Critics (Working In The Theatre #281)


(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, now in their 26th year,
and just one of the many year-round programs of the American Theatre Wing. These seminars
are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the new
Graduate Center. These seminars offer a rare opportunity to explore with our panelists
the realities of working in the theatre. Today we visit the world of the theatre critics.
Traditionally, the critic has sometimes been viewed as the enemy within, but not today.
During this seminar, we will talk about our panelists’ work ethics, and perhaps, how they
see their role as a critic. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the Board
of the American Theatre Wing. And now, I would like to introduce our moderators, two very
distinguished theatre professionals. Pia Lindstrom, a former critic, and Harvey Sabinson, for
many years the Executive Director of the League of American Theatres and Producers and a longtime
press agent. I’ll now turn this over to our moderators, Pia and Harvey. Thank you very much, Isabelle. (APPLAUSE)
On my far right, we have Charles Isherwood, who is the chief theatre critic for Variety,
which, as you know, is the show business bible. Before that, he was the senior editor and
theatre critic in Los Angeles for Variety. And before that, he worked for L.A. Style,
and he’s a graduate of Stanford University. Next to him is Peter Marks. He’s the New York
Times critic, the dreaded New York Times. We know the power of the Times! Before that,
he was a reporter and feature editor for the Times, the Arts and Leisure section. He worked
as a reporter for Newsday, and he’s a Yale graduate. Harvey, who’s on your side? On my side, on my far left is Roma Torre,
whom I’m sure you will all recognize as the anchor/producer all day on News 1. And Roma
also reviews theatre and the arts for News 1 in New York. She also, in the past, has
been at News 12 in Long Island, where she began her career as a critic. To her right – yeah, right, not left! (LAUGHTER)
– is Clive Barnes, the eminent critic of the New York Post. Clive speaks better English
than most of us. That’s because he was born in Britain. And he came to the United States
to become principal dance critic of the New York Times, later also assuming the job of
drama critic. When he left the Times, he joined the New York Post, where he has been for many
years. And of course, Clive has written many books on the theatre and on dance. And to Clive’s right is Linda Winer. Linda,
for many years, has been the principal critic and arts columnist for Newsday. Linda also
was the critic for the Chicago Tribune. And also, when she came to New York, worked for
the Daily News as a critic, and also for USA Today, and has been, as I say, for many years,
reviewing both dance and theatre for Newsday. We have with us people who are insiders, like
Charles, writing for knowledgeable theatre people. We have television, we have print
media here. I’m curious how reviews are styled for different audiences. I’ll start with you,
Roma, because I’m particularly fond of television. And I know that we on television have to do
a review that’s different than a print [review]. What do you do to [differentiate]? Right, we have to deal with two elements that
my colleagues in the print profession don’t have to deal with. One is time, and the other
is the picture. In terms of time, our reviews have to fit into a slot. Now, I’m luckier
than most, and I know you’ve probably battled this all the time at News Channel 4. My reviews
must run three minutes or less, and I think that would have been a luxury for you at Channel
4. Yeah. So you have to get it all in, in that brief
period of time, and there’s so much to say and so much material to cover, it’s very frustrating.
The other issue I have to deal with is matching the pictures to the words. And I was just
telling Clive that it’s often very difficult because I’m trying to broaden my horizons
as a theatre critic and not do as much Broadway and try to focus on Off-Broadway. And the difficulty is that we have to shoot
our own clips, and oftentimes, the shooting is not very accomplished. And just at the
moment one of the characters is about to say something that is very momentous for my purposes
in the review, the camera wanders off to another character (LAUGHTER) or it pulls out of focus.
So it’s very difficult, because in my line of work, we have to match the pictures to
the words. And so, if I don’t have the appropriate pictures to match what I’m trying to say,
I cannot use it. And that explains sometimes why the reviews occasionally seem a little
disjointed or lacking a particular focus, because I have to deal with what I have. And
what I have is oftentimes not adequate. What about writing for people in the business? Yes, I have my own constraints. I don’t have
to match words and pictures, of course. I’m just dealing with words. But I am writing
for an audience that is either working in or obsessed with show biz. (LAUGHTER) So it’s
a very specialized crowd. But in fact, it doesn’t really shape your
critical response. I mean, that is going to be what it is. Variety does always address
the issue of whether a show is going to be, you know, a B.O. smash. If it’s going to be
boffo, which is a word we invented (LAUGHTER) once upon a time, although certainly, I didn’t
do it! Or if it’s going to be a flop. And I think in, you know, consumer papers, you
really would not feel right probably doing that. But that’s something that I’m allowed
to do. Of course, that means that half the time, I’m wrong. (LAUGHTER) That’s part of it. A critic who admits he’s wrong! (LAUGHTER) In this one respect! He’s new! He’s new! Clive, you’ve worked at the Times, and now
you’re at the Post. Yes, yes. Do you write differently for the Post? No, I don’t think I do. I might, but I don’t
think I do. I always imagined that when I was hired by the Post, they hired me to write
as I was writing on the Times. I think it’s rather a mistake for people to change their
style. I think that when they change their style – I’ve seen people do this! – and
editors hire someone because they like the way they write, and then they join the paper.
This was particularly true at the New York Times, actually, people trying to think that
they ought to write like the New York Times wrote. And usually, it proved quite disastrous. I think that by the time, you know, people
get to the age of 25, 30, something like that, they usually have their own style and it’s
best to keep to it. As arts critics, one very often finds oneself standing out (LAUGHS)
from the rest of the paper by virtue of style. I mean, you’re quite different from the rest
of the paper. I often wonder, you know, who reads me. (LAUGHTER) But you know, it is very
different. And I think people usually keep to their own style, should keep to their own
style, if it works. Yeah, I mean, there is no one style of writing
at the New York Times, as there is at any one of our publications. No, no. You really, first and foremost, I think, try
to find a voice that feels like it’s expressing you. And the trick is somehow to make that
voice something that people connect with. Yeah, yeah. Which doesn’t happen overnight. When I started,
I was plucked from the reporters’ side of the newspaper to be a critic, which is not
the most common way that a critic becomes a critic at the New York Times. And I was
terrified at first, at the idea of holding forth in the pages of the New York Times.
And it took me a few times before I could actually look at my own reviews. Sometimes,
I’d pick them up and say, “Who is writing this stuff?!” (LAUGHTER) “Who is this guy?
I mean, where does he come off – ” An alter ego! And slowly you become, you know, you learn
to accept that you’re just one person who happens to be given this opportunity. And
you try to be sort of humble about it and not too grandiose. And over time, you realize
that, you know, you hope that the world out there understands that anybody, basically,
could be expressing their opinion. It’s just a matter of how you express it, how well you
express it. Yeah, yeah. I think it’s very important to
have a personal voice and to stop this kind of idea of “This is the received opinion.”
I think that this is why the use of the personal pronoun and things like that are very important.
Really, the “I” factor, I think is important. Sometimes. Sometimes. (LAUGHTER) Right! One can really overdo it. Oh, yes, yes. You know, I – I? I! (LAUGHTER) That “one”
can really – “I” think that “you”! (LAUGHTER) You want me to count? (LAUGHTER) You know, I also write a column, and in the
column, I use the personal pronoun a lot more. It’s sort of a politics of the arts column,
weekly. But in the reviews, I try to keep my – of course, it’s my own opinion. You
know, clearly, there’s no such things as objective opinions. You know, when people say, “Gee,
I want an objective review,” well, nonsense! Sure, sure. You know, it’s an oxymoron. But I do tend
to write a little more, in terms of the tone, a little bit more neutrally in the review.
Because I find that if someone has the personal pronoun six times in the first two paragraphs,
I get really bored. Yes. You know, I think, “Oh, yeah, but what’s really
happening on the stage? Are we much more interested in your own psyche?” Have you ever wanted to write something over?
I mean, that you did a review, and then three weeks later, said, “My goodness, I’ve changed
my mind!” Who hasn’t?! You mean, really changed your mind? Yes! You mean, not just fine-tune it or something,
or find a better lead? Well, no, have a different opinion? Well, you’re human. Well, nowadays, when critics are not impelled
to cover opening nights and write that night, as in past years, there’s an opportunity to
rewrite that review. Yes, but you don’t have the opportunity to
re-see the show. Yeah, I think she means, you know, say, “Oops,
never mind!” Well, because I’ve had trouble with Stephen
Sondheim, for example. The first time you go and see SWEENEY TODD, you walk out and
you say, “What have I seen? I’ve got ten minutes to write this review! I don’t understand the
set, the music, I’d like to listen to it again. I don’t have any time.” And I would bring
that confusion and then later say, “My goodness, I wish I could have seen that play a few more
times and had, you know – ” Well, I was actually curious about that, Pia.
