1) What the fuck is going on?
Workwise, constant theatergoing and writing – that’s my job. I edit the theater section of Time Out New York (TONY), assigning reviewers and reporters and trying to review two or three shows a week myself. What I can’t fit into the Lilliputian space our magazine allots for reviews (approx. 280 words) I dilate upon in my blog.
But if you ask what the fuck is going on in NYC theater? Not enough! That is to say, our major nonprofit companies, in my opinion, are spinning their wheels aesthetically. Season after season, the programming is safe, conventional and blandly marketed to a public that doesn’t care anyway. Where’s the political theater? Where are the professional productions that exciting “downtown” playwrights deserve? Where are the plays that might (gasp) offend viewers or get them talking?
Where are the artistic directors with charisma, media savvy, showmanship, imagination, chutzpah, vision and connections, who will create amazing seasons of established and emerging artists, who will attract media attention, get people buzzing? I’m almost less worried about nurturing the next generation of writers, directors and actors than in the administrators and marketing folks whose job it is to sell this stuff to the New York public.
2) What’s the best thing about being a theatre critic in New York?
Getting paid to sit on my ass at the theater then mouth off about it later. Compared to books or film or anything online, theater is local. So it’s hard to get national media to care about my thoughts on it or to attract a national readership (except, maybe, through the blog). The upside is that I can make a difference, right here in my town. I can praise what I love and dispraise what I don’t. I can support young companies, playwrights and actors that the Times or other media don’t even know exist. In the same week I can review a splashy Broadway extravaganza and an avant-garde installation performance somewhere in Brooklyn. Plus, I don’t have ignorant editors or publishers breathing down my neck. Basically, I can use the TONY theater section as a bully pulpit, in addition to giving the reader the basic consumer facts – this show is worth your time, that isn’t, etc.
3) Ideally, what would you like theatre artists to get out of your reviews of their work?
I write primarily for the reader, whom I assume is a theatergoer somewhat like me, so that’s a hard one. I guess I’d want the theater artist to know that some critics do support exciting new work. Vague though that sounds. If one of my reviews encourages or emboldens or (god forbid) inspires an artist, I’d be incredibly pleased. On a practical level, maybe Artist A would learn about Artist B through my work, and they’d meet.
4) Have you noticed any particular shortcomings that seem common to independent theatre productions in New York?
A desire to be loved. A desire for fame. Too hastily mounting a production and clamoring for coverage. I may simply be old and tired, but it seems that more shows than ever are willing to hire a publicist for $2k or more, and hector us for a review. The freelancer comes to see the show, shrugs, files a so-so review, and no one has benefited.
I wish more companies would figure out what their aesthetic identity is before they try to cobble together a show. Independent theater companies/artists (Off-Off is what we call them here) should have the financial freedom (from poverty) to break any taboo or stylistic barrier; so a shortcoming might be that too few companies take bold artistic risks or think big. I know, there’s no money, but that shouldn’t stop you.
5) How much do you care about the quality of the press and marketing materials of a given show?
In terms of Broadway and Off, I am ashamed at how bush-league the press materials are. Look at the press materials for a movie – enough paper to choke a bull. Nonprofit theaters ought to have dramaturges who, at the very least, provide some sort of thoughtful essay or excerpts from research to the press. On Broadway, the press reps don’t even provide a goddamn paragraph from the production about what, say, the set and costume designers had in mind. You have to hope that a newspaper runs a story on the show.
Anyway, from independent theaters, a neat, concise and honest press release and snappy production photos are all we need. In this age of sophisticated digital cameras, there’s no excuse for a company not finding someone who can take a nice picture of the actors in action. A copy of the script doesn’t hurt, and some artistic statement of purpose. Show that you are artists, not just run-of-the-mill entertainers who want attention.
6) Do you find that better funded productions tend to be of a higher quality generally?
Tough question. Yes, generally, they’re slicker: professional actors, nice sets, nice lights, nice seats, nice programs. But some of the best actors around are nowhere near Broadway or Off. I tend to pay attention to about 12 or 14 ensembles that work Off-Off Broadway. They are funded in various ways through state grants, but subsist on very little money. They are amazing, resourceful companies. Some are: Elevator Repair Service; Banana Bag & Bodice; the National Theater of the United States of America; the Civilians; Radiohole; Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company; and there are many more.
7) How much do you think artists should be changing their work or their creative direction based on critics’ feedback?
Well, if the quality of critics were high, I’d say that they should. But generally, theater critics are almost as irrelevant as theater is to the average TV and film-addicted booby. My younger colleagues are smart and talented, but the most influential critical posts in this city are jealousy guarded by a wizened knot of nostalgia-drenched mediocrities who have no idea what the next generation is doing and can barely stay on top of what’s happening on Broadway. They are advocates of nothing but their own pathetic memories of musicals or plays in the 60s and 70s; they have about as much vision as the bureaucratic philistines we call artistic directors.
8) What are some of the differences between a badly written review and a well-written review?
Badly written reviews don’t give you a sense of what happened or why it happened, they just reveal the reviewer’s prejudice and fears. A well-written one transports you to the theater, then into the reviewer’s mind, then pulls back for a wide shot of the culture. That’s a bad answer but it’s all I got. Some witty, acid-penned critics write good prose but bad criticism. Some critics aren’t thrilling stylists but dead-on in their assessments. Every review should contain an argument of some sort.
9) Do you have any unifying theories about the artist-critic relationship?
They are both in league against the idiot public and every form of authority – pope, president, CEO. They just don’t know it.
10) What’s the secret to winning a rave review?
Make good theater. Simple!