On supporting sh*tty theatre


After scanning some of my favorite theatre blogs, I stumbled on this post by Kris Vire, who reviews theatre for Time Out Chicago.

Vire’s blog post has spurred a flurry of commentary on the role of a theatre critic — particularly at a time when live theatre is suffering.

It all stems from Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune theatre critic, giving Route 66’s production of High Fidelity a 2.5 star review. A reader commented under Chris’ review, stating:

chris, theatre in this country is suffering right now. you are a chicago theatre critic. by your own words “america’s hottest theatre city.” you are supposed to support and encourage theatre in this town.

Much like Kris and my other fellow theatre bloggers maintain, theatre critics have no obligation whatsoever to support shows we don’t like with rave reviews.

However, before I get into all that, I want to define what “support” means to me. Supporting theatre means, of course, that you physically attend the theatre and promote it any way you can should you like what you’ve seen. However, it also means that you challenge it, demand a certain level of expectation from it and voice your concern should it not meet those expectations. It doesn’t mean that you simply give a show a passing grade because it’s a struggling art form.

After all, praising mediocrity results in Miley Cyrus, Top 40 radio and “The Notebook.”

However, what is “mediocre”? They key is to remain objective. For example, Legally Blonde the Musical is not high art, but in my mind it more than successfully achieved its goal in what it set out to do: entertain. Is it mediocre entertainment? I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a perfectly pitched musical comedy with a bright score that matches the buoyancy of the material. While it’s not Pintar, I believe fun, fluffy musical comedies are a valid and necessary genre of live theatre. And any audience member should have their expectation dials tuned to that level.

In my mind, mediocre theatre can be a combination of many things: Theatre that lacks in tone or panders to the audience or has significant pacing issues or suffers from insincere acting or is more about the actors or director or designer than the work itself. In short: theatre that doesn’t try. There are many factors that can throw a show off, and I hope I identify this when reviewing a show. It’s my obligation.

In addition, as I’ve noted before, Chicago theatre audiences are generally smart, savvy people. We know when we’re seeing crap, and if we’re told by a reviewer that a show is worthy of our time, and then find out it isn’t, we’ll be pissed — and your reputation as a reviewer is damaged.

So, while I support Chicago theatre and genuinely want each and every show I see to succeed, I am not afraid to voice my criticisms should it not meet my objective expectations. In fact, I think all audience members should play an active role in voicing their opinions in some way — praise, criticism and anything in between. Blogging, writing emails to the director, or simply giving feedback after a show to the house staff — all are good ways to ensure theatre maintains some level of quality and drive.

Did any of this make sense?

+ Also related to this topic, by way of Persistent Cookie, a blog post from Roger Ebert about the validity of being an “elitist” film critic.

3 thoughts on “On supporting sh*tty theatre

  1. Encouraging theatre does not mean lying to audiences and gold-plating theatrical turds – which Chicago, while an awesome city for theatre, puts out its fair share of. It is not a reviewers job to say they loved something due to hard times in a city’s scene. If anything, it’s their job to help potential audience members, who can’t possibly see everything and are spending their hard-earned money, to weed out the turds from the gems.

  2. It certainly depends. You’re in Chicago and theatre is professional and high standard. Where I am, some is, some isn’t. I figure someone like Ben Brantley, it’s their job to help the audience spend their 120 plus dollars on GOOD theatre. Someone like me, though some of the theater is professional grade, like tours, and deserves to be reviewed in a more discerning light, it’s my role to encourage Phoenix for having theater going on at all, and help the community be proud of itself for exploring new avenues, even if they don’t rise to Broadway standards. You’re closer to the higher standard, but I suppose in some venues more slack would be cut than others. I think it’s common sense – grade based on what you have a right to REASONABLY expect from any given venue.

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