posted by Petra Kohse
categories: Spotlight

Petra Kohse has written for the Wanderlust blog since its launch. She has traveled to our Wanderlust theatres and reported on theatre partnerships on location. As her stint as a “Pfadfinder” (theatre scout) winds down, she focuses in her last blog post on contemporary theatre criticism and the conflicting situation in which theatre critics find themselves when working for non-journalistic media, such as an online blog. We thank Petra for her strong commitment and many interesting blog entries. At the start of the new theatre season in September 2011, Tobi Müller will take her place as a Wanderlust blog writer. More info coming soon…

Theatre criticism is (or has been) a journalistic genre, tailored to a specific target group which variety of media aim to reach. In professional journals, one finds detailed descriptions of plays and comparisons with earlier pieces / productions by the same playwright / director. In national papers, readers are presented with articles about current debates in theatre, while in the local papers, the reviews generally fall into the category of “Go! – Don’t Go!” recommendations or warnings. Reports in purely journalistic websites (e.g. Spiegel Online, nachtritik) are usually based on print versions and targeted at their own readership.

The right format is helpful when writing theatre criticism, as it is generally impossible to put an entire evening of theatre into words. And the larger the readership, the less obligated the critic may feel toward the theatre – as a writer who informs the public about (what is normally) publicly funded art.

In recent years, however, a growing number of theatre critics have begun working for non-journalistic media. Freelance writers have been doing this for financial reasons ever since newspapers – to put it positively – began relying more heavily on their permanent staff. And the editors have been doing it because freelancers do it and they want to retain their predominant influence on public opinion. These non-journalistic media are published by theatres themselves in the form of play programmes or seasonal programmes. Or they can be special forums, such as the Wanderlust blog. Or discussion events at theatres, presented by critics, or even entire symposiums, organized and moderated – not by dramaturges – but by theatre critics.
Because newspapers have so radically cut back on reporting about theatre events, it has become imperative for theatres to open themselves to the public and utilize the expertise of journalists. And the same applies to journalists. In contrast to, say, “economics experts”, theater experts sit together with the theatre artists in the same boat anyway. Whereby they, the critics, used to be chauffeured around while the others, the artists, did all the rowing. What if the critics themselves did the rowing? Wouldn’t it forever change the relationship and perspective of their profession? Can you still report about a theatre event, at which you worked as a moderator and were responsible for its success? Can you write objectively about a premiere, which you’ve already covered in the play programme after attending several rehearsals?

Some think that, yes, you can detach yourself enough to form an unbiased opinion. But is it a matter of deciding? Doesn’t goodwill and previous knowledge make it impossible to view a play objectively? Not more incorrectly, but perhaps more accurately. But still from the point of view of a ‘participant’. And when it comes to evaluating the piece – you’re biased. Can you sit next to the dramaturge at the premiere, share a glass of champagne with the cast at the party and then go back to the computer and act as if you had watched the play as a free-thinking and uncompromised, non-judgmental viewer?
No, you can’t. Outside of a journalistic context, theatre criticism has no firm ground to stand on. Critics are ‘embedded’ in that they are guests at the party and offer their verdict as complicit insiders. Of course, they maintain professionalism, which allows them to approach their subject differently than someone who is directly involved. But they have nonetheless relinquished their status as a viewer. And no matter what they write, they cannot succeed in meeting the expectations of the theatre colleagues, readers, themselves and the medium they are writing for.

It is a conflicting situation, but it marks a general shift in the profession. As it is, absolute objectivity as portrayed by the journalistic publishing industry has been a myth for quite some time, and the modification of theatre criticism is perhaps only a minor downside of this development. Yet for theatre critics, the pressing question is how best to react to these changing circumstances. How best to deal with the fact that the object and subject of one’s writing are no longer on opposite sides, but are becoming more part and parcel of one another. In fact, they often act as if they themselves are the medium and some media outlets represent little more than those who produce them. Is art criticism even desired? And if so, what kind? And how does one write it? Scouting (or “Pfadfinden”), it appears, will continue to be one of the most pressing tasks of theatre reporting in the future.

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