Op-Ed: Death of a Theatre Critic

By: Feb. 17, 2009
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Sifting through the dusty archives of my closet last May, I stumbled upon a preserved program of the stage musical "Ragtime."  I had kept this oversized playbill as a cherished memory after seeing the Broadway-bound production in 1997 at Century City's Shubert Theatre.  It was the first time my younger brother and I attended the theatre together.  He being of a more jock-like mindset didn't always conjure within him an organic love of such things as singing and dancing.  For me, it was different. 

Having been raised in a family that toiled away behind the scenes in television and film, I grew up on movie sets and location shoots, but was never truly beguiled until the curtain concealing a vast stage slowly peeled back revealing a world of imagination, live and right in front of me.  It was only then that a rush of amazement washed over my face and I was transported into the lively imaginations of those that created such works.

After putting aside the program, frayed along the edges from years of weathering, I continued packing up my life for a move to New York City, where I now reside.  The decision to flee Los Angeles, a town where I was born and that I called home for most of my life, was rooted in a desire to experience a sense of culture often fleeting on the West Coast. 

Mind you, I was long a champion of my hometown, considering those East Coast types, making snide remarks about the barren cultural wasteland that was Los Angeles, merely uninformed and somewhat pretentious.  So it was with great dismay that I read a recent notice in the Los Angeles Times (read the story here) of layoffs amongst the theatre critic and arts coverage world at publications including the LA Weekly, Daily Variety and the L.A. Daily News.

Over the last few years I worked as a theatre critic in Los Angeles for an online publication.  It was always my hope to instigate discussion and debate amongst readers.  To have people think of live theatre as more than overpriced entertainment, rather as an exercise of the mind and a soul enriching experience.  That is, of course, when a production has such merits.

I saw a critic's role, in any town or city, as a vital part of the theatre-going process.  It was our duty to steep, like a satchel of robust tea, in the history and fringe of arts and literature.  It was only through such a process that a critique could pick up the conversation established by a playwright or performer and carry it a step or so further. 

Oscar Wilde once wrote that criticism "takes the cumbersome mass of creative work, and distils it into a finer essence," adding that "the duty of imposing Form upon chaos does not grow less as the world advances."  The prolific playwright warned that an age without criticism is "either an age in which art is immobile, hieratic" or "an age that possesses no art at all."  Wilde was of course, just that wild, as he often took on controversial or taboo subjects to great lengths, a trait that ultimately led to his demise.  But his message was no less prolific, nor is it any less relevant today. 

As the economy in this country is violently shaken, money spent on live theatre is quickly becoming a rare commodity.  Is there not a more important time to hold creative types to task? A critic must demand that creators avoid slipping into a Hollywood mindset of crafting flashy blockbusters; rather they carry forward the tradition of cultural enrichment.

The three stalwarts of Los Angeles theatre, Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse, Gilbert Cates of the Geffen Playhouse and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group, recently took to the airwaves and discussed the loss of critics at local papers.  While many fine points were made, it was Cates' suggestion of resorting to peer-review amongst his lot that was troubling.  Lending a critical voice to those that stand to financially profit from a commercial success begins to look like a slippery slope.  Would Jack Warner writing reviews of MGM's films have served the public?  I can picture it now.  "'The Wizard of Oz' is a competent piece of celluloid, but you would be better served saving your money in these hard times, as we have a real hit coming your way next week."

A critic must stand alone, unaffected by any controlling interests or pressures to valiantly inform their reader.  "It is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service," wrote Matthew Arnold. 

At the beginning of this year, the world was robbed of a literary mastermind and critic, John Updike.  His contributions to the creative world, especially in his criticism of fellow authors, were invaluable, and his long-time home, The New Yorker, mourns his loss with the rest of us.  Updike was taken by natural causes.  While I make no comparisons between a theatre critic in Los Angeles and the author of arguably the great American novel, I do use his standing as an example of importance.  Let us not suffer further causalities by choice, as was done by the publishers at the LA Weekly, Daily Variety and the L.A. Daily News, rather let us celebrate that we have impassioned writers willing to further our culture into this ever changing world.

I have a strong desire to continue speaking up on behalf of my hometown to those I run across here in New York.  To tell these Broadway aficionados that Los Angeles has immense potential and they should not write it off just yet.  But without a strong critical core acting as gatekeepers there, I fear this transplanted Angelino might have merely fumes left to fuel my argumentative flames.

For more information on James Sims, visit www.simsscoop.com/blog/.