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August 24, 2008


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I love it when a critic gets critical- as long as their opinions perfectly match mine, of course. Wondering what you saw, if you feel like sharing. BTW, if you're a fan of that show (Into the Woods, I mean), it looks like it's being done by a company that will hopefully do interesting things with it next season. Possibly you know who I mean- hopefully next season they'll also be out of that deeply, deeply uncomfortable theatre (yay being drenched in sweat and unable to feel one's hindquarters at intermission!), because I always go see ITW when someone does it within a reasonable driving distance.

malachy walsh

I appreciate your thinking, but I've always disagreed with the idea that "it's not personal."

It is always personal.

Theatre critics (and many theatre people) always repeat this phrase when defending their opinions as if these opinions were somehow made objective by its use. But its always subjective and you are not saving theatre with honesty. You're just telling everyone in print what you personally think theatre should and shouldn't be.

I haven't read your criticism anywhere but here, where it does seem to be evenhanded. But I haven't seen the shows either, so I don't know whether I'd agree or disagree. My greatest hope would be, whether or not you like what I like, you're at least consistent enough that when I read your opinion I get an idea of whether it might interest me.

My experience of the Times critics in NY (when I lived there) was that they were all over the map and I could never tell if they were legitimately reviewing the show in front of them or just telling me they were in a bad mood. They were (and are) poor critics for me.

The critics in SF (Stephen Winn particularly) were worse in the late 90s until Robert Hurwitt became the Chronicle's chief critic. What was most interesting about Hurwitt was how, even when he was panning the show, he did it with a respect that suggested how much he loved theatre. It was a refreshing thing to be left with that instead of snarky and snide remarks that seem the epitome of most criticism these days - in print and online.


I think your criticism is not personal, and bully for you to maintain that attitude. I disagree with the idea that "it" is not personal; for some of your critical brethren it is baldly, vociferously personal--see Hilton Als and August: Osage County, which seemed less like a hope that Tracy Letts will do better next time and more like a hope that Tracy Letts would be erased from existence by an unwitting time traveler.

I'm also not entirely sure that I look to anything published in our major newspapers and magazines to hit what I consider a standard of "criticism," as opposed to simply a review.

I admit that it's become a bit of a game for me to look at reviews for shows I have seen/been involved with and try and guess beforehand the clever headlines or turns of phrase a critic will make in their review of a show based on that show's content or staging. When I opened Contraption last January, I would often keep myself in grim humor by waiting for phrases like "the production grinds to a halt" or "the gears don't quite fit" or simply "machinelike." And hey, fun little pull quotes for the posters, but I don't consider it "criticism."

I know of a number of critics, yourself included, who I wish had more space to work in a print forum, because I know that you've got more going on in your head than the 150 words you've been allotted.

Rob Kozlowski

Back to those Jeff nominations, after seeing "Passion Play" nominated, I think I'm now in the camp of those conspiracy theorists who believe the new "large/midsize" demarcation is solely the result of certain artistic directors feeling they have to justify their six-figure salaries with awards. I cannot possibly believe anyone could possibly believe that abomination was one of the best seven productions of 2008-2009. This is tantamount to "Meet the Spartans" getting a nomination for Best Picture.

Now, was that personal?

Mark Jeffries

I've already had people tell me that I'm wrong (including a Jeff committee member), but since Rob's already set the stage for this, I'm stating flat out: This is all because Porchlight won last year for "Ragtime" instead of Marriott for "Shenandoah"--and Marriott is pissed. Purely my opinion, but that's what I've thought ever since PerformInk hinted that this was coming. And especially because I think that either "Hunchback" (didn't see, but heard that it was a good production of a problematic script) or "Nine" (did see--one of the best thing's Porchlight has done) could win (I'd take out the typically-Pullinsian pro forma "La Cage" at TAC and Marriott's "Producers" to make room for those shows if there wasn't this two-tier system). At least I can look forward to the cream of non-Equity musical theater in "Nine" winning ensemble. Neener, neener, neener.

I assume that the six-figure salary artistic director Rob was referring to the tall guy with the beard over at Dearborn and Randolph.

Kerry Reid

Bilal, just to clarify: critics don't write their headlines most of the time (I never write mine) -- nor do most other published journalists. That's the task of an overworked copyeditor who has probably about two minutes to come up with something, if that. So if their default setting is "catchy," then that's better than "stultifying." At least "catchy" might get someone to actually read the damn review.

This isn't directed at anyone in particular, but I have found over the years that, for all that theater artists gripe about how critics and/or reviewers don't understand how shows are put together, there is often a lot of ignorance on the part of theater artists and producing companies as to how the reviewing business and the larger media world works. For example, as a freelancer, I don't usually make my own assignments. I can suggest possibilities, but the final call is with my assigning editors. Yet I'm always inundated by people asking me if I plan to review their show. Um, I plan to review what I'm told to review by the people in charge. It's been this way for years. But a lot of theater folks still seem surprised to find this out.

So if I haven't covered a certain company, that really truly isn't personal -- it's simply luck of the draw. Same with word counts -- at the Reader, for instance, I'm now told ahead of time if what I'm covering that week will be a short or a long review. So if I come to your show and it only gets a mini, that doesn't mean I didn't think it was worthy of more coverage (and I'd say that even the least interesting show deserves more than 125 words, but again -- that's not my call). It's just what we're all up against in this era of declining print space.

The one argument as a critic that I know I can never win (so I simply don't play the game) is the one that involves the charge "How do YOU know if a play is any good? Have you ever been a playwright/director/designer/composer/actor?"

If a critic answers yes, then surely said critic is suffering from sour grapes and is just jealous of REAL artists. If he or she answers no, then clearly they lack the knowledge to fairly appraise the work of art before them. Oddly, I never hear anyone asking political, legal, or business writers about their experiences in electoral politics, the bench, or as CEOs of major corporations. ("How do YOU know this is a bad bill? Have you ever been a U.S. Senator, Mr. Smartypants?")

Nor would I ever dream of responding with "Have you ever been a critic? No? Then how do YOU know whether or not what I'm writing is any good?" Because that would be asinine.


Maybe someone should start a Chicago critic's circl/loop, type of awards . . . Kris? Kerry?

Mark Jeffries

Way back in the primordial ooze of off-Loop theater, there seemed to be a MacArthur Awards given out by critics (at least there's a couple of framed citations over at Theatre Building of MacArthurs they won back before 1225 W. Belmont, when they were the Luther Burbank Dingleberry Festival). The story I've always heard is that Christiansen thwarted every attempt at a critics' circle because he didn't want to be part of it, and a critics' circle without Christiansen is like a Chicago Film Critics' Awards without Ebert.

Now, Christiansen's retired, of course, but I'm not sure that the current group of critics would be willing to get themselves involved in an awards ceremony. And PerformInk is not going to bring back the reader-judged, ballot-box stuffing Ollys any time soon.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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