Do we really need theater critics? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Do we really need theater critics? 

Now that Kris Vire's out at Time Out, Chicago print media has just one full-time theater critic.

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click to enlarge Kris Vire

Kris Vire

Martha Williams

Last week, Time Out eliminated the job of senior editor and critic Kris Vire.

That left Chicago—with its more than 200 theater companies and a reputation as the best theater city in the country—with one full-time print publication staff critic (that would be the Tribune's Chris Jones).

Vire's axing, after 11 years on staff, was part of a broader company cutback, he said, though he was the only one affected in the Chicago office. Time Out Chicago had launched in 2005 with a weekly print magazine and an online presence, but went digital-only in 2013; in 2015 the print magazine was resurrected as a quarterly. Theater reviews, however, remained exclusively online. Even so, Vire said, in recent years, as the staff shrank and his duties expanded, he'd been publishing fewer than ten reviews a month.

"That's so far from ideal," he lamented. "In April I had 49 theater openings on my calendar. It almost felt like maybe we should not do this at all rather than do it so lightly."

The fact is that arts coverage and the journalism jobs that go with it have been vanishing for a while. "The first major die-off was in the early 2000s, as the Internet started to take hold," said Douglas McLennan, the Seattle-based founder and editor of the online Arts Journal, a daily digest of English-language arts and culture reporting. "Over a period of about six years, about half of the staff arts journalism jobs at newspapers went away. Then, around 2009, during the economic downturn, there was another big slashing of arts coverage." Now, he says, in the last six to nine months, we've been seeing "the third kill."

"You have cities now where there's basically no arts writing at the major dailies," McLennan said. "What's interesting is that, for the most part, the arts community has not rallied around trying to get more or better coverage." Why not? "From their perspective, critics are unreliable, arts reporters are unreliable, and they've found that they can drive ticket sales on social media," McLennan explained. "They like advance stories, because those direct people to things that are coming up. Reviews, not so much."

There's a lot of interesting arts writing on numerous new websites, and less of the old-style boosterism, McLennan said, but those sites are typically not seen by a larger audience and may not perform the oversight function of beat reporting. And most of the writing is being done by freelancers without much hope of making a living at it.

I wondered what dire effect this might be having on Northwestern's Medill School arts journalism program, but discovered that the school doesn't have one. Professor Charles Whitaker, who'll take over as interim dean July 1, told me Medill offers an arts writing class for undergrads and an occasional opportunity for graduate students to focus on the arts for an intensive week, but no dedicated arts writing program.

"Medill's traditional approach has been to teach the fundamentals of journalism, which students can apply to any topic," Whitaker said. More recently they've added specializations for graduate students in areas like social justice, business, sports, and science. But not the arts, he said, mostly because no one on the faculty had specialized in that area.

So what does that say about the future of arts journalism?

"The question for arts journalism is, what is the role of the critic in contemporary society?" Whitaker said. "Critics are no longer the influential arbiters of taste that they once were. People are turning to Facebook and their friends to determine where to spend their arts dollars. The role of the critic has been democratized by the fact that everyone has an opportunity to be an influencer, via their own media channels."

Vire hopes to return to covering theater in Chicago. "I believe that theater reviews have so many functions," he said. "They're an historical record; they have value for advancing the careers of playwrights, directors, and actors, and for theater companies applying for grants. They're important beyond how many people click on them. But I don't know what the future holds. I feel like we've gone too far counting clicks to be able to go back."   v

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