“The Call To Criticism In Uncertain Times”

Kris Vire.

Kris Vire was laid off from Time Out Chicago this week. He was a senior editor, he covered theatre and LGBTQ events, and he had been writing for the outlet since its beginning in 2005. This blow to the artistic community feels wide-reaching. Vire’s reviews were thoughtful and succinct, and he championed shows big and small. Time Out plans to continue hosting theatre coverage, but how it will do so without a theatre editor on staff is unclear right now. Similar questions followed the ousting of Hedy Weiss at the Chicago Sun-Times in February. As of now, Chicago has one long-term critic still in print, Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune. More and more, criticism is curtailed in mainstream outlets, and the reviewing community is left wondering about our place in the city’s culture. Do we need critics and criticism? What is the critic’s value to the audience? What is the critic’s role in society? Is it okay to have one seminal critic reviewing shows big and small? How do we find critics enough work in a freelance system? Will the critic survive our current click-based publishing model?

Vire gave a great interview about his years-long tenure at Time Out to American Theatre Magazine, and I would highly recommend reading his analysis of the old guard reviewing and new model transition that marked his time there. The death of print media plays a factor in his career. He discusses how Time Out toggled back and forth between producing online content and publishing magazines, and how difficult it was to produce enough clickable content to justify hosting theatre features. Every news organization has been struggling with the transition from print to online media for years at this point. The focus now is capturing hard data about what people read. But do page views measure how valuable a piece of writing is for the reader?

I think about this a lot in regards to Theatre By Numbers. We try to review as many different types of productions as we receive invites for, and we take assignments through a random roll of the die in order to give every theatre company an equal opportunity to have their work seen. But so much of the value in this writing comes from how it is shared on the Internet. The more people who see a review, the more likely they might be to attend a given show. Theatre companies depend on press to sell tickets, and a good web presence is part of that relationship. So clicks matter here at TBN, too. They matter everywhere. Whether this model is sustainable becomes an open question, though, when people cannot keep their jobs, or the only way to work as a critic is to be paid in free tickets.

I firmly believe criticism is for other people: the artists and the audience. Critics evaluate the stories we tell so that we can get at the deeper questions about what makes us human. We build connections between reader and artist, and hopefully, give the reader a glimpse into what the artist is trying to accomplish. I do know not what model will sustain — rather than diminish — criticism as a form, but I believe criticism is an act of service, and I believe this bears repeating at such a precarious moment in our community. When reviews reach the public, and create a dialogue between artists and readers, I believe we are adding to the cultural conversation in our society. That has inherent value, even if we cannot measure it adequately.

“The Light” is by far the best show I have seen in 2018. The New Colony’s production was blistering and timely in its examination of what we owe to one another when moral grays enter our entertainment choices and our personal relationships. Theatre that reflects tough questions of the moment deserves to be championed. I loved writing about that show because I knew it contained lessons and reckoning for anyone who saw it. I told everyone I knew about it, and encouraged every theatergoer I talked with to buy a ticket. I knew that spreading the word was an act of service to the arts. Whether or not I convinced anyone is hard to say, but I know it was worth it for me as a critic.

Perhaps I am not enough of a big picture person for this industry. I cannot see whatever the next step is for critics to be able to sustain conversation without constant worry over losing clicks or losing employment. Right now the only response I can think of is for everyone to write more, to create more, to engage in dialogue more. I come from a place of privilege there, having TBN to foster and grow as an artistic home. But one of the best things about the switch to online media is that this platform has the ability to give those who have been previously unheard a voice. I may continually question my vision. I may doubt the current model. Yet I can’t help but see opportunities everywhere, if we can only figure out how to make them, and keep creating and asking hard questions. I know we can keep sharing. Perhaps we can find the solution together. And I hope that Kris Vire finds a new home soon. We need his voice in our community.