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This was the impetus: One of Washington City Paper‘scritics saw a play there, reacted strongly during the first act, tweeted about it during intermission, and then sat down for the rest of the performance. Later, several actors from the show who like to avoid reading reviews came across the social-media-delivered theater criticism, and registered complaints with the theater’s top brass. The theater wasn’t furious: It just hoped to hear what, exactly, was my tweeting policy. After all, it had credentialed the critic to review the play in City Paper‘s pages, not on social media.
So I leveled with the theater: I don’t have a policy on Twitter.
In this case, I told the theater in a second conversation, my critic was in the clear: The show had already opened, other publications’ reviews had run, and he was voicing an unusually visceral reaction to a button-pushing play. (By the way: I realize how annoyingly vague this all is, but I have three capital-C theater critics, two of them use Twitter, and if you want, you can probably figure it out.)
But criticism, like every form of written journalism, is no longer delivered solely via articles. Twitter is a huge boon to rock critics, who live-tweet shows. Movie critics are in a trickier position, since their reviews are explicitly embargoed. (Not that this stops them from tweeting snappy one-liners after a screening.)
It’s less clear-cut, I think, with theater. In Washington, critics are generally invited to a press performance over the weekend; the play will have already been in previews for a few days, and will “open” sometime early in the following week. Generally, there are no performances between the press showing and opening night, after which the reviews start appearing.
After the opening—-that’s a tradition that’s held since the days when critics weren’t let in to see a performance until opening night, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks reminded me last week. “I grew up in an environment where there are embargoes until opening night, and those seem to have developed as a way of putting everyone on a level playing field,” he said. “Those have changed for everyone except for official critics.”
Marks gave an example: He recently attended a press performance of The Pitmen Painters in New York, and found himself sitting behind Andy Cohen, who hosts the interview show “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo. “He tweeted right afterward,” Marks said. “I was not allowed to do that by the rules [critics] follow.”
Does the Post have rules for Twitter? “I don’t know a specific policy,” Marks said. “My standard, and I assume the paper’s standard, is I don’t tweet reviews.” Once the review runs, he’ll sometimes use his Twitter account to direct followers to the Post‘s website.
Marks isn’t a prolific tweeter. Two of Washington City Paper‘s critics are, though you generally won’t read their opinions until their reviews run. There are exceptions, like when they attended Shakespeare Theatre Company’s all-day press performance of the three-part The Great Game: Afghanistan at Harmon Hall recently. For the most part, their tweets had to do with the oddities and discomforts of being in the same room all day.
Maura Judkis, TBD’s theater reporter (and a former WCP contributor) was tweeting from the Harmon that day, too. Like me, her editor Andrew Beaujon (also formerly of WCP) doesn’t have a policy on tweeting from press performances. He said tweeting critical reactions could be problematic but said some kinds of tweets can be valuable. TBD’s theater tweets, he said, generally take a more experiential than critical approach. “[Judkis] doesn’t tweet reviews because she doesn’t do reviews, but she does tweet theater news,” Beaujon said, adding that she still brings a strong perspective: “She has a good critical voice.”
Beaujon said that for D.C. theaters, the issue is mostly an abstract one. “You don’t see that many people tweeting about theater anyway—it’s not really an audience that’s engaged in social media,” he said. “Theater has never had to think about Twitter. It’s hard for theaters or critics to think outside the 1,000-word review.”
He’s probably right. I contacted two theaters in town, and neither had a policy on Twitter. Here’s what Studio Theatre’s director for communications, Liane Jacobs,wrote:
We don’t currently have an official policy about tweeting except of course that The Studio Theatre does not allow the use of cell phones during performances out of respect for the actors and the audience.
That said, we aren’t fans of critics’ tweeting. We sincerely appreciate the well-considered reactions and opinions that a full review provides. Short, quick tweets, unlike full reviews, don’t allow the reviewer to put his or her response in a larger context.
At the beginning of our conversation, Alli Houseworth, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s communications and new media manager, said she and the theater weren’t completely comfortable with criticism in tweet form but that neither had come down definitively. “One can ask, What is the difference between a critic and Joe Schmoe tweeting? That’s sort of the world that we live in now and I don’t know the answer,” she said.
Then she stopped speaking for Woolly. “The radical part of my brain is like: Why don’t we encourage it?” she said. “I feel like—and I would have to ask permission before doing this—but I do sort of like that idea.”
That’s where I think I come down, too. By the time critics attend a press performance, a play is finished (insofar as it’s ever finished), and waiting until opening night to hit “publish” is a formality. Besides: I trust City Paper‘s critics to be as intelligent on Twitter as they are in a review. (And the latter medium reaches many more eyeballs than the former. If you follow theater critics on Twitter, you’re probably a pretty engaged consumer of theater. You’ll read the review anyway.)
And there’s something special, particularly in the case of a challenging work, about working out a critical opinion in real time.
The theater that originally called me agreed, at least partially. Its representative told me: “In this case it only generated more conversation, which is a good thing.”