(Note: When Charles Isherwood – one of my favorite critics, because of his wit and intellectual honesty – recently got the boot from The New York Times, the paper sounded the call for a replacement. I knew it was a pie-in-the-sky dream kind of thing, but I submitted clips/links, a resume, and this one-page statement nonetheless. Because why the hell not?)
With politicians at every level – up to and now including the White House – suggesting the dismantling of arts-supporting organizations these days, I’ll confess that I got teary just reading that The New York Times “is seeking a critic to review and write about the vitally important world of theater.”
Why? Because I view theater as “vitally important,” too, despite the larger world’s daily attempts to beat down my enthusiasm for it; and because, after working nearly 12 years as a newspaper’s dedicated staff arts reporter and theater critic, I was laid off last January and made to believe that, because it wasn’t particularly profitable, theater criticism no longer had a place in American culture, let alone in a newsroom.
When I began working as a staff reporter in 2004 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I covered every kind of theater production in the county: touring/visiting shows, professional productions, University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University plays and musicals, quirky indie companies, and community theater groups; and because my academic training had been based in creative writing, not theater, I pursued projects that filled in my knowledge gaps. For instance, I did a series of features focused on behind-the-scenes theater artists, so that readers (and I) could learn more about what goes into lighting design, and costumes, and scenic design, and stage management.
Meanwhile, my background in creative writing paid dividends in surprising ways. Because I’d worked in so many workshop environments while earning my MFA, I was well-versed in articulating my responses to another person’s art, particularly where storytelling is concerned. This not only equipped me to provide informed, insightful critiques of new plays and musicals, but it also gave me the confidence to declare, on occasion, that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes.
Indeed, outgoing Times critic Charles Isherwood – one of my all-time favorites – epitomized this when he confessed to being bored, rather than dazzled, by Tom Stoppard’s epic “The Coast of Utopia” in 2007. Though most critics had claimed to experience a kind of rapture while listening to 19th century Russians talk history and philosophy for hours, Isherwood, with his trademark wit, bravely stepped forward to speak his truth, and did so in a way that opened up a broader, more interesting conversation about peer pressure, taste, and why the play, in his mind, failed.
As a theater critic with just a few years’ experience under my belt at that time, I took Isherwood’s rigorous intellectual honesty to heart. And one year later, when a much-beloved mensch of a local theater artist died shortly before the opening of the last show he directed (“Souvenir”), I faced my own moral dilemma. Because I really, really didn’t care for the show.
After the opening night performance – during which many tears were shed on stage and in the crowd – I went home and struggled for hours to write my review. I couldn’t lie, but a negative review would put a bullseye on my back, and those already grieving would inevitably take some of their pain out on me. In the end, of course, I decided I’d simply have to learn to absorb some misplaced anger and grief, because a critic who fails to be truthful has no credibility; plus, I knew the artist who had died would have told me, “Just write the damn thing.” So I wrote the review I had to write, with as much sensitivity as I could muster, and yes, I got some unpleasant emails and letters to the editor in the days following. But the moment passed, and I felt sure that my call had been the right one.
So years later, when I confessed that I felt a production of “Antigone by Sophokles,” starring Juliette Binoche, had more style than substance, I remained unshaken when a reader’s email sniffily asked, “Who are you to judge world class performers like Ms. Binoche?”
I wrote back, “I’m a person who loves, thinks about, and sees a lot of theater. My job is to be honest about my personal response to a show (regardless of how much I’d previously enjoyed ‘Chocolat’), and I was.
“But you’re welcome to disagree with me. Arts criticism is meant to be the start of a conversation, not the endpoint.”