Were you going on opening night? Yes, we used to. That’s different. Yeah, we used to. You get some days. We get, very often, as much as three or four
days, depending. And obviously, the crunch of time makes it not necessarily – But we used not to. (LAUGHS) We used to go
on the opening. Right, opening. We used to actually, sometimes, have about,
oh, about an hour, didn’t we? About an hour. Right! (LAUGHS) What was the earliest deadlines you ever had? I suppose, at the Times, we were about 11:15.
And you know, that wasn’t too bad. But remember – That was with an early curtain? That was with an early curtain. But we were
writing about 800 words, and then we would go up and check the proofs. Isn’t there a famous story that Brooks Atkinson,
because the show was running so late, did not see the end of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
when he wrote his review? That’s true. No sympathy for [Blanche]. Oh, God! Which do you think is better? Do you think
it’s better that you get more time? I mean, is there a tradeoff, in terms of what you
get out of it? I think it’s much better, to have more time. Yeah, I agree. Haven’t you found, on occasion, though, that
your opinion has changed? I mean, you’ve gone 180 degrees on a particular show, if you’ve
had the luxury of two or three days in advance to write that review? No, no. No, I don’t find that. But what I do find
is, with dance, dance is very much a continuum. You know, you go and see the same things time
after time. And I do find that my opinions of ballets change, or dances change. And therefore,
(LAUGHS) I wonder how much my opinions of plays would change if I saw them time and
time again. The same ones over and over! (LAUGHS) You’d hate them all! I’d hate them all, I see! But over, like, two or three days, if you
have more time to reflect on a performance or what the meaning of a play is – Oh, yes, yes. Don’t you find that it does take a different
shape than your visceral reaction? (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And also, one of the most terrible things
about doing it overnight, in that incredible rush – and Pia will remember this, because
it must be worse for her in many ways. But one of the things was that you were completely
at the mercy of your opening paragraph. (LAUGHTER) Right! Because you did your first page, and a copy
boy would take it away. It really was a boy! They were boys. Oh, yes, they were really boys. They were
boys, they were that high. (LAUGHTER) And they used to run in like little ants, and
they used to grab your pages away from you. And if you got the first page wrong, you know,
I mean not – I don’t say the opinion, but the tone of the review (GENERAL AGREEMENT),
which is in a way, more important than the opinion, you know, in the final effect. You
were completely lost, you know! And that did happen sometimes. I want to know about what brought this change
about in writing for opening night? At one time, it was a 7:30 or 8:00 curtain, and the
reviewer was a very good reviewer, the New York Times, whoever it might have been, and
a good, lengthy review of it. It’s now coming in, sometimes two days before opening night,
and it’s now 6:00. Well, I know exactly what it is. Yeah, I know exactly what it is. What? What? I need to know, now. There’s a lot of different stories. Let’s
have it now! I can tell you in two words. Stanley Kaufman. Okay. Thank you, Stanley. What are the two words, Harvey? No, Stanley Kaufman, you know, because after
Stanley Kaufman, the thing went straight back to the opening night reviews. Because I mean,
I succeeded Stanley – no, Walter [Kerr] succeeded Stanley. But Walter was doing opening
night reviews and I was doing opening night reviews. We didn’t actually go back until
AMADEUS. And what happened with AMADEUS was the Times bought tickets to AMADEUS, bought
tickets to one of the previews and wrote a notice. Was this you? No, it wasn’t me. It was Frank Rich. And Frank
wrote a notice, and it appeared in the first edition, which was rather a mistake. Because
my editor was in Sardi’s at the opening night party and got the first edition of the Times,
which was out before the curtain fell. (LAUGHTER) And there was the review! He was good! Yes, he was quick! And my editor rang me up
and said, “Well, here, what the hell was happening? And I was at a loss. And Merle DeBusky (PH),
I think, was the press agent on AMADEUS, if I remember rightly. And I rang up Merle in
the middle of my notice, because I’d been called up in the middle of my notice, and
I screamed, and he said, “No, I didn’t know this! I didn’t know this! I’m as puzzled as
you are.” Which I didn’t believe, of course, but apparently it was true. But still. And
after that, the Post and the News and everyone went to the, you know, league of something,
I suppose. And it was decreed that everyone, they were to go to [previews]. But isn’t it true, one of the advantages of
that opening night and that short deadline, is that you knew the critic’s opinion right
away. Now you have to wait. Now you have to go into the review. Yes, but that’s only from the business point
of view. I mean, really, does it really matter whether you know the critic’s opinion right
away. It’s only the press agent and the producers who want to know this. The world isn’t waiting!
(LAUGHTER) Well, you still see the reviews at the same
time. You mean, that the leads – No, you don’t, because they used to be on
the 11:00 news that night, but now very often in television, it isn’t. The next night, the
next day. But it’s still on opening night, isn’t it? Brooks Atkinson’s opinion was in the first
paragraph, then he summarized the play. Oh, that’s what you meant. Then he went through the elements, and his
opinion then reappeared in the last paragraph. He meant thumbs up, thumbs down, in the first
paragraph. Right, yeah. Well, that’s for you. (LAUGHTER) Now, we’re
artistes! But you still get the notices at the same
time. Of course, yeah. You get them earlier now. Yeah. No, he meant the opinions up higher. Oh, I see. I see. The writing was more coherent, is that what
you’re trying to say? (LAUGHTER) I think the other advantage to later deadlines,
and this may be totally irrelevant to you, but we are able to have more of a normal life.
Now, that may seem irrelevant, but I think it isn’t irrelevant when you have critics.
Because when I was at the Chicago Tribune for eleven years, we had an 11:30 deadline
at night, and I often didn’t know if the swan died or not, you know? (LAUGHTER) And by the
time I got to New York, fortunately Frank had had his way, and you know, you guys. So
we are able to be a little bit more civilized about it. And I think being able to go to the theatre
and go home and, you know, have a life with people makes us a little bit more like everyone
else, in terms of seeing the theatre. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Because I know I had a life that
was completely upside down. I was going to the theatre every night. By the time I was
done it was, you know, 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning. I’m bouncing off the walls in the
middle of Chicago where nothing is open! (PIA LAUGHS) And you know, my then husband was
sleeping. (LAUGHTER) Don’t marry a critic! Unless you marry another critic, which is
what I did the second time. And then you sleep late, and then you get
up, and you know, the whole day is turned around. And I think that you sort of lose
a sense of what the world is doing. And I like it much better [this way]. A critic is the only person required, after
a show is over, to scream out his feelings about what he saw. Everybody goes home and
sleeps on what they saw. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) So why would you want to do that? No, no, not everybody does that. People run home and phone their friends and
talk. No, no, people go to dinner and have a [break].
People have opinions walking out of the theatre. Yeah, they talk. They walk out with opinions. Yes, they walk out that way. Having opinions is one thing. Spreading the
word is another. But shouldn’t you spread the word on the opinion
as you’ve seen it? You come out of the theatre, and you’ve heard the applause and the curtain
has gone down, and you’re part of that. And then you write what you’ve seen. You’re not really part of it. I think it’s just the opposite, given all
that time, you go and say, “Yes, but on the other hand –- ” Isabelle, you know, for one thing, you always
presume – I mean, I was at a show the other night, and the audience was going crazy! (LAUGHTER) Was it last night? No, it was the night before. I’ve never seen – Yes, exactly. (LAUGHTER) Well, what was the play? Come on! No, but no audience could be that moronic,
so they had to be plants! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) What they would do for a free pair of tickets! Yes, exactly, exactly! Or they’re actors. Exactly. But you don’t really take into account
the audience. I myself have always found – I don’t know whether other people have found
this on the panel – but I never really know what I think until I start to type it! Yeah, right. Ah, yes. Or put into a computer. That’s why I will
never say – it sounds very snooty, you know, people will say, “Did you enjoy yourself,
Mr. Barnes?” And I always freeze, because I don’t really know whether I enjoyed myself!
(LAUGHTER) You know, it’s one of those weird things. There was a critic at the Tribune before I
took over, named William Leonard (PH), wonderful – you remember Bill. Yes, yes. He was also the saloon critic. A drama critic
and saloon critic! (LAUGHTER) But Bill would say, “I don’t know. I haven’t read my review
yet.” (LAUGHTER) Any of you ever walked out on a play during
intermission? And still reviewed it? And still reviewed it. No. No, you can’t. Once, only. Long ago, and I regretted it,
even though it was a really bad Charles Ludlam play. Oh, I did once, but I wrote about it. I did,
yes. And you always say you left. I would always
say, but I wouldn’t do it. Yeah, I’ve never done it again. Okay, what about sleeping through a play? Oh, yes! (LAUGHTER) Sorry, but that was a plant! I once saw you
sleep through a play! And that, I think, is a legitimate form of
criticism. (LAUGHTER) So the question is, how do you stay awake?
