Criticism: is there a better way?

I think a lot of folks rarely pause to ponder the state of arts criticism in this town. Probably because there’s not a lot of it around. When there’s a review of a play or a concert or a visual art show in the Missoulian, I usually write it (and I can’t cover everything). The Independent runs some criticism as well; this week, for example, they reviewed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” thus making it that rare week when one play gets two published reviews in this town (I ran a review yesterday in this blog, which will run Friday in the paper).

I could be blind or unaware, but I’ve not seen much in-depth online criticism elsewhere in town; and neither TV nor radio offers any that I’ve ever come across. Ditto New West and the Kaimin.

Missoula doesn’t have a full-time theatre critic, unlike Seattle (which has at least two, that I know of), Los Angeles (which has several), or New York (which has more theatre critics than Missoula has hippies). There’s actually good reason we don’t have a full-timer around here: With only three local theatre companies even aspiring toward professional standards (Montana Rep, MRM Missoula, and Montana Actors’ Theatre), and a smattering of touring companies coming through town (MT Shakespeare in the Parks, etc.), we have — at best — only about a dozen productions a year that would demand critical assessment. (I’d love it if my “full-time” job was to write a dozen reviews in a year, but that ain’t gonna happen.)

The headlines lately out of some of America’s big cities, however, would seem to indicate that our urban brethren are on a trajectory toward Missoula’s conditions. A story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday chronicled the losses in that one city’s community of critics: positions at the LA Weekly, the L.A. Daily News, the Daily Breeze, and Variety have all gone away in recent months.

Interestingly, the people most alarmed at this trend seem to be the ostensible targets of criticism: the major theatres in town. From the story:

Earlier this month, theater leaders from the Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse and Center Theatre Group wrote a letter to the L.A. Times, defending the need for theater critics and writers in Los Angeles.

The LA Times story goes on to ponder what new forms of criticism might come about, to replace the professional criticism that is being lost.

I find all this hubub interesting from afar, and it gets me wondering: What models might help generate more conversation about the qualities of productions and concerts and shows here in Missoula?

Would people be interested in reading (or listening to, or viewing) other forms of criticism besides one reporter’s opinions….such as audience-reaction reports, or online polls, or…?

I know that most of the arts groups in town would love to see more thoughtful discussion of their work out in the community; even when I am most critical in my writing, I almost always get thanks from those groups for marking the legitimacy of their efforts with my thoughts.

My efforts on this blog have occasionally led to some interesting discussions; but more often, people read (according to the blog’s stats, anyway) but don’t comment.

I’m truly open for potshots or criticism leveled my direction here: Am I doing it wrong? Are there better or more interesting ways to build conversation?

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