In the past three months, three drama critics have exited their roles at major publications: Charles Isherwood of The New York Times, Newsday’s Linda Winer, and Time Out New York’s David Cote.
Isherwood, the Times’ second-string critic since 2004, was relieved of his duties at the publication in February with no official word from the publication as to the reason for his dismissal. On March 22, it was announced that Jesse Green, theatre critic for New York Magazine, would join Ben Brantley as a co-chief theatre critic for The New York Times. Green officially joined the Times May 1. Isherwood has since taken up reviewing for Broadway News.
On April 24, Winer—one of the few major female critics covering New York theatre over the past 30 years—revealed her own decision to leave Newsday due to the changing nature of online editorial content.
Winer’s move was followed by yet another unexpected announcement from Time Out New York Theatre Editor David Cote, who posted on Facebook April 27 that, due to restructuring, he was forced to vacate his role at TONY effective immediately.
Cote had been with TONY for 17 years, serving as writer, critic, and theatre editor, overseeing and creating content that spanned the breadth of New York City’s theatre scene from Broadway to Off-Off-Broadway.
In the days following his announcement, Cote discussed with Playbill the changing role of theatre journalism, as well as the ways in which social media and a shift toward digital content have shaped criticism.
Your exit from TONY is a major loss for the theatre community. Did you have any inkling that your dismissal was imminent?
David Cote: It was expected inasmuch as we had been told recently that there would be restructuring within the company, and inasmuch as there had been changes in similar restructures over the past three years. I had not expected it personally to happen to my position because of the long time I’d been there and the standing I had in the community. It was a big shock, I have to say.
In lectures you've given, you’ve spoken about the changing role of the theatre critic in the digital age. Where does this leave you?
It’s interesting: Over the past several years with this job I’ve often thought about, “What is the role of the critic? How can criticism be improved, and how can it be made more popular?” I taught an arts criticism course at Brooklyn College for a couple semesters, and I did a CUNY Graduate Center panel on the future of criticism, and none of this changed the world, but we talked about how to make arts and theatre criticism more popular.
I’ve been thinking about this problem for years now. And obviously, now the problem is, “What do I do with myself and how do I make a living off my writing?”
Particularly in the last year or so, I’ve been telling people this who will listen that arts institutions need to take responsibility for the generation of content and for making the connections between artists and audience. Not just in terms of talkback or pre-shows, but in creating online content that will get the audience deeper into the art.
If you’re dealing with a local audience, it’s a local phenomenon and it’s a local economy. If we get into the situation in five or ten years from now where all Broadway or all opera is streamed live in HD in movie theatres around the world, and that’s where the principal source of box office income comes from, then that could be a strange new different world. But the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatres will still be very local. So it remains a very local thing. How are you going to get people in the door? How are you going to get a sustainable economy to put on shows? And how are you going to get people excited and loyal enough that they want to read about the work?
How do you gauge the role of a critic today? Is there more growing pressure to simply tell the consumer how to spend their money?
I assume there’s a large band of people where all they want to know is, “Should I see it, or shouldn’t I see it?” And if you say, “Yeah, you should probably go see it,” that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to go see it. It just means that they have an answer to their question. Then there’s a smaller band of people who want to know, “Why should I see it, and why should I spend my money?” But then there’s the smallest circle of people who say, “It doesn’t matter if I see it or don’t see it. I want to read about it. And if I’m so moved, I will go see it.” I would assume that there’s a smaller audience of people who will put in the time to learn something about the piece from reading the review.
Industry-wide, we’ve seen a shift toward shorter, more “bite-sized” content that is created to perform on mobile platforms. How do you see that affecting theatre journalism, specifically when it comes to smaller shows?
This really speaks to the question, how much are people actually reading? Anybody can see this trend. There’s this “webification” of magazines where everybody says, “We have to make our magazine look like a web page, otherwise people won’t know what the hell they’re looking at.” And I understand, but at the same time, does that really make any sense?
The worst-case scenario is when a play or musical happens and there’s virtually no critical coverage of it at all, which we know happens to about 80 percent of theatre in New York. All of Broadway gets covered and most of Off-Broadway gets covered, and then there’s Off-Off-Broadway.
When you go back to look at these plays years later to see the critical record, if there are only three or four reviews that range from 500–1,500 words, that’s nothing. You need to have more ecology in the historical record of reviews. The historical record is being impoverished if you don’t have more voices. That said, a 500-word review can be just as incisive and trenchant as a longer form review.
Are you concerned with the ways in which social media is leveling the playing field between critics and casual theatre writers?
First of all, editors don’t exist on Facebook, and I still believe in the editor because I am one. The great loss with do-it-yourself theatre criticism or journalism, is that it may lack an editorial filter. [There isn't] someone there to encourage you—someone who is your director, who will make you better. I think that if you’re a brilliant writer and a brilliant self-editor, you can do your own website, publish reviews, and get free tickets to shows—and maybe write some brilliant things that affect people. I don’t know many people who have done that. Having the resources of an institution and some sort of editorial guidance makes the writing better and the argument better. But if you’re just tweeting funny stuff, or even pointed and incisive comments on Twitter, that’s not criticism, it’s just noise.