Thursday, September 04, 2008

metaDRAMA: Critic on the Spot

I have to say, I've very much been a fan of Extra Criticum's "Critic on the Spot" series, and I think their first choice, Leonard Jacobs, of the Clyde Fitch Report (not to mention NY Press and Back Stage), has made some spot-on observations and revelations about a craft that is, by necessity, highly subjective. However, as a rather young critic who started reviewing professionally at 21 (I'm now 24), I do have to take exception to Leonard's statement that "no 22-year-old should be reviewing." To be fair, he mentions in the same breath that he started writing for The Village Voice at 22, and he's being quoted on whether or not he regrets anything that he wrote when he was younger. But there's a difference between regret, shame, and a growing critical voice.

It's true that the younger the writer, the less experienced and technically precise they will be when comparing a show to the entire gamut of theatrical history. But who says that they need to do that, anyway? (To open up an old semantic door, you might not want a 22-year-old to be criticizing, or say, comparing last year's revival of Company to the original production.) I mean, if you're trying to convince a younger crowd to go to the theater, wouldn't you be more likely to trust the opinion of someone your own age, who has tastes that run more in parallel to your own, the only difference being that they see a lot more theater than you? Reviews are not Everyman comments; what John Simon had to say on [title of show] is appropriate for a very specific demographic, but not, by any means, accurate for all (or even for most). (Interestingly enough, if you pick up a book of John Simon's reviews, you can observe for yourself the way in which "age" and "experience" start to change his opinions. Nothing, nothing is ever completely "true" in the liberal arts.)

To get back on point, the experience that I've gotten writing for Theater Talk's New Theater Corps (and later editing the site) has been more helpful than anything I ever learned in school, especially the bits that were self-taught. I've seen young writers swear by the O'Neill Critics Institute (NCI), or by the fellowships they got writing copy for publications like American Theatre. As Leonard says about being a 22-year-old critic (to be fair, only a word or two after laying the smackdown): "What better time is there to learn and to celebrate the form and revel in its possibilities?" End point being: everyone has to start somewhere, and while I'm very glad that I had the opportunities to act, direct, and write (albeit at college) before I started reviewing theater, if I'd gone to a graduate program or waited another five years to start writing, I'd have actually been less experienced than I am now. (I also probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to see so many shows, at all sorts of budgetary levels, if I weren't reviewing them.)

The most important thing is only that we don't defraud ourselves or pretend to be something other than what we are. I'm a 24-year-old critic: you take my opinion or leave it, and you either accept my experience for what it is, or you choose not to trust and agree with my taste and/or voice, which is something that many people do even with older critics who have been in the game for decades. To thine own self be true . . . and remember that to be a critic on the spot, you have to put yourself on the spot first.

[For more reading fodder, you can check out Time Out New York's 2007 piece on "blogger-critics," which tends to skew to writers who are more apt to be on the younger side (and which I contributed to), or for fun, you can see the ultimate exercise in subjectivity in Time Out New York's 2006 critique of critics.]


Leonard Jacobs said...

Aaron -- I posted this also at Extra Criticum, since Roland is linking your post to that blog. I really feel sad that you've taken what I wrote as offensive. This was the comment I added over at Roland's blog:

Oh Aaron, really now. If you read the sentence you'll notice that I used a semicolon to tie together the two thoughts -- and by writing "what better time is there to learn and to celebrate the form and revel in its possibilities?" I think I successfully negated the idea that no 22 year old should be a critic. This is in the context of a question about regrets, indeed. I regret not having at 22 -- or 32, some would say -- the ability to phrase things quite as precisely as I wished I could, plus the ability to be more gentle (I hope) and more thoughtful (I really hope) and more constructive (I really, really hope) in my criticism. The question was about me and my journey -- yours is different and everyone else's journey is different, too. On your blog you referred to that line as a smackdown. If you want a smackdown, I can give you a smackdown, but it wouldn't be sincere. What I was doing was acknowledging that, in my view, in my experience, rookie critics make rookie errors. God knows veteran critics make mistakes constantly, too -- and sometimes of the rookie variety. I think you're overreacting. Please let's not have self-victimization. That's not what this is about. I hope you know that.

Aaron Riccio said...

No umbrage taken; it wasn't meant as a point/counterpoint, but as a reflection, somewhat opportunistically taken, on that line. I do qualify, twice, that your quote referred to YOUR regrets and that you did, a few words later, tie it to the flip-side: that there's no better time or way to learn. I know YOU don't mean "no 22-year-old should be reviewing" (hell, you've been supportive, and we still need to grab a drink), but it is a sentiment I've heard before, and the way the mini-segment from Extra Criticum is presented (and again, that's the POINT, and the interesting thing ABOUT the Critic on the Spot feature), I thought it would only be fair, as a young, growing critic, to touch on my experiences.

The "smackdown," set apart in parentheses, isn't meant to imply self-victimization, and I don't think the tone of the post implies overreacting--just reacting, which, in my opinion, is probably the whole point of personal blogs, interviews, &c. Personally, I think it's nice that we can openly dialogue and share some of those rookie errors, rocky moments, and so forth. I don't think there's anything personal implied; just theater talk. (Couldn't resist.)

Leonard Jacobs said...

OK, cool, because I wasn't looking to hurt anyone's feelings, and definitely not yours, as I really do support you and your work.

So when do we drink?