Backstage

Theater Critics: Parasites or Paramours?
What kind of small-minded sadist becomes a theater critic? After all, they make money ridiculing and judging the most overworked, underpaid artists on Earth. Are critics a loathsome species: gloating over their reserved seats and self-satisfied scribbles, furtively grabbing at the opening night hors d'oeuvres while avoiding the flushed, vulnerable faces of the artists? Or are they dogged servants of the art, solitary voices for quality and standards besieged by publicity-hungry artists who dismiss their observations if they cease to be "supportive"?

Many people attend the theater for a dose of amplified emotions, but few realize just how much drama unfurls in the tortured love-hate relationship between artist and critic. Tonight this lurid affair will take center stage at Intersection for the Arts. There, artists, critics, and the public will engage in a debate that's been simmering since Alexander Pope lambasted critics with the line: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

If you've never worked in the theater, it's hard to imagine what all the fuss is about. After all, the critic's work amounts to no more than one person's opinion condensed into scraps of prose that people casually read in bus shelters and cafes. But unlike ideas tossed out at cocktail parties, the critic's words hang around -- in press packets, library archives, and the public memory. An offhand comment in conversation is transformed on the page into a crippling indictment or blessing of genius. Film, books, and music draw critical response from around the country; but live performance relies on a few local critics to create a public dialogue, attract audiences, and, increasingly, obtain grants. And since most theater is pricier than movies, theatergoers use critics to help them decide what to attend and what to skip. This all amounts to a tiny ink-stained cadre perceived as having an unwieldy amount of power as cultural gatekeepers, educators, and advocators.

What is the rightful role of the critic? "Critics are there to serve the artists," declares performance artist Edris Cooper, voicing a sentiment that makes most critics bristle. "As a critic you have a duty to be true to yourself, your reader, and to the art form, but never to the artist," counters Robert Hurwitt, critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Though Hurwitt's position is standard among critics, artists often regard such claims to "duty" as an exalted defense of bias.

Director Steven Cosson, whose recent bout of less-than-glowing reviews for his show Phaedra's Love resulted in a shaved head and a grim opinion of local critics, says, "Critics in this town act as if they are defending theater from the people who actually do it. If theater is going to evolve, people have to take risks." Cosson believes that critics' knee-jerk antipathy to new work often leads to gratuitous cruelty. "[Chronicle critic] Steve Winn referred to one of my actresses as 'bug-eyed with a sickly pathetic grin,' " he says. "It made her cry and contributed absolutely nothing to theater discourse."

Edris Cooper also laments the available pool of critics. "How long do I have to live before there's a black woman critic, or a black man or a Latino or somebody who isn't white?" She recounts her frustration when, two years ago, she premiered a new play by New York Public Theater's Keith Atkins but was unable to get any critical response. "We were sold out every night and we couldn't even get a listing in the SF Weekly," she fumes. (Current Weekly practice is to list all local theater, barring last-minute space cuts.) She despairs of ever convincing the up-and-coming playwright to premiere a show in San Francisco again.

Both Cosson and Cooper contest that they have found an audience estranged from the tastes of current Bay Area critics. "I've discovered that a bad review from Steven Winn brings in black audiences," Cooper maintains. The same goes for avant-garde productions, according to Cosson, who says the critical pans attracted an audience of contrary readers. (If this is the case, then critics do not possess anywhere near the influence that many artists claim.)

Charles Wilmoth, the program director of Intersection for the Arts -- the Mission District's little red engine of literary, visual, and theater arts -- believes that artists are in part to blame for the narrow state of critical debate. In focusing on criticism only as an extension of their PR machine, Wilmoth asserts, artists lose sight of criticism's higher purpose. "They are only interested in positive reviews of their own work," he argues. "They don't read reviews and they don't take them seriously."

Yet all of the directors, producers, and actors I spoke to repeatedly expressed the need for critics to ease up on their opinions -- good and bad -- and focus on crafting accurate descriptions and thought-provoking ideas. "A critic's work becomes the written history of a community and they have an obligation to take themselves more seriously," says free-lance director Amy Mueller, who often objects to the critics' treatment of smaller shows. "Critics rarely contextualize the work -- they review a classic at ACT by the exact same standards as a new play by a company with almost no resources." Bay Guardian Arts Editor J.H. Tompkins argues that to treat smaller shows differently condescends to the reader and the artist, though he says he's "sympathetic to artists' complaints. Neither side is right or wrong. Both realities exist at the same time." But readers don't always appreciate the empathy that might soothe the artist's wounds. "I know it sounds awful," Deborah, a paralegal who reads theater and movie reviews religiously, confesses, "but the meaner the review the more I like it."

"Criticism in the Marketplace of Culture: What's Wrong With This Picture?" will be held at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17, at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street). Panelists include choreographer Joe Goode, visual arts critic Cathy Greenblatt, and the Bay Guardian's J.H. Tompkins. Admission is free; call 626-2787.

-- Carol Lloyd

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