Do you have difficulty staying awake sometimes, Charles? On occasion. Around the third hour of your
standard musical. You do? Yeah. So what do you do? Drink a lot of coffee? Well, I find it helps not to eat before. Oh, okay. Doesn’t probably help my fellow audience members
when my stomach starts growling at the intermission. But it really does help. You know, caffeine
is good. Caffeine is a worldwide [stimulant]. What do you do? I’m jolted awake by the need for employment.
(LAUGHTER) That helps, that helps. Fear as a motivating force. Never underestimate
fear as a motivating force! How much are you influenced by the environment?
For instance, if it’s very cold, or there’s somebody coughing next to you, or there’s
a person with a hat in front of you, or you can’t see the stage. Not at all. Not at all? You can eliminate everything. Yeah, I can review with toothache, you know.
And I can dissociate. I have reviewed with toothache. But you really can dissociate. I’ve been in situations where I was at a comedy
that was less funny than MEDEA (LAUGHTER), and had a person behind me – Was roaring! One voice, roaring! And it started from the
moment that the lights went up, they thought that was funny. (LAUGHTER) And it becomes
so irritating. First of all, I was convinced that the producers, you know, got their brother-in-law
to sit there and just said, “Laugh your ass off!” Yeah, exactly. Oh, absolutely! I know, they hate you! They hardly know that! Right, they hardly want to do that. The only effect that has is infuriating you,
and making you really, really like an adversary of what’s happening on stage. So it can affect
you that way. But do you never take into account the reaction
of the audience? I do, sometimes, particularly in something that’s intended to be a straight
comedy, which is the hardest thing in the world for me to review. A play that has no
subtext, that the entire objective is just to sort of amuse you. Because that’s not why
I go to the theatre, so I have to sort of imagine why someone would go to something
like this. And when people around me seem to be having a really good time, and it doesn’t
feel like they’re all the brother-in-law, I have on occasion been known to say, “Everyone
around me seemed to be having a really good time. I wish I were there! But – ” (LAUGHTER) I find Wednesday matinees extraordinarily
good audiences, because they seem to be genuine audiences. People with no jobs! (LAUGHTER) They’re paying attention. Wouldn’t you have to take, in a sense, the
audience? Because from time to time, I hear people say, very apologetically, “But I enjoyed
it! I really did!” As if to say, “I shouldn’t have, because the reviews were not good.” But presumably, I’m not being paid, we’re
not being paid to reflect how you felt about what you saw. No, we’re not taking a Gallup poll. It’s really a useless exercise if I’m just
sort of taking, you know, a sample in public opinion. Then you wouldn’t need me, you’d
need an applause meter basically, and that’s what we would decide. Particularly, you know, when we go to see
the shows, we know that there are a lot of plants in the audience. There are a lot of
people getting free tickets, and they’re encouraged to be very vocal about their reactions. Yeah, yeah. A review really should be the starting off
point for a discussion. Right. It shouldn’t necessarily be, you know, the
wall coming down on the production. I do think, though, that people shouldn’t
take it too seriously. They shouldn’t read a review and say, “Oh my God, I was wrong,
I shouldn’t have enjoyed that!” (LAUGHTER) That’s right. Right, exactly. But they do! But they do! That’s a thing that’s true. Sometimes,
not all previews are packed with laughers, because you know, a lot of Off-Broadway things,
you just go in their regular audiences. And the difference in an audience at a preview
that hasn’t been told yet what to think and the audience the day after the reviews come
out can be really depressing. You know, a lot of people might have really enjoyed it
and then are told they’re not supposed to. Well, I think that when people are going out
for a night’s entertainment, they have made a sort of investment. They’ve made an investment
of money, they’ve made an investment of time. And consequently, they have a prior commitment
to enjoy themselves, which the critic doesn’t necessarily have. I mean, most people, after
they’ve struggled to get into LES MIZ or something or CATS or something like that (LAUGHS), they’re
not going to say, “Oh, that was awful!” Because in a way, it’s a judgment on their judgment.
You know, it’s like buying the wrong stock on Wall Street. Yeah. Marrying the wrong person. (LAUGHTER)
“Gee, I just wasted ten years of my life!” Roma’s been trying to get a word in here. No, I mean, a lot of things are going through
my mind. But one thing, in response to this whole notion of, you know, does the audience
affect what you say or write? I remember one of the first shows I had to review was MY
ONE AND ONLY. Do you remember, with Twiggy and Tommy Tune? And I really wasn’t sure what
to make of it, and I was getting kind of anxious because, you know, this was one of my first
reviews and I wanted to make it real good, you know! And I was thinking very hard about
how to do this. And I remember there was a woman behind me
who just kind of chuckled, and she said, “What a cockamamie show this is!” (LAUGHTER) And
that loosened up the whole creative process. And I realized, you know, it really was a
cockamamie show, and that’s okay! And you know, oftentimes, I think we could be accused
of intellectual snobbery. I think one of the faults that we suffer from is that we apply
the same standard, I think, oftentimes to many – What “we”? White men! We. Okay. Go ahead, sorry. I’ll keep the “we.” Not “I,” “we.” All right. That was on purpose. But we all do this, I
think. We overanalyze a show, perhaps unnecessarily. And I was thinking, for example, FOOTLOOSE.
It’s a show that is not very good, by the standards that you would judge an AMADEUS,
for example. But there is merit to it. You know, we do a segment, a theatre show
at New York 1 called “Seen and Heard.” And we just take a camera and we go in front of
the theatre as they’re letting the audience out, and we ask people, “What do you think?”
Well, about ninety percent of the people who we spoke with, and obviously this is an unscientific
sampling, a poll. But ninety percent of the people said, “I just thought this was the
greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” Now the interesting thing was, we also discovered it was the only
show they had ever seen! (LAUGHTER) But that being said, that show was designed for those
particular people. So is it far for us to slam a show – Yes, it’s totally fair, because we are expected
to give an informed opinion. I mean, exactly. If we say, “This is the best HAMLET I’ve seen,”
if it’s the first HAMLET I’ve ever seen, it’s also the worst HAMLET I’ve ever seen! (LAUGHTER) But it’s a good play! It’s a good play. I think we can’t expect
an objective opinion, but we can expect from the critic an informed opinion, an opinion
which is based on many years, you know, of plush sitting. (LAUGHTER) And you know, many
years of, I don’t know, Preparation H time. (LAUGHTER) Sitting in the dark. But there is an elitism that’s built into
this, there’s no doubt about it. Right. I mean, when we write a review of KING LEAR,
we don’t start by saying, you know, “This is the story of a father who – ” I mean,
you presume that the audience has this knowledge. That’s what it’s about! (LAUGHTER) You presume that there’s a certain level at
which you’re all sort of arguing, and you’re going to lose, you know, people at both ends
probably, the hyper-informed and the completely ignorant. Right. Yes, yes. But I think that’s the worst possible way
to think. To think that, “Well, you know, this is meant for some people.” “Be good enough for you” review. That’s right. “You idiots will like it.” You have no benchmark. You have nothing from
which you feel – Well, let me just take that one step further.
In my review, for example, of FOOTLOOSE, I went back, I was looking through some old
reviews. And what I had said was, “It’s not a very good show, but if you enjoy GREASE,
for example, if this is your cup of tea, if this is the kind of thing that you like, then
this will be for you.” But I think we have to put a caveat somewhere, explaining that
it’s not for those who love classical theatre by any means, by any stretch of the imagination. I think that’s a very good point. But if you approach everything the same way,
and I think we must, which is basically ask yourself three questions: What were they trying
to do? How well did they do it? Was it worth doing? Yes, right. If you can give it the benefit of the doubt,
and try to figure out what they were trying to do, judge it within its context and its
ambition, and then you still have the chance to say, “But you know, I think this is garbage.”
So if you answer those three questions with anything, then I think you end up not applying
standards that are inappropriate. But see, the difference for me is, if I think
something is garbage, and yet, it’s succeeded in fulfilling all of these goals, then it’s
a good play, because it did what it intended to do. It fulfilled its purpose in life. But was that purpose worth doing? One of the difficulties is that if you start
by saying, “Well, this is pretty awful, but you idiots out there will like it,” (LAUGHTER)
you know, the people out there don’t say, “Well, I’m an idiot! I think I’ll like that!”
