Thursday, December 15, 2016

Confessions of a Theater Critic

I’ve been writing theater reviews since 2003. In that time, I have reviewed approximately 650 plays. Does that make me an expert? Not really. It makes me a fan who happens to be a pretty good writer and is lucky enough to get free tickets. I get paid for going to plays. Oh boy!

So how did I get this enviable gig? I was working as an assistant features editor for The News Tribune. It was a part-time, temporary job. At the same time, I was writing a freelance art review column for the Weekly Volcano. My editor at the Trib asked if I could write theater reviews. I assumed that she assumed I knew something about theater, which I didn’t. But I didn’t tell her that.
Here’s a rundown of my theatrical experience:

In the first grade I played one of the dwarfs in Snow White. In high school I joined the drama club because I had a crush on one of the girls in the club (also on the teacher who was the faculty advisor for the club; she was a former beauty queen, Miss Louisiana as well as I can recall). I was never in a play and never worked backstage, but being in the club got me a job years later. It happened like this. I was hired as an art teacher in a school in Clarkton, Missouri (pop. Approximately 3,000). On the job application, it asked what high school clubs I had belonged to, and I listed the drama club. On that basis, they offered me $200 to direct the school play.

Somebody, I don’t know who, had already chosen the play and bought the rights to it from wherever schools got plays back in 1970.  It was a terrible play, a silly teenage comedy about a bunch of boys who dressed as girls in order to crash a spend-the-night party. Even the kids through it was horrible, and they promptly started mocking it in rehearsals. Their ad-libs were much funnier than anything in the script, so I told them to keep them in. The high school thespians under my so-called direction practically re-wrote the entire script, and the result was hilarious. The principal and the head of the PTA both told me it was the best play the school had ever done and said, “You have to direct again next year.” That was shortly before I was notified that I would not be hired again—not as the play director, not even as a teacher.

I still remember the exact wording of my failed evaluation. They praised me for my knowledge of subject matter and my effective but unorthodox teaching methods, but said, “The noise from Mr. Clayton’s class, especially the laughter, Is disruptive of other classes.”

Back to theater. I never got to see many plays, because I could not afford the tickets, but I did enjoy the few I got to see. I also absorbed some theatrical experience second-hand through my son, who acted throughout his school years, majored in acting in college, and has been a professional stage hand since the late 1990s. That encompasses the whole of my theatrical experience and knowledge at the time my editor, Linda Dahlstrom offered me the job of reviewing community theater. I love you, Linda, but I must say I do not think it was very professional for the largest daily paper between Seattle and Portland to give me that job. The Tribune makes a distinction between community theater and professional theater. I was assigned to community theater and the more established staff writer, Jen Graves, covered professional theater. I suspect the paper did not hold community theater in high regard, so my qualifications or lack thereof were of little consequence.

Linda’s boss, Sam (can’t remember his last name), gave me one piece of advice, and that was to be specific. The only other advice I got from any of the various editors I have worked for over the past 13 years was to avoid synopsizing plays unless they are obscure plays, assuming, for instance, that most readers already know what The Sound of Music is about; and to not say things like “I think” or “in my opinion,” because readers already know it’s an opinion column.

In the beginning, I was nervous. I felt like a fake. But actors and directors that I met treated me as if I were an authority. I was surprised to hear that actors were all abuzz backstage when they got word I was in the audience.

I did not even know what people meant when they used terms like “going up” or “chewing the scenery” or “upstaging” or “breaking the fourth wall.” I didn’t know stage left from stage right or upstage from downstage.  I played it by ear, and I learned from doing. And I learned a lot from reading other critics. We have some great ones in the South Sound: Jen Graves, Rosemary Ponnekanti, Michael Dresdner, Dave Davison, Adam McKinney, and the one I probably learned the most from before he quit writing theater reviews, Christian Carvajal.

When I “confessed” to a few friends that I didn’t know diddly squat about stagecraft, they said I had something more important to give the readers. I was able to write about plays from the point of view of a typical, albeit intelligent and hopefully sensitive, audience member. They said reading my reviews is like asking a friend who has seen a play if they think it is worth seeing. Really, that’s all a review is, and I think that . . . well, I know that after reviewing those 600 or more plays I’m beginning to get the hang of it.

The one thing my colleagues have criticized me for is sometimes going too easy on bad plays, and I know that it is true. Sometimes I’m too easy on them because I know how hard they work at putting on a play, and most of them—actors and crew alike—do it without pay or for very little pay, and while holding down full-time jobs and raising children; so I don’t want to criticize them. On the other hand, I’m painfully aware that audiences are paying for tickets, and it would be unfair to them to indicate a play is worth paying money to see when I don’t truly believe it is. Balancing all this is the fact that I’m really easy to please. I love theater, and we’re lucky to have a lot of great ones in the South Sound.


Margaret Ward said...

Your propensity for life's roles must have developed in your high school days because they seem to have commonalities with some of mine. The satire/sarcasm/general humor; the willingness to see adaptations that are appropriate for the settings; and the persistence to continue and build on what turns out well. You have mastered the art far better than I have:-)

bigbird said...

If you are not an expert by now, I don't know who is. Tacoma appreciates the insights!

Bev Sykes said...

You inspired me: