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What’s the point of being a theatre critic?

Kelundra Smith

By Kelundra Smith
Recently, on a theatre trip to New York City, I was listening in on a panel hosted by the American Theatre Critics Association that featured diverse playwrights—some of whose work has been mounted on Atlanta stages. After an hour of stirring conversation, I went up to one of the playwrights (who happens to be a past Pulitzer Prize nominee) to let her know that I enjoyed her comments, but before I could gather my thoughts she asked me a question that knocked me off of my feet. “What is the point of being a theatre critic if reviews don’t determine whether anyone sees a show?” As the new theatre editor for ArtsATL, it’s a question I have been asked by friends, family members, students in my theatre criticism workshops, and audience members, but never by an artist who I would think wants her work to receive some fair analysis. But, I also recognize that as a woman of color creating work about people of color in front of majority white audiences that is reviewed by mostly middle-aged white male critics, it’s no marvel that theatre criticism doesn’t resonate with her.

Jeanette Illidge and and Latrice Pace in the 2018 Actor’s Express production of “The Color Purple.” Photo by Casey Gardner.

I responded, “I can’t tell you why anyone else does it, but I can tell you why I do it.” When I was a studying theatre in college and I had to write papers about certain playwrights, theater companies, or performance troupes, I would read reviews in order to get an idea of what it was like to be in the room where it happened. What I found is that when I looked for that same information about avant-garde, ethnically specific, gender focused, or LGBTQIA+ artists, there was no coverage to be found. It was as if non-white people weren’t creating art and contributing to this country’s cultural tapestry, which we all know is untrue. The under-coverage of artists from marginalized groups persists today, so when I was first getting started in theatre criticism, I knew I could cut my teeth by reviewing shows about people from underrepresented communities, because no one else would.
Theatre is an inherently ephemeral art form; a show is up for 4-6 weeks and then vanishes. Because of this, theater relies on critics to document its existence, because unlike a painting, movie or song, a musical or play is not complete without the audience response. However, there is another layer to the importance of documenting diverse works because journalism is our historical reference guide and if people 50 years from now aren’t able to read what the concerns of marginalized artists who are creating at this time were, then our human story is incomplete. I became a theatre critic to document the work, amplify unheard voices, and make it easier for future student-lovers of the artform to find the work of artists who share their life experiences. In fact, I have received emails and messages on LinkedIn from graduate students letting me know that they referenced an article I wrote in their papers.

Jack Ha and Vivi Thai in “The Two Kids that Blow S*** Up” at Aurora Theatre. Photo by Casey Gardner.

Beyond the academic space, it means the world to me when someone says ‘I read your review and decided to see that show.’ The playwright was right and wrong–it rarely happens, but it does happen. So why should you read theatre criticism? There are some surface-level reasons: Most critics see at least a show a week and have a hefty repertoire of knowledge, many have studied theatre or some other artform in depth, and professional critics are also journalists who have an ethical obligation to the truth. However, the most important reason for me is that theatre criticism is supposed to save a seat for everyone. Anyone with eyes and ears can experience a show in 800 words or less and be transported to a part of their imaginations that they had not previously accessed. That is the power of theatre and the value of theatre criticism.
I hope that Atlantans will see ArtsATL as a resource and conversation-starter in helping to navigate the rich cultural landscape that the artists that call our great city home are creating. We have a website refresh coming soon, and the theatre section will have an easily accessible list of shows that are opening and closing soon, information about what to expect at different venues (from parking to the vibe), and as always, thoughtful reviews that document the work of diverse artists and help to place shows in a greater social, cultural context. Theatre is a risk for the artists and the audience and I hope that more Atlantans jump into the deep with us.


Featured photo (top): Doug Dickerman, Virginia Kirby, Ellen McQueen, and Rebeca Robles in Atlanta Theater Club’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City.” Photo courtesy of Atlanta Theater Club. 

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