Writing about the Theatre — Jaz Dorsey , Writing about the Theatre — AAPEX

Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing about the Theatre

Observations by Jaz Dorsey

When I first got out of graduate school and into the real world, it struck me that one of my options might be to follow the path of the theatre critic, but it didn't take me long to realize that I didn't have the temperament for that. There is just no "John Simon" in me. And when I ran into theatre critics or heard them speak, I found I didn't care for them much as people.

Thankfully that changed once I moved to Nashville, where we have a community of compassionate and nurturing journalists who cover our theatre scene - and I think that the timbre of theatre criticism has changed over the years - but back in the day I saw critics as monsters of the Greek variety, on a par with Medusa, turning my colleagues to stone with a single glare. If you couldn't say something ugly about somebody, don't say anything at all. As it were.

And of course I grew up watching all those Hollywood movies where everyone rushes from the theatre to Sardi's to await the early edition and that critical review which would make or break the show. From those films we get the mythological figure of the theatre critic as a creature of scathing tongue and acerbic wit who wields an awesome and horrible power to deify or to destroy. Critics of that stature, of course, always write for the New York Times and everybody who reads the New York Times reads about the theatre - which, of course, is one reason that New York is the brilliant theatre city that it is. Here in Nashville, and I suspect in much of the rest of the country, the only people who read theatre reviews are the people who read theatre reviews. In order to get anyone's attention here, you'd pretty much have to stick a review in the sports section. Now that Eddie George has taken to the stage down here in Nashville, that might actually happen some day.

Fortunately my career, such as it has been, took off in other directions, so the idea of writing about the theatre wasn't given much attention until, in 2004, my collaborators and I lost our wonderful free venue and I found myself sitting there wondering what to do with myself. The question was answered when I met Wanda Clay, publisher of Tennessee Style Magazine, who offered me the opportunity to contribute a theatre column to her magazine.

Once that door opened, I had to ask myself "What's important here? - and what's interesting" and, for me at least, the answer was - people.

Those of us who are in the theatre, we know what tremendous dedication it takes to follow this path and stay on it. Any one who can found and maintain a theatre company is deserving of some awe. And any actor who is willing to run around with a backpack full of headshots and resumes has more energy and commitment than I do - or ever did.

What makes people of our tribe willing to suffer the slings and arrows, as it were, that are an inevitable part of this journey? And when and how is the seed planted that drives us to persevere ? These are the things which I believe the rest of the world will find fascinating.

Why do we even have theatre? What purpose does it serve? - and is that purpose as primary in the 21st century as it was back in Sophocles' day?

Because I believe that it is, I am not content to regurgitate cast lists or to try to come up with a variety of ways to say clever things about actors' performances - nor am I at all interested in giving a reader any excuse NOT to go to the theatre. Where does that
get any of us?

But mainly it seems to me that the population at large will have more appreciation and respect for theatre if they felt connected to the theatre artists in their own community, if they just knew where these artists are coming from, how they have gotten where they are now and what their individual artistic missions are.


To be perfectly frank, it's easy to kick someone in the teeth when it comes to theatre - especially if your words go out to the general public. Unfortunately those on the creative end hardly have the resources or outlets to stand up for themselves in the face of debilitating criticism and any caterwauling causes one to come off as hysterical or otherwise disagreeable, so when it comes to negative opinions validated by publication in the significant press, theatre folk just have to be able to take it on the chin.

But we are in a new age. Cyberspace and the internet have freed us from the tyranny of the theatre critic and more and more opportunities have arisen for a greater critical response to the theatre in the form of blogs and websites. Of course, all this is only as effective as the number of readers a writer gets, but the point is that now we can all weigh in on the theatre and it's effect on our lives. Some "elitists" may cringe with distaste at the idea that the rabble has anything of value to say about this "precious" art form. I say let them cringe; it's good for them and they've certainly had me cringing in the past.

So if you go to the theatre and it moves you, amuses you or pisses you off, write about it. Post it on your facebook page or set up your own blog. Whether it's roots and purpose are biological or divine, theatre is the best way we have to look at ourselves as we are, as we have been and as we need to be as we continue to move inexorably into the future.

Jaz Dorsey
AAPEX Dramaturg
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project

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