Do Critics Matter? They Do With the Henrys

John Moore wrote a critique of the Henrys in the Denver Post last weekend, pointing out some weaknesses in the system -- first among them the fact that a production stood no chance of winning awards if most of the eight critics who serve as judges hadn’t seen it.

This cuts out a lot of work around the state, and also some local theaters: Apparently, not enough of us go to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival or to Germinal Stage. John’s point is well taken, and there’s obviously a problem when eighteen of twenty awards are won by four companies; I myself was distressed by some of the shutouts. (For my review of the awards, click here.)

But I dislike John’s solution, which is to open up the process and get as many as 25 citizen judges on the panel. This annihilates any concept of expertise.

I assume the Colorado Theatre Guild asks professional critics to judge because they think we know quite a lot about theater. Not that we’re never wrong. Not that there aren’t non-critics around who love theater and have worthwhile things to say about it. But because we offer more than just a fast emotional response, or straightforward consumer guidance. We’re not celestial meat inspectors labeling the cuts “Prime” or “Choice.” We spend hours pondering what we’ve seen and searching for ways to describe it. A good critic can pinpoint where a production’s gone wrong, and figure out whether the problem lies with the playwright, the actors or the director. We provide context. We understand the literary tradition behind a particular script, the cultural currents running through it, whether it’s representative of that playwright’s work or a radical departure. We also know—or should—how the company came to pick that particular play and where it stands in relationship to the artistic director’s vision. Was it thrown in as an audience-pleaser, or does it represent a genuine challenge? And we can tell if an actor is working at his best, seems under the weather, is unsuitable for the role, or is unsuitable but has somehow managed to pull it off.

Jay Rayner, the food critic for the Guardian, published an interesting article last Sunday asking whether, in this age of bloggers, print critics matter. Why should one opinion be valued more than another? Why not democratize the entire reviewing process? Turn it over to readers, rely on blogs? Independent bloggers can beat us into print. They can be anonymous, go to the theater drunk, leave at the intermission, ramble from the topic, and say fuck whenever they want to. (Okay, so can we here at Westword.) There’s no real responsibility there. A lot of publishers take this line, and we’re seeing fewer and fewer critical bylines in newspapers these days.

Everyone has an opinion, but not all opinions matter equally. I have many thoughts about how and when we should leave Iraq, but they don’t count nearly as much as the ideas of a diplomat, a competent military analyst, a Middle East expert or an Arabic-speaking BBC reporter.

The tradition of theater criticism is long, rich and deep. Critics allow an ephemeral experience to survive beyond its brief lifespan; they can help audiences figure out what they’ve seen, and get discussions going; they create a historical record. Because of critics, we understand a little about what made the great actors of the past great. We know what Laurence Olivier was thinking when he uttered Oedipus’s great cry of horror and revelation, because he told a critic. We learn from newspaper archives how plays that are now considered classics were first received and understood.

I know I can never equal the great critics of the past in insight and eloquence, but I do believe in bringing all the knowledge, integrity and attention I can muster to my work. I’m sure I’ve pissed off many theater people over the years, but I hope that I and my fellow critics were asked to judge the Henrys because the Guild sees us as experts, and recognizes ours as a serious profession.

Anyone added to the judging panel should be conscientiously vetted, and I'd suggest the fairness problem could be at least partly solved if we, the judges, communicated better, and made a point of alerting each other to significant performances. -- Juliet Wittman

To see our red-carpet coverage of the Henry awards, click here.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun