In my first post about theatre criticism, I tackled the notion of the critic, my personal biases against them, and how criticism can (and should!) intersect with dramaturgy. In this post, I’d like to talk a little bit about accountability.
It’s been quite a year for this topic. It seems we always want to find others to blame instead of looking inward. But one critic, following (in my opinion) one of the most horrific theatre scandals of recent history, did just that.
I first heard about the Profiles Theatre incident this summer, when I was living in Chicago and making friends in the improv and theatre scene. They would refer to it in passing with a hushed understanding that everyone knew the mess they referenced. Being new in town, I didn’t know.
As I read the Chicago Reader‘s in-depth piece on the Profiles Theatre – which, if you haven’t read, stop what you are doing and read it right now – I was stunned. How could physical, sexual, and emotional abuse happen at a theatre for TWENTY YEARS – that’s nearly my lifespan – TWENTY YEARS and nothing was done about it until now. Twenty years of twenty seasons of show after show after show after show and women getting beaten and thrown and groped and abused.
And then I read the reviews.
“Profiles Theatre’s production of Killer Joe is an incomparable success that will linger with you long you leave the theater. It represents exigent theater at its most ferocious, most fearless and most certainly its finest. Do not miss this rare and wonderful darkly devious delight!” – Chicago Stage Review
Every major outlet in Chicago highly recommended a production in which the two female actors were either forced to perform sexual acts or thrown across the stage – all in real time.
I want to pause for a moment and say that I am not condemning theatre that pushes boundaries; I support shocking productions and theatre that is as appalling as it is appealing. But what I am NOT in support of is the intimidation and horrific abuse that ran rampant at a popular theater in a major metropolitan city.
And do you want to know what I support even less? Theatre critics who, through their glowing reviews, enabled this to happen. Christopher Piatt, a Chicago critic, confirms this condemnation in a piece he wrote for the Reader titled, “A critic’s mea culpa, or How Chicago theater critics failed the women of Profiles Theatre.” In it, he writes:
“But again, the evidence was hidden in plain sight, and we the watchdogs never noticed. Instead, we cheered on the roughhousing, lionized the torn-T-shirted brutalism, and rubber-stamped the neonoir atmosphere in the spirit of encouraging some idealized kind of Chicago storefront edginess . . . The fact of the matter is we all helped create Profiles Theatre, and now we all own it.”
The real fact of the matter is this: if we didn’t hold reviews (and their subsequent reviewers) up on a pedestal, they wouldn’t be as culpable as they are in creating the landscape of the American theatre. But we do, and they are. Theatre critics can end careers as swiftly as they can catapult them to the highest heights. They hold a substantial power in bringing audiences to see shows, which means they help make us money as well as reputations. And they have all of this because we give it to them. We, the audiences and we, the theatre makers.
If we put critics on a pedestal, they better be accountable for the people they hoist up with them.
Unfortunately, the Profiles Theatre incident was a very, very bad case of manipulation and misogyny. The brunt of the blame lies on the shoulders of the man who committed the abuse. But to deny that there are many who aided and abetted him, whether intentionally or not, leaves room for something like this to happen again.
So, how do we move forward?
I propose a dual compromise. We as theatre makers should hold less stock in reviews, which would mean using them less for advertising purposes. On the other side of the curtain, critics should assume accountability for the effects their praise or condemnation has on the landscape of our theatre, as well as do their research to make sure they are not praising the kind of work that is getting people hurt.
We are all responsible, whether we like it or not. It’s time we start acting like it.
After the Reader ran their investigatory piece, Profiles shut its doors.
A small victory that I wish had happened twenty years sooner.
Thanks for pressing ahead with your second instalment. The case of Profiles Theatre is certainly an interesting one, but I’m not sure it says that much about critics in general. Rather, I’d say it reflects a human tendency to avoid thinking the worst of others until we’re forced to confront the truth. Here in Britain, for example, there have been a number of scandals involving historic child sex abuse which, in some cases, might been prevented had people not chosen to look the other way when it was happening. They weren’t necessarily guilty or even complicit, just not actively engaged.
With hindsight, we may say it’s a shame Profiles Theatre’s reviewers didn’t hold the company to account, but we couldn’t use the story to argue that all critics are in favour of violence and exploitation (still less guilty of it). As you say, “the brunt of the blame lies on the shoulders of the man who committed the abuse” and surely it was him who was responsible for “creating the landscape of the American theatre” not the critics. They were reflecting what they found, not inventing it.
Besides, there are many great examples of critics persuasively arguing against injustices in the theatre. To take a current example, here’s critic Lyn Gardner campaigning for gender balance in the profession: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2016/sep/23/theatres-must-act-now-about-gender-inequality There’s no reason to suppose critics are a force for bad. We all have in common a love of theatre and more to unite us than divide us.
Although I agree with you that critics can be influential, I don’t think they have as much power as you think. You assert that they “can end careers as swiftly as they can catapult them to the highest heights,” but what’s the evidence for this? Whose career was going swimmingly until, out of the blue, they got some bad reviews? A playwright’s career will end because they write too many bad plays, not because of what it says in the papers.
To think otherwise, you’d have to believe a) that critics had a different agenda from other theatregoers (“Hey, let’s all hype this terrible actor!”) and b) that theatre makers slavishly did whatever the critics told them. Neither is true.
Many critics would agree with your suggestion for theatres to cut down on using reviews for advertising purposes because – in my opinion, at least – the “thumbs up/thumbs down” aspect of criticism is a lot less interesting than exploring the nuances and seeing the bigger picture. Your challenge, however, will be in getting the theatres to agree . . . Good luck with that!
Mark, thank you! I really appreciate your wisdom. I think part of my thinking about theatre criticism involves me wrestling with my own implicit biases, and I think I still have a ways to go on that front. But your thoughts are helpful!