Could you live in a city with no theater critic? | Portlanders may need to get used to it

As was pointed out recently in the context of Seattle, hard-hitting and negative (when called for) theatre criticism is an indicator of a healthy theatre scene. You can’t have a real theatre scene without real criticism, because the audience (which is needed for theatre) wants a trusted intermediary to help guide them to the good stuff – and tiptoe ’round the tulips of the bad stuff. That’s what real criticism does.

Without real criticism, the mainstream audience is left scratching their heads. Maybe once or twice they’ll read a sunny, boosterish recap of something and mistakenly decide to go – only to discover the show is crap. That boy who cried wolf story? Bad criticism simply teaches the audience that they can’t rely on the paper anymore. So they stop risking it. And they stop going to the theatre.

Unbiased theatre coverage is declining in Portland. What now runs in the O is mostly extremely dull plot recap. It’s advertising – and not even good advertising. Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury still have the editorial power to tell it like it is, but how many people they reach is an open question. Portland does not have a mainstream source for criticism that isn’t compromised by conflicts of interest. Real criticism works for the audience – not the advertisers.

By contrast, the Seattle Times still has a theater section! Imagine that. And people read it. Comments on boisterous reviews (never in short supply) at The Stranger can run into the hundreds. That means people are engaging with trusted and central sources of info for the city’s theatre scene.

How do you know your town has a real theater critic? One good sign is if they can still write a review (when called for) that lays waste a show at the most hallowed theatre in town. That’s what Chris Jones does in this review of THE UPSTAIRS CONCIERGE by Kristoffer Diaz at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Jones calls the play “one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen at the venerable Goodman” – and bestows a single lonely star on it (out of four).

Unlike the dreaded novel length background story so typical of arts blogs today, where the piece can drone on and on for pages and pages without actually getting to the point (namely: is it any good?), Jones leads with the key info the audience wants on the tip of the missile. Incoming. If you’re in a hurry, you scan that first paragraph and right there you’ve got what you came for:

“THE UPSTAIRS CONCIERGE, the bewilderingly meandering, endlessly indulgent and thoroughly disappointing new show at the Goodman Theatre from the gifted writer Kristoffer Diaz, sets itself up as a manic farce with all of the trappings of that genre: a hotel with multiple doors and bedrooms, comic bellhops, pushy celebrities, exploding light fixtures, people dropping their pants, characters showing up in their underwear and a general atmosphere of sexual desire laced with confusion.”

BAM.

And in a great point a little later so often missing from the whole theatre enterprise, Jones nails it: “I don’t doubt there was much artistic freedom and resources afforded to all, but alas there was apparently far less consideration of the paying customer walking through the door on a precious night out downtown. And that’s part of the game.”

Exactly. What’s in it for THE AUDIENCE? Anything? Real critics are working for the audience, and they will do anything in their power to tell the audience when something is not worth their time or money. Real critics make the call – they say “NO!!!” as loudly as needed to get the word out. Real critics have zero interest in urging the audience to “come support our artists!”. Such an exhortation makes no sense. The audience comes if and when there’s a good experience on offer. If the food sucks, would you turn out to “support our chefs!” anyway? Maybe if you know one of them.

Critics who are writing advertising copy are faced with a different challenge – how to say as little as possible about the essence of the show (especially when it’s bad). How to put some lipstick on that – you know. Hence those excruciating, wooden plot recaps: “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened, he said this, and she said this, and then the play ended.”

Meanwhile the reader is looking (in vain) for a verdict: “Is is any good? Is it worth seeing? Does it get at something interesting? Is it art?” It can be well nigh impossible to answer any of these crucial questions when you are dealing with the plot recap school of criticism.

A comment on Jones’s review perfectly captures what the audience is looking for in both a critic and theatrical night out on the town:

“Thank you! We saw this Friday night and kept waiting to laugh. As we left, my husband and I discussed exactly what you’ve articulated here and wondered how did this ever make it to the Goodman’s stage? And, yes, dinner and a show is a fair investment for us, so this hurt. I thought I could always trust the Goodman. Wish I’d had your review a little sooner!! I hope it saves others from a disappointing evening. The curtain needs to come down on this show.”

You hear that? The audience wants – the audience NEEDS – to trust its theatres and critics. Average audience members do not have the time to follow all the ins and outs of the American theatre. They’re too busy. When the idea pops up to see a show, they want to know exactly where they can find something good. In Chicago, they want to quickly look to see what Chris Jones said about a show – because they trust him. They do not want to take a multi hundred dollar flyer on a complete unknown experience that may or may not be any good.

Imagine if you went shopping online for some shoes and had about a 50/50 chance the product would actually deliver. Might cut down on your shoe purchases, right?

If what passes for criticism at a place like the O knowingly puts out a “review” softballing a crappy show because, say, the theatre under review is a major advertiser – that is an unforgivable dereliction of duty to their readers. And the audience isn’t dumb. So what happens? They stop reading. This hurts everyone.

Review the last post on how the audience expects its favorite theatres to serve as gatekeepers keeping out (not actively promoting) the stuff that is not worth their time or money. When the gatekeepers fail (as seems to have happened at the Goodman), that’s where the real critics swing in on a vine to save the day. At that moment, a real critic needs to react like a sentry on red alert. The ONLY thing they are focused on right then and there is how to light up every channel in their distribution network with a clear message: “This show is a major piece of crap.”

Except they usually make it pretty darn humorous as well – this being the theatuh.

As when Peter Marks said – this show is “a polyunsaturated wheel of cheese”.

Anyway…

Replace the theatre and show names in the Jones review from Chicago above with Portland equivalents and ask if you could ever imagine a story like that running in the O – or any other Portland media. As diehard theatregoers in the Rose City know, there is no shortage of candidates to draw forth such a salty piece. By and large, we don’t get the real pan. Critics whistle through their teeth and do a plot recap, audience members file in to to throw themselves on another grenade, and we all ponder the benefits of world class theatre.

Which they have in London.

If you can’t imagine a review like this here (and I can’t), that means Portland doesn’t have any real theatre critics.

And if that’s true – everyone suffers.

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