Critics (Working In The Theatre #340)


The
theatre critic is an inextricable and indeed inevitable part of the process of theatre
in any community in which it’s made. But while we always have the opportunity to
read what a critic thinks about a particular production or a series of productions, we
really don’t have the opportunity to know the people behind those opinions. Over the course of the next 90 minutes we
want to take the opportunity to understand more about the role of the theatre critic
from the critics themselves. How they do what they do. Why they do what they do. And hopefully give everyone some more insight
into these people who are so much a part of the theatre process. I’d like to introduce our panel for today. Beginning on my right, Michael Kushwara of
the Associated Press. Melissa Rose Bernardo of Entertainment Weekly. Jeremy McCarter from New York Magazine, Elysa
Gardner from USA Today, and Michael Feingold from the Village Voice. With the goal of understanding more about
who these people are, I want to start with a question for the whole panel, and very simply
tell us what was the first time you recall going to the theatre and absolutely being
blown away and excited and it stuck in your brain as your first great time at the theatre? And I’m going to start again, on my right
with Mike. Well, my first really memorable theatre experience
was at the Pocono Playhouse , a long, long forgotten comedy called THE THIRD BEST SPORT,
which I think came to Broadway and died in about 2 weeks, but it starred Celeste Holm. As a little kid of about 8 years old, this
was a—it was a sex comedy so there was—I thought it was pretty racy, though at the
time—if I probably read it now, I think would be probably pretty PG rated. But I remember in the second act, Celeste
Holm had to get–played a character who got drunk, and I was totally exhilarated, I was
shocked. I said “My gosh.” And everybody was laughing hysterically, and
it excited me, I thought “My gosh, she’s getting a reaction from this audience.” And from that, of course I had to go backstage
and get her autograph afterwards, and from then on I was hooked. Melissa? Uh, my story is not nearly as star-driven. I have a sort of vague memory of being about
10, and going to the Fisher Theatre in Detroit to see ANNIE with my Mom and my Grandma, and
that was—growing up where I saw all sorts of touring shows, but I just—I have this
distinct memory of ANNIE and hating Miss Hannigan, {Laughter} and wanting to be friends with
all the orphans, and I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Heh. Jeremy? I have no idea. {whole audience laughs}
Uh. I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t
think—I don’t think I have one single bolt from the blue moment of sitting in the
audience anyway and finding—you know, being captivated by the theatre and feeling like
this, you know, something that I need to be more a part of. When I was a kid and in school, I was always
in plays, or working on plays, in one capacity or another, and I think that maybe had more
to do with hooking me on it than sitting in the audience. And funny enough there was something I read,
in fact, something that was written about the theatre, that is the closest I can remember
to having a moment where I thought this is amazing and wonderful, and I need to explore
this. It was something that Robert Brustein wrote
about 10 years ago. It was a review of THE LION KING, actually,
which is not where you’d think necessarily there’d be a kind of epiphany of the dramatic
arts, but there was. And Brustein made the point that the—what
every theatre tradition in the world has historically understood, with the exception of ours (of
the western tradition), is that the secret of theatre is not to make an audience forget
that they’re watching a play, it’s to constantly remind them that they’re watching
a play. And I still, I guess can’t quite explain
why I find that so compelling, but I do. And it’s still the most exciting thing about
the theatre to me is that sense of sort of knowing that someone is playing a trick on
you and loving every minute of it. Elysa? Well, uhm, I was in plays in school as well,
mostly musicals. I was a singer who moved, {laughs} I think
is how actors refer to it. And my parents, like a lot of kids growing
up in suburban New York, my parents would take my brother and me into New York City
all the time to see Broadway musicals, and uh…my earliest and fondest memories include
seeing Christine Andreas in OKLAHOMA. I think Christine Ebersole was also in that
production as Ado Annie. And also seeing a revival of WEST SIDE STORY
with Debbie Allen as Anita, and I think Jossie de Guzman as Maria. So uhm, that—I mean that, Rodgers & Hammerstein,
and Bernstein and Sondheim, not a bad way to start. Michael? I feel very old because I reviewed most of
the things these other people mentioned {whole audience laughs}. Uhm, to show you—this is going to date me,
but my parents went to the theatre a lot, I grew up in Chicago, and the transforming
experience, I remember as being taken at age 8 to a review called NEW FACES, which my mother
mistakenly thought was something suitable for children. {laughter} It was in fact a very sophisticated
New York review on it’s—one of it’s performers had become a very big star on it’s
national tour, knowing that the folks outside New York, like they threw out all the sophisticated
material, and replaced it with numbers for her, and her name was Eartha Kitt. And one of the numbers in the second act was
her big Turkish belly dance number, “Uska Dara”. My parents were appalled, I was fascinated
{laughter} Now already, there have been mentions of people
appearing in high school shows, and so on, Michael, you famously continue to not only
work as a critic, but you work within the field as well, as a translator, primarily
of German material for the stage. Well, everyone says German. Have I misspoken? That’s actually my conjoined twin brother
who has the same name, {laughter}, we don’t talk about him when we’re talking about
criticism, but yes, I have a second life in the theatre, which conflicts. So is—is—well, you said it, does it conflict? Sure. How do you balance being a theatre practitioner
and working and collaborating with artists who, at other times, you may have been put
in the position of writing about and judging their work? Always tell the truth and don’t let your
malice run away from you, and then you’re safe in most situations. Have other people faced that? Jeremy, you also have done some work. You work in the theatre. Yeah, it comes up sometimes. It’s uh, it’s something to be aware of. It can be dicey sometimes, there are some
companies that I don’t write about because I feel that I’m too close to the people
in them, for personal reasons and professional reasons, and uh…but I do think the larger
issue is that I think while it can be complicated sometimes in terms of, you know, feeling that
you can be fair and take a shot at someone or praise someone, I think that there’s
a tradition in the theatre that many of the very best critics have done both, and sometimes
done both simultaneously, Shaw and Max Beerbohm, George S. Kaufman, Bob Brustein. That’s the company to keep. I think it’s the way—I find that the two
inform one another in a way that makes both more satisfying. Elysa, have you ever experienced that, or
was it really you took a break from your performing and then moved into writing? Oh, yeah, it was something I did in high school
and college, and I loved it, and I didn’t write for the newspaper in high school or
college, but uhm, I think it gave me an appreciation for what performers go through. Even physically, you know, how rigorous it
is, and my mom was also a professional singer, so she imparted that to me. The conflict I face now, more than that is
that I’m also a reporter as well as a critic. So often, I’ll be interviewing somebody
before or after I see the show, and I think what you have to do is basically, you know,
separate the art from the artist, which is always a good rule to follow {laughs}, anyway
in general, so. Melissa, Mike, were either of you ever performers
or moved to be performers? Oh, I did it in high school, I think and never
really thought seriously about doing it. I do have some friends who are performers
who I know from college just from writing about them, became friendly with them later,
so there are some situations where like I wouldn’t review a show that they’re in—not
that they’re good friends, but sort of acquaintances, and I feel the need just to kind of back off. But like Elysa, I report as well, and I’m
the one who sort of determines what we write about, so it can be—you know, sometimes
you do, like she said, have to kind of step back and make that separation. I have the that same problem too, because
I am also—do feature stories on people, and it’s—usually, if it’s a performance
that I liked, then I’ll interview the person. It’s hard when before the show opens, to
actually interview someone, and then you see the show and you don’t like the show, or
you don’t like the performance and then you have to put—separate the critic from
the reporter and just give an honest answer to what you feel is onstage. I think that gets a bit to something maybe
we can talk about, which is that—this is in some ways an incredibly perverse job that
