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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Critic Vanishes

posted by on May 28 at 12:06 PM

Joe Adcock, theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 26 years, has retired. And nobody much seems to care. (The Slog post announcing his departure got just one sad, single comment.)

Critics aren’t anybody’s favorite people. Last weekend, standing outside a theater during intermission, I mentioned Adcock’s departure to a prominent local artistic director. He replied in song: “Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

Then I told him the P-I hadn’t just lost Adcock: They’d also eliminated his job, and won’t hire another full-time theater critic, due to a hiring freeze. The artistic director’s face fell: “Oh. That’s terrible.”

In just a few years, Seattle has gone from four full-time theater critics (one for each of the dailies and each of the weeklies) to two: Misha Berson at the Seattle Times and me. “Does that mean theater in Seattle is shriveling up and dying?” my editor asked when I told him about Adcock.

Um, no. It’s a sign that newspapers are shriveling up and dying. Seattle still has its Tony Awards, its growing reputation as the best place to premiere pre-Broadway musicals, and its habit of hemorrhaging talent to other cities (congratulations, by the way, to former Seattle actress Heidi Schreck, who moved to New York and just won an Obie Award).

But the newspapers—with their hiring freezes, layoffs, and forced early retirements—are fucked. If Berson were to retire next week, would the Times replace her? “I expect so, but it’s really hard to say,” said Times managing editor David Boardman.

Eventually, you all may have nobody but me.

Just a few papers that have axed or split longstanding criticism jobs in the past year: New York Times (dance), the Village Voice (dance), Los Angeles Times (dance), Chicago Tribune (theater), Minneapolis Star-Tribune (theater), Atlanta Journal-Constitution (lots of its critics), Philadelphia Inquirer (theater), Charlotte Observer (theater), and the Baltimore Sun (theater). In Seattle, the Times, the P-I, and Seattle Weekly have all cut jobs in arts criticism.

So newspapers have to lean on freelancers, who are great and all, but I’ll let my friend Wendy Rosenfield, a freelance critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, say it: “We’re not just itinerant, we’re mercenaries. My schedule is dictated by my needs, not the needs of the paper. It lends itself to way too much turnover and uneven arts coverage.” (Philadelphia, by the way, has three times as many people as Seattle, and only one full-time theater critic.)

Last February, at an NEA-sponsored theater critics’ seminar in Los Angeles, I met Judy Rousuck, a deadpan, corvine-haired, and deeply intelligent woman who had just left the Baltimore Sun. She had been the theater critic for 23 years, but nobody told her she’d be taking her job with her when she left: “I don’t know if I would have had the heart—or nerve—to leave if I’d known I wouldn’t be replaced.”

So, Misha, now it’s just you and me. So don’t take any buyouts. Or candy from strangers. And look both ways when you cross the street.

Correction: The NYT hasn’t axed a dance-writing position— Jennifer Dunning retired from the paper some weeks ago, but the Times intends to replace her. We regret the error.

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The PI has a Theater Critic?


I thought they just asked grumpy patrons what they thought about plays ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 28, 2008 12:29 PM
Eventually, you all may have nobody but me.

OtB and Mike Daisey wouldn't have a problem with that.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 28, 2008 12:38 PM

Newspapers are dying, yet weekly newspapers are thriving. Right? I mean, if everyone is reading online and no one is picking up the print edition then print ad revenue will continue to be there, right?

Posted by Curious | May 28, 2008 12:46 PM

Misha Berson is a nasty, tiresome, spoilt old bitch.

Posted by Dan Savage | May 28, 2008 12:48 PM

Where did Kiley say that weeklies were thriving?

Posted by Reading Comprehension | May 28, 2008 12:50 PM

What, you're going to exclude Miryam Gordon from SGN? They're a weekly publication, right?

And I suppose this means the monthly "contribution" to your "retirement fund" is going to go up next time as well.

Posted by COMTE | May 28, 2008 1:00 PM

What I'm wondering is how relevant theater criticism is to the P-I's readership to begin with, or the Times', for that matter. I just don't think arts coverage has been a strength of either of the dailies. I'm a semi-regular P-I reader and I definitely look elsewhere for arts news and reviews. The only time I read Adcock generally is when he's writing about somebody I know, and a lot of the other theater people I know are the same way. If theater people don't care about the P-I's theater coverage, who would?

Also, don't forget we've still got Longenbaugh's endlessly clever musings over at the Weekly. I can see how you would leave him off the list since he doesn't seem to see or write about shows, but his column does have "Theater" right there in the title.

