What Happens When You Ask 57 Drama Critics to Talk About Their Job?

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Matt Windman found out. His new book surveys the state of theatre criticism today.
Theatre Critics Speak Out
Theatre Critics Speak Out

Everyone complains about the decline of theatre criticism these days, but nobody does anything about it.

Except Matt Windman. The longtime drama critic for AM New York spent the last eight years interviewing every significant fellow theatre critic in the New York metropolitan area, from Ben Brantley to John Simon, as well as a few critics from outside New York (57 critics in total). The resulting book, The Critics Say…, published in April by McFarland, is a one-of-a-kind survey of a profession that has gone hand-and-hand with theatre for centuries, and which many fear may be on its way out. In the book, Windman's subjects address every possible topic, from how the writers became theatre critics in the first place to what they think the function of criticism is to matters of ethics.

We spoke to Windman about the book and what it speculates about the future of the men and women on the aisle.

What made you want to pursue this project?
Matt Windman: I first started working on it eight years ago in 2008. I had been writing for AM New York for three years by then, and I was relatively eager to meet other theatre critics to learn from them. It occurred to me that a book like this had not been attempted before, where theatre critics spoke about their profession, how they became theatre critics, how they look at their jobs, the ethics of theatre criticism, but also the nuts and bolts about how they put together reviews, their writing process, how they go about evaluating acting, playwriting, direction.

How many critics did you interview?
MW: I interviewed about 15 critics in the summer of 2008 [to start].

And what was their reaction when you reached out?
MW: Most of them were relatively open to it. But I was able to speak to a good number of them. But then it just fell by the wayside. I was about to enter my third year of law school. I also didn’t have a publisher for it. ... Then, about two years ago, I got inspired to get going on it again after everything that had changed in theatre criticism. We’d seen some pretty prominent layoffs. We’ve seen some articles come out about how the profession is dying out. I thought, “You know what? What if I was to go back to the project and really delve into these issues?” So, maybe I can cover it in a more comprehensive way. Maybe that will really bring attention to it. Also, to ask theatre critics: What can we do about this?

Did you find any critics who were sanguine about the profession?
MW: There were some who were optimistic. For instance, Adam Feldman [of Time Out New York] said we don’t know how the Internet is going to change going forward. It could change in ways that are relatively positive for theatre critics and open up in ways that created new revenue and new audiences for us. Do I really think that theatre critics are going to be able to make their living via the Internet right now? It doesn’t look that way right now.

I imagine there are some people you interviewed who are no longer in the business.
MW: Many. Or, at least, who had positions and no longer have them. For example, David Rooney, who lost his position at Variety in 2010. [He currently writes reviews for The Hollywood Reporter.] He gave a very vivid account of what happened him, of how there was perception in the industry that Variety had made a bad move. At the time, Variety said, “We’re going to go with freelancers instead.” I expect we’ll see that with more critics in the future.

Why should this be a matter of concern for anyone other than theatre critics?
MW: That’s one of the things I would hope from the book, that it would raise alarms among the theatre community, that: yes, you should all be concerned. If this is going to affect theatre critics, how is it going to affect the ecology of theatre. You might say, “So what if there aren’t that many paid theatere critics anymore, because we have so many people writing on Talking Broadway and Broadway World or other sites, or on social media.” But, when you go to a lot of these websites, they are not writing under their real names, but under user names. How do I not know that this is not a press agent writing or a producer writing? Isn’t there a value to going to a critics who’s been at it a long time and whose work you know and get their take on it?

You interviewed Michael Riedel even though he’s not a critic. Why?
MW: He’s not. But he does give his opinions. All of Riedel’s readers know: He doesn’t like Hamilton. He sticks it into every column. So he may not be a theatre critic, but he takes on the persona of one. Also, we are coming upon a time when the definition of theatre critic is becoming looser. I considered interviewing the Talking Broadway user Jesse21, who used to post on All That Chat: “My review of such and such.” He posts his review—and it is a full-length review—on the morning the show opens. Because he does this so often, and takes a pride in it, it’s different from what a poster usually does; people came to know and respect his reviews and look forward to them.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about the state of theatre criticism from this process?
MW: I don’t know it’s surprising, but there is a real sense of gloom in the air among all the theater critics about the future. It’s strange, because we see in colleges there are classes for arts criticism and theatre criticism. Anyone can now conceivably become a theatre critic just by starting a blog. But there is just no money in it. At least if you’re young, you can do something else. But let’s say you’ve been a theatre critic for a good amount of time, and now it’s coming to an end. What do you do? What do you do next?

What is the question that you posed that got the widest variety of answers?
MW: Maybe: Who are we writing for? Is the theatre critic a consumer advocate? I guess this goes to what publication you write for and what that publication expects of you. I write for AM New York, which is a publication that is given away for free. I try not to presuppose any knowledge on the part of my readers. I need to think, how can I get this person interested in this review? The people who were most firmly against that were John Simon and John Lahr [of The New Yorker], who sees himself as writing more for theatre professionals than for theatregoers.

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