OFFBEAT: Chicago play director questions role of critic in arts community

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-07-28T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Chicago play director questions role of critic in arts communityBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

I received the following from Chicago director Jonathan Berry, intended to run as a "Letter to the Editor," but apparently too long to fit the space constraints of the Opinion page. It concerns a review of the atomic bomb play "The Casuals" I wrote earlier this month, and he is the director.

"Mr Potempa: I sent this in to the editor but they were unable to print it, due to length. I'm not sure if they passed it on to you, but if they hadn't, I thought you ought to see it. I hope you'll consider this in future reviews. Jonathan"

"To the Editor: The role of the critic in the arts community, is, understandably a difficult one. A critic must serve several masters, first the readers, then the artistic community that they are covering, and finally the editors and upper management who manage the paper's content. The best critics manage to use their columns to both keep their readership abreast of work, while also recognizing their own role in the artistic community. The worst, simply use their column inches to recklessly spout off their own opinions of the performance with little regard for either the artists or their readers.

I do not know Phil Potempa, nor his credentials that warrant this undue weight put on his artistic opinion. I do know very well both the Chicago theater scene, and, having directed THE CASUALS, the production that he carelessly savaged in his July 13th review. Jackalope is a young theater company that shows a good deal of promise. They are ambitious and engaged and giving young playwrights and artists an opportunity to have their work produced. (The only way, really, for young playwrights to grow and get stronger.) And while THE CASUALS may not yet be a masterwork, I work on enough plays to know that there is a great deal of promise in the writing, and a great deal of potential in the young playwrights, and that there is a responsible way to give criticism that encourages future steps, while still acknowledging that this production may, in the critic's opinion, have missed the mark.

Mr Potempa saves his most vicious barbs for the actors, dismissing their work with single adjectives and providing no follow up or discussion. "Wooden", "Cardboard", and finally, "Over acting relish" - and that to a 14-year-old boy who is making his professional stage debut. Potempa is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but the important role of the critic demands a higher standard of discussion.

In the best cases, the critic opens up a dialogue with the performance, attempting to discern first the artists intent, and then how those intentions were met or missed at the performance in question. Also, because of the ephemeral nature of live performance, the critic has an obligation to attempt to capture the experience of the audience on the night. Finally, the critic has a responsibility to the community that provides the art that provides them employment - and an understanding that each artist they are witnessing has a career of work, both behind them and in front of them. Where the critic feels an admonishment is necessary, one hopes that they recognize the power of their pen and do so in a way that is both responsible and constructive.

Mr Potempa seems to misunderstand his role in the community, and seems to use his column as merely a vehicle for his judgment. I hope his future reviews will reflect a greater degree of responsibility to the artistic community and to his readers. Sincerely, Jonathan Berry, Director of THE CASUALS"

Thank you Jonathan for taking time to write and share your views. Much success for future projects.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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