American Theatre Critics Conference, Day 2-4, Part I

1
37

A calm perspective is the great salve promised by the passage of time. Especially, that is, if you’re a theater critic coming back to home and hearth following the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, which I did 10 days ago, and aflame with passion, consumed by responses, inspired to your back teeth with ideas. For better or for worse, life has a funny habit of intervening, so now I sit here, 10 days beyond that original flush of passion and consumption, staring at a sheaf of notes, pondering how to finish the series of posts I merrily cyber-inked shortly after walking in the door.

Oh, fair Dionysus, who writes such lofty and purple prose? Me, I guess. Maybe it’s because I feel vindicated: the New London Radisson that I complained about so vociferously agreed today to refund a generous portion of my stay as compensation for the lack of wireless service, a comedy of terrors that cost me four days of time and stress.

Story continues below.



But more than that pigpen of prickly pettiness, it’s much clearer now which moments from the conference stand out for me most distinctly. I loved appearing on a panel on “Critics in the New Age,” which my colleague Wendy Rosenfield has expertly covered here and here, including a video that could serve as a infomercial for Leonard talking too way much.

Story continues below.



Another memory was the day we ATCA members spent visiting the Goodspeed Opera House and its facilities. It was a lovely experience — a classier group of theater professionals would be tough to imagine. Convivial, gracious, modest in the right ways, proud in the right ways, we critic were treated not like nobility or royalty, which would have been the cliched ideas, but simply as respected colleagues. There was a courtliness, a civility, that is properly the hallmark of the whole Goodspeed operation. Very memorable was the fine dinner we enjoyed before a performance of Goodspeed’s current production, a revival of the musical Carnival! As the performance was not a press preview, critics were under strict penalty-of-niceness instructions not to publish our views about it. So I’ll leave you guessing about that.

Story continues below.



But there is a but — you knew it was coming. For all the sophistication, all the elegance, all the maturity of Goodspeed’s presentation to us critics (seriously, rarely will one encountered such a great scene shop and those working within it), I do recall one moment was disconcerting, even disturbing. During dessert, Michael P. Price, whose 42-year reign as the executive director of Goodspeed has made him synonymous with the organization, gave a talk. Actually, if accuracy in reporting still means anything, it was more like an avuncular peroration, if you can picture such a thing. If we can all agree that Goodspeed represents part of the bedrock, soul, heritage and the future of the American musical theater, Price, watching us munch, sip and clink our stemware, knew he had us captive as an audience, so he was loathe to let us go without a final, forceful extolling of the company’s virtues. Hey, he’s earned at least that much.

Story continues below.



When Price was asked about the parlous state of theater criticism, his ebullience abruptly vanished. I didn’t take notes on his precise words, but Price essentially declared it dead. All he could talk about — forget talking, it was mourning, it was mewing, it was moaning — was the loss of print critics. Not that I intend to dismiss or make light of the contraction of theater criticism in print, but the intensity of Price’s attitude was startling. Earlier in the day, we had heard plenty about Goodspeed’s subscriber base of 16,000, about how Goodspeed really didn’t need critics, or at least that was the clear implication. Sure, it was pushing the ego envelope to a certain degree, but there was something disingenuous at work with Price lamenting the evaporation of the very same people he would happily lead us to think he didn’t need.

Worse, and to my equal dismay, Price demonstrated no acknowledgment whatsoever of the changing — no, no, let’s be clear, let’s use the word “changed” — landscape of theater criticism. New media, blogging, what is that? Right off the top of my head I began making a mental list of prominent theater bloggers Goodspeed could invite anytime it wished to — people of whom the organization has very limited awareness of or interest in. Combine that state of affairs with the fact that Goodspeed, like many nonprofit companies, are fully invested these days in the game of wildly extended previews — which audiences attended for weeks and weeks before critics, whoever they are, are invited to weigh in. You cannot deplore the state of theater criticism, either in quantity or quality, when your organization aims to keep them out for as long as humanly possible.

Story continues below.



Boarding the bus after Carnival!, each critic discovered a goodie bag with lots of goodies from the great Goodspeed. I can’t say they didn’t treat us beautifully — they all did. Perhaps only Maude Adams in the original Peter Pan sprinkled the fairy dust with so much joy and aplomb and charm. Too bad they’re terrified someone might have a constructive criticism to make of the work itself. (Final note: musicals at Goodspeed’s second space, the Norma Terris Theater, are never open to reviews. Make of that what you will.)

Story continues below.