(LAUGHTER) They are much more likely to turn to the guy next door who’s cleaning his car
and say, “Here, Charlie, there’s really a play for you out there!” (LAUGHTER) But you
know, I honestly think – I agree, you know, the famous Schiller (PH) three points and
all that, what were they trying to do and all that. Umm-hmm, right. It works. I agree with all that. It does work. It does work. But you have to be very careful about trying
to imply to people, “Well, I didn’t like it, but you might,” (LAUGHTER) because it gives
that – It’s condescending. It’s condescending, yes. But we all have guilty pleasures, you know? Well, there is that. And also, I think you
can convey – part of our job is being a reporter, conveying the experience of seeing
the show, even if you don’t necessarily love the show. And so that people, when they read
your reviews, even though you are going to, of course, indicate your problems with it,
sometimes if you describe it well enough, they are going to know that, you know, “Whatever
this critic thinks, I think I’m going to like this show.” And of course, also there’s the
factor that people who read you often are going to be able to gauge your tastes, likes
and dislikes. Yes, absolutely. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And you know, judge accordingly. You can’t read a critic once, you know, for
good or ill. I often have people come to me and say, “I always know when I’m going to
like a show because you’ll hate it.” (LAUGHTER) And you know, this, I think, is a legitimate
way of reading critics. Absolutely. You certainly get to know people’s blind spots. Yes. Do you ever cut a play some slack? Say, “Well,
it was well-intentioned, or the group had handicaps and they were performing, you know,
and so I won’t use the same standard that I might use–” Well, there is the issue of, you know, your
own limitations and biases, and all the things you come to a play with, based on your own
experience. You know, when I walk into a play written by women about women, I sort of – I
mean, I think one of the problems with the theatre today is too many plays are written
from niches where they can’t go beyond the group that they’re writing specifically for.
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) That’s right. Since most plays are written
by men for men! (LAUGHTER) One in twenty-five. I rarely come across one. (LAUGHTER) But you
do try, to some degree, to open yourself, which is the whole point of the theatre. You
know, you try to make some allowances. See another viewpoint, yes. What if you know somebody in a play? I don’t. You never meet actors or actresses? I try so hard not to. I really try. Clive, you know lots of people in the theatre.
What happens when it’s one of your dearest friends? I always found out very early on that in this
business you have to be able to cut the throat of your grandmother. Ah. And you have! I have! (LAUGHTER) No, that was my grandmother! Anybody else, cut the throat of grannies? I find that there’s something called “emotional
conflicts of interest,” which I think are much more dangerous than whether or not some
producer takes you to lunch, you know? Yeah, you like them. You like them, or also, not really in New
York that much, but in the rest of the country, you know, because I worked in America first,
before I came to New York. (LAUGHTER) And there, most critics are also required to do
interviews, you know, and do the feature stories about the shows that they’re about to review. Right. And I found that it was very difficult. I
found that if I began to picture their little faces above the keyboard, that I was in trouble.
And it didn’t mean that I would be nicer to them. Sometimes I might be harsher on them,
just to prove to myself that I’m not being nicer to them. Umm-hmm. That you’re not, right. But there is a reaction. Which is why I decided – I mean, when I
was in Chicago, it was in the seventies, and David Mamet’s first play was the first new
play I ever reviewed, and I sort of grew up in the same neighborhood with all the Steppenwolf
people. And you know, these are the people I had the most in common with, and they were
the most fun, and I wanted to be with them. But I knew that, no matter how much they would
say, “It’s okay, we’re all professionals,” when it came down to my doing what I have
to do, which is totally unnatural in regular society, that it became strained. And you’re
basically attacking not only their vanity, but their ability to pay the [bills]. Live. Yeah. To live! And whether or not their parents
are embarrassed, or that it was good that their father worked three jobs so they could
go to dancing school. There’s too much at stake. Some people can have friends and write
about them. I can’t do it. Maybe it has to do with being female. Do you know? Do critics still get criticism from larger
than life people, like Joe Papp and David Merrick? Not so much, I don’t think. Although, you
know, occasionally. But (LAUGHS) Joe Papp and David Merrick were rather special cases,
weren’t they? (LAUGHTER) They really did sort of — But I don’t know. What do other people
think? I don’t think it – Well, you know, with the advent of e-mail
(LAUGHS), I get a lot of reaction! It goes both ways. But people feel it’s a lot easier,
you know, to just tap on the computer and tell me how they really feel. I get some very nasty mail from actors who
were criticized. Oh, yeah, to be hated! Well, you know, it’s not. I find for the most
part – you know, maybe I’m deluding myself – but for the most part, the conversation
when it happens is carried on fairly genially. I mean, I’ve never had, you know, a pitcher
of water dumped on my head or anything like that. But you hear from actors. In fact, one
day, out of the blue, I got a letter from an actor who basically took issue, just reduced
me to almost tears in this letter, you know, just horrible letter. And then I realized,
I was seeing him in a play that night! Oh, no! (LAUGHTER) It was a pre-emptive strike. Pre-emptive strike! I confessed to the press agent of the show
that he had written this letter. And the press agent called me in a panic, you know, said,
“Please don’t take anything he said [personally]. He’s a crazy person!” (LAUGHTER) I mean, literally,
I think they would have fired him. I mean, they would have said, “He’s out of the play!
They’ve written him out!”, you know? Oh, my God. But I remember having this weird experience
of sitting there watching him and knowing, you know, it was a completely compromised
situation. So how did you review him? I mentioned him. (LAUGHTER) In the most bland
way! And I said, “And the part of the father was played by – ” Because I couldn’t bring
myself either to – you know, I certainly wasn’t going to attack him, but I certainly
wasn’t – I mean, it was – How was he? He was terrible! (LAUGHTER) Well then, you should have speared him! I once had a series of death threats. I mean,
serious death threats. Oh, my God! Oh, yeah. And this was written by someone
extremely distinguished. Who? Well, it was a choreographer, actually. Oh, I know who! Yes, you know who, I’m sure. And he was very
distinguished. Still is! Still is. And he was absolutely mad! And he
sent myself and Anna Kisselgoff, my colleague on the Times, dance critic of the Times, he
sent us little coffins, little private kinds of things. And “I know where you live!” Well,
obviously, he knew where we lived. And all sorts of little kind of drawings. (LAUGHTER)
And in the end, we found ourselves talking to his psychiatrist. And the psychiatrist
told me, “I don’t think he’s really serious!” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “But wouldn’t you say
people, you know, can go over the edge?” He said, “Well, they can. But they don’t usually.”
(LAUGHTER) And the fact is that everyone’s always very
nice to this choreographer, he’s wonderful, right? (LAUGHTER) I get a certain percentage
of “Die, Jew bitch faghag” letters. You know, there’s a whole category. Yes, yes. And when I was at the Chicago Tribune, which
for many years had been – well, it was a far right newspaper in the old days. In my
shtetl, you know, no one read it! (PIA LAUGHS) And when I got there, there was a lot of anti-Semitic
mail that would come, you know. And my favorite was that “Linda Winer should be de-kiked!”
(MURMURS) So you know, I thought it would be nice one day if they just ran my picture
and said, “Linda Winer is being de-kiked. (LAUGHTER) Her column will reappear under
the name of Linda Christian.” (LAUGHTER) But you don’t get criticism over your hair!
(TO ROMA) Now, I bet you do! Because I used to get so many letters, forget what I was
saying, “I hate your hair!” Yes, yes. “You’ve ruined yourself!” One letter went,
“Your hair is a disgrace to your mother’s memory!” (LAUGHTER) Wow! Whoa! I want to go all the way back to something
that Peter said, when he said, “That isn’t what I was hired for. That isn’t what I was
getting paid for as a critic.” And I want to know what it was that you were getting
paid for. Is that a criticism? (LAUGHTER) No, not at all. What it is I’m getting paid for – What is the role of the critic? You’re hired
to be a theatre critic. I think, first and foremost, to be clear about
what you think. Express it in an entertaining way. I think that that’s an underrated quality
today. Maybe different than it was thirty years ago or forty years ago, when there was
this notion of received opinion from a few outlets, and you could afford to be kind of
a little stuffier, maybe. Present company, of course, excepted! But I think that the
value of a critic today is as much being able to reach people and make them feel something
for this art form that, you know, to many people is a more remote thing than it was
a generation ago. Yes, yes, that’s it. I think readability is
extraordinarily important, because the unread critic is a non-critic. Yeah, right. And I think readability is very, very important. And if you take something that’s fascinating
for 500 people and make it boring for 500,000 people, then it’s a crime against the art. Exactly. I remember Sovior (PH) once telling
me that the job of a critic was to sell tickets! (MURMURS OF HORROR) And I said, “So (PH),
you’re absolutely right. The only thing is that we get to choose the tickets we want
to sell.” (LAUGHTER) And I think that we do. But I think that the enthusiasm of a critic
is extremely important. I mean, no one ever writes a play with the idea of it being seen
by someone who’s already seen fifty plays that week. I mean, you know, the critic is
an unusual kind of person. And the first thing he’s got to do is to have an enormous love
and enthusiasm for the theatre. It’s an unnatural life we lead. (LAUGHTER AND AGREEMENT FROM
THE PANEL) And most people would go mad having to do it. Some of us do! (LAUGHTER) But I
mean, in fact, you know, you have to have [that enthusiasm]. There’s nothing worse than
the critic who is bored with his job, but can’t think of anything else to do. And he
drags himself to the theatre or the concert hall. It seems to be happening more often
to music critics than anyone else. Well, that’s because they have to listen to
the same fifty pieces over and over. Yes, the same fifty pieces all the time, exactly.
