- “Hey, asshole: you had your say”:The Performance of Theatre Criticism
In April 2010, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) staged a production of The Taming of the Shrew with a new induction by playwright Neil LaBute. In a review for Time Out Chicago (TOC), theatre critic Caitlin Montanye Parrish lauded the production’s direction, designers, and ensemble, but was unimpressed by LaBute’s additions: “don’t look for meaning in the contemporary scaffolding,” she warns. Within hours, a writer identifying her-/himself as LaBute left a scathing response in the comments section of the online review. Calling Parrish’s piece a “sorry excuse for theatrical criticism,” “neil labute” launched a spirited exchange that grew to include over fifty comments from an estimated twenty-five participants.1 Posters expounded on the challenges of subsisting as an artist, the nature of Chicago’s theatre community, neil labute’s true identity, and, sporadically, the production in question. Throughout, the role of the critic remained labute’s central concern. Denouncing them as “freeloaders,” he writes, “critics are the one element that is of little or no use to the creative process (and one of the very few who don’t ever pay for a ticket!) even the audience lends some creative element to the experience of theater—the critic will always be reactive and parasitic.”2
Labute’s retort and the posts that follow exemplify the rapid and abundant response to which any contemporary theatre review is subject. The comments thread illustrates how the internet has transformed criticism by offering readers/consumers the chance to weigh in, immediately and visibly.3 In an era of compulsive (even compulsory) public assessment, the web is rife with similar discussions, equal parts adulation and bile, profundity and pettiness. Nevertheless, “L’Affaire LaBute Parrish” is a unique and fertile case study among them.4 There is, first of all, labute’s active participation; sixteen of the sixty posts are his (the next most frequent commenter has six). An array of stakeholders take part in the conversation, including posters who identify as theatre artists, spectators, and reviewers. References to Chicago theatre anchor the discussion in a specific time and place, making it a useful record of local history. At the same time, the thread demonstrates how theatrical criticism circulates both locally and more broadly in the era of electronic information. (The discussion spawned conversations on at least two other Chicago theatre blogs, as well as earning mention in the comments section of a review of another LaBute production in New York.)5
This essay describes a creative and scholarly project designed to explore public response to online theatre reviews, a phenomenon I term crowdsourcing theatre criticism. Briefly, the project is an adaptation of the TOC/labute comments thread into an online radio play performed by Chicago actors. The play dramatizes shifting trends in theatre reviewing, interrogating assumptions, including my own, about who is eligible to participate in theatre criticism; it is also an inquiry into the form that criticism might take. I argue that the piece contains five strata of commentary, beginning with Parrish’s review of CST’s production of Shrew; labute’s critique of that review follows. The third layer is composed of the subsequent posts, which take up the arguments made by both Parrish and labute, as well as bringing in related concerns about the production and consumption of theatre. Fourth is my mediation of the comments as director and editor of the radio play. Finally, in their performance of the text, the actors provide their perspectives on the ideas and identities presented by the posters. The resulting piece is more than the sum of its parts. Due to the interacting layers of commentary, the number of distinct voices, the range of themes, and the relative accessibility of the [End Page 103] digital recording, I argue that this “performance of criticism” offers a viable, even superior alternative to the traditional theatre review. To develop this idea, I begin with a brief discussion of current debates on theatre criticism, then turn to the play, describing the critical work accomplished (or attempted) by each round of commentators, including how she/he/they engage their predecessors in...