Monday, April 22, 2013

Great Critics = Great Plays?

Can great and enduring plays emerge from communities without insightful and valued critics? Certainly, back in Shakespeare’s or Chekov’s day the answer seems (at least at this distance in time) to be a resounding “Yes:” There appears to be no connection between the criticism of the day and work being produced. But today, in our contemporary society, I’m not sure the answer is so clear.

Last week, the Pulitzer Committee announced the winner and runner-ups in Drama. In order to be considered, the play had to have received its world premiere during 2013.  In some respects, a Pulitzer is given as much to a production as it is a play.  This year, all three plays/productions had the New York productions. The Big Apple is known for theatre, and the city (and its newspapers) take it seriously. Can it be that there was no play/production from Chicago worthy of even runner-up status? Seattle? LA? San Francisco?  Not one out of three was recognized outside of NY?  Certainly, there must be accomplished playwrights producing at the top of their abilities in these cities?

Granted, the Pulitzer is administered out of New York. It’s a rather secretive process. The first line of reviewers can be from anywhere in the nation. Their recommendations are forwarded to the final panel, whose members either reside or meet in the Big Apple. So it’s easy to see how NY productions that are more readily accessible and visible to the panel tend to be chosen for the prize. When Next To Normal won two years ago, it wasn’t even recommended to the final panel. An enthusiastic panelist suggested they all go see it together (now might be a good time to note that the final Pulitzer panelists aren’t theatre professionals, it’s not their field of work). Giddy enthusiasm and lack of actual expertise won the day—much to the fury of the initial reviewers—and Normal won.

But I don’t think the location of the Pulitzer Committee provides a complete picture of the issue. The Pulitzer is only one indicator of “great and enduring” work. Arguably, a major play hasn’t emerged from San Francisco since Angels in America. And here I think is the crux of the matter.

It’s not that great, enduring work isn’t being created in other cities; it’s that they are not emerging from other cities. Here in San Francisco, our ability—both artistically and logistically – to highlight exceptional new plays has deteriorated over the past decade. There are lots of factors: newspapers give less resources to theatre arts, audience reviews have become more persuasive, theatre reviewers sometimes vary wildly in expertise, the economics of producing discourages major houses from premiering new work, and the sense that theatre should represent a specific community has been lost.

Without a doubt there is still exceptional theatre being produced in San Francisco, and both major and minor houses are surviving the economic storms. But increasingly, I see the deterioration of a viable eco-system for theatre. Our diminishing cadre of reviewers, the diminishing number of column inches, and diminishing importance of their words may have tragic consequences.

Critics don't make theatre or playwriting better.  It's not in their power and it's not their job.  But they facilitate its emergence into the world.  They need to be insightful, to seek out new work, to elevate and advocate new plays, to be learned in all aspects of theatre production, to act as the voice of the theatre community; they need to return emails when invited to shows like working professionals, set aside their egos, find ways to be creative in the face of diminishing publishing opportunities.  They are not solely responsible for championing new work and making it visible on a national level-- theatre companies play have a responsibility as well-- but they have a unique leadership role.  And if we ever want to see the Pulitzer recognize a San Francisco production again, they're going to have to step up to the plate.

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