we have {a few chuckles}, where our—we make our living telling people that they’ve done
something right, or that they’ve done something wrong, and there’s certainly a lot more
to it than that. But the theatre community in New York is pretty
small. I mean we all know lots of people that we
have to write about all the time. So, the—it turns out, I think the working
in the theatre while writing about the theatre is not even at the top of the list of the
things that make it complicated. I have a friend, a diplomat in fact, who says
uhm…”life is messy” and I think in New York theatre, that is certainly the case. A lot of actors say they don’t read reviews,
but I don’t believe them. {a flurry of hubbub} I never do either. Shaw said a thing about that, he said when
an actor tells me he never reads my reviews, I always know he has the Saturday review rolled
up in his back pocket. Well, in this small community, you have to
ask, have you ever been confronted by people who you’ve given a negative review to? {to MICHAEL FEINGOLD} You have. {General Laughter} That’s it Jeremy throw to Michael. Oh, constantly! I don’t remember of any more specific incidents
that you’re thinking of. Any—I don’t— Don’t you have a Joe Papp story? Oh that. I have dozens of Joe Papp stories, they’d
take too long to tell. Let’s keep it to one. Well, it’s a two part story. I went to the opening of some play that Papp
was hoping to move uptown from The Public Theatre, and he was there standing with the
press rep as I got my tickets, and I said “Hello Joe”, and he said, “Oh, here
to write one of your condescending intellectual reviews, eh?”. And I said “I’ll do my best.”, {laughter}
and went into the theatre, and then two days later, I got a call inviting me to see another
show that was being opened on very short notice, in one of the smaller upstairs theatres at
The Public, and I got there and found that not a lot of the press had been invited, and
Joe was there with the press rep, and pulled me aside, and he said “I didn’t ask all
of them to this, but I asked you because you’re the one who’ll understand.” This is really a Joe Papp story and not a
criticism story. But as—people deal with their idea of you
as a critic, rather than with what you actually are. And this is—one of the things you learn
in criticism, I think, is to look at the thing for what it actually is. That’s always the challenge. What did I see? What did I hear? What is it about? What am I going to say about it? What did it do to me? Well, you make—you used an interesting phrase
in there that I want to pursue, which is, you say, you know “it’s something you
have to learn about being a critic. How do you learn to be a critic. Melissa, how did you start? I started writing reviews in college, and
just thought, “Well, you know, I did plays in high school, I know a little about theatre,
I’ve seen some theatre, I could write about it.” And…and… But why did you start writing reviews, you
see, that’s interesting. That was really sort of the only—well, at
least how it was set up at my college paper, I went to the University of Michigan, we had,
sort of, you could write a preview, or you could write a review, and sometimes you did
both, so you would sort of preview the productions, so you would interview someone involved with
the production, the director or something. Then you would go review it, which could be
a little weird, and now, of course you realize that that’s completely weird and a lot of
times you wouldn’t want to do that. But I just started writing as much as I could,
and then started reading as much as I could, and studying as much as I could. I was lucky enough to go to a school where
I could sort of pick and choose classes, so I picked classes about plays. You know, American Drama, Modern Drama, Shakespeare,
you know, 3 Shakespeare classes in one year, just to get that—I was lucky enough to be
able to sort of study as much as I can and then just see as much as I can. I feel like I’m still learning to be a critic,
and I feel like I can’t be a good critic unless I see everything I possibly can. It’s tricky and time consuming. Elysa? Yeah…well, I wrote about pop music primarily,
in fact almost exclusively for years before I was hired to write about theatre and pop
music at USA Today. I’ve got—in addition to being a reporter
and a critic, I also have these two beats, it’s weird, I kind of write about American
Idol and August Strindberg in the same day. And it’s interesting because your predecessor,
your main predecessor, your main predecessor, David Patrick Stearns, emphasized he was—did
theatre and classical music. Exactly, yeah. And I think they wanted a little more popular
coverage—popular music coverage, and you know, David’s a great writer, and he’s—was
incredibly supportive of me early on. So they basically, you know, similar thing,
where I didn’t write critically about drama previously, at all, to getting that job, but
I had—in college, I had been an English major, and theatre had actually been my concentration
within my major. So in addition to doing plays, I took classes,
I TA’d a class in Ibsen and Shaw, you know. Things like that, that—I still feel very
much that I’m learning, and I have to say one thing having written about pop music and
theatre, that by and large, I find theatre critics know—{laughs} maybe I’ll get into
trouble for saying this, but they seem to know a lot more about theatre as a whole,
than music—pop music critics do about pop music—about the history of music in general. You know there is—I find theatre critics
are by and large very well informed, very passionate about the art they write about
as opposed to just the idea of theatre, if that makes any sense. It makes sense to me. I think you have to be. The worst part and the most exciting part
of being a critic is that you absolutely never know what will be thrown at you the next night,
so you have to be ready for it. You have to know what kind of play this is,
and what this is about, and why they do it this way rather than that way, and what you
think of that. And how it relates to what’s going on outside
the theatre. It’s an endless learning process. I’ve been at it for thirty…I don’t even
want to think, years. {ELYSA GARDNER laughs}. And I’m still learning. I learn every day. And let me ask all of you, is this what you
wanted to be when you grew up? Is this—was this the goal? Or is this someplace you found yourself? Mike? I have to admit, this is what I wanted to
do. {MICHAEL FEINGOLD laughs} Which is scary,
uh, for a 12 year old kid who used to subscribe to Variety, and would clip reviews from the
local paper. In fact, in the small town in Maryland where
I grew up, they—the local newsstand got one copy of Variety every week, and they would
save it for me. And once my mother went down to buy it because
I was sick, and they wouldn’t give it to her. {Audience Laughter} She didn’t have ID? No, she said [they said]—“We’re saving
it for this little kid that comes in every Friday, and you can’t have it.” But it is something that, you know, I’ve
always been interested in, and getting back to this—how did you—you know, how did
you have this desire? I think you have to gorge yourself on theatre. Before I had this job, I used to max out my
credit cards buying theatre tickets, which was pretty scary. And that’s when theatre tickets were relatively
cheap. You just have to see as much as possible,
and every time I go—you know, it’s a new experience. The most exciting moment in any show is right
when the curtain—the curtain is just about to go up, the lights go down, and you never
know what you’re going to get. I mean, it could be wonderful, it could be
terrible, but it’s that thrill of anticipation that keeps you going. So. Melissa, is this what you want—is this the
writing you want to be doing? Yeah, it is actually, and it’s funny ‘cause
I do other kinds of writing, I do book reviews, I do some DVD reviews, but uh, mostly—and
some CD stuff, although a lot of that’s theatre music, but this was all I ever wanted
to do. And it’s—it’s hard because it’s kind
of limiting. There aren’t that many outlets or chances
but I used to read Theatre Week—does everyone remember Theatre Week? {verbal agreement} And there was one newsstand
in Ann Arbor that got it. {laughs} Sometimes they wouldn’t get it,
or they’d get it late, and I’d—I would go every week and read, and that was my sort
of pipeline to what was going on in New York, because when you’re in the Midwest, you
figure, you know—you’re in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, that was how it felt sometimes. And you know, I had to know what was going
on in New York at all times, and yeah, when I was here interning doing a bunch of unpaid
internships one summer, I would just go to the theatre constantly, and—that’s expensive,
even on the half price line it’s expensive. Uhm, I still want to be an astronaut when
I grow up, so… {general laughter} How’s that going? {more laughter} You’re lucky, I don’t know what I want
to do when I grow up. I took a detour, right. No, it certainly wasn’t something that I
was lying awake at night dreaming about when I was 12. Astronaut was what I was dreaming about. It was in—at some point in college, I had
been writing for my school’s newspaper, and I had been working on shows a lot, directing
