Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Becoming a Professional

Although I've been a theater critic for a few years now, and although I get paid to do it, I often have a hard time believing that what I do is "real" -- as in, a legitimate, grown-up job. Part of this undoubtedly comes from my own neuroses and insecurities -- which I won't go into even though this is a blog. (I can already see my partner rolling his eyes, thinking, "Oh no, not this again!") But part of it also comes from how others react to my line of work. When asked what I do for a living, I for a long time couldn't even say, "I'm a theater critic." Now that I can, the response is often something like, "What are you going to do with that?" or "Is there any chance that could turn into something?"

I understand where these questions come from. Most of us know all too well the declining state of our country's journalism in general and of arts criticism in particular. Nonetheless, what I want to say to these queries is, "It already has turned into something." If I evaluate my professional situation honestly and rationally, I feel only that I am precisely where I want to be. Still, the insecurities nag. 

Yesterday, I spoke about my profession to a college theater class. It was at SF State (where I'm getting my master's degree) in an undergrad seminar called "Writing about the Theatre." I got this opportunity because (hopefully) I'm going to be teaching the same course there this summer, and its current professor invited me as a "working theater critic" to be a guest speaker for her unit on theater criticism.

Though I consider myself a poor extemporaneous speaker, I didn't prepare anything. I simply sat down and launched into my story: why and how I got into this line of work, how my career has evolved, the mechanics of reviewing, my critical philosophy. And it was so much fun. I'm in the midst of thesis writing right now, so I haven't thought much about how I'll teach the course this summer. And when I have thought about it, it's only been stressful things, like how much reading and planning I'll have to do to create the curriculum. But yesterday served as a useful reminder that I actually love just teaching -- not that I was teaching per se, but it was public speaking -- or shamelessly hamming it up -- in a classroom setting. Now I feel excited about the course all over again.

It also made me feel, for a little while, like I was a "real" theater critic -- not just because it was flattering to be asked and because I actually knew my stuff; it felt real because I think I got across a point that's really important to me and that not a lot of people outside theater criticism realize: That criticism is my art. Many others might not regard it that way; indeed, my advisor in college wrote a play in which critics are described as people who want to touch art -- not people who make their own. 

But for me, when I write an essay that's worth the read even for people who have no intention of seeing the art I'm discussing, my work, too, is art. I think this is a valuable point to impart to other theater folks -- the "real" artists -- who often feel themselves in an antagonistic relationship with critics. We don't just write to be mean, or because we love theater but failed as actors or playwrights -- we write because we love writing, and the thrill we get from seeing a well-crafted sentence come together is not altogether different from what other thespians feel creating a beautiful scene.

That's a point I'm going to try to convey in my teaching this summer as well. I'm going to try to get students to feel that criticism and text analysis aren't the boring, academic, required-class part of theater but rather another, just as valuable mode of expression in the art we all love.

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