Critics are a Dying Breed -- Or at Least Out of their Jobs

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I am beginning to think I should have gone to law school. 

And I wonder if Chris Vire, former senior editor at Time Out Chicago is thinking the same thing. He was laid off last week in a round of cost-cutting measures where several upper level editors got the ax. Perhaps Lyn Gardner, the much lauded theater critic from London's The Guardian is considering pursuing a law degree, now that her 23-year career has been cut short -- her paper decided not to renew her contract after two decades of extraordinary writing and commentary on the performing arts. I don't know Hedy Weiss, the former Chicago Sun Times theater reviewer who spent 33 years on her beat, producing more than 13,000 reviews. Often controversial, but also an institution on the Chicago theater scene, she parted ways with her paper in February of this year. That leaves my National Critics Institute mentor Chris Jones as a lonely voice in the Chicago wilderness -- one of the last full time theater critics in the city. And as popular as he is, as essential as he is for those wishing the navigate the Chicago theater scene, I wonder if his days are also numbered. 

There are certainly those who do not believe that theater critics are necessary in an age of Yelp reviews and Facebook posts from real people -- members of the audience who have an absolutely valid opinion about their theater experience that they can share with others for free with the touch of a "send" button on an iphone.  But there is a reason that restuarant reviewers peacefully co-exist with message board posters and book critics haven't been replaced by Amazon.com reviews: While personal tastes and opinions are individual and inarguable, expertise is still important. 

When I taught English at Edgewood High School last fall (as a long-term sub) I asked all 120 of my students to write about food. It's a good exercise in making the most of adjectives and communicating an experience in compelling, specific, sometimes surprising prose. To ground ourselves, we looked at the now infamous New York Times review of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant  and a Yelp review of the same establishment (which is now closed). As a class we looked at word choices. We looked at specificity. We looked at the completeness of the reviews, and the objectivity of the pieces.

There's no arguing that the tone of the Times review is snarky. But it is also really well written. It's complete. It's evocative. It describes the reviewer's experience in visceral ways. And it was composed by an expert in the field, with exhaustive experience in all kinds of restaurant settings, with the interests of other consumers in mind. It thoroughly answered vital questions about the evening: Was the product good? Was the atmosphere welcoming? Was the service up to par? Did the kitchen succeed in what it set out to do? Was the meal a good value?  This is also what a good theater critic does, that Facebook commenters have no obligation to do.  This is why our work is valuable. 

The bottom line is, it's a critic's job to be trustworthy and honest. Because critics don't work for the theater or the actors, or the producers, they work for newspapers/blogs -- institutions who actively look for, and report the truth with integrity. There is no such bar set for individual internet posters.

And if you think that Amazon.com reviews can't be skewed by paid responders or Yelp can't be packed with praise from friends and family of the business owner, you're incorrect. To see how Yelp was ingeniously conned by media savvy pranksters, read this

Finally, to illustrate the difference between professional reviewers and audience members, compare my review of Doubt on this site, to the reviews of a group of Yelp responders, who were specially invited to see the same performance. Let me stress that I believe that all of these responses are valid. Each of us summed up our experience with the show at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, from our own perspective.

They are all legit opinions, but they are not interchangeable, which is why we need to figure out a way to support professional reviews of the performing arts. 

Besides, there are probably more than enough lawyers already.