All Over Creation: Under the Influence
So what does being named one of the nation's most influential critics really mean?
Am I a dope for not knowing what "influential" means?
Allow me to clarify: I have a clear grasp of what the word means generally. Where I'm having trouble is what it means when it's applied specifically to me, as in: one of "12 of the nation's most influential theatre critics."
As Chronicle Editor Louis Black noted in "Page Two," Nov. 11, the November issue of American Theatre magazine includes me among a dozen arts writers who, to quote David Cote, the critic who wrote about us, "form a vital phalanx of critical opinion that chronicles and weighs work that national media outlets are content to ignore." This qualifies as tall cotton, especially considering that my 11 colleagues on the list all work for major metropolitan dailies (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, and so on). I'm certainly honored by the recognition and own a sizable enough ego to take more than a little pleasure in it. But all month long I've been chewing on that word "influential."
My first thought, given how often "influence" is wedded with "peddling" nowadays, shading the word with shadiness, was that it paints me as some stage-door Bo Pilgrim, passing out $10,000 checks on the floor of the Austin Critics Table Awards ceremony to ensure that companies stage only the plays I want. Less laughably, the word recalls our collective notion of the critic who can close a show or keep it running on the strength of a review. That brand of influence, however, has only ever held much sway, if any, in the commercial theatre of New York. For the nonprofit productions that dominate our nation's stages (certainly Austin's), a pan has no power to shut a show down; the run is fixed before the curtain goes up. Still, some argue, a review can influence a local show's attendance. Possibly, though the only evidence I've been given is anecdotal, and I've just as many anecdotes about raves that put no butts in seats and negative notices that did nada to shows doing boffo at the box office. And I apparently have no more clout with the companies than with their audiences, as I've yet to be consulted about what plays they should mount, despite my having no shortage of opinions. All of which leaves me wondering where this alleged critical influence lies.
Perhaps it owes less to changing what people do than what they think. When I consider our theatre scene's strong reputation around the nation – and Austin most definitely has one – it's built upon the wealth of original theatre being generated here: through nationally recognized troupes like the Rude Mechanicals and Salvage Vanguard Theater; through FronteraFest, Fusebox Festival, and ScriptWorks; and through the programs in the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance and the Michener Center for Writers. And if there's a thread that runs through my 25 years of writing about theatre here, it's new work – building awareness of it, advocating for it, exploring its creation, and recognizing its successes. I can't take credit for the plays or the growth and vitality of the scene, but repeatedly writing about how essential new work is and how seriously it deserves to be taken, I've perhaps influenced how audiences and artists think about new work. They treat it like it matters just as much as an Othello or Oklahoma!, and when playwrights here have gone on to do significant work elsewhere – think Lisa D'Amour, Sharon Bridgforth, Dan Dietz, Kirk Lynn, Daniel Alexander Jones, John Walch – they've gone possessing a sense of worth about their work drawn from this community's support.
That message about new work wouldn't have had much impact had it not been reiterated and enlarged upon over many years. The value of a critic, in theatre or any discipline, deepens over time, with the growth of that person's knowledge of the field and the community he's covering. When critics are around long enough to develop a sense of history and scope, a grasp of what's been created, where it fits, and what's missing, they can offer so much more than a thumb up or down for a particular show. They can tell a bigger story: the story of the scene that made that show. In this new media era when everyone can post their opinions, that's what the professional critic in it for the long haul can still offer: a perspective broadened through commitment and years. To the extent that I've had that, I owe Chronicle Editor Louis Black and Publisher Nick Barbaro. Without their ongoing support, I wouldn't be here.
Or be officially influential. Now excuse me while I follow up on a suggestion from designer Michael Raiford: to get myself a T-shirt that reads "Now when I say you suck, it means something."