For a number of years now, I have periodically taught a course on arts criticism. Here, I offer my observations on the conception, practice, and aesthetic approach of that course and others as models for navigating arts criticism pedagogy in the twenty-first century. I attempt to write through the many challenges and changes to the practice of arts criticism since the early 2000s, and particularly in the past few years, in terms of the pedagogy of arts criticism. What does it mean to write arts criticism in the contemporary world? Why does it matter? What is its purpose? Who is it for? What form should it take? Is there a difference between a nationally oriented versus an internationally oriented arts criticism? How do we broaden the critical voices heard as we strive to broaden the stories seen and told—and are the two symbiotically linked? This essay focuses primarily on the purpose, form, and critical voices heard in arts criticism.

From the beginning, answering these questions means establishing a distinction between writing a review of a performance and writing a piece of criticism. While students are most familiar with the form of a consumer-oriented review—a piece of writing meant to aid the ticket buyer in deciding how to spend their hard-earned pay on entertainment—I seek to instill in my students the notion that in the course we are only interested in criticism that "helps": helps the audience member approach and understand the work; helps the artist learn what is or is not successful in conveying their artistic intent; helps the critics themselves clarify their own response to a given performance and comprehend its complexity. The pandemic has forcefully focused our attention on the fact that access to arts training in higher education, let alone the ability to enter the field, has historically been limited to either those who have independent resources or those who are willing to subject themselves to penury for an extended period. Consequently, perhaps the most important function of teaching arts criticism at the undergraduate level, where I spend most of my time, is to create a knowledgeable audience for the arts, one that understands how work is created and the positionality of both themself and the artists whom they are responding to, and one that can create a lifelong practice of meaningful dialogue between the work and themselves.

My conception of both the purpose and the practice of arts criticism derives from my perspective as a practicing dramaturg for the last thirty-seven years. As a dramaturg, I am interested primarily in how meaning is conveyed in performance; and as a member of a production's creative team, I seek to find the most effective artistic means to express the production's intentions while simultaneously looking for the most effective ways to explain those intentions to audiences and prepare them to receive the production in an accessible and informed manner. This inside/outside position—deeply knowledgeable of the creators' artistic intentions while at the same time viewing those intentions from the perspective of an audience member who lacks that information and needs thoughtful, accessible contextualization—also informs my approach to teaching arts criticism.

The first portion of my arts criticism course introduces students to different approaches to writing criticism of visual art, theatre, film, dance, architecture, photography, and music. In the second half of the course, students participate in a criticism workshop where they write and rewrite their own criticism of performances, exhibitions, and architecture on campus and in the area. The final exam consists of revisions of two of the essays written during the criticism workshop, plus a revision of an essay on a performance that the entire class has seen. The syllabus for the most recent iteration of the course, taught in Summer 2022, can be found here. 

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Since I began teaching this course in the early 2000s, both the performance and particularly the arts criticism landscape have greatly changed. Arts criticism has largely been eliminated from most major daily and weekly periodicals. There has been an explosion of blogs and online criticism of varying quality, and a "re-framing of the critic for the twenty-first century" through the work of people like Andy Horwitz and venues like Culturebot, among others. The pandemic, with our move into the virtual space, has raised multiple questions about the nature of live performance and the meaning of theatricality.

Horwitz describes in "Culturebot and the New Criticism" that as the boundaries between artforms such as dance, theatre, music, performance art, video and visual art become increasingly blurred, we need a different kind of critic capable of responding to the artist's imagination. Horwitz contends that this constantly evolving cultural landscape requires visual arts, performing arts, music, and film criticism that reflect the environment in which the work is being created online. While I am not convinced that such discourse must reside entirely online, there is no doubt that platforms such as HowlRound and Culturebot itself, through essays, interviews, and archival videos of performances, conferences, and artistic gatherings, have greatly contributed to the accessibility of artists, their work, and thoughtful discourse about that work and the field in general.

Creating the pedagogical means to engage with the evolving performance ecology becomes even more important when, as Horwitz suggests, the boundaries between previously delineated fields are being broken down in practice. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, the Department of Theater Arts and the Art and Design: Games and Playable Media Program have merged to form the new Department of Performance, Play and Design, whose mission is described as bringing together students seeking advanced training in traditional theatre and game design, as well as where the two disciplines intersect to create an understanding of both live and digital performance.

