The inquiries, mostly via Twitter, are cordial, casual and polite. “Let us know what you think,” they ask, in response to my mentioning what show I’ll be seeing later that day. “I loved it,” they say, “Hope u do 2.”
Until three weeks ago, I had a standard answer to these conversational inquiries about Broadway shows. I would say that given my role at the American Theatre Wing and The Tony Awards, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to voice my opinions one way or another. People respected that, and often seemed sheepish about having asked. I’m sorry if I undermined the very point of social media by refusing a reply, by being anti-social.
Now I have no cover, so to speak. But I’ve decided, at least for now, to maintain my policy in a general sense. I have been known to send effusive tweets over Off-Broadway or regional work that isn’t in Tony contention and I’ll still do so, while saying little about Broadway work, since I retain a Tony vote. You might ask whether pointing out what I go to see isn’t waving a red cape if I’m staying mum about my ultimate opinion; that’s a fair charge, but I do it mostly so those who have come to know me online will not think me solely a Broadway baby and develop a sense of the range – and limits – of what I see.
Keeping one’s opinion to one’s self is hardly the operative ethos of Internet intercourse. Indeed, many see the Internet as the perfect medium for broadcasting their opinions on a wide variety of subjects, whether or not they have any educated basis for such opinions. Despite that cavil, I have often applauded the means by which the Internet has afforded every individual a broadcast voice, via Twitter, Facebook or countless other applications.
Too often I’ve seen this populist medium used as the platform for virulent versions of what professional critics do in the conventional media: declaring a show worthy or unworthy, attacking artists for offenses current or past, saying whatever comes to mind because there’s no editor or editorial standard to which they must adhere. More than once I’ve likened social media to the early days of broadcasting, and that’s still true, but in so many cases it also resembles the Wild West, with its language closer to Deadwood than to Oklahoma!.
We all know that strong, highly opinionated voices get attention and that is proven daily in the polarized messaging that passes for political conversation. This cannot be the language for the arts. I worry that in trying to make a name for oneself in the online media circus, people seek to be as provocative, as snarky, as incendiary as they can be in order to stand out from the crowd, generating more page views, more retweets, more +1’s than the next commentator. While they may in fact do so from a place of passion about the art of the theatre, their actions, their writing, serve it poorly, since their negative hyperventilations serve only to promote or define themselves, rather than prove of benefit to anyone involved in the making of art.
Now don’t misunderstand me – I am not anti-critic, whether old media or new. I admire and maintain cordial relationships with a number of fairly prominent critics, and enjoy their insights regardless of whether I agree with them or not; I bridle only at those who seem to take pleasure in their pans. Unfortunately, it is those latter critics who the newly enfranchised prefer to emulate.
So, some might say, why don’t I use the internet to become the critic I hope all should aspire to be? There are several reasons, but one is perhaps the most important: conflict of interest. I have been working professionally in theatre for some 30 years, and so it is relatively rare that I see a production where I do not know some artist (in some cases many artists) involved in the production. For me to take on the role of critic now (even though I did so in my collegiate years) would create an impossible dilemma: either I risk offending people who I admire, enjoy and even love (since no one’s work is always impeccable), or I would have to lie to readers, making the point of my taking on a critic’s mantle completely hypocritical.
God knows, I have opinions. Most people can tell that within minutes of meeting me, and certainly those who know me have heard my thoughts about the many shows I see, often at length. But what I say in relative private is measured for each individual who hears it; I rarely dissemble, but I do omit. Social media simply doesn’t afford that degree of narrowcasting and personalization.
I am happy to engage in discussion and debate about theatrical topics, and Twitter and blogging have afforded me that opportunity, far beyond the circles in which I travel here in New York. I’m pleased to enthuse about remarkable aspects of works I see, without necessarily offering a blanket opinion, for broad public consumption. I’m most pleased when I can add a few obscure facts or personal reminiscences to discussions of theatrical work that I spot in the endless stream of online opining.
But what did I think of this show or that? Is my thumb up or down? Unless I’m enthusiastic and the show lesser known, I’ll remain silent or nibble around its edges only, as contrary as that is to my nature. I will not be a cheerleader who loves indiscriminately, but if I cannot say anything nice, as my mother taught me, I will not say anything at all. Readers can read into that silence as they wish. Theatre doesn’t need more people saying what’s wrong with it. I’d rather be someone who reinforces all of the things that are so, so right.