But really, you do have to have enthusiasm and a great love for what you’re doing. And the hardest part is bringing that enthusiasm
into your writing, because critical writing, I think some people think it’s sort of formulaic.
You know, were the costumes good? Were the sets good? Were the performances good? And
there is a certain element of that. You always have to touch certain bases. And the hard
part is avoiding falling into the usual traps and being excited every time you sit down
to write about a new show. And in a weird way it’s collaborative – this
is the only way in which it’s collaborative with the playwright and the actor. Because
you can’t write any better than the play itself. No, you can’t! No, you can’t. You’re somehow moved or inspired or brought
to a certain issue that a playwright’s raising that you connect with. But all those things,
you know, can elevate your writing. The idea of the 17th time you’re seeing something about
a dysfunctional family in a hovel, you know, and you’ve read this and there’s nothing new
in the project, makes it very, very hard to bring some life to the [review]. But I mean, if you write a boring review,
they don’t say, “Oh, Peter Marks wrote about a boring play.” Right. “This is a boring review about a boring play.”
They’ll say, “Peter Marks wrote a boring review.” You know, so the danger is making things sound
more interesting, because – That’s it! Because the energy you’re bringing
transfers to people’s feelings about the play. Because a good critic to me is a person with
interesting opinions. A good critic, it doesn’t matter if I agree or not agree. Yes, yes. But has an interesting mind and talks about
the art in a way that makes me see something else. And sometimes the danger, I think, in
some cases, is that, you know, the person who’s writing is much more interesting than
the thing they’re writing about. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And pretty soon, that thing starts
to sound like, you know, maybe a little bit more interesting than it was. (LAUGHTER) That’s true. And I think that this issue of style, everyone
has to have a personal style, and you know, we all try to. But I think you write differently
about a comedy than you would about a tragedy. I think the style of the notice should reflect
the nature of the piece that you’re writing about. You know, the nature of the play or
musical, whatever that you’re writing about. But Peter, to touch on that, you know, if
you’ve seen something that is just extremely profound, it elevates the writing. I find
that my writing matches what I’ve seen. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) In the same way, you know, you
go to see a movie and you come out and you’re kind of living off the fumes of the mood that
that film has set, in the same way that a good play can do to you. But don’t you think that the positive reviews
and the negative reviews are the easy ones to write? Absolutely. Yes. Oh, of course. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) It’s the stuff that’s in between, which is
what most of life is. A mixed review, a mixed review. Absolutely. I agree. And most of our experience is the “Yes, but”s
and the “No, but”s. Why is there more wit in a pan than in a rave? Yeah. It’s so much easier. They’re much easier to write, and it’s much
easier to be nasty than to be nice. (LAUGHTER) Witty nice is hard! Witty nice is hard. But what I always feel
a critic shouldn’t do, and I always try to avoid it, picking out jokes out of the writer
and putting them into the [review]. I mean, one of my very distinguished colleagues, who’s
gone now, he used to make his reviews very funny, but half of the jokes had been stolen
from Neil Simon or whoever, you know. (LAUGHTER) He was the Milton Berle of critics. Exactly, exactly. He was. But writing about comedians is like that.
You know how hard it must be for people who regularly cover comedians, because you really
can’t – You can’t tell their jokes. The temptation to tell their jokes and look
funny, you know, is [hard]. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) And they don’t translate. They don’t. No, not well. Well – In print, or at least not out of my mouth. Well, they say that a critic is a person who
gets his or her education in public. Have any of you made a mistake? Roma? Made a mistake? You mean – Made a mistake. Never. I never make mistakes! (PIA LAUGHS) Clive, have you ever made a mistake? All the time, all the time! I mean, sometimes
I get names wrong. I mean, only this last Sunday, I got a name wrong. Some actress I
called Thomas who’s named Thorne (PH), and I’ve had to put an apology in, trying desperately
to wonder whether I can make a joke about thorn, you know, a rose, then decided against
it. But I mean, it’s very easy. (LAUGHS) On deadline at the Tribune, the danger of
the overnights, I was reviewing THE ELEPHANT MAN, and my first sentence was, “David Merrick,
the hideously deformed gentleman – ” (HUGE LAUGHTER) His name was John Merrick! But he could have been David! My worst one, or one of my many was, in television
you have to pronounce their names. Oh, yes. Ooh, that’s awful. So I mean, you get back to the station and
you find this name! And I had never heard of Ralph Fiennes before. (LAUGHS) I called
him Ralph Finnes, because I was just trying to sound it out. And oh, did I get letters,
“You idiot!” CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD
I’d still call him Ralph, in the same way. It’s easier. Ever made a mistake, Peter? I wouldn’t admit to it. (PIA LAUGHS) No, no,
I’ve had regrets. I mean, I think I would go back, and it was probably a performance I was
a little bit hard on. You know, you try not to review badly dogs and children ever. I
mean, that’s sort of, you know, a standard. But I mean, I was pretty hard on the production
of ANNIE. It was very early. I mean, I thought it was the production – You were tough on the dog?! (LAUGHTER) No! He was the best part! It was before I owned one, I didn’t understand
the whole thing! But you know, I mean, I don’t regret having panned it. I just wonder if
it was a little, you know. Has anyone ever corrected [a review]? You
know, like seen it again later and said, “Oh, I was wrong about this performance”? Oh, I have, often You must. You’ve had the opportunity to, sure. Yes, I have. But I find that sometimes, I always remember
one, this was very much during overnight reviews, because you would do very quickly. And something
would strike you as funny at the time, and boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, and it was gone.
And I remember one particular instance. I woke up, and I said, someone – and you know,
he had a very, very small part – and I said, “So-and-so made the least of a small part.”
(LAUGHTER) And it struck me as funny at the time. It’s still funny. And then I read it in the morning, and I suddenly
had the image of this man sitting at the breakfast table with his family (LINDA LAUGHS), “made
the least of a small part.” (LAUGHTER) You do realize that Peter and I are going
to use that tomorrow! (LAUGHTER) It’s good, isn’t it? Obviously, you’re all very knowledgeable,
and that’s the reason you are where you are, and here. But how important is it to bring
that knowledge in? “If you had seen Fredric March, as I had, in the part, then you would
have realized John Jones duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.” Most people have not seen Fredric March or
whoever that you’re talking about, in the years of reviewing that you’ve had. Is that
a fair thing to use, as a reviewer? I myself, from my enormous age – I mean,
I have seen Fredric March! (LAUGHS) I can go further! (LAUGHTER) I think I can. No, I started going to theatre
in 1936, so that clearly [dates me]. It’s something which I probably ought to curb.
But I do find myself comparing. You know, for LONG DAY’S NIGHT, yes, I possibly would
compare. I think that, in a way, it’s a useful function of criticism, to show A) that there’s
a backlog of classic performance, and also to show, you know, everyone should have seen
someone else. I mean, I remember when I was a kid, Flagstad
was the reigning Wagnerian soprano, and everyone said, “Oh, but you should have Frieda Lieda
(PH),” you know? (LAUGHTER) But then I found that soon, you know, I was able to say, “Ah,
but you should have seen Flagstad!” But in fact, I think that for a critic to have a
background is useful. I don’t think anyone should really start writing criticism until
they’ve been going to the theatre for at least ten years, you know. I really don’t think
that people should just sort of, you know, [start]. Because you’ve got to have some kind
of [experience]. One thing, it gives you confidence, doesn’t it? I really do believe it’s very hard to review
Brian Dennehy in a classic American play without knowing about Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman.
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) Yes, but don’t you hate it, reading reviews
where people pretend that they’d seen people they haven’t? Well, when they’re forty years old and they
said they saw Fredric March? Yeah! (LAUGHTER) I started out very young, reviewing classical
music. And so, you know, I would go to the Chicago Symphony, and realize that everybody
there practically had heard the Mahler Tenth a lot more frequently than I had. Yes, yes. And all I could do was do my homework and
try to have a context within what I could know. But I decided early on I was never going
to pretend I’d been somewhere I hadn’t or that I knew something I didn’t. And I think,
you know, if you just start there. And then, you know, the more you see, the easier it
is to do then. I think you have to moderate those references.
Because I hate it when I read reviews and all of it is, is history! (GENERAL AGREEMENT)
And they’re giving you the background of a play, you know, and particularly if it’s a
play that has some age and depth, it’s very difficult. It’s all balance. It’s balance, exactly. You want to say something, Charles? Well, I’m feeling very inferior here, not
having, you know, very many years of experience. But of course, you have to start somewhere.
