In a lecture given at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013,American philosopher Simon Critchley advanced the idea that artists working collectively nowadays should aspire to obtain through their art “an intensification of the possibility of truth.” The phrase stayed with me and I am tempted to use it in connection to our profession as theater critics.
It is first of all the ethical content of this phrase that makes me think this could be a good objective for a critic too. For what else are we supposed to contribute to the artistic field, if not witnessing, presenting, supporting and archiving the artistic deeds and report about them truthfully? More than that, we are of course supposed to notice how a particular work of art – a new performance in the case of theater – positions itself in the socio-political landscape of its time and how the artists calibrate the equilibrium between ethics and aesthetics in their work.
For all these we bear the immense responsibility of knowing as much as possible about this ever changing socio-political landscape in which we are also acting, in order to understand the trends, the flow of ideas and the patterns of development of an unsettled world. The world we are living in is in the full process of deeply changing its ways of communication and its values and art is closely following, making us, the critics, next in line for a deep change. But are we ready for this change?
I built my career as theater critic working since my debut in 1994 for almost 15 years for the cultural pages of the most important newspapers in Romania. It was the time when daily newspapers were proud to have cultural pages and publish reviews of the new theater productions. They were also aware that weekly cultural pages were a bonus for their product, so they invested in collaborators who could contribute for these pages.
The first newspaper I worked for, while still studying Journalism and Communication Sciences, in the 90’s used to publish a weekly theater magazine using contributions from more than five theater critics. The second one used to publish a weekly cultural magazine with four pages out of 24 fully dedicated to theater – reviews of new productions and theater history. Today no newspaper in Romania indulges in such a luxury anymore and there are very few places left where theater critics can write, the number of on-line outlets outgrowing the number of in print ones.
The ongoing international debate about the future of theater criticism has barely reached our shores, while the authority of most Romanian theater critics is vanishing in the thin air under the eyes of the local section of the International Theater Critics Association. People – artists included – tend to forget critics very quickly these days, under the wave of new voices/gurus/guides at hand. Are we experiencing the end of theater criticism? Who really needs theater critics anymore?
As any other thing which organically appeared out of the common practice of a certain field, theater criticism is of course still needed in the ecosystem of theater. Not only their reviews help the business of selling tickets, but critics are also responsible with recording the history of the art of theater, they are the living archive of it. Even so, they are the ones who must reinvent their profession and make it once more visible, they need to regain their lost authority or rebuild it if there is no other way.
On-line: threat or salvation?
In an article published last year Internet savvy Jake Orr links the future of theatre criticism to the new on-line platforms but he also believes that in the future this “niche art-form” will only be a hobby, whose practitioners would have to be able to sustain themselves through other means. Orr asks a couple of serious questions: “Can you honestly imagine a world without the balanced opinion and response of art through criticism? Can you honestly see a future without theatre criticism?” And then he affirms: “We cannot ignore this crisis. We have to find a way to support, finance and develop theatre criticism. The first step is to acknowledge what we are facing, with the second beginning to think of ways in which we can rethink, reshape and dream of a better, more sustainable system to support our critics.”
Wearing more than one hat
Dreaming about still doing my job as theater critic, despite the new conditions, I changed everything about my career: 15 years later, I am the editor of the Romanian Performing Arts Magazine Scena.ro, which appears in print and online at www.revistascena.ro, an independently financed project which brings together for more than 5 years the most important critical voices in Romanian theater criticism. At the same time, I am teaching in Bucharest University a class on Contemporary Performance, I am an author of books on theater and a translator of working instruments for people studying theater and performance. I also curate a festival each year and I plan to start a Women Theater Artists platform this year in Bucharest.
Yes, maybe I am wearing too many hats, but I believe this is better than complaining about all the things we are missing in the local theater landscape and about the increasing lack of authority of theater critics.
By wearing more than one hat, theater critics can contribute to what Critchley names “the intensification of the possibility of the truth” in the arts’ field: they can not only observe and write, but also teach, do curatorial work, and advise theater institutions. They can be informed consultants for those who make cultural policies, they can organize interactive events and platforms to promote criticism, they can be active in the editorial field connected to arts – as authors, translators, editors of specialized books – academic or not – which can bring the arts closer to more people.
And do all these while still writing reviews, so that their voice can be heard continuously. All of these opportunities must be actively seized; there is no time to be wasted in waiting to be called for. We can and we should approach theater from more than one angle, and include under the term “in-depth criticism”, new, creative and interactive forms of critically thinking about arts. Of course, in choosing the projects we agree to be involved in, we should not forget about trying to protect our independence of thought, because, as British theater critic Aleks Sierz observes: “In the future, as in the past, it’s economic independence, however that is created, that will be the sine qua non of strong, impartial, informed and fearless criticism.”
Last, but not least we should try to work together in order to reshape our profession, instead of trying to only save ourselves. Because our good reputation and authority as theater critics is all we have in these times of deep change we should make our agenda for the next years to consolidate this reputation – individually and as a collective body of theater experts.
The latest can be achieved with the help of the “mother organization,” International Association of Theater Critics whose mission should be establishing the grounds for this “professional revolution” to happen. Only working collectively we can aspire, as Simon Critchley says in regards to artists, to obtain, in our turn, “an intensification of the possibility of truth.”
 Cristina Modreanu, PhD (1974), is a curator, theater critic and expert in performing arts based in Bucharest, Romania. She is the author of five books on Romanian Theatre and she is currently the editor of the Performing Arts Magazine Scena.ro which she co-founded in 2008 and a lecturer at Center for Excellence in Visual Studies, Bucharest University. She received a Fulbright Senior Award and she was a Visiting Scholar at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Performance Studies Department, New York 2011-2012. Modreanu is a member of the Board of IACT-Romanian section. For more info see: www.cristinamodreanu.ro.