and doing some other things, and uhm, was trying to figure out what I could do that
would be satisfying, fulfilling and challenging and all those good things, and allow me to
eat. And I didn’t know how to do—I didn’t
know how to get started, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and had the good fortune
to encounter a mentor who, who showed me the way. And that was Bob Brustein. And I guess the—he—Bob, at that point
was the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, which he had founded. He was—was and still is the drama critic
for the New Republic, and very active as a writer and a director of individual plays. And when I was 19 or 20, that job description
sounded perfect to me. That sounded like heaven. Uh, and, you know, a bit later, it’s still
satisfying and challenging, and all the things I was hoping that it would be when I was in
school. I don’t think I had a conscious ambition
to be a critic, or even a reporter or….I know that I—I loved to write, and I loved
music and I loved theatre, so I wanted to do something that would involve one of those
things and the fact that I’m kind of getting to draw on my love for all those things now
is—is wonderful. It really doesn’t feel like a job to me
anymore—or it never did really, I mean at this point, it still doesn’t is what I should
say. It doesn’t feel like a job at 9AM when you’re
staring at the blank computer screen and the piece is due at noon? {ELYSA GARDNER laughs} Uhm. It does for me! Well…maybe our deadlines are a little –{laughs} Yeah More flexible. But you know what I mean. I know what you mean, yeah. It feels like a job most when I see something
that just doesn’t really strike me either way. When I love something, it’s fun to write,
when I really hate something, it’s kind of fun, I have to be careful not to be too
mean. Mmmmm. But uh, when it’s—when I just—when I
see something that just kind of leaves me cold or leaves me uninspired, that’s when
it feels like a job. And by that I don’t mean that I don’t
like it. I just mean that I—it doesn’t particularly
move—it doesn’t particularly move me to say anything. That’s when it feels like a job. You know. Do you all have a harder time writing about
things you really like or things that you don’t like? Sometimes. Sometimes. When it’s an artist in music or theatre,
if it’s an artist that I’m very passionate about, early on in my career, I would second
guess myself, I would say “I can’t write a valentine to this person, I have to be careful,
I’ve gotta—“ But I think what I’m learning to do—and
I’m still learning, is to trust my instincts, I think that, you know, appreciation of art
is about—it is a visceral reaction. You know, I mean it’s—when something moves
you that—and you can express that in some way without over intellectualizing it. You know I think the best art does that. It effects you emotionally, that’s why it’s
hard to write about. I want to shift a little to some of the practical
issues, and first of all, I want to give some perspective for everyone, about your audience. Mike, you write for the Associated Press,
it’s a name we all know, but can you just explain very briefly, what the AP is and how
your writing reaches an audience. Well, the AP, believe it or not is a non-profit
organization, it’s what they call a “wire service”, and we are owned by all of it’s
subscribers, which include newspapers, radio stations, television. So we send our stuff out over the wire, and
it goes on various different wires, and they can do whatever they want with it, including
my reviews. They can cut it, they can run the whole thing,
but it has an enormous reach. Just in the states alone, I think we have
about 1700, 1800 newspapers. So it goes out all over the place, but we’re
never quite sure what it looks like when it comes out at the other end. Which is— That’s really fascinating. Which is kind of scary, I’ve seen my reviews
cut to 2 paragraphs. So in that respect, I’d better say what
I think of the show in the first, you know, 2 or 3 paragraphs, or people are not gonna
know what I thought. So it does sort of limit your style. Although things have been changing now with
the internet, you know, everything—even the AP is changing, with newspapers changing,
it’s a whole different world, and gosh, I don’t know what newspapers are going to
be like in the next 5 to 10 years. A lot will disappear, or they’ll just change
the way they present news. So the AP goes to all these papers, and I’m
writing for an audience that may never see the shows that I’m writing about, so it
has to be fairly explanatory. They may not even have heard of a lot of these
people, they’ll never—usually—they might’ve, you know, go to Broadway, but Off-Broadway
shows, which I still like to write about just to keep people informed. So it has to be fairly—I don’t want to
say simplistic, but I really have to give them the basics. So. So from the AP, which goes out, and we don’t
know where it ends up, I want to talk about USA Today, because in point of fact, you are
the theatre critic of the largest newspaper in America, which a lot of people don’t
realize. Yeah, it’s—god, when you put it that way
{Elisa laughs} You’re really important! It uh, sounds—it makes me feel a lot of
responsibility, but uhm. Yeah, I think we have a circulation of 2.3
million, and the internet—also we have an internet arm that we’re very actively involved
now, and working together and developing it further, because that is the future, and I
think our editors have the foresight to see that, although we all—I certainly have—I
think we all have mixed feelings about the internet, But it—it’s here, and it’s
not going anywhere. Uhm, but yeah, it’s a general—I hate the
term “general audience”, but it’s a—it’s a mass audience, and because of that, I don’t—I
have to be very careful about what I….what I can see. I can’t see everything. And I’m the only theatre critic reporter
at the paper. I cover all Broadway shows, I cover as much
Off-Broadway and major regional as I can, but that’s not a lot, and uh, you know my
editors, to their credit, are very—they love theatre, they encourage me to do as much
as I can, and what I’ve been doing recently is columns where I can at least spotlight
regional shows, including ones that I can’t travel to see, and Off-Broadway shows as opposed
to—you know, if we don’t have space to write an entire separate review, at least
this way we get to mention. But we don’t cover Off-Off Broadway, we
don’t really cover any Fringe-type stuff. Uhm, you know, we—we have to deal with the
space we have and use it hopefully as well as we can. So, for you and Mike, I need to ask, you are
both, you said “general interest”. Yes. You are clearly serving the broadest possible
audience, in your cases. Do you have directives from your media editors,
or at your outlets that say the kind of—say what you should or shouldn’t write, or what
you should or shouldn’t think? No, I’ve never had any restriction put on
me, although they certainly would like a story on someone who’s—a name that people would
recognize. If you can interview a Julie Andrews, or a
Julia Roberts, or a Denzel— {MICHAEL FEINGOLD laughs heartily} Yeah. Washington. Good luck at this point. That’s a name that people would recognize. But that’s about—that’s about a feature
story. Yes, that’s a feature story. The question is as a critic, do you—well
for ex—let’s use an example, do you have the opportunity, if you see some really phenomenal
show, say, down at The Flea Theatre, and we won’t use Mrs. Farnsworth when {general
laughter} it was [starring] Sigourney Weaver– Yes, yes. But you go see some really, really interesting
piece at The Flea, do you have the opportunity—I use The Flea, because it’s a very small
space, it’s Off-Off Broadway, most of the time not stars, can you get that into your
publications? Yes, yes. Yes, because of the column form. I don’t—I wouldn’t necessarily get space,
you know, half a page for it, but we do get to—and my editors give me total autonomy
as well, and the head of the Life section’s a big theatre fan. You know, she’ll go to London and ask me
what to see, so they’re interested also in my keeping up on what’s going on in London
and in other places. So, you know they really try to do as much
as they can, and assume that—try to assume that the general audience is not just interested
in Broadway, even though in all fairness, that is our focus. Now, I want to turn to Entertainment Weekly,
because there’s a very interesting thing about Entertainment Weekly, when that magazine
began, they actually had a stated policy that they weren’t going to cover theatre. And it was only after it had been going for
a while—{MELISSA ROSE BERNARDO laughs} I was a press agent— Okay. –We all looked at that magazine when it came
out and said, “how do we get coverage” and we were told, “no, I’m sorry we don’t
cover theatre”, and it’s evolved over time. What is the sentiment now, and what opportunity
do you have? You’re not writing every week. Right. And the reviews are all—usually a single
column of probably a few hundred words. Yeah, they really—they are short. I haven’t been at EW for 15 years, so that’s
funny, I’ll have to get to the bottom of that. But when I got there, and that’s how it
pretty much is now, 6 years later. It’s a case of you cover theatre when there’s
an occasion, meaning there’s a big Broadway show with a recognizable star, that’s your
