The most important part of the picture is the frame.

Now granted I heard that from a frame salesperson, but it sounds good right? She was responding to my incredulity at what was easily a 6 inch thick frame around a 4 inch picture. Her longer explanation was that any given wall is a blank space and a frame gives the art context in the space.

I buy that.
<sidebar> I will also buy that I really hate gaudy faux gilt frames around pastoral landscapes </sidebar>

Jonathan Mandell (@NewYorkTheater) over at the Faster Times, in the wake of the American Theatre Critics Association wingding last week, drew up a broad post discussing the state of criticism in America. It was a really fun post that ranged far and wide, from the necessity of criticism, to the death of critics, to John Simon averring that bloggers are vermin (I am) and Stephen Hendel admitting publically that he doesn’t read George Hunka or Lucas Krech.

I have no use for the argument about whether blogging is valid. Publishing is publishing. If you haven’t found something to read that makes your pink parts tingle that doesn’t invalidate the medium. Neither do I care to (further) discuss the “death” of anything like criticism, as that conversation is expressly about the ability of Professional Whatever to make as much money as they feel like they should be making, not about the thing itself.

What I DO have use for is what I want criticism to do.

Not reviewing. Lord we have a lot of reviewers. We have citizen reviewers and professional reviewers and pro-am reviewers and the irascible Don Hall reviewer and friends and family and cast and crew and the butcher, the baker, and candlestick maker.


In a time of centralized (truly Mass) media the upper echelons of each field could be recognized and the average person would know at the very least who the Biggest and Brightest in each small niche were. It wasn’t a broad knowledge or anything like even a basic working knowledge of a niche, but you could play word association games – Theatre? Arthur Miller! Poetry? Robert Frost!

In a time of fractured media and self selection of sources it’s more difficult to assume any knowledge whatsoever of a niche.

There’s no context whatsoever for what we’re doing. We talk about microlabels inside our niche “indie” theatre versus “pro-am” or whatever… do a man-on-the-street and ask who the biggest star on Broadway is. Who has the number 1 album on Billboard?

People like knowing what they’re talking about. People like knowing that what they’re seeing is the best, the first, the something-th. They have no way of knowing unless someone knowledgeable steps in provides that knowledge for them. If they walk into the small and oddly shaped Hyde Park Theatre and see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation this week they don’t know (without someone telling them) that they’re seeing a Obie-winning play directed by an in-town Hall of Famer with a cast that has a few closets full of awards and nominations. Despite the irregularities of the space, the informality of the evening and the affordability of the ticket,  you should have high expectations for both the show and the performers. This isn’t a Waiting for Guffman extravaganza written by a bored 5th grader.

I want for the critics of the now, print or on-line, paid adequately or not, to be those context providers. Every town has a narrative. Every town likely has multiple narratives on multiple levels, but let’s stick for the moment stick to the singular. If our critics in each town look to that narrative to inform the coverage and the features we continually build hooks into creating broader interest in what we do. Who is the bad boy of Minneapolis theatre? Who is the rising star of Seattle?

It seems a little trite. But I believe firmly in selling our people and if we only ever talk about plays as product? Wow are we missing the boat. I know allotted column inches are shrinking, I know budgets are shrinking, I know that many critics are working multiple jobs and don’t have time for features.

So my call to action is this:
Critics give your audience context for each show you talk about. A an extra online paragraph. Feature the author, or a performer, or the venue – how does this production fit into the town? Or the season? Robert Faires did this really well with his “The Classics Comeback” piece in the Chronicle.

YOU. You have a blog. Tell us about folks you love in your town. Stop whining about how no one is doing something and be the person who does it. Be an advocate! Out Adam Szymkowicz Adam Syzmkowicz! It isn’t our job to research the best and brightest in your town, it’s your job to tell us.

Frame the picture for us, so that when we come to see your art we have context.