During a Cap Times Talk Tuesday night at Madison's Bartell Theatre, a panel of local artists and critics discussed positive and negative reviews and a lack of diversity in the theater community.
The panel was moderated by Cap Times theater critic Lindsay Christians.
In general, the panelists agreed that critical reviews, positive or negative, still matter to readers and can affect both artists and audiences.
“For us to get to a point where we think that critical voices don't matter and that they aren't an important part of this conversation, that they don't have something different to say, it's taking anti-elitism and turning it into faux populism,” said Mike Fischer, theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Fischer added critics tend to develop a hardened exterior and are tough on what they see out of love and respect for the art.
Dana Pellebon, Madison-based director and actor, said reviews are important and help a production with publicity, but can also help artists grow.
"It's a great way to learn. To be able to expand that and learn what other people are seeing, what things I agree with, what things I don't," Pellebon said. "I think is an important tool."
Sara Young, director of communications for American Players Theatre, said critics open up conversations and give voice to the audience, which is important as a marketer.
In terms of positive and negative reviews, Sarah Marty, producing artistic director for Four Seasons Theatre, believes people are more swayed by a positive review. Marty said when she sees a good review for her show, she is most likely to encourage e-mail newsletter subscribers to share it with their friends, spurring ticket sales.
On the other hand, Aaron Conklin, theater critic for Madison Magazine, emphasized it's not the job of critics to promote shows.
“I have encountered certain companies that think we are there as unofficial (public relations). That's frustrating, because we are trained journalists," Conklin said. "We're not marketers."
Cat Capellaro, who is arts editor at Isthmus and a former producer herself, said she had heard the director for one of her plays in New York urge actors not to read reviews for fear it might affect their work on stage.
Young admitted that the marketing team at APT tries very hard to shelter actors from reviews, but it gets difficult to do so with social media.
Pellebon said the best review she got was a bad one because she learned from it.
“Several of us on the team had really big egos ... and we got a little bit of reality injected, reminded us to humble ourselves," Pellebon said. "I wouldn’t have known my first works were awful if i didn’t have feedback."
Pellebon added it's important to tell the truth without being mean. Conklin agreed and said this comes with trust in in the critic’s honesty and appreciation for the art.
In response to Chicago Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss’ review of “Pass Over,” where she used tone deaf problematic language, some panelists agreed with the theater owners who signed a petition to deny her free tickets to future productions.
“If you are racist and sexist in the review, I am going against you," Pellebon said. "When you are representing a large media outlet and you are using language and tone that continues to perpetrate violence, I will absolutely call you out on it."
Although Fischer did not support Weiss’ approach in the review, he disagreed with the way theaters reacted.
“We know there are people out there thinking what she wrote — Let's engage that instead of turning it down. [She is] one of the the only female critics in the country of that stature," Fischer said. "If this had been a man, I’m not sure that the blowback would have been as bad."
Panelists concluded with the acknowledgment that there is a need for more women and people of color as critics.
Pellebon stated that the best way to get more diverse critics is by engaging with people of color.
“Are you doing a show black people care about? So why should they show up? Engaging the community means you engage in their culture and language,” Pellebon said.