Theatre critics: are they essential?

A week ago Variety caused an uproar in the arts community by firing chief theatre critic David Rooney and chief film critic Todd McCarthy.  David Cote, writing for the Guardian, went as far as to say, “eliminate critics at your peril.”  My question is, are we upset because this trend is going to cause the general public to not have access to “an authoritative critical voice” as Cote says, or is it because we will no longer have authoritative quotes to use in our advertising and grant applications?

Don’t get me wrong, it think it is sad and more than a little scary to see the move that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution made last year repeated by one of the most respected papers in the industry.  It concerns me that Variety stated it “doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers” in the same breath that they reported publishing 1,200 reviews last year.  It also worries me when this news is right on the heels of the paper pulling a negative review after the producers of the film complained.

But, I think we need to be honest about our motivations here.  It is really the fact that we are scared our audiences are going to get all their critiques from random folks on the web or is it the knowledge that, for many arts organizations, the published review is the only press we receive.  The days of the weekly arts features, preview articles, and special interest stories are long gone and, especially for small and emerging organizations without advertising budgets, the review often represents the entirety of mass promotion.

That being said, is it more useful for us, as an industry, to beat our heads against the wall of failing newspapers and spend all our time decrying the lack of scholarly dialogue on our productions or should we, instead, focus on what we can do to improve how our potential patrons hear about our work?  So much more is in our hands than at any other time in our history.  We have the opportunity to create communities with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; to immediately publish patron reviews and comments on our websites and within the social network; and to join forces with sites like,, and the forward thinking partners like Public Broadcasting Atlanta to reinvent the way our news is spread.  This is the “unfreezing moment” for our publicity, in the vernacular of Jerry Yoshitomi.  We need to jump into the game now to help create the new pardigm, before our public finds its own and we are once again out of the conversation.

Side note, if you are in Atlanta this weekend and want to explore the arts criticism conversation in more depth, check out the symposium at Emory on Arts Criticism and the Role of the Academy.  The Friday portion in booked solid, but you can still get into the panel discussion and roundtables on Saturday.

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