Learning the ropes from New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley
Ben Brantley may well be the most powerful and influential drama critic in the United States. He has been the chief drama critic for The New York Times since 1996.
We met when we were seated next to each other at a performance at the famous Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York. Since that time we have regularly had conversations about theater and the nature of theatrical criticism.
As I begin to add theater reviews to my contributions to OnMilwaukee.com, I asked Brantley to offer a little advice.
OnMilwaukee.com: What role does a theater critic play in the establishment and maintenance of a vibrant theatrical community?
Ben Brantley: A theater critic's main purpose in this regard is to sustain an active dialogue about the theater and to generate excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity. And, yes, debate.
OMC: Some people think of theater as an art form for the elite. Does the critic play a role in disabusing people of that notion, and if so, how?
BB: In New York, theater tickets are often so prohibitively expensive, that it becomes, if not an elite art form, then one that only a small percentage of people can participate in regularly. This is a shame, and no matter how much critics may try to champion theater as a worthy mass entertainment, they can't increase the size of people's expendable incomes. Curiously, the biggest hits on Broadway are anything but elitist entertainment – "Mamma Mia" and "Spider-Man," for example – but they often cater to people who are not regular theatergoers.
OMC: Critics have a certain degree of influence and some people think their reviews have a bearing on the success or failure of a production. Do you consider that influence you have when writing reviews?
BB: No, not really, or you become too self-conscious. On the other hand, especially with smaller shows, I think politeness is always in order.
OMC: Does a good reviewer need to have experience in the theater to be credible?
BB: I think it helps to know how theater works, of course, and to have had at least some first-hand experience. But I think what makes any artist good – which is a particular, passionate and idiosyncratic point of view – is not what makes a good critic.
OMC: Just as actors, directors and producers are sensitive to what critics say, should a critic also be sensitive to what theater people say about his reviews?
BB: My personal position is that no one should read what critics write about him or her. And that includes critics.
OMC: Small regional companies are constantly plagued by financial difficulties. They use that as a reason for generally staging familiar works that stand a better chance of getting adequate attendance. What would you suggest to resolve that conflict?
BB: That's a tough one. More generous government subsidies would be a partial answer, but not anything we can expect to happen. Ideally, you do the crowd-pleasers to help support the more exotic works. A delicate balance, though.
OMC: Should a theater critic try to be controversial or should he review the play as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may?
BB: Controversy is a way of making your name, I guess, but it's artificially generated; it doesn't have much of a shelf life. It's always best to write what you feel, in your gut as well as your head.
OMC: When you are a reviewer in a smaller community (like Milwaukee), how critical should you be?
BB: Honest but tactful, I'd say.
OMC: Many critics seem to write reviews for the theatrical community. Is it better to try and write for the general public?
BB: There are specialty publications that write for the trade. Criticism in daily papers is written for the people who buy the tickets.
OMC: And finally, what advice do you have to make this new undertaking a successful and enjoyable one for everyone involved?
BB: Once again, I'd say trust your own instincts. If you love the theater, as you obviously do, and can convey that love, you've already taken the first step toward engaging your reader.
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