And I have been going to the theatre and loving all art forms for many years before I started
writing. And I think there is an age at which your critical tastes are sort of formed. Yes. I mean, I know I liked some pretty ghastly
things at age fifteen that I would not admit to now, like Ayn Rand novels, for instance. You were the one! (LAUGHTER) And you know, certainly I wish, when I’m sitting
down to write a review of a classic play, that I’d seen ten productions instead of two. Boy, that FOUNTAINHEAD musical is going to
do very well with you! (LAUGHTER) Do you read the play before you go to see
it? Well, yes. You know, as Linda said, you have
to do your homework, if you’re starting from, you know, a lower point than your colleagues. But do you read new plays? No. You don’t read new plays? I’m sorry, am I butting in? Do you read a
play, like that’s already been in London, that’s already in script, it’s done? That
maybe your other colleagues had read it and had seen it in London and you hadn’t, or something
like that? No, I don’t. I mean, my rule is, if it’s considered
a classic, if it’s a revival, basically, I will always try to read it before. And usually
not the night before, because that obviously is going to, you know, change your opinion.
But for new plays, I don’t do that. Do you? I mean, I’m curious. I find it useful. I do it less and less now,
but through the years, as I was getting increasingly less frightened, I developed this “one-act-ing”
a play, where I would read the first act of a play that’s in the repertory, but that I
don’t know. And I’d read the first act, so that I’d have some idea of what the playwright’s
intentions were as opposed to what the director’s intentions are. But then I’d leave the second
act, so that I could be part of the audience and still have a sense of surprise. That’s interesting. Do you do that? Roma, do you read the plays before you see
them? Occasionally. If it’s a Greek tragedy, (LAUGHTER)
I try to get caught up, because I just have an aversion to Greek tragedy, I have to admit
that. And that doesn’t mean I’ll pan it, you know. I mean, that’s my personal thing and
I try to keep that out of the reviews. But occasionally, I need that summary, even if
it’s Cliff Notes. I need to go back and remember what it’s all about. But you know, there’s a new phenomenon that
I just love, and that is, a lot of new plays, the press agents are supplying the scripts.
So I get such a kick out of reading, you know, the text, even after I’ve seen it, to see,
you know, what a director has done to it and how a particular actor has read a line. I
love that. Yeah. It’s very useful now, having the script. Also, there are so many Irish ones, that you
can’t understand the brogues! Oh, you can’t understand! That’s right! (LAUGHTER) I like to read a play before I see it, actually.
But I don’t read it, I kind of skim it. I like to know that Hamlet died in the end,
so I don’t get surprised, which is perhaps wrong. But I’m not a good visualizer. If I
were a good visualizer, I’d probably be a producer and make money. (LAUGHTER) Not too
many producers do make money, but still, you know what I mean! But in fact, I do like to
have a look at a play before, but I skim it rather than read it, seriously. And you, Peter? I just like to find the right theatre. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, there’s always that. As long as you’re
in the right theatre! No, I mean, in the season I try and read as
much as I can. You do find yourself, though, backing up sometimes. You know, you’re sometimes
going out five nights a week, and you’re writing, so there are gaps. No, I don’t have a hard
and fast rule, but I try to. Peter, talking of that, have you ever not
found the right theatre? Because I have. (LAUGHS) I once couldn’t find the theatre. And in the
end, I had to ring up and say – they were holding the curtain, they were! – and it
was the most embarrassing moment of my life. But has anyone else ever not found a theatre?
I mean, this was a loft. I’ve gone to the wrong theatre. I have to look before I leave every time.
You know, where is it? Yes, so do I. And look at the back of the
Theatre Index to find out where it is. So do I. Umm-hmm. That’s funny. True confessions! Yeah, just like, wind us up, they send us
off! Critics running all over, looking for the
theatre! And you know, the funny thing is, I know where
every London theatre is, but I don’t know where any New York theatres are. (LAUGHTER) Isn’t that odd? I don’t know if it’s kind of youth. You know,
growing up, you’re more receptive. Yeah. Those nerve pathways were a lot stronger
then. (LAUGHTER) Exactly. My children know the New York subway,
but I’ve never found [anything]. I never can use the New York subway. But I can use the
Underground and the Paris Metro. I don’t know why, but I can only use the 1 and 3 lines,
you know. (LAUGHTER) After that, I’m lost. Do today’s critics feel that their influence
is diminished? After all, critics have tried very hard to stamp out Andrew Lloyd Webber
and it failed. (LAUGHTER) They have a new target, Frank Wildhorn. He won’t go away! Really! He won’t go away. With a name like that, how could he? How do you feel about theatres? Do you favor
one theatre over another? Or do you say, “Oh, Lord, it’s in X theatre again. I dislike that
theatre so much. I don’t like the sightlines.” I mean, does that come into it? I don’t think it really affects things very
much. You know, it’s like some theatres have reputations for flops, but put a hit in it,
and it’s gone. No, I don’t think so. I mean, obviously, we like some theatres more than
others, who doesn’t? But I don’t think that really – Colors. Colors, no. I have a slightly different perspective. I
am the second string Off-Broadway critic for the Times, and I’m just happy when the theatre
has a bathroom. (LAUGHTER) I’ve seen many plays – You mean some of them do? Usually you have to wait till the play’s over,
because you have to walk across the stage. You walk over the stage! No, I’ve been at the theatre where you have
to bus your own tray, basically. And you know, it’s like, clean out an area in front of you.
It’s a little different. But I do think, especially in Off-Broadway
theatres, there’s places I like to go because I’ve had good times there. And chances are,
when I go tonight, there will be something good there, and I can start to change my opinion,
but you know, if you start to constantly associate a place with someplace, you know, where you’ve
had bad times, they start to just seem dreary to you and it’s hard to drag myself there.
And also, you know, who wouldn’t prefer to sit in the Lyceum instead of the Minskoff?
(GENERAL AGREEMENT) Presumably Minskoff! (LAUGHS) Yeah! You know, there are some theatres that
are barns, and some of them just make you feel embraced by them.
CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD And yet all of them seem to have too small
seats for somebody who’s six two! (GENERAL AGREEMENT) They’re getting smaller, aren’t they? Yeah, it seems that way. Doesn’t it seem that way? And also, men think they get both arms. Did
you ever notice that? Men always think they have two arms on their seats. They don’t!
(LAUGHTER) Everyone has one arm, and the other one belongs to the person next to you. But which is it? Yes, which one is it? Which one is it? The right arm or the left? It depends on which way you’re coming from. I see, okay. But it’s best not to do this, guys! (SPRAWLS
IN HER CHAIR) This is not your seat! Now, here’s a technical question. Do you use
pens that light up in the dark? No! Anybody ever use that? Or do you wait? I once tried it. A press agent once gave me,
a ballet press agent once gave me one as a little gift, and I thought, “Ooh, how wonderful!”
Because I can never read my notes. (LAUGHTER) I mean, never, ever.
CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD Yes! This is the technical problem! (LAUGHS) But I sometimes take them, because people
know who critics are, and they look at you. And if you don’t take notes, it looks as if
you’re not really very serious. Or you’re falling asleep. Exactly, or you’re falling asleep. And sometimes,
it’s tough to keep from falling asleep. That’s right. But anyway, on this occasion, I pulled out
this pen, and I put on the light, and the entire audience turned toward this searchlight!
(LAUGHTER) I never did it again. People are always giving you those as presents. They always do! They think it’s such a good idea! I know! “I’ll give that critic a pen that lights!”
I mean, why not wear one of those miner hats? (LAUGHTER) And they make a noise! The other thing is,
when you click it on in a silent scene, it makes a “kkk-kkk-kkk!” Yes, yes. But how about note taking? Can people
read their notes? Harvey, you’ve been very quiet about this.
As a press agent, how have you worked with the reviewers? What is your role? What is
the role of the press agent, with a theatre critic? Just to make sure that they get their tickets.
(LAUGHTER) They go to the theatre! And get to the right theatre. It’s been my experience, and I’ve had an awful
lot of experience, that basically the critics are rarely, if ever, wrong. You may be able
to beat them from what is now called marketing. In my day, it went going to the A&P. Now it
means something else. (LAUGHTER) But basically, on the quality of the show, they are rarely,
if ever, wrong. Well, who’s the “they”? I mean, sometimes
you’ve got five critics with five totally different opinions. Yeah. No, you don’t, very often. No, not very often. No, there’s usually a very strong consensus,
I find. Well, I guess it’s just I’m usually the odd
one out there! (LAUGHTER) Wrong again! Wrong again! Wrong again, Winer!
There you are! There was a whole season there that I labeled
“The cheese stands alone.” (LAUGHTER) Does that mean, then, that we should have
more than one critic on a paper, so that you can say, “Look at the two different opinions
on it”? Well, isn’t that the purpose of the Sunday
paper, the Sunday New York Times? Wasn’t that why it started? I don’t know what the real reason was. No. I suspect it wasn’t. Here, Harvey’ll know. And Mr. Barnes will know. Oh, and Mr. Barnes will know. But that pre-dated
Barnes though, right? No, no. No? Go ahead. Well, I don’t really know. Or you know, no
comment. (LAUGHTER) But I think that the difficulty of two writers on the paper, this was always
taken up by the Times, for a long time, one period, many years ago. And because it was
the Times, they wanted to have two critics. They didn’t give a damn whether the Daily
News or the New York Post had two critics, they’ve always wanted two critics on the Times.
