Theatre Criticism and Awards

One of the longest running comedy routines in the history of theatre is the repartee between playwrights, producers, directors, actors, and crafts people on the one hand and critics on the other.

Critics are loved and/or hated depending on the nature of their last review and the point-of-view of the beholder.

Take awards: judging from the buzz around every announcement of an individual's or group's annual subjective checklist, you'd think that critics invariably and objectively nominated and selected the most deserving work.

Now take reviews: judging from the reaction to posted criticism and what links companies choose to pass along, the opinions of critics only matter if they praise the work (and do so in a manner that reads like ad copy).

Putting two and two together, then: The theatre community loves awards because praise is the central focus.1

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall--who's the fairest of them all?"

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan, the late, great media guru, once noted: "Art is new perception. New art opens new worlds for our recognition and nourishment. Psychically, art is valuable only when new. ... In art, the genuine fake, Rembrandt or Vermeer, is just as valid as the real thing because it provides the same new awareness or perception." (Culture is Our Business, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1970, p. 46.)

Obviously, then, art is necessarily in the eyes of the beholder, all presumptions to objectivity aside.

Guess what happens when producers control theatrical awards: Theatrical criticism becomes a means for selling tickets, or for self-congratulations, rather than a means of helping theatregoers decide where to spend their discretionary income, or for encouraging transformative experiences through new awarenesses, perceptions, and feelings.

One need look no further than what happened when the Denver Drama Critics Circle (DDCC) awards became the Colorado Theatre (Producers) Guild awards: Despite the abrasive relationships between some of the members, the DDCC developed a strict standard for nominating and voting on awards. After these awards were "somehow transferred" to another entity, the standards no longer include a written explanation (review) of the reviewer's perceptions. The result is an incredibly narrow view of performance. It's no wonder that, over the years, different theatre companies, including the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, have dropped out of this charade.

Despite all the hand wringing in the theatre community regarding reading skills, literature, and attending live performances, it seems that we are willing to compromise these principles in favor of binary choices, as if we had become the 1's and 0's of the computer programs we invented to serve us.

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
It's worth noting that George Bernard Shaw, who served as drama critic for the Saturday Review before embarking on his career as a playwright, wanted to turn down the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925), but accepted it on his wife's insistence that it was a tribute to Ireland. He instructed that the monetary award be used to finance translation of August Strindberg's works from Swedish to English.

"By your works you shall be known" ... not your awards.

"The rest is silence." (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)

Bob Bows

1 Of course, criticism must be constructive to be anything more than an opinion. For example, if you say something doesn't work, you should explain how it could have worked.

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