lead review, and then you can sort of review a bunch of other smaller things. And my general guideline is I try to review
everything on Broadway, it’s not always timely, sometimes it’ll be a few weeks after
something opens. I very rarely skip a Broadway show, but we
have a lead review that’s—you know I’m trying to think, like the next thing we’ll
probably do is PAJAMA GAME. Harry Connick Jr., big star, you can slap
a big picture of him, people might stop and read it because they recognize him, and then
they might read the other stuff. That’s kind of the idea. The other reviews are about “this” big,
a hundred words, which is…practically nothing. We do Off-Broadway, but in general it’s—is
it a—you know, an important playwright? a star?—I mean a star is obviously always
the biggest thing, but if there’s not a star in the latest John Patrick Shanley play,
we’re not gonna skip it. Well, it’s interesting, because EW is looked
at as certainly one of the great arbiters of broad based pop culture in America, and
so coverage within Entertainment Weekly certainly flies the flag of theatre as still being part
of pop culture, and there are plenty who would argue that theatre hasn’t been part of the
broad popular culture in the way that LOST or DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES might be now in a
really long time. Do you also have the opportunity in some of
those other outlets within Entertainment Weekly, you know “the hot list” and things like
that, do you have a voice— Yeah. And how do you insert theatre alongside those
other things? I—I just try to be loud and obnoxious sometimes. {MICHAEL FEINGOLD chuckles}
But yes, when we don’t have a section, and we haven’t had one since—you know we had
one in the year end issue, sort of a top 10, best/worst kind of thing, and we won’t have
one until probably late February, so sort of in the meantime, when we pick the must
list every week, which is “10 Things to Hear/Read/See/Do”, I can say, okay, the
new Horton Foote play is really great. And to a certain extent, no one argues because
no one else has seen it. So a lot of times people are just believing
me and saying, “okay”. So that’s one way to get things on, to get
things coverage. Something else we’re going to start doing
is more internet stuff, like everyone else, just to get more stuff, to be able to be more
timely. To be able to get stuff that may only have
a 3 week run, some kind of coverage. But then there are also other ways, sometimes
in other sections, uhm, you know theatre related DVD’s, like the BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL
DVD. You know, we got like 200 words in about that,
which was pretty big. So, here and there, there are other ways to
do it, but— But you kind of have to find the avenues— Yeah, it’s— To get the critical voice out within the publication. We should say Entertainment Weekly has a weekly
paid circulation of about 1.7 million, I believe, which makes it certainly one of the top 50
magazines in the country. It’s got a broad reach. Yeah, so it can be difficult, and as far as
planning coverage, we do—we try not to be too New York centric, although that can be
hard. But one of our tasks is to really try to do…when
there’s stuff in LA, we try to do LA stuff, we try to do Vegas stuff, we’re obviously
going to cover the LORD OF THE RINGS musical in Toronto. We’ve done London wrap ups, we’re gonna
try to do more regional stuff, if there’s—because we know we have a national readership, and
you’re pretty much thinking about the average person interested in theatre, maybe they’ll
come to New York, see some shows, and we want to tell them what’s worth seeing and what’s
not. But we also want to try as much as we can,
as often as we can to give a sense of what’s going on outside of New York too. Now let me turn to the two fairly quintessentially
New York publications, because you have the Village Voice, which has been, since the 1950’s,
you know originally thought of as the voice of Greenwich Village and the bohemian scene,
and— When there was one. Of course it’s changed—it’s changed
over so much time— Really has, incredibly. It has gone through multiple ownerships and
so on and so forth. Michael, again, are you given any direction
about what you can and can’t cover or what you should or shouldn’t say? Not—I don’t think there’s a can or can’t
in it, what I cover is what I think is most interesting, but I do this with one eye on
what will get readership for the paper, or for the website. Mm-hmm. But you’re not the theatre editor, correct? No. There is a theatre editor, because some people
are saying they’re kind of the single voice for— The critic—yeah– You have someone that you— But this is because the Voice has always had
very wide th—range of theatre coverage. There was a period when there were 6 regular
critics each contributing a full column in the late 70’s, and uhm, the idea of having
one lead critic is fairly late in the Voice’s history. Mm-hmm. And I think in a way, my readership has changed
so much over the years, when I started there in the early ‘70’s, the readership was
people who lived in the Village and people who wanted to think like people who lived
in the Village. You know, it was national, but very small. Then when we went on to free circulation,
it—the—the circulation went up enormously, and the ad pages increased enormously, and
I got a readership that I think was restricted to people specifically interested in the theatre,
but it was a much bigger one, and I suddenly found my reviews being talked about in a lot
of areas of New York where they hadn’t been before. And then the internet came in and the whole
thing exploded in a weird way. Now I am convinced that nobody actually reads
me, and I get very few web hits, but this is just my paranoia, {group laughter} because
I keep finding out—people come to me and say “Oh, you know I read your article on
such and such”, and I say “You did?”. {MICHAEL FEINGOLD chuckles}, you know like
that. But now I don’t know who they are, I just
know there’s a lot of them out there in the—virtual mystery. And Jeremy, New York Magazine, about 450,000
paid circulation each week, uhm, you are new to the magazine, you’ve been there not yet
a year. Right, about 6 months. Were you—since you were hired so recently
we can ask, were there directives that you were given, or was it simply “we like what
you’ve been saying in other publications, we’d like that voice in our publication.”? I think the—the—what they’re after—I’m
lucky, in the sense that my editors, the culture editors and the editor-in-chief, are very
serious theatre people. I mean they love the theatre, the go to see
plays, they have opinions about it, and they want to see uh—they want to see the theatre
given a lot of space and a lot of love in the pages, which is great for me. They don’t—I think they—the—the impulse
is not to do conventional reviews as much. “The acting was nice, the writing was okay,
the set was pretty…” They want something a bit broader focused. They want something that would either be more
thoughtful, more specific to one aspect of a production, something like that, which is
liberating, in a sense. It’s nice to not feel that you need to have
an opinion about the lighting design, for instance, or that you can spend 700 words
talking about one aspect of something. So th—th—I mean that—that was a guid—it
was guidance that was liberating in the end. And in terms of the breadth of the coverage,
what we end up covering, Broadway almost always will be covered. Interesting Off-Broadway stuff will usually
get covered. What I’ve found is that I don’t generally
cover things that are happening downtown, unless they’re really good. If there’s something really exciting happening
south of 14th Street, I’ll try to get there, otherwise it’s just the nature of the magazine,
there just isn’t that much space. It’s funny, I wanted to say before how that—ours
is sort of the opposite of that. There was a period when the schedule was very
hectic, when my reviews of Broadway musicals, which have the widest readership, were posted
web only, and we were using the space in the hard copy for the Off-Broadway plays and the
downtown pieces, which belong to the Voice’s hardcopy readership. So it’s exactly the opposite of what Jeremy
is working with. But I bet there’s a qual—the readerships
share the quality of being pretty avid theatergoers. They did a study of the readers in New York
Magazine – a couple of them recently – and anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the people
that they asked had seen a play in the last 12 months. Which is a pretty extraordinary number, all
things considered. It must be about the same for the Voice, I
would expect. I’m not so sure, because the Voice has a
big rock and pop music following, and has a big political following among people who
aren’t necessarily theatre committed. We’re gonna take a very brief break right
now from the discussion, and hear a few more words about the work of The American Theatre Wing. {General Applause} We spoke earlier about sort of who you’re
writing for, what your editors are looking for. I’m wondering whether you hear much from
people about what you’ve written. We know newspapers certainly get letters to
the editor all the time, but are there letters to the theatre critics? Elysa, do you hear from people? I hear more about…I hear from publicists