Another recent innovation in this space is the Maya Brin Institute for New Performance, established with a $9 million endowment within the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Codirected by Jared Mezzocchi, associate professor of dance and multimedia design, and Kendra Portier, the Maya Brin Endowed Professor of Dance, with other faculty in lighting and digital humanities, it is part of a larger initiative called Arts for All that seeks to expand arts programming across campus at the intersection of technology, innovation, and social justice. On a much smaller scale, conversations have begun at my own institution, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, to create a joint minor between the Departments of Communication and Dramatic Art in Media and Projection that would combine the expertise of faculty in dramatic art, media studies, performance studies, and geography.

All this blurring of previously rigid disciplinary boundaries points to the fact that to create that knowledgeable audience for the arts by teaching arts criticism means acknowledging that the framework of the performance under discussion determines the framework of the critical response to it. The critical approach to a given work flows from that work, not from a predetermined concept of what criticism entails. While I, like Horwitz, do not agree with all of Daniel Mendelsohn's positions in "A Critic's Manifesto" on The New Yorker blog, his contentions that criticism determines what is "worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation" in order to "set interesting works before intelligent audiences" point students in the right direction. Perhaps even more important is the notion that "criticism is an act of love," as articulated by both Andy Horwitz and Dwight Garner. As Horwitz puts it,

It means you care enough about it to devote time, energy and thought to really paying attention, to taking the work seriously, to asking questions and having a meaningful conversation that will, hopefully, support your audience in having a considered life; one in which ideas, aesthetics and morality matter, one where art is a forum for parsing the complexities of human experience and guiding us towards right action. ("Re-Framing the Critic") 

As the performance ecology continues to evolve, so too must our pedagogical approaches to it. When the global pandemic canceled study abroad programs in Spring 2021, my institution pivoted to the creation of a series of Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) courses. With colleagues at two of our Drama Department-to-Drama Department exchange programs (the University of Galway, Ireland and Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland), I created and team-taught the course Theatre and Pandemic, Theatre After Pandemic. The second iteration of the course in 2022 focused on Theatre and Sustainability, the syllabus of which, including artistic responses to sustainability by Arthur Kopit, Fehinti Balogun, and Xavier Cortada, among others, can be found here. 

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The course is structured as follows: I meet with the UNC cohort once a week, and once a week the cohorts from all three campuses are put together as we survey the landscape of what is happening to theatre and performance in all three countries from the perspective of each theme, using a combination of case studies, texts, and interviews to look at everything from large institutional theatres and festivals to small, scrappy ones. Small groups of students composed of individuals from all three campuses are tasked with creating performances specifically for Zoom as their final projects. While this is a vastly different pedagogical approach than that used in my arts criticism course, it broadens the investigation into how meaning is created in performance to both the international and virtual realms. Students have been introduced to work created in the US, the UK, the EU, in Chapel Hill, Galway, Budapest, and Santiago, Chile. We seek to employ the same sort of inside/outside perspective of understanding the artistic intent while viewing the work from the audience's point of view, as the students negotiate both creating and evaluating the new forms that have emerged.

As the world of performance continues to evolve, I believe that it is imperative for us to find new pedagogical frameworks for arts criticism as well. One model is the School for Spectators, founded in 2000 in Buenos Aires by my friend and colleague Jorge Dubatti. Dubatti began the School for Spectators with the goal of creating a greater dialogue between artists and spectators. The structure is simple: anyone who wishes to can join; the School chooses one performance for attendance each month; and Dubatti then leads a session where the spectators discuss the work with a combination of playwrights, performers, dancers, directors, and technicians. Buenos Aires is a city with rich and diverse theatre. Curtain times are often staggered so that you can attend three or more performances in any given night; but what distinguishes the School for Spectators from the regular theatre audience is that it draws participants from a much broader swath of society, often people who have not attended the theatre before. Consequently, the School for Spectators (a model that could be re-created in multiple contexts) broadens and deepens the knowledgeable audience for the arts, creating a lifelong dialogue between that audience and the arts. The discussions that Dubatti moderates frequently enter territory different from the typical post-show discussion, as the spectators seek to come to terms with work outside of their previous experience. Dubatti describes the School for Spectators as a place where

we understand the theatre as an event that brings together artists, technicians, and spectators. A "cohabitation": meeting in bodily presence, the human phenomenon of a living culture that generates a singular zone of experience and collective subjectivity. Among our objectives, besides increasing the range of those who experience theatre, is to offer tools to multiply enjoyment and comprehension of the works, amplify and enrich the cultural, emotional, and intellectual horizon. (my translation)1

