writing and making new plays in the DC metropolitan area. The series began with a look at what I call the audience problem, then continued with an examination of civic pride (or the lack thereof), then discussed the issue of making (or using) spaces for art. The series is now going to turn in a more positive direction — time to start focusing on the many things we’ve got going for us… and there are more, I think, than we realize. Today’s subject:
A Critical Ally
In the whole entire history of the world, has there ever been a theater critic who was universally and unreservedly loved by a city’s theater artists? I’m guessing that at best — after at least a decade of consistent, high-quality work — a reviewer might earn a kind of begrudging respect… one that could vanish in an instant with a single “bad” review of the “wrong” people or production. But can anyone genuinely dispute the notion that critical voices are essential to the overall health of a theatrical ecosystem? I know I can’t.
So if critics are necessary, it almost doesn’t seem fair to despise them, does it? I mean, seriously: let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that even if we could run our least favorite critics out of town, we’d just find reasons to hate the new critics post-haste. (Or in our case, Washington Post-haste. Sorry — couldn’t resist.) So maybe it’s not them; maybe it’s us, at least in part. And maybe we need to find a way to develop a more nuanced relationship with our critics. One that’s more connected, more communicative, and perhaps even healthier. There are worse possibilities, no?
I also think that perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what we can realistically expect from our critics. Do we really want unfailingly positive reviews for every new piece of work we put up? A Pollyanna-ish cheerleader? Just to make us feel better about what we’re doing? Or are we really going to benefit more, in the long run, from a critic who believes passionately in (and speaks eloquently about) the need for new plays… but who still holds new work up to high standards, pointing the community toward greater accomplishment. A reviewer who, by identifying successes for the world, guides new audiences toward the best of our work?
In Peter Marks, the most high-profile theater critic in DC, I think we have about as close as we might get to what I’d call an ideal critic for those of us making new plays. Agree or disagree with any individual review he’s written — and we’ve all done that, to be sure — you cannot argue with the fact that he cares deeply about DC theater, wants it to keep being brilliant, and thinks it can keep growing. He also believes in the critical importance of the new play sector, both to our city and to the country as a whole. Fault him (if you must) for his execution, you cannot question his fervent desire to see us succeed: as witness the following quote from an opinion piece he wrote not long ago:
True lovers of the performing arts know that, as much as it’s consoling to feel the powerful resonances of old works, the true measure of a nation’s artistic vitality is what the art-makers are creating right now.
I need to say right away, because some of you must be wondering: yes, I’ve disagreed with his reviews, probably just about as often as anyone has. And yes, though he’s written very positively about some of my work, he has also panned a play I wrote as well. (A review, for the record, that in hindsight I feel was not only fair, but generous.) Some of his reviews have felt so far off they’ve gotten way under my skin, and some of his opinion pieces have just plain confused me. Some of the plays he really likes, too, I simply cannot understand.
But you know what I do now when I feel like questioning Peter about something he’s written? I question him! I tweet to him, or I send him an email, or I reach out to him on Facebook, and I tell him what I think. And he answers! He doesn’t hide from a single thing. I might not always like his responses, but does that matter? What matters is the dialogue between us, which is (I hasten to add) always mutually respectful. I learn a lot from being connected with Peter, and I think others would, too. I hope (and honestly believe) the feeling is mutual.
This is a huge thing, people. It’s absolutely new territory. An ongoing, easily-accessible dialogue between critics and artists? (Thank you, Twitter.) A friendship of sorts between critics and artists? (Thank you, Facebook.) That kind of connection is going to bear fruit for us in ways we have not yet begun to realize. I’m not even going to speculate: I just know it’s a good thing… that we’ll all end up smarter somehow (including Peter). Just give it time.
So here’s what I’m trying to say: we ought to consider Peter an asset. (A few of the other critics in this town, who are also to some extent present and communicative via social media and who, like him, “believe in” new plays, are also assets.) As long as we don’t expect him to pat us on the back for giving it our best shot when we fail (which isn’t his job), or ask him to get it right every time (he’s going to both love and hate some plays he probably shouldn’t… as are we all), we can count on him to offer his critical version of long, slow, steady support for new plays in DC… no matter how long it takes us to get there.
Finally, let me close by saying this: I know this might not be the most popular blog post I’ve ever written. (Hell, Peter might not even like it!) You know what, though? I’m happy to discuss it, either here or on Facebook or on Twitter. Because the dialogue is happening, and we all ought to be a part of it. It’s what’s moving us forward.
Next post: Playwrights Assemble!
UPDATE: After I wrote this post, but before it was published, Peter Marks wrote a series of tweets that so perfectly illustrates why he’s an ally for the new play sector in DC that I have to repeat them here (with his permission):
DC next season: BEST L WHOREHOUSE (Signature), MY FAIR LADY (Arena), JEKYLL+HYDE (Ken Cen), HELLO, DOLLY! (Signature). Cutting edge.
Choosing these shopworn titles is the opposite of imagination-it’s abdication. I’m embarrassed for these companies. #dctheatre
Small theaters of DC: up to you to provide artistic leadership. We’ll have to see what Studio + Woolly do but others are throwing in towel.
Wolf Trap must be furious: everyone is stealing their titles! #dctheatre
Many of you lecture me abt imprtance of “mission.” To me, ur season announcement is ur mission statement. And these declare: We’re tired.
KenCen has brilliant manager of finances–but choices are tiresomely cautious. Self produced revivals of 80 year old titles isn’t “risk.”
You know, with these announcements, I have Rocco ringing in my ears. What is pt. of Not for Profit status if we’re getting cashbox titles?
Brit theater is being hard hit, too. Do you guy see UK’s National Theatre doing FIDDLER?