On being a Chicago theatre critic: An interview

Jamie sent me these wonderful questions, and, for the sake of entertainment, I will answer them as if I’m someone important and influential in the Chicago theatre scene. Which I am. Duh. I mean, my scathing review of “Earth: TTFN?!” consequently helped put The Greenhouse Theatre Center on the auction block. Or so Chris Jones implies:

In fact, Victory Gardens has actively sought to distance itself from the building and to remind patrons that it is now located at the Biograph Theatre. And when the Spatzes tried producing their own show this summer, “Earth TTFN,” the result was an artistic and financial disaster.

They now want out.

See? I’m a force. And now, the interview:

What was it that inspired the leap from theatre-blogger to theatre-critic?
Herb Lentz. No, really. He’s the person who directed me to the request for contributors to review Chicago theatre for EDGE.com. Shortly after responding to their ad, I got a few assignments.

However, prior to EDGE, I’ve never lacked an opinion on my various theatre excursions, and have blogged my thoughts after each show. I enjoy sharing my thoughts on live theatre — it’s such an ephemeral art form (especially in Chicago where shows last, at most, two or three months) and I feel it’s important to capture my theatre-going history in some way. Over time, these thoughts moved from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to something resembling a review.

What have you learned about your personal theatrical tastes from your experiences as a critic?

When I go see a show, I genuinely want it to succeed. I am rooting for the actors and the director and designers and all those small teams who work countless hours, often unpaid, to put on a show. I’m a fan of theatre. So, I am open to really reviewing anything.

That said, I find I enjoy shows that take the extra effort to create an atmosphere, where the moment you walk in the theatre door, the tone is set. Shows that have done this well include The Dastardly Ficus, and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery at Chopin Theatre and Tupperware: An American Musical Fable at New Colony.

Also: I’ve always loved musicals that feature a strong leading female performance that features a “stand back and let the lady take the stage” moment. If you know musicals, you know what I’m talking about.

Whats been the best part of being a legit, published critic?

Free tickets!

Seriously though, I highly respect legit critics, such as Frank Rich, Clive Barnes, Terry Teachout* and Chris Jones*, far too much to consider myself “legit” or “published.” I’m just another a-hole with an Internet connection who happens to broadcast his opinions on some web sites.

(*Note that the links to Terry and Chris above both point to their blogs — where their reviews and news items are posted. Seems that blogging is becoming a legitimized means for theatre journalism.)

Have there been any shows you’ve reviewed that you didn’t expect to enjoy that surprised you? Alternately, shows you wanted to love that you feel… sucked?

I try to go to the theatre with an open mind. Most of the time this works in my favor, and I end up finding something worthwhile in a show that, overall, didn’t really turn me on. For example, Remy Bumppo’s production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. While the production didn’t suck by any means, I was annoyed with the play. All that hesitant dialog and brooding pauses. However, I kept an open mind, and would like to think I found something worthwhile in it. Also, I was expecting Actors Theatre Company’s production of Follies to be a bit of a mess. I mean, community theatre Sondheim? But, it was one of the highlights of the season. A delightful surprise.

As for shows that I wanted to like, but left disappointed…the only show that I’ve seen recently that sucked was “Earth: TTFN?!”, but I’ve beaten that horse enough. Also, Art at Steppenwolf I found to be a long, tedious, stuffy and boring affair. Sad, as it was my first real experience at Steppenwolf.

Where do you feel most comfortable as a reviewer; where do you feel you have expertise and something to say?

I feel most comfortable reviewing musicals. Sondheim, Guettel, Finn, Webber, Herman — I love them all. In my mind, nothing compares to the moment when a good theatre song is delivered by a skilled singing actor in a compelling show. I think I’ve had enough experience researching, listening and seeing musicals over the decades that I have something meaningful to say. Most of the time.

Are there any performers you would see a show based solely on their being cast?

Hell, yes. Where do I start? For local Chicago actors: Mary Ernster, Hollis Resnik, E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson, Kate Fry, Alanda Coon, Rondi Reed (whom I haven’t seen live onstage yet, but am dying to.) After seeing Tupperware, I’ll include Mary Hollis Inboden, as well.

What? All women? Hmm.

For non-Chicago theatre actors, the list is long and varied. However, it’s no secret that I’ve spent far too much money to see LuPone.

Any shows you’re anticipating in the near future?

Hairspray at Marriott — mainly for the cast. Which I blogged about in the previous post.

Other notable upcoming shows that pique my interest:

What do you wish there was more of in Chicago theatre?

I really wish there was more Sondheim — specifically the rarely-produced stuff. Where are the productions of Merrily We Roll Along, Saturday Night and Assassins?

What’s so special about Chicago’s theatre scene?

  • Diversity: There is always something to see at any given moment. For example, look what’s playing today (8/20). Musicals, improv, drama, comedy. Currently, the League of Chicago Theatres includes nearly 200 companies. I’m not sure how many companies exist outside of the League.
  • Intimate productions: Chicago has a well-earned reputation of staging clever, innovative productions of classic shows and musicals. Our actors and directors excel at working with limited physical spaces and tight resources. Our Town, a Chicago transfer currently playing Off Broadway right now, is the hot NYC show — mainly due to its powerfully intimate black box staging. But that’s just standard fare for Chicago.
  • Versatile, risky actors: From my experience, Chicago actors have much more of an ability — and opportunity — to move from musicals to straight plays to comedies to dramas. Take Barbara Robertson, for example. I’ve seen her in The Goat, A Little Night Music, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, Wicked, Grand Hotel, and Mame.  I think she perfectly encapsulates a successful Chicago actor’s resume: trained and capable to do anything, and always ready and willing to take a risk.
  • A strong, smart audience base: Chicago audiences are savvy. We love our theatre, and demand that it remains smart, daring, and entertaining. Face it: Chicago’s theatre scene wouldn’t be where it is if there wasn’t an audience there to push it forward.

Thanks, Jamie! That was fun.

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