a lot {MICHAEL FEINGOLD chuckles} —“Oh, we LOVED what you wrote”, if I wrote something
positive. Uhm, and occasionally, because I’m also
a reporter, I’ll hear something from an artist. I’m always shocked when they know the byline,
which I guess goes to prove that not all people claim not to read their reviews. But I get more feedback on pop music, I think
because—I get some great feedback on—on theatre, but not—not as much as pop music,
it’s always really smart. What do you hear? Is it simply, “Oh, we’re really glad you
liked that show, we loved it to.” Or do you get questions about why you felt
a certain way? Not as much with theatre necessarily, again
as music. Uhm, I’ll get more—you know every now
and then a reader will just make a comment, will say “Oh, and did you know this, by
the way” Or you should “check out this play”, “check out this CD”, nothing
comes to mind. But interesting things like that more so than
complaints or compliments, I would say. Michael, do you— Uhm, it varies…not very mu—there’s surprisingly
little, but it crops up, sometimes with a delayed reaction. You know, years later you’ll run into somebody
at a party or a reception or something, and they’ll say—“Oh, I remember your review
of—you were all wrong about that.” {ELYSA GARDNER chuckles} Uhm, usually what—the
funny part is, that I usually get immediate complaining mail of some kind whenever I pan
a large Broadway musical, although you would think people would know that the Village Voice’s
stance towards large Broadway musicals is skeptical. Uhm…but more often—and sometimes I will
get a response from people who are interested in the subject of a serious play. I got a lot of mail about both COPENHAGEN
and DEMOCRACY because of that, because the paper is read by people who have a political
interest. Hmm. Jeremy, in—again, in a relatively recent
transition, have you heard from people since you’ve come to the magazine, and indeed
have they even talked about your voice in contrast to your predecessor’s voice? My predecessor’s John Simon, uh—
{Group chuckling} I wasn’t trying to leave John’s name out—{more
laughter}We all know– It would have to come in sooner or later. Uh, there are—uh…yeah, there are differences,
I mean, uhm…John, there would be differences—anyone trying to follow John would be different. He had such a singular combination of intelligence
and style in the way he wrote, and passion about the things that he liked and that he
didn’t like that it’s impossible to fill those shoes. But do you think the readers—has the readership
acknowledged that change to you? Have you heard— Not much to me. I don’t know if they let my editors hear
it, you know, one way or the other—you know, when I got the job, lots of publicists in
particular were very quick to say “Congratulations”, uhm, you know, publicists were— They’re paid to be nice to you. Yeah, that’s—
{General Laughter & Agreement} I’m pretty sure that’s why. Sometimes they even mean it. {General laughter} Yeah, right. But uh, no, I didn’t get a big sort of outpouring
of response from the—you know, my new readers. And do e-mails flow into Entertainment Weekly? Because e-mail addresses seem very common
in the magazine. Yeah, once in a great while, but really I—I
don’t get too much feedback. Okay, so I’ve gone down the wrong road with
this question, so let me try to salvage it, which is, how do you feel—you are writers,
you’re putting your opinion out there in a public forum. Is it rewarding to you to do that if you don’t
know the response that you’re evoking from the people you’re writing for? Mike, as you said, your stuff goes out so
broadly, you never know who’s seeing, or indeed in what form. Well, you do get in—indirect resp—you
know, reaction from chat rooms now. That’s where I see sometimes, you know—especially
if I make them— Hm. So does everybody look in the chat rooms? Let’s—let’s— I try not to. I do, I do, I’m a masochist. I don’t even know where to look. And especially if you make a mistake, I mean—they
do keep you on your toes. If you misspell a name and your editor doesn’t
catch it, you’ll have some snarky comment on some chat room saying “Oh, they misspelled
the name of so-and-so” “this actor” or the character they played, and you’ll
hear about it, which is—in a way, it’s good. Because now I triple, and sometimes quadruple
check names of actors in the Playbill. But you do hear from them. Hmmm. Which is—I think it’s the new form of
readership policing. Hmm. I mean they–the chat rooms, the people who
read those chat rooms are very passionate, sometimes way too overboard, but they do keep
you on your toes. Well since you—the internet’s been mentioned
a few times, and since you bring up the chat rooms, there’s certainly been a trend recently
for—that even reporters, journalists, critics to some degree, either are reading the chat
rooms, as you say you are, there are even more gossip theatre columns that there used
to be, does what you write get driven by kind of what’s out there in the public? Do you have to acknowledge when there is gossip
about a performer who’s missing a lot of performances, or you know, if you heard about
a troubled pre-production process, does that inform the criticism? Well, what—usually at the time you review
the play, the performer hasn’t missed a lot of performances, it’s when it goes into
a long run… It’s right after you write what you write,
yeah. So, my task is done, I don’t have to deal
with that. But certainly you hear the rumors of people—if
there are people who’ve been let go during previews or an out of town tryout, or— But that was always the case, you know, before
the chat rooms, there were the gossip columns, and if a musical starts out in San Francisco
or Los Angeles with one production team and one cast, and it comes into New York with
half of the production team gone, and half of the cast replaced, you’re bound to have
to say something about that. But does that change the purity of simply
judging the experience that someone is going to have going to the theatre? Should it inform that kind of discussion—that
kind of review? Melissa? I’d like to think not. I—especially, something—in my case, I
have so few words, that if I have 100 words for a show, I’m not going to linger on about
“so-and-so got fired” and “so-and-so is supposedly sleeping with this person”
and partly we can’t, we have an excellent fact checking department, and lawyers who
pour through everything. {chuckling}, yes… But also I feel like it’s—it’s my mission,
that what I’ve been charged with, anything in what we call the “back of the book”—DVD
reviews, Book reviews, CD reviews, movie reviews, theatre reviews, is service. Service to the reader, to provide them with
a service. And ultimately I feel like my service is to
tell someone if it’s worth spending their hundred bucks on. So there’s a lot that you really just have
to let not matter. Yeah. Ultimately, if I could go back to this— Yep. –uhm, it’s not that your opinion is affected
by this, but that you have to acknowledge–the facts it comes in with are part of the reality
of any production, how you evaluate the production is then another issue. You know, you’re not going to give it a
bad review because they replaced the lead, you’re going to give it a bad review because
you didn’t enjoy the show. Which—and the point is, you have to review
the show you see, but it can’t stop you—it’s—it’s part of a phenomenon with theatre that isn’t
always the case in what I call the mechanical arts—you know, like movies and TV, that
it’s not self contained. Because it’s live, it’s part of a continuum
with the rest of life. This play has existed on stage before, if
it’s a classic—or it existed the night before, and it’s going to exist the night
after you see it and write about it. It might change, it might have other things
attached to it, it might be related to something else. You acknowledge the facts about a production
and the gossip about a production the same way that you would acknowledge the history
of a play. Elisa you want to say something? Yeah, I agree with all that, but I also—because
I have such limited space— {laughter} Yeah, well we all have such limited space— And also because I think uhm, we have to be
very careful not to be too inside New York, too inside theatre, I have to kind of pick
and choose what I acknowledge. If it’s something like, for example, Maria
Friedman struggling with cancer in THE WOMAN IN WHITE, and giving that I thought unbelievable
performance, rising to the occasion like that, that’s something I think that I decided
in that particular case that it was worth mentioning. That it was very relevant to the piece— Absolutely. –it also depends on what you say—what angle
you take when you have—often I’ll have like 400-500 words, and if I include a bit
of gossip or something that I think is relevant—that I do think are a part of the history of the
show, then I’ll be off on a tangent and I won’t be able to say anything else. So I’ve gotta pick and choose. And with something like that for instance,
I—I didn’t review THE WOMAN IN WHITE, someone else did, but I was editing the piece,
and the reviewer did not mention that, so I didn’t feel the need to insert it. Do you know what I mean? So I think sometimes it’s just different
strokes for different folks. Oh yeah, yeah.