Posted by matthew e | May 28, 2008 1:30 PM

Matthew: I left Longenbaugh off because a) he's a freelancer and b) he's not a critic.

He wrote, when he started his column, that he'd sworn off reviewing so it wouldn't interfere with his career as a playwright.

Posted by Brendan Kiley | May 28, 2008 1:50 PM

Don't get too smug there, Brendan. I never heard of you until this post. That's because I HATE theater - it's boring and only interesting to those in that little drama circle.

Posted by Dan's Facial Wasting | May 28, 2008 1:53 PM

Like Baby Dayliner said, "Critics pass away like bad news, la la la"

Posted by boyd main | May 28, 2008 1:53 PM

pish tush. don't theatre companies hate critics anyway? you'd think they'd be happy with fewer critics/reviewers around. after all, a bad review=bad box office.

Posted by scary tyler moore | May 28, 2008 2:39 PM

I was totally bummed when my press release got bumped back. Joe was a really nice guy.

Joe Adcock was the perfect reviewer from from a performer's/theatre's perspective.

If he gave you a good review, you could say "The P-I said 'A delightful cacophony of adsurd theatricality'"

If you got a bad review you could just say "There goes crazy Joe Adcock again, he doesn't understand theatre, isn't he a professional gardner?" or "Joe Adcock doesn't like Radiohead, so obviously he didn't get it" or "Joe Adcock didn't understand our jokes, because he's older than time itself."

Joe Adcock was the perfect cover against a bad review.

Posted by Mark Siano | May 28, 2008 3:08 PM


Actually, no. Theatre artists (and institutions) dislike critics who get above themselves. Kenneth Tynan characterized his job as "giv[ing] permanence to something impermanent."

Bertolt Brecht had this to say: "What they say about my plays doesn't matter, my plays will survive the critics, but what they say about my productions matters very much because what they write is all that posterity will know of the subject."

Posted by Laurence Ballard | May 28, 2008 5:02 PM

if only mischa wasn't so talentless

Posted by hazel zone | May 28, 2008 5:03 PM

But Brendan, didn't you read Adcock's exit interview/last column? Rhapsodizing Shakespeare? Seriously? I got that in college. Give me a theater critic who can grapple with what a company like WET is trying to do.

Posted by MyDogBen | May 28, 2008 5:19 PM

thank you, laurence. i'm still not crazy about theatre critics. most of them can't even WRITE, let alone about theatre.

and i LOVED you in angels in america. Please do a revival, stat!

Posted by scary tyler moore | May 28, 2008 8:16 PM

p.s.: even though john simon is an excellent writer, i still hate him. so there.

Posted by scary tyler moore | May 28, 2008 8:17 PM

Eerie and sad coincidence: a theatre critic in Arizona committed suicide after being laid off by his paper.

Posted by sherman | May 28, 2008 11:47 PM

#18 - WOW - what theater

Posted by John | May 29, 2008 1:08 AM

What theatre artists actually want is advocates in the media, not critics. We know how to listen to intelligent criticism--we work by a critical-response method every day of our lives in rehearsal and in design meetings. That's how theatre is made. By the time a show opens to the public, everyone involved knows exactly where it works and doesn't work.

The reason newspaper reviewers are reviled (by some) is because they expose our weakness to the public. No one in any profession would willingly invite a person to superficially pick at their faults in the newspaper unless there was some hidden benefit. And that benefit is exposure.

Joe and Misha do the Seattle theatre industry a great service by just showing up. Crowded in between a dozen television and movie reviews, it really means very little what they write. Their presence on the page says to the readership that at least these people think a night in the theatre is worth their time.

So losing Joe is less an issue than losing the P-I.

Posted by rowlfdog | May 29, 2008 10:00 AM

Do readers know the difference between a review and a preview? I think not. If theatre's role, (and the critic's role) is to challenge and educate....then I argue previews are more important than reviews.

What we need are arts "advocates" at newspapers, NOT critics. We need people to tell the story "behind the story." Isn't that what reporters do? In 90% of Joe's articles he was neither a critic nor an advocate. He rarely told the story BEHIND the story. He mostly gave us the "cliff notes"

So let's not get bogged down with the word critic. Let's find the arts "advocates" in the media to come to shows and help spread the gospel through whatever means they have at their disposal!

Posted by Rice is Nice | May 29, 2008 4:42 PM

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