Another model is the pedagogical approach taken in both the COIL course and my arts criticism course. The Theatre and Sustainability course approached its material from three different entry points: theatre and performance that by means of its thematic content and/or performance practices contributes to environmental sustainability; theatre and performance that by means of its thematic content and/or practices contributes to the sustainability of democratic processes; and, finally, best practices for creating a sustainable career in theatre and performance in the contemporary world. Students engaged with a broad range of artists and their works, from Sarah Cameron Sunde's 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea (2013-2022), in which she has stood in the sea on six different continents for an entire tidal cycle, to Complicité's production of Fehinti Balogun's Can I Live?, the only theatre performance invited to COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, to excerpts from Chilean playwright/director Ramón Griffero's book The Dramaturgy of Space, among others. The students' final collaborative projects on Zoom approached the theme of sustainability from a number of different perspectives and utilizing a variety of different performance techniques.

In July 2022, I was finally able to direct my UNC Arts Criticism in Ireland program in conjunction with the 2022 Galway International Arts Festival. In addition to studying a range of critical approaches to writing about the arts and writing several brief pieces of criticism of their own, the students completed internships during the two-week run of the festival. This meant that not only did they view the work in galleries and performance venues, but they frequently heard from artists and curators about artistic intent and curatorial practices as well as often had the opportunity to talk directly to actors, dancers, artists, and musicians about the performances and exhibitions. They engaged in precisely the sort of inside/outside relationship to the work that I described at the beginning of this essay, and it greatly enhanced the quality and depth of the criticism they were then able to write while also contributing to the sustainability of the festival itself. It was a complicated endeavor that would not have been possible without the students' labor (for which they earned course credit), along with that of other volunteers from Galway and across the globe. As just one example, a student who did the Visual Arts Internship with the festival wrote a detailed critique of one of Irish artist John Gerrard's works that aims to raise environmental awareness and promote sustainable artistic practices yet is funded in part by the sale of NFTs of the artist's work, which, as my student pointed out, require massive amounts of carbon-producing energy to create. Without an intimate knowledge of Gerrard's artistic practices, the student would not have been able to write such incisive criticism. Embedding the students within the work of the festival enabled them to write criticism that helps the audience member approach and understand the work, helps the critic clarify their own responses to a given performance or exhibition and comprehend its complexity, and helps the artist learn what is or is not successful in conveying their artistic intent.

To return to the questions with which I began, I believe that a contemporary approach to teaching arts criticism must be one that is diversely conceived, democratically practiced, aesthetically aware, and thoughtfully modeled. Whether we are teaching future critics or, as is more likely, future audience members, the investigation of how meaning is created in performance by a diverse range of artists in multiple artistic forms is a pathway to greater engagement in civic life. Artists are storytellers and stories—whether in performance or politics, both particular and universal—are powerful tools to create community. Creating community is one of the essential goals of both arts criticism and the larger pedagogical endeavor of the academy. What I have described here are some steps in that direction. I do not pretend to have all the answers and look forward to discussing all of this further with you, my colleagues.


1. Information on different iterations of La Escuela de Espectadores can be found at: "Escuela de espectadores: Seminario on line gratuito de Jorge Dubatti," Centro Cultural; "Escuela de espectadores," CCE | Casa del Soldado,

Works Cited

The Department of Performance, Play and Design. UC Santa Cruz,

Garner, Dwight. "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical," New York Times Magazine, 15 Aug. 2012,

Horwitz, Andy. "Culturebot and the New Criticism." Maximum Performance (beta): A Collection of Essays from (2011-2013), Culturebot Arts & Media, 2014,

———. "Re-Framing the Critic for the 21st Century: Dramaturgy, Advocacy and Engagement." Culturebot, 5 Sept. 2012,

Mendelsohn, Daniel. "A Critic's Manifesto." Page-Turner, The New Yorker, 28 Aug. 2012,