Bill Hirschman: Theater Criticism’s Cockeyed Optimist

Hirschman's mug shot. Photo: Oline Cogdill.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. The debate questions what criticism is, who is and is not a critic, challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be and to think about proper critical comportment. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In our occasional series Critical I, critics tell their own stories and offer their own views of criticism. Our latest interview in this series is with arts journalist and critic William Hirschman.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words.

Bill Hirschman is a Florida critic and arts journalist and current chairman of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association. The veteran newspaperman responded in 2011 to cuts in arts coverage by creating an advertising-supported website, Florida Theater On Stage.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I live in Plantation west of Fort Lauderdale, and have been a Floridian for over 20 years. I grew up and was educated in Westchester County, NY, and worked for 25 years in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

While theater is my primary area, I also review opera, was a book reviewer for 20-plus years, and once had a nerd’s encyclopedic knowledge of film and TV. I’ve spent much of my conscious life with one foot in journalism and one foot in theater. Besides being an insatiable theater patron, I took numerous courses in college, have read countless volumes, interviewed hundreds of artists — much of any critic’s expertise is acquired through on-the-job training and acquisition of knowledge. On and off through my life (when it did not create any whiff of conflict of interest because I was a government and crime reporter, not a critic), I have been an actor, singer, playwright, director and producer, mostly in amateur-level productions.

In what year was your first professional review published? What was the publication?

Probably book reviews in The Wichita Eagle in the late 1970s and then for The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale through the late 1990s. I regularly began filing theater reviews and arts features in 1998, with a smattering earlier in my career.

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

I have rarely covered film, which is a branch of art and entertainment that I have been immersed in since childhood and one I think I have the ability to cover as a critic. I have never covered dance or the fine arts except as a reporter; I don’t think I have the adequate knowledge to provide the proper evaluation and context, other than the basic analytical skills that any critic brings to the job. I do not believe that a rose is a rose is a rose in high-quality arts criticism.

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Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

That’s like asking can anybody be a brain surgeon. Yes, they can, but I wouldn’t want them to operate on me. There’s that old scatological saying, “Opinions are like (well, you know); everybody’s got one.” An opinion is not criticism; it’s not even good reviewing. Even critics learning their craft attempt to apply their analytical skills, more basic knowledge than the average patron, and honed abilities to communicate clearly and to put the piece in context of past art and present day. Neither the 14-year-old fanboy who has set up his own blog, nor the 44-year-old fanboy holding forth on a chat room, is what I categorize as a critic. Are their views valid and valuable? Of course. On the other hand, it’s crucial for traditional dead tree media critics to acknowledge that fine genuine criticism is being delivered on cyber platforms by insightful skilled practitioners who we might not have thought of as critics back in the day. One key is that many fanboys are venting for their own self-aggrandizement or just to blow off steam. Critics are journalists (a word that can be defined in non-traditional ways) whose first responsibility is to their readers, people who are concerned about accuracy, ethics, context and wide array of other factors.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

There are dozens and dozens. I admire Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood’s ability to see, to identify those details on stage that buttress their contentions, and which recreate the sensory experience of being at that performance. I am in awe of A.O. Scott and Mahnola Dargis’ ability to see the cinematic forest and not get lost in cataloguing the trees, and the ability to see where that forest is located in broader world. I hate Entertainment Weekly trying to summarize a work in a few paragraphs, and yet you have to admit that they do it very well. But there are so many others: Chris Jones in Chicago, Charles McNulty in LA, Christine Dolen in Miami, John Thomason who works for me.

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Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Frank Rich, who isn’t dead, but he no longer reviews theater. Artists might not have liked him, but his critical skills are something to emulate. I’m an old cop reporter and I love the way Walter Kerr and his pals wrote such vibrant, imaginative prose on deadline, and then produced multilayered think pieces for the weekend. My late mentor in Fort Lauderdale, Jack Zink, who kept his reviews entertaining and insightful even when the work load was overwhelming. And for brevity, something I’m not good at, I revered how Judith Crist could encapsulate a film experience in such a small space.

Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

There have to be some, but none jump to mind. It’s not ego. As long as I can defend my view citing specifics, I stand by 99 percent of my reviews. There are times I haven’t been as enthused as some colleagues and go back later to realize that I ignored virtues or didn’t realize that they outbalanced the flaws. And I am always, always terrified that I am so caught up in a terrific experience that I have overpraised, blinded to some faults.

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

Well, of course, the list is endless. Often I have loved something that left my colleagues unenthusiastic. Often I find crippling and disturbing flaws in works that my colleagues adored. There used to be a review aggregation website called StageGrade that gathered all the reviews for a show in one place. It was a stark lesson in the ability of the same piece of art to elicit wildly different assessments for trained, qualified, incisive observers. In the words of Sylvester Stewart, “Different strokes for different folks.”

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

I’d probably go back to my old stand as an investigative reporter or government reporter. But in my heart, I’d want to perform on stage. I’m too old to do Cyrano (in the Brian Hooker translation) but my Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind would be memorable. And you should hear my Sweeney Todd sung inside my car.

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What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

First, there is the general dismissal by people who operate mass media that the fine arts are not worth the investment of manpower, money and space. Critics are pressured to keep streamlining and simplifying their reports to the point that the outlets are simply checking off an item on a “to do” list, and pushing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgment in three or six paragraphs. I have no problem with “consumer criticism” that helps educate a potential patron on our opinion on whether something is worth seeing and on the nature of what to expect. But many of those dictating arts coverage these days would be really happy if we could just write three sentences and assign letter grades. There’s also a dwindling but persisting resistance by veteran critics to embracing unique opportunities of the Internet for interaction and unlimited bandwidth, which will be a major segment of the profession in the future. Finally, the crush of work for many critics, involving multiple art forms and creating online versions of their stories, has reduced the amount of long-view think pieces in all but the largest legacy media outlets.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

The courage of critics to continue anyway. Bravo to those who realize that responsible, comprehensive arts journalism can find an audience if it concentrates on that and becomes a niche in the available array of information for readers. Credit, too, to the legacy media editors and owners who realize that the Internet provides a second platform for arts coverage that can supplement print editions. It does not have to be one or the other. Also, the profession is being joined by younger talented practitioners (some online, some in alternative print publications) who are shaking up the complacency of older hands like myself and bringing a fresh invigorating perspective on virtually everything.

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.

Deeply committed to being fair because soft-pedaling only destroys your credibility. An enthusiastic lover of the art form and its practitioners. Well-versed in theater’s past and laboring to study its future. Eager to write about works in progress. Committed if struggling to being open to new trends. Still a cockeyed optimist that this profession has a future. And modest.