But in the first place, if you have two drama critics, why shouldn’t you have two opera
critics, two dance critics, two whatever? You know, that’s one thing. I see. The second thing is that, first, a lot of
any review is partly telling the story, setting the scene. So each review would be rather
similar, in some respects. So you know, you would have to say, “Okay, Charlie, I told
the story last night, you can tell it this night,” you know, “Okay?” The other difficulty
is that if the Times gave two raves, that would be terrific. But you know, if it gave
two pans, that would be certain death, even worse than one pan. And if it gave one rave
and one pan, then, you know – But then you’d be choosing. The reader would
know that “That’s the one that I really respect and I follow, and his taste or her taste is
the same as mine.” Well, but I don’t think – in that case,
I think possibly what would happen is that one critic would eventually sort of out-shadow
the other critic, rightly or wrongly. I mean, I’m not saying – but I think that one critic
would become popular, one critic would not, you know? And I don’t think there’s any really
good reason to have two reviews in the Times. I don’t, either. How many outlets review?
I mean, the variety is in the variety of publications, I think, more than anything else. Exactly. But I think it makes sense at the Times. Can you hold it? Because we have to take a
break now. And all these wonderfully wise words will be said when we come back again.
And so, for us and for the audience, just hold it for one second, and stand up and take
a break, walk around, take a deep breath, and come right back again. And we’ll continue
the American Theatre Wing’s seminars on “Working in the Theatre.” Thank you. (APPLAUSE) This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome back to the American Theatre
Wing’s seminar on “Working in the Theatre.” Before we return to our knowledgeable panel,
I would like to point out that the Wing is more than a sponsor of seminars, more than
our acclaimed Tony Awards, given for excellence in the theatre, which we present in partnership
with the League of American Theatres and Producers on television. Ours is an organization whose
year-round programs are dedicated to serving the theatre and the community. We have created
audience development programs for students, like “Introduction to Broadway,” which
began eight years ago and has enabled 75,000 New York City high school students to attend
a Broadway show, many for the very first time. And through our “Theatre in Schools” program,
theatre professionals go into classrooms to discuss the craft of theatre with the students.
And in addition, we have our hospital program, which dates back to World War One. Today’s
version of the program uses talent from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the cabaret world to entertain
patients in nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, children’s wards and AIDS centers, bringing
that magic of theatre to those who can not get to the theatre themselves. We are proud
of the work we do and very happy for the important working relationship we have with the theatre
community, and so very grateful to everyone who makes our work possible. Now, let’s get back to our seminar on critics.
And I’d like to start Part Two with a question for the panel. And my question is, do you
ever go back and re-view a show? Do you go back to see whether it is either up to your
expectations, or if you gave it a bad review and it’s still running, why it is still running?
So Harvey, Pia, would you like to take that up? Anybody go back and visit? Well, we have to go back a lot when there’s
cast changes. So you know, if there’s one cast change or two cast changes, you do get
to look at the show again. And then, when I like something, I go back a lot. I become
quite a fanatic. And my husband, who’s a music critic, thinks I’m insane, but I say, “Look,
you’re going to be able to see MADAME BUTTERFLY again next year and five years from now. If
I don’t see SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE as many times as I possibly can right now,
chances are, you know, I will never see it again, or if I do, it will change ten years
from now and I will have changed ten years from now and it won’t be those actors. So
the only way to really get these shows into your bloodstream is by seeing them over and
over again. So I go back a lot. Usually critics, as many people may not know,
are invited by shows to review their shows, and we go on nights designated as critics’
previews. Once a show is running, sometimes we go back without alerting the production.
I’ve done this on several occasions with the long-running musicals on Broadway, CATS, PHANTOM,
MISS SAIGON, and did a wrap-up piece once where I sat in the audience with CATS and
watched as the scenery started peeling off the back of the walls (PH). (LAUGHTER) It
was so old, the production! I think in the review, I said something like, you know, “Someone
call the super,” because you know, it’s got a problem. But we do go back a lot. Just as
the theatre is not a one-night deal, it goes on and on, you know, we sort of serve it.
We maintain it ourselves on that kind of basis. Actually, I have a question for Harvey. As
a press agent, were you ever in a position to warn your company that a critic was coming?
I mean, was there ever an issue where you said, you know, “Look alive, folks, because
So-and-So is coming in the audience.” Well, in my time as a press agent, which ended
twenty-six years ago, we had fixed opening nights, and all the critics came. Right, they knew. So the cast knew what to expect, and they
either faced it or they crumbled. It could go either way. I just wondered if when we go back – However, really, in the long run, it didn’t
influence the critics that much. Yes, I’ve seen plays where the night before the opening,
the performance was so bad that the audience walked out and the next night it was absolutely
marvelous. I remember a play called ANY WEDNESDAY, with Sandy Dennis, that got rave notices and
ran a long time. But that is a rarity. Well, about when somebody, say Peter’s going
to go back to see PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, do you let the company know that the Times is
in the house? You know, later in the run? My tendency would be not to let them know,
at any time. I mean, they’re there to do a job. They should be doing their job to the
best of their ability on any night, whether there’s a critic there or not. Nothing changes. I was always curious. What’s important to them should be the audience,
the people they’re working to. Did you ever hate any critics? Say, “I’m going
to give them a bad seat,” and “I don’t like those people,” and purposely seat her in a
bad spot? Middle of the row! I once worked for a producer who despised
all critics! And he knew that I had a friend who was a coach of the New York Knickerbockers,
and he asked me to invite the team to the opening night and to seat them in front of
the critics! (LAUGHTER) Oh, no! Classic. That’s classic. You asked a very good question before, about
the power. About the diminishing influence of critics,
which I suspect, as an observer now, I suspect has been happening over the years. Because
shows that are roundly panned can run five, ten years. And even, you know, awful flops
that used to close on Saturday night if they opened on Thursday, are running week in and
week out. Do you sense any diminishing influence? I think for sure. I think the theatre was
slow to pick up on the marketing techniques that the rest of the country and the world,
you know, the West, had been perfecting for better or usually worse. And in one way, I
think it’s healthy. Because it’s nice to have a show not be affected necessarily by whether
or not the Times [likes it]. And we say “the Times” because really, the Times is the one
that can keep a show open or close a show. Right. The rest of us, as much as we may be brilliant
people, you know, wonderful papers, really the Times is the one that historically would
be the one that was blamed for closing shows or, you know, praised for keeping shows open.
And so, that’s a good thing in that way. It’s healthy that one person or two people are
not deciding the taste of the entire community. On the other hand, then, a lot of the shows
that continue to run run on the basis of the size of their advertising budget, so that
if you’ve got enough money to make a show review-proof, then you can run a pretty long
time on the unsuspecting. I’m thrilled with that, though, as you say. Yeah, I think it’s basically [good]. Because see, I used to be on the other end
of things. I was an actress when I started out in the theatre business. And so, you know,
I was on the bad end of a lot of those bad reviews. Not you! Oh, yeah. And I would resent the power of
critics. And you know, I never got beyond Off-Broadway, but I remember reading about
friends’ plays, and I used to just curse whoever was writing those reviews at the time who
would have the power to close a show. And usually, it was at the Times. But you know,
it would be almost a conspiracy, everybody would join in. And you know, you’re right,
the reviews are not all that different. You know, there’s not that much of a distinction
between the critics. And I hated that. So I’m so happy that shows can survive even with
a bad review. But it’s a little of an overstatement, I do
think, that the Times, you know, really had the power to close shows. I mean, it could
deprive it of an audience to a certain degree. There are numerous examples down the years
of shows that the Times loved that did not find an audience, and conversely, shows that
the Times hated that stayed, even before the age of the deep pockets. My defensive posture
at this point is, if I can dissuade one person from seeing a bad show, I’ve done my job,
you know? (LAUGHTER) That’s what you sort of feel sometimes. But on the whole, it’s
a burden to feel that on the back of your opinion, you know, employment is going to
be received or denied by people. Oh, I’m sure. So in that sense, it frees you up. It liberates
you somewhat from that feeling that, you know, you’re out there doing a job of selling tickets,
which really a critic doesn’t want to do. Do you ever feel, though, that burden influences
what you say or how you say it? If you really hate something so much, and know that there
might be an audience out there for it, do you temper the review at all? Well, I know that when I dislike something
very much, and this goes to Harvey’s profession, there’s a tremendous adversarial relationship
that develops in the crafting of what you say in a review. I have had my words – your
words in your review don’t live as long as the quotes that appear over the ads! (LAUGHTER)
That run in the ABCs every day in the New York Times and on the marquees. And we all
have these stories, but I’ve had situations where I’ve used, in fairly short reviews,
said nothing but damning remarks, and I’ve used one word to be gently, you know, suggestive
that this not the abomination of all time. And that one word becomes – one time, I
said, “This show is terrible. There are some exquisite harmonies (LAUGHTER) in the second
act.” The next day, I look in the paper, “Exquisite, exclamation point! says the Times.” (LAUGHTER) Usually it’s funny. If you say anything is
“funny,” even if it’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, there will be “Funny, exclamation point!” They want all our approval, but they want
– We have some questions from the audience. Okay. Okay. Want to shut us up? I have one quick question, which might be
loaded, but I’m going to ask anyway. In our performance seminar, we constantly hear that
an actor or a playwright or a director has to do this in the theatre, can not do anything
else. I’m going to let you mull this over. Do you feel that way about being a theatre
critic? Do you feel that way about the theatre? That even if you didn’t get free tickets,
that you would go to the theatre, because that’s what you love? Having said that, I’m
going to let you think about it, and let our audience come through and ask the questions
that they’re ready to ask. Would you come through?