{general agreement} Some people would choose to mention it, some
people wouldn’t. Well, the angle that I took—I could have
taken a completely different angle, which probably would have been—hah-hah—less
favorable to the piece. Criticism would be awfully boring if we all
mention the same thing all the time, you know? Exactly. Everybody’s got a different perspective,
and that’s what makes it interesting reading different writers, you can get a completely
different take. Okay, well there—there is—you bring me
to a question I wanted to ask, you say reading different writers, you can get a different
take. Do you all read each other, and by each other
I mean the critical community, once—either–in some cases—as you say Melissa, sometimes
you don’t write for a couple of weeks, it may be very hard to avoid becoming aware of
what the quote-unquote “critical consensus” might be. But are you aware of what your peers are writing? Jeremy? I certainly am, I mean I try to read everything. There’s this convention “we’re not supposed
to talk”, at a show, or after a show we’re not supposed to talk about the show, even
though we’ve just spent 2 or 3 hours doing exactly the same thing, it’s taboo to talk
about, you know, our reactions to the show. But once it’s in print–the way I see it,
my opinions are strongly held enough and obnoxious enough that they’ll withstand someone else’s
opinions on the same count. {general laughter} And the people that are
going to read me, have probably read at least one other review first. They’ve certainly read the Times. I assume that anyone who’s reading something
I write in the Magazine, has already read Ben or Charles in the Times. And probably read a couple of other people
as well. So I—I do think there’s a way in which
one of the things that critics can do and ought to do, is to get a conversation going,
or to continue a conversation about what’s happening or not happening, what should be
happening and isn’t happening in the theatre, and it’s easier to do that if you know what
people are talking about. Mike, do you want to— Sure. It’s fun to read other critics, {MICHAEL
FEINGOLD laughs} I think. And also, they may find something that you’ve
missed. Like Mr. Feingold, I—he’s part of my continuing
education in the theatre to read him every week, ‘cause there’s always some erudite
little piece of info that I can find that somehow I missed, or he’ll—or some factoid
that totally escaped me that I find in other reviews. This is so embarrassing because I read him,
not every day, but frequently to learn how to be concise and get rid of all the useless
factoids. {hearty laughter from all} That’s true We complement each other here, maybe. {more laughter} Have you had the occasion upon reconsid—looking
at your own writing some period after you wrote it, have you ever wished you had the
opportunity to go back and change something you wrote? You’re shaking your heads. Yeah, amend it at least. But the great thing about writing on a regular
basis, is you have that ongoing kind of dialogue with the readers and with yourself. You know, you can reconsider something. You can say, uhm—I mean I’m a big believer
that it’s very much the visceral impact of how something hits you, and you shouldn’t
try—I’ve learned the hard way you shouldn’t try to second guess yourself or over intellectualize
it too much. But yeah—I do—I do come back to things. And sometimes after seeing the show again,
or I’ll read another review that will just bring up something that I hadn’t thought
about, and I’ll think about it more. So yeah, definitely. I’m not sure it’s so much the opinion
about the show, you know, the big things are what you experience at the time. You look back on it and you say “alright,
I felt that way then, now I’ve changed my view, but it’s too late to fix that”. But it’s the little things in the way you
write that you want to fix, where you say, “I could’ve put more balance in that”. Yeah. “I could tweak this if I ever collected
my reviews in a book”, and nobody would know the difference, and it would be a better
review. Well, as you say, when you put it into books. So if years from now— Well, if—IF– –Any of you—any of you are going to have
your collected works anthologized, can you think of— Ha! –has there been an occasion where, you know—something
where you go, yeah if get the chance, I’m gonna say something different about that. Jeremy? Well, I think like Michael said, there are
always little things, where, I was too enthusiastic about something, or I was too hard on something,
the more troublesome reviews looking back, are the ones where I just took the wrong angle
on something, or was too fussy about something, or—an example would be Richard Greenberg’s
play TAKE ME OUT, which I thought was extraordinary. I think is one of the best plays of the last
few years. And when I wrote about it, I was at the New
York Sun at that point. The review doesn’t begin to capture how
enthusiastic I felt about that show. And if I had it to do over, I would have just
cleared out a bunch of the little factoids that I had burdened that review with, and
just been a lot more positive throughout. But one of the advantages we have with a serious
play, as—often, as opposed to a musical, is that it will move from an Off-Broadway
venue to Broadway, as TAKE ME OUT did, and then you get a second chance. Yeah, I managed to blow it twice, actually. {large group laughter} I’m sorry, I don’t agree with you, and
I’ve read both your reviews. Now I’m gonna go like look them up, because
I want to read— But it goes back to something you said, which
is, is it—is it easier to write about the shows that you don’t like or the shows that
you do. Yeah. I find it difficult to write about the shows
that I really—like. {general hubbub in agreement & curiosity} I was going to ask you that, yeah— I think we all do. {general hearty agreement} Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah, especially when you feel like something
is really important, and something’s going to endure, and you just feel like— I get so frightened of myself when I get that
feeling– –Sometimes I feel like I’ve run out of
words— –I know I’m going to say something dumb
immediately. –Like I’ve used all the adjectives, and
I can’t possibly discover any new adjectives. But it’s hard also because we only have
one viewing of something. Not that I’m saying I want to go see everything
twice, but, a lot of stuff benefits from a second viewing. If you were reviewing a CD, you can listen
to it as many times as you want. That’s so true, yeah. {Other general agreement} You can go back and read certain passages
in a book, you can—and sometimes you know, you have the script, the publicist will provide
the script, and you can look stuff up, you can sort of go over it in your mind, but a
lot of times you don’t— –that’s why—yeah. And you have one sort of shot to capture it. And I feel like sometimes that’s just inadequate. I want more time with it. Yeah, I find myself thinking that a lot too,
but then I think to myself, okay, well, this is the nature of theatre, that people who
are going to be seeing the show, are likely going to be seeing it once. It isn’t a CD people will listen to repeatedly. So, maybe that’s just how I manage to not
be too hard on myself. You know I think with theatre, as much as
any art–or more than any art form, it really is about the impact at the moment. You know? I mean that’s something I learn increasingly. It’s really important not to—I keep saying
this, but not to second guess yourself too much. But then you have productions like a SWEENEY
TODD, which we keep seeing a lot of, and I–every time I see it, I see something new that I’ve
missed the last time, and I— Are you talking about a specific production
of SWEENEY TODD, or the work— Each successive— Each successive production of SWEENEY. We’ve seen New York City Opera, we’ve
seen Broadway, we’ve seen the new Broadway revival… –The Kennedy Center… The Kennedy Center version, so that’s a
show that every time I revisit it, I’m fearful that I won’t give it enough weight, or I
won’t do justice to it. But this also brings up one of the big issues,
which is differentiating the work—the writing and the music from the physical production,
the event that you see on the stage— Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. And the things actors add to or take away
from a piece of material. And is that part of the learning? That the more—indeed when you start seeing
multiple productions of the same work, does it—is that—what reveals to you where the
difference is between the text and the production? Yes. Yes. Or the first time you see it, can you tell
what went—right? Well, sure, I think it’s—you—if you,
you know, if you’ve seen a half dozen plays and you see the—different plays, you can
see anything and begin to get a sense of what you like or don’t like or what you think
is good or not good. Cert—I think it’s certainly the case that
once you’ve seen A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the 20th time, you start to get a more
sophisticated eye about, you know, what it takes to make the play work, or where the
traps are. Or what directors keep falling into about
it. But I think there’s also a sense—like
I’m always happy to discover something for the first time. Mmm-hmm. And I think to have a completely fresh take
on something can—can be an advantage. I think that the the hard—it’s easy to
see in seeing a play for the first time, what went right. The hard part, is figuring out who’s to
blame for what went wrong. Right. Ha-ha-ha. Yeah. Where do you separate—is it the author,
the director, the actor, and it’s only after experience, after repeated viewings of somebody’s
work that you get to understand that. Now I want to connect a couple of things that
were said earlier, Michael, you talked about the issue of differentiating theatre from
what you called the mechanical arts, by which I presume you mean, a film, a recording, a
book, which can be endlessly reproduced. Well, a book is not mechanical, but—the
mechanical— But in the sense that it is— The non-live performing arts. It can be—it can be endlessly duplicated
and the experience is fixed. Yes. And of course, theatre only lives as long—or
a production only lives as long as people are coming to see it. You all have an impact on whether or not that
