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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writer Anthony Palermo Defends (!) Critics

(Ed: Anthony Palermo responded to David Allan King's post and we thought it was so interesting it deserved article status)

I believe the role of the critic has lost its place and the art of criticism has lost its meaning. The critic is just as much a part of any production as the director, the actors, the stage manager and the audience. It’s foolish to reject this notion. 

I think a lot of people shit on critics. They hate them. Personally, I love them. I love them because everyone hates them. Like I love Simon Cowell. The dude is a total prick. But he’s often right for being a prick. I don’t always agree with his opinion but I agree with his ‘way’. He’s got a way of telling it like it is. He’s telling the truth. He’s trying to guide the artist towards or away from the limelight. He definitely wants the talented ones to succeed. And that’s why artists hate critics. Because they hate to hear someone say anything else than ‘that was great’ or ‘you were awesome’. Again, personally, I can’t stand comments like that, they don’t mean anything. 

They work for actors. Actors that crave validation. But it never meant anything to me. If you wanted to say something that I would appreciate: point out a moment that touched you in the play; an action that frightened you or a line that made you think.

I once wrote (in an appropriately titled play ‘Critic’) that the theatre critic’s role was to be the local theatre community’s artistic director. It sounds like a huge responsibility and quite an arrogant idea to embrace, but I truly believed that the reviews critics write could/should help shape the direction our theatre companies take. 

Example: Big Theatre House does a play by Eugene O’Neil. To the older playgoer and season subscriber; it’s great, they like it. Some even love it. Some are indifferent: hey it’s a night out. The critic sees it and says it’s good. It works. It’s Big Theatre House-esque and it makes sense (and cent$) to listen to the audience and give them what they want. 

But maybe…it could’ve been better (most things can). Maybe the actors were good but not great (it’s possible). Maybe the directing was tired and a bit boring (not the end of the world). Then maybe the critic says something about it being a bit of the ‘same old’ and a bit redundant. This is not an ‘attack’, it’s guidance, it’s saying maybe you should consider spicing it up a little. Maybe we’ve seen enough of these types of plays and maybe we should create a new repertoire of classics. Maybe it’s time to think outside of the box. It’s sounds cliché but so do the line ups. 

Ok, but now the hipsters come around with their corduroy jacket sleeves rolled up, skinny jeans and shoelace belts and put on a play about something that probably means something to someone about something we don’t really relate to but sounds intelligent but it’s really urban-pretentious. 

So the hipsters love it, because other hipsters gave them comps. The older folks think it’s weird but are so very proud to see young people doing something other then themselves and the critic says…the play’s about something that probably means something to someone about something we don’t really relate to…it doesn’t sounds intelligent…it’s very urban pretentious. And now the hipsters hate the critic. And their friends hate the critic. And maybe the critic could’ve said ‘what a great effort’ or maybe ‘that was great’ or ‘you were awesome’. But they say it like it is. It was ‘ok’. It was a bit of a waste of time. The actors were amateursish. The production values, which critics only comment on when the play sucks, were interesting…and the writing and directing were most likely the problem. 

The critic’s role is to suggest what direction to take. The artist has the choice to reject it. but they should at least consider it. maybe the critic has seen fifteen thousand more plays than you. Maybe the critic reads, analyzes and understands theatre…maybe even better than you. If generally speaking the critic tells you that your writing sucks: get the hint. If they say the same for your direction. It’s unanimous! If they say certain aspects really worked and brought a spark of importance or relevance to the piece; keep it in mind when working on the next project. If an artist tries to only do work for their own benefit, they don’t deserve to have an audience or to be critiqued. Play for your friends and family but don’t invite a professional journalist to tell you what their ‘educated-on-the-topic’ opinion is. 

Don’t you think Arcade fire, arguably the greatest indie band around at the moment, play the game. They play the game their own way but they play the game. They want to be heard. They want to perform. They want to write. They want to create. They want people to care. And so they listen. To their numerous band mates. To their fans. To their haters. And to their critics. 

There’s more to be said…but I’m trying not to be a prick. 

(Tony Palermo, writer, producer of Gravy Bath [ed: the late, great Gravy Bath])


  1. Love this, Tony.
    I've always been partial to drawing a distinction between reviewers and critics.
    Reviewers write about their personal experience -- typically burning up copy with a good dose of plot summary. Essentially, they represent the anonymous, non-invested audience member, and cultivate a false thumbs-up/thumbs-down objectivity.
    Critics write about theatre. As you say, they are 'as much a part of any production as the director, the actors, the stage manager and the audience. It’s foolish to reject this notion.'
    Geoff Agombar

  2. Peter Brook, perhaps one of the greatest theatre people we have known, describes the role of the critic as that of pathmaker... just as Tony describes, he is there to suggest a direction. He is not there to destroy, to vilify, or to launch personal or political attacks, (s)he is there to help artists and their public create and sustain a theatre that speaks to them. Brook thinks critics who are invested in the theatre themselves are best placed to comment on it. It is how the theatre grows, and how we start to recognize what we want and what we cannot abide. How many of these critics do we have?

    Lowell Gasoi


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