Over the weekend, a post popped up in my newsfeed from the Festival of Independent Theatres. "...Elaine Liner suggests that we be put out of our misery. Do you agree? We welcome your thoughts on the matter!" It linked to her stage column this week, which bears the heady title, "Is it Time to Bring the Curtain Down on Festival of Indie Theatres?"
Obviously, the response was overwhelmingly in support of the festival given the conversation's venue. Everyone who replied to the thread was involved in the theater community, most of them working for or acting in a production at this year's festival. The thread appeared in my newsfeed several more times throughout the weekend, whether posted by critics or actors, in groups like "D-FW Theater" -- an open group dedicated to just such dialogue.
The discussion varied from the quality of shows to the responsibilities of the critic to personal attacks (most of which were quickly taken down). Commenters were furious, frustrated and personally injured. "How dare she!" seemed to be the shared sentiment of the conversation.
It happens a lot in criticism: the actors, artists, dancers being criticized hear the negative opinion and blame the writer. In this case, it seems that an immediate disagreement with the method caused a permanent discounting of the message. What is clear from reading Liner's dispatches from the festival is that she didn't enjoy it, and this is going on year three of her inability to find a show that can redeem the amount of time she spends sweating in the Bath House Cultural Center, so instead of writing a review of the shows, she gives her opinions on the festival in its entirety. And, the way she describes it, there was a time when she really loved FIT.
Language is a powerful tool. Anyone in the theater knows this. But a conversation that's one-sided, in which a festival only receives praise, is not a conversation at all, it's a monologue. Theater people know this too. What I liked seeing this weekend was the buzz of activity about something a critic wrote. But what seemed telling was the lack of participation outside of the theater community. What is a theater without an audience? Maybe that's the conversation we should be having. Where are all the new audience members at FIT?
Or we could talk about how wonderful it is that the city of Dallas still funds a theater festival that this year had eight brand new plays. It's a work in progress, sure, but what can we do to improve it so that next year critics and audience members alike will have an even better festival? Is it acceptable that it's still inconsistent after 16 years? Is theater here in a constant state of flux? There are numerous ways the conversation could've been directed with Liner's article as a starting point.
But let's not confuse the role of theater critic, which is not -- and has never been -- to create an audience for work or cheerlead, but to offer an opinion that promotes dialogue, positive or negative about the work.
Did you see the shows at FIT this year? Share your thoughts below.