work is going to get seen, and when it ends, it has ended, except for the basic text. Melissa, you made a comment about in the brief
space that you have, you’re telling people whether to spend their—if it’s Broadway,
100 bucks to go see it. What do you feel your responsibility is? Are you there to tell people to go or not
to go? Are you there to give them a sense of what
the experience was so that they can make their own choice about it? And to what degree are you aware of—not
individually, but collectively, the power that the critics have over work that is being
done? I know that’s a very broad question. So I’m gonna throw it at Mike. Oh, my gosh, all three parts. Uhm— Yes, in order, please, heh. In order, okay. Well, I think you have to be—you just have
to be true to yourself. I mean it’s your reaction. I mean you can’t worry about everything
else around it. All the hoopla. You have to give your—as Miss Gardner says,
your own visceral opinion about a show, you have to start with that, and then just go
from there. It’s—if you think about all these other
things, you’ll sit in front of a computer and stare and stare and stare. And especially all of us, there are more constraints
in terms of word count on a story. My editors keep saying “shorter, shorter”. Newsprint is getting more expensive. They want smaller, you know the shorter reviews
I should say. So you just have to give your opinion, and
then forget about everything else, and take it from there. And now the rest of your question, I forgot
it already. {general laughter} It’s okay, but just what is your responsibility? What–Do you have as part of the art, the
way I began the whole discussion, that you are part of the theatre inextricably. Yeah. The people who make theatre may not have chosen
to put you in that process, but you are there, whether we—it’s liked or not. Well, do you turn it into a consumer—consumer
guide saying okay “thumbs up”, “thumbs down” or you should spend 110.25 to see
SPAMALOT or whatever, uhm. It becomes—then you could start—then it
just becomes about the money rather than the play, and it’s–I have to do some—I have
to say, editors do—they are fascinated with ticket prices. If I could put ticket prices in my reviews—it’s
one thing that’ll–that’s certainly—that’s guaranteed, when you talk to people outside
of New York, they say “Oh, gosh, Broadway’s so expensive”. And I always try to counter that by saying,
“Well, look, you can go on the internet, you can buy tickets online, you get all these
discount codes” People have to be a little savvier today than they used to to get discounts. You don’t have to pay huge amounts of money
to— Well, the average Broadway ticket is about
$66-$67, even though the top price is $110, of course– And I guess I am aware of the price, because
most people, when they come to New York, they love to complain about the price of theatre
tickets, so I—I, in a way, I guess is it worth—you know, especially now—what I
fear about is straight plays I guess, now the price for a straight play is almost as
much as a musical. Yeah. Which is hard. So I try to be more encouraging to plays. Especially a new straight play on Broadway,
which is— So rare. Practically a rare creature. Outside of—you know we have maybe one a
year that makes it. So, in a way, I don’t know if I’ve cut
them slack, but you have to—I don’t want to say you give them a break, but you have
to try—I try to understand what the author is trying to do in that piece. I’m wary of the “thumbs up”, “thumbs
down” thing, even thought I have to give star ratings, which is— I have to give grades. in a way, the hardest part of my job. And do you do them yourself? You get to assign the star ratings? I do—absolutely, I get totally to say that. But for me, I’ve always read critics to
be entertained and informed, as opposed to find out whether it’s “good” or “bad”. Because nothing is “good” or “bad”,
it’s all subjective, and the reason that I read Frank Rich, and Mr. Feingold—I’m
sorry—heh-heh-heh It’s alright. Not to date you, you’re—Ha-ha-ha— No, it’s alright, not—I’ve been dated
already. {general laughter} No, I mean I just want—you know, it’s
because they’re wonderful writers and they know what they’re talking about, and it’s—they’re
just fun to read and you learn something, not—it’s not a value judgment thing for
me. But do you ever have the temptation—is a
shorter way of asking my much longer question—do you ever take the opportunity to use your
position as a bully pulpit for something you feel strongly about. Oh, sure. Absolutely. Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean maybe not a show or a performer or
something like that per se, but I think we all do. I certainly have a couple of hobby horses
that I just ride every chance I get. Any time a show remotely presents the opportunity,
I do—I mean that’s what’s to me the—that I find—even if I tried to do this sort of
“you’ll love it, go see it” or “you’ll hate it, stay home”, I don’t think I could—I
don’t think I could do it. The things that are most satisfying to me
about criticism, are the things that start from there and keep going. The—the things that we don’t get to write
about at all. The sorts of plays that never make it to New
York. The things about the theatre itself, not a
particular play or a particular performer, that I wish were different. The theatre system—cause I really believe
in the repertory model. I got all my training in repertory theatre,
and I actually think it’s a much more workable model for everybody than the commercial “one
production, long run, make as much money as you can” system, which dries people out,
and makes everything stale. And I think that the way that those issues
play out in the reviews—that there’s a way in which it’s too passive, I think. If we were to just say like “this is good”,
“this is not good” something like that, because it makes us completely dependent on
the producers and what they put before us. And I think if you get into a job like this,
it’s because you have some strongly held opinions about the theatre, and what it ought
to do and ought not to do. So the sense that from time to time you can
be an advocate and use the bully pulpit to argue back, essentially, seems crucial. At least to the way I think about what I’m
there to do. One thing about this—I’m—I’m sorry It’s okay. I know you’re always—related to what Mike
said about high ticket prices, is I try to draw people’s attention to the shows downtown
or in the Off-Broadway institutional theatres that are not so high priced, but may be worth
more attention than the overpriced thing that’s getting all the publicity because it’s got
a big star in it. Do you even police your own reviews to say
“ooh, will they pull this out as a quote?” Mmmm. Sometimes. Melissa? I don’t write very quotable. I feel like I’m not— I don’t mean to make light of it, but you
write short enough, that in some cases, a big ad could run your whole review again. {general laughter} Yeah, and there have been a couple cases where
they have. If something is—if we give something an
“A”, they might pull the whole review, or part of it. It’s funny, I personally, I—growing up
I think it was always—it seemed very glamorous to be quoted outside a theatre. Like to see your name, and say—and still,
it’s kind of fun, I take a picture for my mother, she’ll like it, but it’s—it’s
something that’s—I always think that I’m just not—that’s just not how I write,
and it’s not even what I’m thinking—“oh, could they quote this?”. It’s not even something I think about when
I write. In a sense though, I do have to slap a “thumbs
up” or a “thumbs down” on something. Like Elysa, she gives stars, I have to give
a grade, and essentially it is gonna be a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down”, unless
it’s like a B- or something, and then I guess it’s kind of in the middle? I don’t know. {Elysa laughs} You have to almost be more careful about what
you write, that it won’t potentially get taken out of context. If you write that there are “glorious costumes”,
will they say “glorious” for the whole show. That doesn’t often happen. Yeah, very rarely. Probably, yeah. In the days of David Merrick I think it happened
more. But something—Mike said—you talk about,
you think about what people’s intentions were, I think that’s pretty important when
you’re reviewing something. Everything is not supposed to be an educational,
you know, spirit altering experience. Some shows are purely for kicks or laughs,
or just meant to be a total breezy evening. And you know, a total breezy evening might
be a “B” and a—educational heavy thing might be a “B” but they’re sort of very
different. So I feel like it’s important to let people
know what they’re in for. I mean, just what—I mean what someone’s
intending, sometimes it’s hard, but you pretty much know if something is supposed
to make you think, or not supposed to make you think, and that’s important to bear
in mind too. Mike, you reacted when I was talking about
the quotes, and I saw you—you do? Yeah, you can get taken out of context, and
I have been, and my editors will call, and usually they’ll modify it. But I think—I do—do people care about
quote ads? I think it’s producers who care about quote
ads, and I don’t know if the general public really—I mean they see ‘em, it looks nice
on a marquee, I suppose, but I don’t really take them seriously, ‘cause I figure they’ve
all been sort of strung together. They pick a word here, a word there, and all
of a sudden, it looks terrific. So, uhm— And a lot of them come from—not—they don’t
come from critics. They come from columnists, or… Personalities. Right. Mmmm. You know, there’s a radio ad for—I forget
which show, the two lead quotes are Rosie O’Donnell and Liza Minnelli, neither of
whom I believe to be a member of the Drama Critics Circle. They’ve appliled. Last we checked. Heh. In the remaining time that we have, the issue
of the bully pulpit came up, and in planning this, it was not about an opportunity for
critics to come on and say more about what they don’t like. But you are people who see an enormous amount
of theatre, what would you say—you certainly each see in excess of 100 shows a year, probably
more than that. With the idea of the bully pulpit, so we understand
more about you, can you each tell us, and Jeremy, I’m gonna start with you, because
you said you have things you really like to— Sure. What are the things that most turn you on,
in theatre? What are the things you would like to see
