Last week Charles Isherwood, theater critic for the NY Times wrote a fascinating, if somewhat whiny article about the latest production of Glengarry Glen Ross starring Al Pacino. Isherwood objects to the lengthy preview extension for GGR, which kept most critics from publishing their reviews until well into the profitable run of the show. The argument basically asserts that it is unfair to expect theater patrons to decide on what show to see without the expert advice provided by critics. Putting aside the fact that Al Pacino could sell out houses by sitting on a chair and grunting for 90 minutes, there is a more important issue brought up by Isherwood’s lament. Does the Times matter anymore? Is it still the gatekeeper to the Elysian fields of dramatic prominence that it has been for the better part of a century?
To answer this question, we must examine the basic transaction between producers and critics. Producers do not give critics free tickets to their opening night because they believe criticism is essential to the art form, they do it because they hope a good review will sell tickets. Shows with the star power of GGR or the brand power of Spiderman have proven that they can sell out without the stamp of approval of the fourth estate. Its not difficult to understand why this bothers critics, in a very real sense it renders them irrelevant. Isherwood argues that this diminution of critical power is bad for theater, that without expert guidance the ignorant masses just won’t know what shows they really ought to see. What Ishwerwood misses is that the power of critics is not based on the brilliance of their opinions, it never was, it has always been based on their ability to generate ticket sales. If critics cannot destroy shows they dislike, or propel shows they do like at the box office, they basically cease to matter.
Don’t get me wrong, the Times still exerts tremendous power in the theater world, but its days of anointing the next big thing in theater may well be numbered. Just last week Adam Szymkowicz, one of my favorite playwrights, and a widely produced one at that (he has two NYC productions up now “Hearts like Fists” and “UBU”) , wrote on Facebook that he had just received his 4th positive review from the Times, but that his life has not changed. This is only one example, and frankly I would not be the least bit surprised if the change in circumstance Adam seeks will come, but it is telling. For theater artists of our generation the power of the Grey Lady to transform careers was unquestioned, I think it unlikely that this will be the case for the kids coming up now, who will need new ways to promote their work.
The reason for the Times’ slipping influence are myriad. It has to do with their general circulation woes, with the online pay wall that frustrates would be readers, and with the general apathy the public has shown towards theater in recent decades. But the most important reason for their decline, is also the silver lining that should give hope to theater producers and artists. That silver lining is the explosion of online outlets which discuss and promote theater. This democratization of theater opinion writing from New York Theater Review, to Culturebot, to Theatermania.com, has opened a new world that simply did not exist 10 or 15 years ago. Just as the internet has revolutionized the way we decide what to watch on TV, it has a deep impact on what plays we go to see. This is a good development for theater, and one which gives artists much greater control over the trajectory of their work. The profound pronouncements from atop Mount Sulzberger are no longer lightning bolts, more and more they are whimpers bemoaning their diminished cultural influence. While this may have a negative effect on the handful of playwrights they would choose to anoint, it offers smaller outlets and audiences themselves a much stronger hand in determining the future course of theater in America.