Are Theater Critics Becoming Extinct?

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On March 14, 2014 the New York Observer critic Jesse Oxfeld tweeted to followers that his weekly newspaper would “no longer be running theater reviews, I’ve been told.” Then in apparent triumphant defeat or defeated triumph, he continued tweeting that he’d be heading straight to a Las Vegas weekend—and more power to him.

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The development raises so many issues and questions about the function and state of theater criticism that knowing where to start is a poser.

But maybe let’s start with what calls itself the New York Observer. The very name implies that the paper is observing New York, and isn’t it fair to assume that theater is one of the most obvious New York attractions to observe? Isn’t theater a significant source of the City’s revenue? In other words, isn’t the dropping of theater reviews a significant repudiation of the Observer’s express purpose, even if in its new tabloid format some attention will be accorded theater other than reviews?

(Since Rex Reed continues to contribute his column and sometimes includes theater reviews, perhaps Observer editor Ken Kurson considers that whatever Reed includes is enough.)

And yet another related Observer query: Since the paper prides itself especially on its watchfully eyeing of publishing, will any of its reporters be assigned to look into this latest publishing wrinkle—the Observer‘s joining the unfortunate local newspaper trend towards curbing theater reviews? My guess is, No. Yours?

Dodo
Could theater critics be going a certain way?
The way of a certain extinct bird?
A dodo by Frederick William Frohawk, 1905

But enough about the New York Observer, since the paper’s dismissing Oxfeld is only the latest in a series of pink slips handed reviewers. If it can’t quite be described as epidemic, it’s close—or as Bob Dylan writes, “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

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Or maybe it is dark already. Within the last year or a little more, Michael Sommers was let go at The Newark Star-Ledger, David Sheward and Erik Haagensen at Backstage, Michael Feingold at The Village Voice after 40 years or so (Alexis Soloski remains), Jeremy Gerard at Bloomberg News. At Variety, the one-time the theater bible now reduced to apocrypha, David Rooney was dismissed a few years ago—with Marilyn Stasio and Steven Suskin splitting fewer assignments, and now only Stasio remaining.

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There are rumors that other positions are in jeopardy, and at one online theater publication, it’s evidently the case that regular discussions are held about whether to continue running reviews. So far, so good, but who knows?

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(Full disclosure in the service of further substantiation: As chief drama critic at TheaterMania, the online theater publication and discount ticket purveyor, I was informed a year and a half ago that my contributions would no longer be required and sincerely assured that the change had nothing to do with the quality of my work. In future, I was told, staffers would provide all reviews. It was made transparently clear to me that budget requirements were the sole reason.)

It’s not difficult to figure out what’s going on. To put it succinctly, theater is no longer considered by publishers to be important to the culture—certainly not if the advertising revenue isn’t backing it up and certainly when readership is shrinking and scapegoats need to be found. There sitting or standing are the theater reviewers with their weary but eager faces hanging out.

By the way, this is also true of vanishing book reviewers and review pages across the land, as it’s true of other arts coverage. Once you start looking beyond last year you find ominous signs poking up everywhere. Exact statistics on the removal of arts reporters and critics are elusive, but according to a government study in 2003, employed (and on payrolls) reporters and correspondents were between 52,000 and 53,000. By 2009 those numbers had fallen to 46,000. In 2012 the number only dropped a bit—to 45,600—but it dropped. The 2008 recession has had its effect, and wouldn’t you say it’s a good bet many of those no longer collecting salaries are personnel covering the supposedly expendable arts?

The sad changes are not limited to stateside theater coverage. In London similar firings are occurring. Mark Shenton was axed at the Sunday Express. The supposed rationale was that Shenton had posted shirtless selfies online, but everyone knew what was really going on. London’s Time Out, now a free weekly and noticeably thinner, apparently only uses freelancers.

When The Times‘ chief drama critic Libby Purves was shown the door last September, Josh Halliday wrote in The Guardian, “Her departure was met with surprise and dismay from the arts world, which has watched the number of national newspaper critics reduce dramatically in recent years.” He also noted that The Independent has severely trimmed its arts reviews, including the stage.

Macbeth in Harlem 1936
A lot of people very excited for the theater: In 1936, 10,000 people crowded around Harlem’s Lafayette Theater for Shakespeare. / via

There was a time, of course, when theater was considered the bedrock of the culture. But maybe the “of course” is out of place. For many today that piece of information is a news flash. The era when theater was revered is fast becoming ancient history. The time when enthusiasts looked regularly to theater for their major entertainment and enlightenment has faded fast. The time when audiences across the land waited for actors like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne to tour in their latest showcases is all but gone.

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The change can be traced to the advent of movies—although initially movies were deemed lowbrow entertainment (as opposed to theater being highbrow)—and also to radio, which brought entertainment directly into the home. Who out there remembers Lux Radio Theatre? The supposition was that if radio could be theater, it was legitimate.

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The change accelerated as movies became more and more sophisticated and only increased with the growth of television. Early television also made the pretense of being theater. (This was when theatergoers were assumed to be among the most likely consumers for the still relatively expensive televisions.)

Look at the names of specific series—Philco Playhouse, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Westinghouse Preview Theatre, CBS Playhouse, Armchair Theatre. Teleplays like Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful debuted on television and moved to Broadway’s legit houses. Probably the most recent vestige of television tipping its hat to theater is PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater,” now simply called—how pointed is this?—“Masterpiece.” God forbid it should be mistaken for anything resembling (horrors!) theater.

The deeper message in the decimating criticism population is that theater is becoming increasingly unimportant to the culture. While younger people do go to theater—mostly blockbuster musicals—the theater audience is not only aging. It’s dying out. Part of the problem keeping new generations from discovering theater is the rising cost of tickets. More and more, theater tickets are out of the question for younger audiences. (They do seem somehow to be able to afford high-priced rock-concert tickets.)

More than anything, though, the decline in theater reflected in the widening expulsion of theater reviews seems to indicate the further dumbing down of culture. Theater demands thought, concentration, the simple ability to listen. I’m talking about good theater. There’s plenty of bad theater around, but publishers and editors chopping theater and the sister arts from their pages aren’t pointing to that as the reason behind their draconian decisions.

Theater has its elitist hallmarks—although William Shakespeare, for one, was dedicated to amusing the penny-a-show groundlings as well as the three-penny-a-show bleacher patrons—but the merest hint of elitism is today’s society is anathema. Better to go without it, don’t ya know?