Do you hate critics? You’re not the only one.
As the field of theatre criticism continues to shrink, the remaining theatre critics (and by critics, I don’t mean bloggers) are now under intense scrutiny. However, while theatre reviews have been met with increased skepticism over the past few years, they can still wield enormous power over the financial success or failure of a theatre production. In New York, no higher (or lower) praise can be sought than that of The New York Times. Take last season’s jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville, which I’ve written about previously. A week after a harsh review in the Times, Escape to Margaritaville, which was already experiencing disappointing box office earnings, saw a 15% decrease in its audience turnout. The musical closed within a few months. But that’s not nearly as bad as the original musical Gettin’ the Band Back Together, which closed this week after a disastrous New York Times review crippled the show last month, causing it to lose a third of its audience. Needless to say, the artists involved in these shows probably wish they could deliver this speech to the critics:
Though this scene from the film Birdman eloquently demonstrates the emotional toll critical reviews can have on artists, it isn’t entirely fair. When Michael Keaton tells a critic, “You risk nothing,” he’s wrong. As it turns out, critics have a lot to lose. With every piece they publish, their jobs and reputations are on the line.
While an established critic has yet to be publicly censured purely for a mean review, the Internet has allowed the public to call out instances of political incorrectness like never before. Cybershaming is now a common pastime for most Americans. We identify instances of racism, sexist, bigotry, etc. that we see online and post them publicly in order to punish the perpetrators responsible. However, the theatre community is particularly known for its progressive beliefs. Microaggressions can easily be magnified once they’ve been screenshotted and shared thousands of times.
Ben Brantley, the chief theatre critic for The New York Times, was recently put under the magnifying glass (like an ant about to be set on fire) earlier this summer. Brantley’s review of the jukebox musical Head Over Heels was widely labeled “transphobic” for deliberately misgendering a character in the musical as “she,” when the character explicitly identified as non-binary and used the personal pronouns “they/them.” Although Brantley claimed that the misgendering was an in-joke referring to a moment of gender confusion in Head Over Heels, it didn’t help that Brantley also included a sentence in his review labeling the term “binary” as “this decade’s most overused word.” Twitter users quickly banded together to call out The New York Times for its negligence. The publication issued an apology from Brantley only a day after his review was published, and has since edited Brantley’s review to exclude the offending material.
Here is Ben Brantley’s response to the conversation surrounding his review of “Head Over Heels” https://t.co/48Xr2xgOjK. We are updating the review to reflect some of our readers’ concerns now. pic.twitter.com/3SjcC1qAuk
— NYTimes Communications (@NYTimesPR) July 27, 2018
The lightning-fast Twitter backlash not only highlights the influence that social media users have over institutions like The Times, but also the cultural sensitivity with which theatre critics need to master going forward. In over twenty years as chief theatre critic at the Times, Brantley has rarely issued an apology for a review. He is famously known for his provocative and scathing reviews—he once insulted Alec Baldwin so badly that Baldwin responded with an op-ed labeling Brantley an “odd, shriveled, bitter Dickensian clerk” and calling for Brantley’s dismissal from the Times. Brantley’s review of Head Over Heels, although not quite as mean-spirited, exemplifies the typical critic-bashing he is known for and which his readers expect from him. However, Twitter-sponsored language policing adds another impediment to the barren field of theatre criticism. In direct response to the Brantley controversy, American Theatre published an article titled “Queer Eye for Theatre Critics,” offering tips to theatre critics who are unfamiliar with writing about LGBTQ work. Although the article is well-intentioned, its publication signifies the end of an era: theatre critics once used to influence the culture—now, they’ve fallen so far behind it that they need a how-to guide just to avoid being ridiculed.
But the purpose of this post isn’t to lament theatre criticism’s fall from grace. While Brantley was hastily and publicly censured for his misstep thanks to some impassioned Twitter users, a previous offensive review posted by the Times earlier this year has largely flown under the radar. Back in June, Alexis Soloski, another theatre critic for the Times, wrote a review of Sugar in Our Wounds, which had just opened off-Broadway at Manhattan Theater Club. On the surface, it seemed like a fairly positive review: Soloski did criticize some aspects of the writing, but compared it to the work of successful contemporary playwrights such as Tarell Alvin McCraney (the guy who wrote that film Moonlight) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (the guy who wrote An Octoroon, that weird play about slavery produced at Queens College last year). It hardly seemed like a review that anyone would be upset about.
However, a week after the review’s publication, Donja R. Love, the writer of Sugar in Our Wounds, responded with an intense, detailed essay criticizing Soloski’s review for being offensively reductionist, comparing Love to about four other Black playwrights, among other things. Love went on to catalog past offensive reviews about Black playwrights from The New York Times, bashing the publication for only hiring white theatre critics, and emphasizing the importance of diversity in all areas of theatre, including criticism. The essay is explosive, inspiring, and worth reading in full. Standing up to the Times is also a daring move for Love, a fast-rising Afro-Queer playwright who will premiere his second off-Broadway play Fireflies later this month at Atlantic Theater Company. A backlash from the Times could harm Fireflies‘ chances at a positive review from the world’s most influential theatre publication.
Instead, the revolution never came. Love’s thoughtful essay seems to have fallen on mostly deaf or agreeable ears. Despite a few positive reactions on Love’s personal Facebook account, the essay itself has a middling five comments. There was no Twitter outrage. As far as I can tell, Soloski (and The Times) hasn’t responded to Love’s essay, and, for all anyone knows, Soloski hasn’t even seen it. For the time being, Love’s essay seems to destined to languish in Internet purgatory, somewhere between “viral” and “404 error.” But why? If a flock of angry Twitter users could force Ben Brantley to apologize for an honest mistake, why can’t an up-and-coming playwright stir up significant attention to what appears to be inherent, persistent racism in the way The New York Times reviews theatre? Perhaps the answer is simply that Love’s essay is too well-organized, too well-researched, too passionate to catch fire in a world where the smallest sparks often burn brightest.
In other words: TL;DR.
Theatre criticism, a form reliant on marrying summary and opinion into an engaging, persuasive review, can hardly compete with the “hot takes” and knee-jerk reactions constantly flying back and forth across the Twittersphere. Readership, both in quantity and quality, are decreasing. It’s the reason many publications now attach an “Estimated Reading Time” to their articles. Our attention spans are now limited to the dimensions of our phone screens. Seriously, congratulations if you’ve managed to read this far into my post without being distracted by memes.
My point being: perhaps Love’s essay would have gotten more traction if he had condensed it into a single tweet, and maybe added a funny GIF for good measure? And if I’m sounding like a cranky old man complaining about how the Internet is melting our brains, please keep this in mind: there’s no reason, in 2018, that a black, queer playwright writing a play about black, queer characters should be ignored when he calls out a white critic, but a musical featuring popular songs from the ’80s and a dolphin dance number is worth defending. And yes, I was just describing Head Over Heels.
This isn’t to say that Twitter users were wrong for criticizing Brantley. Transphobia, even when accidental, should never be excused. The theater should be welcoming to all artists and audiences. But while we continue to make physical space for people of all backgrounds to participate, we also need to make digital space. The opinions of theatre artists, including critics (no matter how much we may hate them), should never be limited to 280 characters. Neither should our attention spans.