Gone, Critic, Gone: What Happened to the Valley’s Theater & Arts Critics?

Robrt L. PelaJuly 7, 2022
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Once teeming with full-time theater, art and music critics, the Valley now has a vanishing handful. Who – if anyone – is filling the gap?

Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration by Dan Page

It’s a warm Saturday evening sometime in the early 1990s. 

I’m standing at the foot of that marble staircase in the lobby of Herberger Theater Center, surrounded by other drama critics: Betty Webb from The Scottsdale Progress, Chris Curcio of The Arizona Republic, the Mesa Tribune’s Max McQueen, Phoenix Gazette columnist Christopher McPherson. It’s intermission, and we’re talking about anything but the first act of the play we’ve just seen – maybe something by August Wilson, or an umpteenth production of Cabaret, or some kicky new musical from Actors Theatre. There’s an unspoken rule among us: We don’t share notes at intermission. We chat instead about the weather, groan about deadlines. We admire one another’s shoes.

Looking back, I wonder: Did we really work as full-time critics? Did people actually care what we had to say?

It was another world. These days, critics – here and in other cities both large and small – are going the way of affordable real estate and Russian oligarchs, replaced by glorified PR flacks too lazy to run Spellcheck. More often, we’re not replaced at all.

A few of us remain, mostly at the Republic, where pop-culture critic Bill Goodykoontz sometimes writes TV and movie criticism, Ed Masley opines about popular music and Andi Berlin reviews restaurants. Phoenix New Times, where for 30 years I wrote cultural criticism, offers food writing, but no theater, restaurant or visual arts critics. Nor do the hyperlocal publications that make up the East Valley Tribune chain. For decades, these papers offered fully staffed culture sections – in the late 1990s, for instance, the total number of full-time reporters who covered theater, film, dining and the various arts was close to two dozen. Today, those pages and the women and men who filled them with thoughts and observations are almost entirely gone. 

The how and why of this is, by now, old news: Fewer people of any age are engaging with print media, so advertisers are spending less on print. As publishers cut page counts and trim staffs, arts coverage and critics are typically the first to go. Even The New York Times’ vaunted arts section has jettisoned talent, “quietly [ending] its coverage of restaurants, art galleries, theaters and other commercial and nonprofit businesses” in pursuit of nonlocal readership, according to a 2016 Deadline article.

The few professional culture and art critics who remain in the Valley must now compete with amateur bloggers and influencers, a new breed of anti-critic with wee writing chops and often scant knowledge of the subject they’re commenting on. Restaurant owners often pay food influencers to visit and enthuse about specific entrées, while theater companies have taken to asking for online “reviews” from audience members. 

All of this is terrible, but this last one makes me want to throw myself in front of a bus – not because I miss hanging out by the stairs at the Herberger with a bunch of like-minded people, but because I’m watching critical thinking and culture reporting being replaced by paid shills and amateurs who reflexively endorse everything they see, hear or taste.

“I saw Justice on Saturday night and it was phenomenal!” an Arizona Theatre Company patron posted on the troupe’s Facebook page in April. “Powerful messages delivered musically and the wry humor. Lauren Gunderson is a genius playwright and Chanel Bragg’s voice blew us away.”

This isn’t criticism. It’s a platitude, a chestnut. I’m thrilled that people buy tickets to plays and then get “blown away” by them. But I suspect playwright Gunderson had something larger in mind.

That group by the stairs? Our editors relied on us to know which show to see, and how to tell whether its intent was realized, or its leading lady properly cast. Readers put their faith in us, and artistic directors needed us to inform the community they were having another go at Our Town. 

There are a handful of indie efforts out there, covering the performing arts. PHXstages.com offers theater reviews by local bloggers, and former theater critic Kerry Lengel has launched a YouTube channel about local dance and musical theater. But for the most part, I’ve watched traditional, critical thinkers disappear, usually because the paper they wrote for folded, or their column got canceled. Sometimes, they bolt for jobs in other industries, escaping a foundering jobsite that’s collapsing around them. Others storm off in a huff, despondent that their critical thinking skills have been replaced by “likes” and emojis.

Former Valley arts critic Betty Webb on stage at ASU Kerr Cultural Center; photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Former Valley arts critic Betty Webb on stage at ASU Kerr Cultural Center; photo by Mirelle Inglefield

If the measurement of culture comes down to popularity or revenue, the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed “best,” without benefit of the scrutiny that goes into proper criticism. There’s a price to pay for the vacuum we’re creating by killing off cultural criticism and replacing it with the “Mmmmm!” of a TikTok influencer paid by a kebab vendor to eat garlic yogurt on camera.

In my darker moments, I wonder if anyone cares – or if they should. In an age where most of us get headlines and opinions from Facebook, are cultural critics even necessary? And has the transfer of arts writing from print to the viral salon of the blogosphere even been noticed? I call one of my old theater critic confreres, Betty Webb, to ask how we got here.

“It started with the loss of good journalism,” Betty reminds me. “There are still good journalists out there, but they no longer have places to work. Blogs are biased by the writer’s experience of the world, and there’s no editor there to catch the writer if he’s screwed up.”

I tell Betty – who left newspapers years ago to write mystery novels, among them the popular Lena Jones series about a Scottsdale private eye – that I worry American culture will be changed by this loss. She doesn’t disagree.

“But it’s too late to undo any of it,” Betty says. “Accountants are controlling what used to be a wonderful industry, and their concern is how much money the stockholders get, not culture or truth or morality.”

I wonder if my old friend Richard Nilsen will think so, too. Richard wrote about art and performance for the Republic for years, until they bought him out in 2012, because who needs an arts scholar these days? Richard taught art history in the 1980s and told me once he thought of his writing career as an extension of his classroom teaching.

I call Richard and tell him about the woman I interviewed last year who swore no one cares about food criticism anymore, they just want to see her smiling and eating an empanada on her TikTok feed. Richard sighs.

“The critic as someone who keeps the conversation about culture in the public eye is no more,” Richard says. For him, criticism was always about two things: educating his readers and spending real time with the art or music he was writing about.

“I didn’t think you should go look at ‘The Death of Marat’ and then say, ‘I like this picture, it’s neat.’ I wanted a wider-ranging discussion, and to teach. Someone doing a Yelp review isn’t going to be able to do either.”

PHOENIX restaurant critic Nikki Buchanan groans when I mention Yelp reviews. She tells me she hates how being critical has been demonized.

“To be analytical is now considered harmful,” says Nikki, who has written about food and reviewed local restaurants for nearly four decades. “When I review a restaurant, I represent my reader. But these bloggers and influencers aren’t representing anyone. For them, food writing is about championing the restaurant. Every chef must have his ass kissed. If you say bad things, you’re just a bitch. It’s so…”

“Playground?” I interrupt.

“Yes!” Nikki laughs. “You have to put that in your story: ‘It’s all so playground!’”

Nikki worries that anyone overhearing us would think we’re a couple of crotchety old people whose jobs are irrelevant.

“But then maybe we are,” she says. “And if there’s no place for me to write about how a restaurant or a food trend fits into a larger context, then it’s time for me to hang up my hat. I’m done. I can’t reinvent myself and do that other thing.”

I figure Kerry Lengel will be able to explain that other thing to me. He wrote for the Gazette and the Republic for 25 years, most notably as a theater critic, and left in 2020 to get a master’s in Liberal Studies. He recently launched a YouTube channel where he airs This is Not a Review, a neatly produced video series that promotes local performance. I ask Kerry if this is what’s replacing what we used to do, but first he wants to talk about when things started to change for critics.

“During the last few years, my Republic editors started wanting a minimum of 500 page views per story,” he recalls. “Then it was 2,500 views. The value of writing about theater became about numbers and not about informing or critiquing.”

It was around that time that Kerry began to think that newspapers were keeping traditional criticism alive not because it was relevant or popular, but because the institution was bound by habit.

“Our board was a lot of rich white people who cared about the arts,” he says. “I think they thought readers would complain if critics went away. But that era of readership had already passed.”

Kerry doesn’t think criticism is dying. “It’s moving to a new ecosystem,” he says. “It will make a comeback through other mediums, like podcasts or YouTube. In the meantime, there’s a vacuum that will be filled by younger, more innovative thinkers who aren’t stuck with all the ideas about criticism that you and I got stuck with.”

Honestly, I’d always assumed theater companies were relieved that Kerry and I and other critics were out of jobs, until Black Theatre Troupe artistic director David Hemphill sets me straight.

“Even a bad review let people know we had a new production,” David tells me. “Now we’re back to putting flyers on windshields to promote our next show. It’s just miserable.”

David’s theater audience is older and less likely to see the promotional videos that some companies place on social media platforms, he explains. He worries that the lack of critical coverage would keep theaters from growing artistically. Soon, he confides, companies like Black Theatre Troupe won’t be able to afford to try new things, opting instead for sure-fire ticket-sellers that don’t challenge audiences. Or worse.

“If no one writes about us, no one may know we’re here,” David says. “If black theaters close, there’s less opportunity for people to see plays about black lives. Which would be horrible.”

Other theater companies seem more immune to the dearth of press coverage. Over at Stray Cat Theatre, known for experimental productions with generally young audiences, artistic director Ron May says business is good, in part because his patrons are more engaged in social media.

“We attract a younger audience that will jump onto social media after they see a show to say, ‘I saw this play before you did!’” Ron says. “Then their followers might go, ‘We want to be cool and fun, too.’ So, they come see our new show.”

Ron tells me how, during Stray Cat’s first season, my positive review of his production of John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids allowed him to extend its run. I don’t remember this, though I certainly recall how theaters sometimes added performances because of something Betty or Max or Christopher had written.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Ron says. “Your show doesn’t get extended from an audience member’s rave on Instagram.”

He admits he misses thoughtful writing about plays. “But the truth is, a lot of people won’t read a long, brilliantly constructed essay. They want something flashier.”

These days, Ron gets his drama critic fix from Vulture’s Helen Shaw and Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune. He keeps up with local theater on PHXStages.com, where bloggers Gil Benbrook and Herbert Paine review Phoenix troupes. These guys are as close as we get to theater critics these days, Ron says.

“I follow a number of really great theatrical minds on Twitter, too,” he says, “a lot of younger voices who are old-school and more thoughtful. Theater writing hasn’t gone away, it’s where it’s found that’s shifted.”

That’s not necessarily the case for art exhibits, according to Tiffany Fairall, the chief curator at Mesa Contemporary Arts at Mesa Arts Center.

“We’re getting some TV news coverage,” she says, “but online coverage is mostly nonexistent and never anything of depth. They email a list of questions for me to answer about an exhibit, but there’s no follow-up, no digging deeper and never anything critical.”

Forget the lost publicity, Tiffany suggests. “How about that we’re not centering the discussion of culture with experts or critical thinkers? Those guys worked at newspapers. If print media is dead, is criticism dead, too? I hope not.”

While visual and performing arts critics are lining up for unemployment insurance, internet food writers are thriving. There’s nothing new about people caring less about Shakespeare than where to find a funnel cake, but lately I’ve begun wondering if most folks notice the difference between a food critic and an influencer who’s paid to peddle pommes frites. Or if they care.

Chelsey Hauston, the founder of a food blog called Let Them Eat This, confesses that people don’t often mistake her for a food critic.

“When they do, it’s usually older people,” she says. “I always tell them, ‘I’m an awareness campaign.’ I go try restaurants and if I don’t like a place, I won’t post about it.”

Chelsey, who always makes it plain when she’s been paid to write a glowing review, thinks modern diners might care more about atmosphere than cuisine. “People love neon lights where they can take selfies,” she explains. “Maybe the food is garbage, but nowadays people care about the experience and not about what a critic who went to culinary school said about what they serve there.”

She once shot a video of a local baker making a cheesecake. She calls this “process porn” because people love seeing how things are made.

“I posted the video, and within an hour they were sold out of cheesecake,” she confides. “With a food critic, you don’t get that. People don’t read these days. They don’t even read the titling I put in my videos telling them where the restaurant is located.”

Readers don’t care who the content comes from, either, according to Sarah Eikner from the Geeks Who Eat blog.

“They want to be told what to like,” she says. “I mean, charcoal ice cream was a thing! You had influencers doing selfies holding a bowl of black ice cream that tasted awful, and everyone ran out and bought it. What was that?”

That, according to Diana Brandt, was someone trying to go viral.

“There’s a lot of showing off in my business,” says Brandt, a big-deal local pay-for-play influencer known as AZFoodie. “There are people who only care about being seen, and don’t really care whether they’re posting anything useful about the place they’re reviewing.”

Brandt, who briefly tried her hand at glossy food journalism with AZ Foodie Magazine in 2017, remembers feeling animosity from old-school food critics when she was first getting started.

“They hated me,” she says. “But I’ve never thought of myself as taking anyone’s job. I suck at writing, I’m not a journalist or a food critic. I’m a professional food eater.”

Plenty of people know the difference, John D’Anna believes.

“My kids are in their late 20s,” says John, a former Republic editor of nearly 30 years. “But I’m not sure they’re swayed by all this shallow stuff posted by influencers. I think they see it for what is: a scam, a bombardment of information about things they don’t really care about.”

Now a senior news director at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in northern California, John likes to give influencers the benefit of the doubt.

“I do think some of them are doing the whole ‘persuade, inform, entertain’ thing that journalists were trained to do. And, really, American culture has always been rife with anti-intellectualism, always rejected egghead scholars in favor of popular opinion.”

John tries to assure me that influencers won’t replace traditional criticism. “They won’t have the longevity because they don’t have the same level of talent,” he says. “I think people will always gravitate toward talent and away from uninformed opinions.”

I want to believe him, but while we’re talking, I receive an email from a man named Joe who wants me to come review his new play.

“I haven’t reviewed theater in nearly five years,” I reply to Joe. “Hadn’t you noticed?”

“No, he hadn’t,” art critic Kathleen Vanesian says when I call to complain about Joe’s request.

“People don’t want to know anything anymore,” says Kathleen, a retired art critic who wrote for New Times, ArtNews and a host of other arts publications. “They want to be vessels into which TikTok videos are poured. There’s no time for analysis.”

We talk for a while about whether people are gravitating to social media because they’re less literate, or if it’s the other way around.

“Do people care that they’re reading an amateur opinion versus a thoughtful essay written by an expert?” I practically plead. “What about the long-term damage to our ability to reason?”

In other words, not just our ability to discern between a bad painting and a good painting – but between a good law and a bad law. Or a news item someone is trying to foist on us. Or common sense in general.

Kathleen is quiet for a while.

“This whole thing about whether cultural criticism is dead?” she finally says. “It’s not an answerable question. And it’s so depressing, I want to cry.”