Texas Tech University

Sharpening Critical Acumen

Mark Charney

October 27, 2021

Mark Charney

For nearly thirty years, I have trained critics or participated in teaching how best to respond critically to dance, film, theatre, and yes, even food alongside Chris Jones from the Chicago Tribune (among others). I always teach that written reviews of theatre and dance make the ephemeral permanent. To translate: after a production finishes its run, it only exists in the memory of those who experienced it, but excellent critiques that capture the essence of a production preserve it for posterity.

I begin most days reading reviews of shows I have never seen (or may never see) by my favorite critics: Sarah Kaufman from The Washington Post; Chris Jones and Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune; Bob Mondello from NPR; Diep Tran, formally from American Theatre; and Chris Klimek from City Paper in DC. Each of these critics writes so well that, after reading their reviews, I feel I have been a member of the audience myself, that I can share their experience of a play or dance without actually traveling to New York, Washington, London, or Chicago.  

One of the major focuses of the School of Theatre & Dance here at Texas Tech is criticism, not only writing critiques but also sharpening their critical acumen--reminding them that theatre and dance often begin with a text; without the necessary skills to analyze text, we cannot as successfully dance, perform, direct, or design. Of course, while script analysis is a great place to begin, producing good art is also trusting and finetuning instinct, looking for what the text provides, and, just as importantly, what it doesn't. Criticism then, helps us create and preserve art; it offers a way in, a means of probing, analyzing, and finally, understanding, especially difficult art.

All the works offered in our 2020-21 season, Awakenings, challenge us as artists and audiences. I appreciate the work of the season selection committee because the plays they selected inspire us to discuss, argue… critique. None of the works this year offers easy answers, and that's just fine. In fact, it's more than fine: difficult art supports the mission of a university program intent on education. We must ask the hard questions, and, hopefully, these encourage healthy responses. 

Playwright Tony Kushner appreciates challenging work, as he expresses in his article, “The Art of the Difficult”: “Brave art is the best sense we can make of the noise of our times, and to fail to understand it is to fail to be fully human, and when one fails, we all fail. A world in which such work is met with incomprehension is a world that must be changed.” He writes that difficult art, art that posits no easy answers, art that makes us think, argue, and reflect demands a “better world, a world that can understand them.”

This season thus far in our School illustrates just how much critical analysis can contribute to meaning in a production that may be challenging to understand, whether emotionally or intellectually. The production that opened our season, for example, Lauren Yee's in a word (beautifully directed by Sarah Lehmann), offers several scenarios that ask audiences to confront the loss of a child, relying heavily on our understanding of language. The humor, pathos, and resolution in Yee's script encourage the audience to recognize the shifting nature of language, reminding us that words carry multiple meanings, that a slight linguistic shift results in a new way of assessing truth (if “truth” even exists alongside grief).

Mike Lew's Bike America subverts the “road motif” (think Jack Kerouac and On the Road), reversing traditional gender roles on a bike ride across the nation, narrated by a quirky, strong, and charismatic young woman who strains to understand just how much control she has over her narrative. Directed innovatively by Dr. Bill Gelber in our most intimate space, the new Studio Performance Lab, Bike America encourages audiences to explore America in through a new lens.  And I dare say, both director Jesse Jou's upcoming production of Spring Awakening and the senior dance majors who create the original choreography in our Fall Dance Festival will introduce audiences to physical, musical, and experimental means to make sense of the complex issues that define the world around us.

With all its myriad meanings and applications, criticism helps us to discover meaning in art that may initially resist interpretation, before and after the fact, encouraging us to reconsider our world and often to rediscover our place within it. Mind you, in no way does this appreciation for the difficult dismiss the need for or enjoyment of works that seek primarily to entertain. More than ever, entertainment that transports us away from the noise of our world is just as valuable and necessary as art that challenges. With all forms of theatre and dance, however, criticism that helps unlock the mysteries of a chosen text or piece of choreography, and in some very special cases, may lead us to reshape our very identities.  

Tony Kushner challenges the reader in his article by asking a question: “Difficult art attempts a miracle by asking a multitude, ‘Do you, in spite of everything that separates you from one another, and from the better angels of your own natures, in spite of an insufficiency of clues, do you collectively understand this?'” He goes on to assert that “when on occasion the answer is yes, the universe seems suffused again with a moral presence, with communality of purpose, with spirit. If seems a far less lonely thing to be alive.”

Weighty claims indeed, and yeah, even aspirational ones.  

But shouldn't art aspire, as much as it inspires? The School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech believes that art is a part of our moral, intellectual, and spiritual development. Critical analysis is one of the keys to this development, dissecting the enigmas of art in the hopes of reaching both an individual and collective understanding of the world around us.