The Critics Have Their Critics

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Who decides whether a play, concert or dance performance gets reviewed in The Post and whether the review is favorable? Readers complain about the absence of a review, an unfavorable one, or a review they think is given insufficient length or prominence.

Post Arts Editor John Pancake says the chief critics, all based in Style, decide what to review and who will review it -- a staff writer or a freelancer. A critic's job is to be, well, critical. While culturally sophisticated people can disagree, the critics' decisions to review and the review itself are The Post's guide to readers in the performing arts. The critics also write news and feature stories.

Chief theater critic Peter Marks wants almost all professional theater to be reviewed; The Post does not review amateur theater except in Metro's Extra sections. He said, "We're very liberal about the definition of professional. It can mean everything from a well-known company such as Shakespeare Theatre Company to a small, proven troupe such as Catalyst Theater to a virtual startup like Constellation Theatre. We even sent a reviewer to Active Cultures' recent musical revue in tribute to, of all things, the history of microbiology."

Marks, who came to The Post in 2002 after a decade at the New York Times, said he "may skip a production by some company for reasons of track-record quality. It's a matter sometimes of resources."

Guy Burdick of Alexandria recently asked: "Why does Peter Marks write so many reviews of shows at New York City theaters? . . . It strikes me as a disservice to area theatergoers, especially those interested in local and regional theater." Post theater critics do review major New York openings. "They have a significant impact on what audiences in the rest of the nation eventually will see," said Marks, who has written six pieces from New York since August.

Chief dance critic Sarah Kaufman, at The Post since 1996, is one of the few dance critics on a newspaper staff. Kaufman studied ballet and began writing about it in college; she has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

"Basically we cover just about everything. It has to be professional dance. We pick the best quality and most interesting of what's offered," she said. Among the freelancers are specialists in modern dance, folk dance and flamenco. Kaufman covers all forms of dance.

One reader complained that a freelance reviewer, Sarah Halzack, danced with a local company and therefore had a conflict of interest. Kaufman and Halzack, a Post copy aide, said she does not review a performance when she has more than a passing acquaintance with the choreographer or a performer. That standard applies to all critics.

Chief classical music critic Tim Page said, "We make it to most of the local choruses, smaller orchestras and chamber groups at least once a year, while giving full attention to the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony and the Washington Opera." Page will take a leave of absence to teach for part of next year; Anne Midgette, formerly of the New York Times, will fill in.

A McLean reader complained recently that the National Philharmonic isn't regularly reviewed, and Hans Tuch of Bethesda was distressed by the short review a new opera received. The Post tries to cover the smaller local orchestras -- Fairfax, Arlington, Prince George's -- at least once a year, Page said. "We've covered the National Philharmonic at least five times in 2007, and we get to as much as we can at Strathmore."

The new opera, by John Musto and Mark Campbell, was "Later the Same Evening: An Opera Inspired by Five Paintings of Edward Hopper"; it was performed by the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. Page said that the short advance story and review the opera received were a matter of time and resources.

"Unfortunately, almost every musical event that takes place in the D.C. area, except the NSO's opening night, happens between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and we have only a limited amount of space," Page said. NSO concerts are repeated, so the first night is reviewed in the next day's paper for readers considering a later performance. Most reviews run two to three days after a performance.

Page said, "If somebody would start a truly first-class Monday night series, it would almost invariably be covered. The same thing is true with anything that happens in late July or August."

J. Freedom du Lac, chief pop music critic, said he tries "to strike a balance between what's popular and what's interesting, important or otherwise noteworthy. I also pay attention to range, making sure that there's stylistic diversity on the schedule. It's an inexact science, but I think we usually wind up with a pretty good mix.

"In January, for instance, I'm writing about the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana tween-pop concert at the Verizon Center, as it's a major cultural event -- and I'm also sending myself to the Black Cat to review Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, a superlative rhythm-and-blues band that's struggled to find a broad audience. Also on our coverage agenda are rapper Lupe Fiasco, the old folkie Richard Thompson, Japanese electro-rocker Cornelius, bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs, and jazzman Cyrus Chestnut."

None of the critics see it as their jobs to promote the discipline they review. Kaufman said: "Critics should not be in the business of boosterism." Marks doesn't subscribe to the idea that only a positive review is supportive. "On a night when the script feels slack or the choreography misses the mark, I can often still find a performance to write about admiringly. I hope that readers who stick with me for more than one or two reviews understand that I love the form even when I don't like the play."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

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