Friday, February 1, 2013

A question for Polly Carl

We watch the career of Polly Carl (at left) over at Emerson's Center for Theater Commons with increasing interest.  Recently, it was announced that Ms. Carl and her Center would be part of a philanthropic effort to embed playwrights in (partly) administrative positions within regional theatres.  

This set off a few warning bells for us, which prompted a somewhat re-assuring response from the Huntington.  Now we read Carl is also looking to hire critics, too - not to write reviews, however, but to - well, you know, "foster a space," "respectfully dialogue," etc., etc.

So . . . now we're talking about equipping theatres with their own in-house playwrights, and even their own in-house critics. What's next - paid audience members?  (Just kidding!)  

With that trend in mind, I submitted the following question to Carl's post on HowlRound.  I'm curious to read her response.

Okay, I'll take the bait, because I'm curious - are you thinking of hiring critics to critique your own productions, or other people's? There would seem to be some obvious conflicts of interest in either case, of course - but I'll assume you're interested in enlisting a critic to discuss your own productions.

Now integrating a critic into the internal development process strikes me as a good idea, actually; indeed, several budding playwrights have asked me to critique their work. It's the public face of this supposed "critical" writing that strikes me as problematic.

You say, for instance, that you don't want to publish "reviews," and you don't want to "wake up in the morning to a bad review." (Only guess what - I don't want to go into the theatre and see a bad show, either. And yet it happens all the time!)

Only if the critic isn't being paid to write a "review," then what, exactly, is he or she being paid to write?

Well, you say it's going to be "positive" and "respectful," which is nice. Beyond that, though, the project seems vague. Very vague, in fact - although these critics will apparently ask questions about "what gets produced and why," and inquire, "Why this play, playwright, or story now?"

Only frankly - those queries don't sound like critical questions, in that they seem to dodge any issues of aesthetic analysis. They sound instead like political questions, designed to subvert critique with open-ended gestures toward "diversity" and various demographic targets (in short, the academic version of audience development).

Not that there's anything wrong with audience development! Only of course it's not criticism, and those who practice it are not critics. Which is why I question the nomenclature of your headline, "Call for critics!" I don't think you're calling for "critics," because I don't think you're really looking for criticism.  Well, okay, you're looking for critics, perhaps - only you'd like them to write something else.


  1. Wouldn't an in-house critic be a resident dramaturg? Not to say your concerns don't still very much apply to dramaturgy as practiced by regional theaters, but is this really a bold new idea?

  2. No, not at all. A dramaturg is generally a research position. And at any rate, they've already got dramaturgs over there, I'm sure.

  3. In my experience (as a dramaturg), research is the least of the in-house dramaturg's duties. Production dramaturgs, brought on as experts on a project-by-project basis, are one thing, but if we're employed by the institution, we often get elbowed out of doing much research-wise by overzealous directors, ADs, and playwrights. Most of a resident dramaturg's work consists of writing program notes, newsletter articles, leading community talkbacks, scouting for material, occasionally offering feedback, and even blogging about the rehearsal process. If you translate that into hollow buzzwords, to my mind you come up with something quite similar to what these 'critics' will purportedly be doing. In fact, "why this play now?" is often referred to in literature on the subject as the starting point of dramaturgical analysis.
    although I can't speak to the dramaturgy situation at the theater commons specifically, and it's unclear how involved, if at all, the boston-based 'critics' would be with the operations there, were I a dramaturg at emerson this would prick my ears. How many people read a job posting seeking a dramaturg anyway? And how much sexier is one seeking 'critics'? Even if their focus is solely on other companies' shows, and they will exist in perfect harmony with resident dramaturgs, I feel these critics' role will be similar enough to mine that I can fairly say this is most definitely about ticket sales.

  4. Thanks for getting specific about what dramaturgs do, but you seem to agree that this is a problematic request.

  5. "we often get elbowed out of doing much research-wise by overzealous directors, ADs, and playwrights."

    Is anonymous really suggesting that a playwright who is dedicated to researching his or her own plays is "overzealous?" Would a novelist who researches his or her own novels also be "overzealous?" What about a journalist? An academic researcher?