more of? Who are the artists that you can get particularly
excited about? So that when we read you, hear you, see you,
we understand more about who you are. Well, there—I guess it’s a little bit
scatter-shot maybe, but I like—I find the playwrights I respond to the most are the
playwrights who are, uh, public minded, for lack of a better phrase, maybe. Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, some of Greenberg,
uh, Chuck Mee, people like that who—that—I’m glad that there are stories about dysfunctional
families on stage, and things like that. But what’s most interesting to me are the
playwrights who are trying to grapple with the way that we’re living now. And Caryl Churchill I think is maybe one of
the best around at that. I—I love live music onstage, SWEENEY TODD—John
Doyle’s revival of SWEENEY TODD I think is amazing. I’m always struck by how satisfying it is
to see actors playing instruments, or incorporating music that—I do think the greatest failure
in the theatre right now, is the inability to integrate what’s happening in music to
what we’re doing in the theatre. Which is not necessarily to say that—you
know that everything ought to be some post-RENT rock musical, but that there’s a lot more
energy and uh, and diversity in music in the 21st century than there is in musical theatre
in the 21st century. And maybe those two things will never line
up, but I would feel better about that if more of an effort were being made now. And I think star casting is like crystal meth
for New York theatre, and will the death of us all. Ha-ha-ha-ha! And the last one is that I think the most
satisfying nights I think I’ve had in the theatre are the ones where I feel that I’ve
been addressed as someone in the audience. I love Chekhov, and I love watching the world
that he creates on stage, but I’m always more engaged when in—for instance a Shakespeare
play or one of the ancient Greeks, or Kushner’s plays where someone is speaking across the
footlights at me, and uh, because that’s an experience you know you can only get in
the theatre. Elysa? Well, uh, it’s very interesting, what Jeremy
said about “we need to explore more opportunities to incorporate music”, because one of my
pet peeves—I don’t know, if this is the time but uh, is the jukebox musical, because
I feel like uh, very often they have these kind of faux populous storylines, and that’s
kind of ironic to me because ultimately what they’re doing is not encouraging new voices. Not encouraging new musicians, not encouraging
new composers, new librettists, and not giving actors, I think enough material. And I think a lot of it has to do with—you
know, as much as star casting—I think—and this is certainly related to star casting,
uh, these rising production costs, and the idea that people are coming, and musical theatre,
which is my first love, most of all for spectacle or camp. Those wonderful stories and songs that I grew
up with, that made me passionate about musical theatre, that led me to pop music, that led
me to Elvis Costello and Prince. That led me to Ibsen and Shaw. I don’t see as much of that in contemporary
musical theatre. And—and uhm, I’m most interested in the
playwrights and the composers who engage—even if it’s not an entirely successful effort
from my point of view. Somebody like Adam Guettel, or Martin McDonagh,
who tries to tell a story, who tries to make you think and feel—think and feel, feeling
is almost more important, I think. Thinking with their heart. I’ve always said my favorite artists think
with their heart. I felt that way about August Wilson. So, anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Melissa, what is—what This is—yeah. What most excites you when you go to the theatre. That was really interesting. Uhm, just hearing other people’s tastes. I—ultimately, I think there’s a part of
me, just like anyone else that just wants to be entertained to an extent. Mostly I want to feel like I haven’t wasted
3 hours of my life. I—I just want something interesting, something
moving, something I loved hearing. As far as personal tastes, Donald Margulies
is one of my favorite playwrights, uh…THREE DAYS OF RAIN is actually my favorite play
in the world, Richard Greenberg’s, and I saw it Off-Broadway in ’97, I saw it in
London in ’99 with Colin Firth, I saw it at the Asolo theatre in Sarasota, Florida,
where I was the only person under 65 in the house, I swear, but I—I—it’s to me just
one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen, uhm. I like Conor McPherson a lot. Uh, Wendy Wasserstein, I identify with a lot
of what she writes about, and a lot of Terrence McNally, Diana Son—I loved her play STOP
KISS, which was in ’97, ’99 maybe. Uh, but I—ultimately I just don’t—and
there are very few things I can say where I walk out and think, “Oh, god, that was
a complete waste of everything”. I just want to be engaged and enjoy something
and even if it’s only for a night, or even if it doesn’t stick with me or is later—that’s
what you save the Playbills for, so you can go back and sort of remember. Michael? Uhm, I keep thinking—I’m hearing all these
things everybody else is saying…the first thing that always comes to my mind is in order
to have a present and know where you are, you have to have a past, and know where you’ve
been, and I’ve put that together with the experience I’ve been having, where you’ve
had a huge run of what Jeremy calls “dysfunctional family plays” where you walk out saying
“this was a very disappointing script, but the acting was really wonderful” I think
we have a pool of actors in America in general, and in New York in specific, right now, that
is incredible, and what I would really like to see more than anything in the world is
companies—bands of actors getting together producing, on a regular basis, in alternating
rep, where you play two plays on alternate nights during the week while rehearsing a
third, and bring back into New York the great plays that used to be in common currency here
– Ibsen and Shaw, whom of us keeps mentioning, and Brecht, and Strindberg, and Bichner{ph},
and everybody before them, including Shakespeare and the Greeks whom we desperately need. With my other head, I’ve got a second job
lately as literary advisors to Theatre for a New Audience, where I’ve had two translations
produced, and one of the reasons I took the job when they offered it to me, is that they’re
the most enterprising company I know in terms of repertory, and because they believe in
actors, and I’m now working as their dramaturg on ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL with this wonderful
company, and I know this is going to date the tape, I’m sorry—uhm, but we have other
projects coming up that are incredibly exciting, including a back to back alternating rep production
of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and Marlowe’s JEW OF MALTA with Murray Abraham in the lead
roles. Oh. Well, you have a unique opportunity in that
you have an association with a theatre to actually do the work yourself, and not just
write about it— But what I’m describing is a theatre that
is doing the work, and it was doing this without my help before I came. There are many other theatres in New York
that are starting up—The Pearl Theatre, which is maintaining a permanent company,
Jesse Berger’s Red Bull Theatre, which is starting to do very exciting work and has
an incredible reading series of all those plays I want to see produced. I think it’s—it’s something that started
to happen in the ‘60’s with the resident theatre movement, and it got sidetracked because
of—the resident theatres suddenly discovered there was money in bringing new plays to Broadway,
and everything got confused, but I think there’s a new movement starting up again, and the
actors are making it—because they want to do these plays, and then there will be greater
new plays. Mike, you’re gonna get the final word, what—what
do you most look for? What excites me the most are actors, I think
who make me laugh. I mean I am in awe of a good comic. I think Nathan Lane is the comic genius of
our time. He’s gonna—he’s in the tradition of
an Ed Wynn, an Olsen & Johnson, a Bobby Clark, names that are kind of forgotten today, I
hope Nathan isn’t forgotten, {MICHAEL FEINGOLD chuckles}, I think he’s done enough movies
that I think he’ll be remembered, but if a performer can make me laugh unexpectedly,
I will—I will bend over backwards to give them a good review. And it’s—comedy is hard, I mean anybody
who can do HAMLET, it’s CHARLEY’S AUNT, to do that really well, is a difficult, difficult
job. And I’ve seen replacements in shows, where
you see the first performer do the role, it’s brilliant, it’s really funny, and then you
go and see the understudy do it, you know, same–same show, different performer, and
the laughs aren’t there. And I don’t know how they do it, it’s
this mysterious, mysterious process. Maybe that’s what makes theatre so great. They can get a laugh out of somebody. And that’s really special. That’s something you can’t teach anybody—I’ve
asked different actors about how do you—“how do you tell a joke?”, and you hear all these
kind of—you know, theories and stuff. But the really good ones, people like a Linda
Lavin who can tell a—an amazing actress and also a terrific comedienne, says you can’t
teach it to someone, you just have the knack to do it, and it’s special. And I think it comes out best in the theatre,
I mean, because you have the person doing it right in front of you. And I don’t know if it’s timing or if
it’s, you know, their presence on stage, the way they—it’s their musicality to
their voice, but it’s something special that you just can’t replicate on TV or the
movies. And ultimately, the pursuit that you all have
is something that evolves, and you learn whether you can actually be taught your critical faculties,
is hard to say, but it evolves just like an actors skill. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us
today about what it is you all do. The American Theatre Wing seminars are brought
to you from the CUNY Graduate Center in association with CUNY’s Department of Continuing Education,
and Public Programs, and of course, the American Theatre Wing’s longtime partners, CUNY TV. Please join me in thanking our panelists,
and we’ll see you at the theatre. {Full Audience Applause}

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