FE Yes. I was wondering, how can one make a living
as a theatre critic? CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD
Not easily. (LAUGHTER) FE
I mean, not just free theatre tickets, you’ve got to make a living. We would refer you to our editors, basically,
is the answer to that, I think. It’s a narrow field. You mean, how does one get started as a theatre
critic? FE
And make a living, actually get paid a salary. It’s an increasingly pathetic job market. I can’t imagine that any of us – did any
of us think when we were, you know, fifteen or sixteen, that you wanted to be a theatre
critic? Oh, no! I was going to be a veterinarian. Of course! (LAUGHS) I mean, it’s something you fall [into]. You
know, these jobs open up like BRIGADOON, you know, once a century. (LAUGHTER) It’s true. And I think it just falls to you. I know there
was like a fourteen-year-old student at some high school in New York who wrote me and said,
“Your re-review of RENT was horrific.” You know, basically gave me his review and wants
to be a theatre critic. And I thought, “He’ll never be [one].” I mean, if you want to, I
don’t think (LAUGHS) you ever will be. I mean, unless you really have incredible fortitude.
But I don’t even think there’s a program. Is there a program to train theatre critics
any more, at Yale Drama? Well, yeah, I teach a criticism class at Columbia.
But it’s not really to train critics. Right. Critical thinking? You know, it’s a very hard job market. And
Time and Newsweek used to regularly, every single week, have a full page for theatre.
And very, very seldom do they have theatre reviews now, and often, they’re like this.
(DEMONSTRATES ABOUT TWO INCHES WITH HER FINGERS) Every TV station, when I moved here in ’80
had the theatre review, the night of the opening. And I thought, “What a wonderful place this
is, that the theatre’s important enough that on a half an hour news, that there would be
[a review].” Very few of them do now. You know, newspapers
are dying. Newspapers are consolidating and laying people off. And the political climate
of the last twenty, fifteen years has successfully marginalized the arts so much that both the
public and editors have a tendency to think that the arts are much less important. But you know, in closing, I’ll make this brief
– Except for New York 1! No, I think it is very difficult to aim to
become a theatre critic. You have to be within the right setting. For example, if you’re
at the Times, and you know, as Peter said, he started out as a reporter. You have to
be within that milieu, you know, in order to get noticed. And I think it’s pretty similar
with all of us here. Do you think that’s true on television, too? Certainly, sure. Can we get the next question?
ROBERT CAMELOT Hi, my name is Robert Camelot (PH). My question
is directed at the entire panel. Do you have different standards of criticism, either consciously
or subconsciously, when reviewing a show on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or in non-profit institutional
theatres? Different standards. Well, I don’t know about my subconscious.
Who knows what it’s doing out there! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, I think inevitably you do, because you
know that expectations are very high when people are paying $75, $80, even $90 now a
ticket. I think, for instance, there’s a show that’s opening on Broadway tomorrow night,
I think, that opened ten years ago Off-Broadway. And in my review I, you know, made the point
that Off-Broadway ten years ago there was something about this that might have had,
you know, a certain amount of charm. But you know, when people are expected to pay $65
a ticket, I don’t want my words, which they don’t often, but appearing over the title
saying, you know, “Brilliant.” You do bring different standards. I mean, I think you’d
all agree. I don’t know. I always feel like I left my
yardstick in my other purse. You know, people are always talking about standards. I mean,
I think there’s no way that I’m going to say I like something that I don’t like. But possibly,
the tone. You know, using a cannon to shoot a fly. You know, you don’t want to be a bully.
But there’s no reason, is there – can I string some more cliches together? (PIA LAUGHS)
I think so. You know, there’s no reason to beat a horse to know it’s dead. (LAUGHTER)
Or, you know, fill those in. But you know, you have the sense of proportion. It’s a purely subjective business we’re in.
I mean, that’s the bottom line. As I said, I mean, you bring your expectation level,
the normal variety of expectations you have, to any two events in your life, to any two
nights in the theatre. We have another question. Let me make a comment first, and that is,
I think that theatregoers are making a big mistake if they rely on just one critic. And
I’m a professor at City University, and in the English Department, but my PhD’s in Theatre.
So everybody comes to me and says, “Did you hear about the new play?” and they’re always
reading the Times. Well, I don’t read the Times until I go home. I read Linda Winer
coming in on the train, so I have a different opinion. I’ll pay you later. (LAUGHTER) And I said, “You really shouldn’t go by just
one critic.” Well, my question is that we hear an awful lot of talk, especially from
politicians, about what we ought to think and what we ought to see and what we ought
to do, and there’s been a lot of questions and comments about censorship just recently.
And I’m just wondering, I think most of you are very open-minded. You have to be if you’re
going to be critics. And liberal and open-minded people say, you know, let anything go, as
opposed to the ones who only want us to think what they think. Is there any circumstances
when there could be or should be censorship in the theatre? Mmm, that’s a good question. Yeah, it’s an excellent question. I think that would have to come at the beginning
of the seminar! (LAUGHTER) Well, maybe the only one would be if you actually
physically harmed something on the stage. Otherwise, I think all, you know. Those dogs or children, as you were talking
about. Yeah, as long as it’s not a snuff play, you
know, then I think that you may find a point of view repugnant, but you know, I want to
see it. Or I want to have the right to not see it. Anybody feel differently? I’d rather answer Isabelle’s question about
whether you like the theatre or not. (LAUGHTER) All right, let’s please answer my question.
Do you all love the theatre? Let’s start with that one. I mean, it’s an easy question to answer. I
think that none of us would be doing this – I think I can speak for everybody, and
they’ll speak for themselves! Unless you’re a masochist! (LAUGHS) If we didn’t adore this art form. And when
it’s great, there’s nothing like it. Absolutely. There’s no [more] exhilarating experience.
And I think I live for those few occasions when it moves me beyond any, I think, human
capacity to do. It’s a super-human feeling. And that’s, you know, the quest, constantly,
in this job. And you don’t use that term lightly, I know.
Those “few occasions.” (LAUGHTER) When you think about it, of all the shows that we see,
how many openings are there in a year? Forty, maybe. About forty, yeah. Of that, the percentage is so high that the
plays are not going to be very good. And yet, you live – I guess we’re idealists by nature
– you live for that moment when you’re going to see something that is just so transporting.
You know, that changes your life. And there have been quite a few. Yeah. There was a critic in Chicago for many
years named Claudia Cassidy (PH), who was a theatre, dance and music critic of the Chicago
Tribune, and just died recently at the age of 97. Talk about influence! (LAUGHS) And Claudia once was saying to me, she said,
“I became addicted to the idea of curtains about to go up,” or “about to be raised.”
I’m sure she said it more gracefully than that. But I think that’s what it is. You sit
there and you think, “Maybe this time.” That’s a wonderful way to hear, “Maybe this
time,” because I think that’s the excitement that we talk about, when you go into the theatre,
that’s unlike anything else. The rustle of the program and the waiting for either the
first chord of the orchestra or the curtain to go up, there is “Maybe this time.” And
even if it isn’t this time, there is still something that is very magical and very wonderful
about live, professional theatre. And on that note, which is what, you wake
me up in the middle of the night I will say that as well, because I love the theatre,
and most everybody that’s been part of our panels feels the same way, and the audience
that is here. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, and I’m part of the American Theatre Wing. I’m
a member of the Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing, and I’m delighted to
be able to bring this seminar from the new Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. And the seminar on “Working in the Theatre” has been on the critics, their role,
and as I found out from this afternoon, they are very deeply involved and they deeply care
about the theatre as well. And I’m very proud to have had them here, and grateful to them.
Thank you very much. Thank you, too, Pia, and thank you, Harvey. (APPLAUSE)

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