Saturday, December 12, 2015

Answer to The Question I Was Never Asked

It's been more than a year now since I stopped writing Stage Matters, and about a year since I collected past columns and wrote retrospective introductions for this site.

It seems more like ten.  A certain knot of anxiety is not even a memory.  What anxiety remains is based on the energies I spent over a decade on this endeavor, and as a consequence what I didn't do.  And what in that time apparently went away.

I had an explanation for my approach to Stage Matters that I don't think I ever presented.  I recall that I thought it was most appropriate as an answer to the question that was never asked.  For in all those years, I never once was interviewed (on radio for example) or asked to speak or participate in any sort of forum or discussion on the North Coast. (The sole exception was a class for students in theatre criticism held by an intercollegiate organization--the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.)  Perhaps that's a comment on the importance of theatre or theatre reviewing here, or perhaps just on me.  Or likely both.

So at least for the record, here it is.

Draw a circle representing everyone involved in North Coast theatre, both audiences and participants.

Draw another circle representing the readers of the newspaper.

There will be a place where the two circles intersect: denoting that subset of people who are both involved in theatre and read the newspaper.

How large or small that subset might be is open to debate.  But by necessity I wrote my theatre column for the people constituting the circle representing the newspaper's readership, with particular but not exclusive attention to the readers represented by the area where the two circles intersect: people interested in theatre who read the newspaper.

This is almost self-evident but a point that many people miss, especially theatre people.  But it should be especially clear to them.  They perform for the audience that comes to the theatre.  I performed for the readers who came to the newspaper.

In practice that meant writing to inform and entertain readers, most of whom had not seen a given production, and many who never would see it, including those who did not go to theatre at all.

People read reviews of books they will never read.  Probably less often, people read reviews of movies they won't immediately see.  I suspect for theatre, it's somewhere in between, but I did believe that I wrote also for people who might be enticed to read about theatre, but never or very seldom actually saw theatre.

I did hope that my writing would also nudge them towards seeing theatre, and I sometimes wrote with that advocacy as a chief goal of a particular column.

Some periodical writers come to see themselves as representing their theatrical community.  Spending so much time going to theatre, and talking to participants about theatre, a reviewer or columnist inevitably develops relationships, and sometimes friendships.  Some pursue these more than others, and inevitably feel responsible to them. It's a particular temptation for those who were or are participants themselves.

Tom Stoppard expressed this conundrum in an early interview.  He had been a newspaper theatre reviewer before becoming an established playwright.  In discussing his wonderful farce The Real Inspector Hound (which features two theatre critics) with New York Times writer Mel Gussow, he noted about his reviewing days: "I never had the moral character to pan a friend.  I'll rephrase that. I had the moral character never to pan a friend."

Priorities, moral and otherwise, come into play on a case by case basis, I suppose, especially when it comes to friends.  Some people go into criticism with an ideological agenda, and some because they enjoy saying nasty things.  I was neither of those.  A certain tact and delicacy is necessary because real people, their hard work and their feelings, are involved.

But the primary role is journalist, and the primary responsibility is to the profession of journalism (such as it is) and to the readers (whoever they are.)  The theatre community is necessarily of secondary priority, though my goal was to write for that subset as part of the readership.

What this means is various.  Some is regular practice, like making sure the name of the play, the theatre where it is presented and whether it is being presented at the time of publication, are all in the opening paragraph.  (Apparently not everyone holds to this standard.)

 But some of what it means is expressed in judgments particular to each case.  How much of the play's plot to describe, for the benefit of readers but not to the detriment of future playgoers?  Generally more description of the production than judgment is the goal.  Background to the play, the playwright, other productions can be of interest to all readers, even if participants in that particular show may be irked at the space wasted not writing about them.

Finally there was the problem of writing about theatre in a place with limited resources, where few participants are professionals, where the theatres themselves are physically difficult--several hereabouts cause reactions to mold etc. among members of their audiences--and most often with inadequate restroom facilities, all adding up to a less than professional impression.  Is criticism even appropriate for something pretending not to be basically amateur or academic?

That, plus my own discomfort with publishing what is essentially a judgment based on one particular experience on one particular night (for I agree with Stoppard that the job is to communicate that particular experience) was a factor in making Stage Matters a column rather than all reviews.  The balance got thrown off when it was for a time the only venue for timely reviews of current productions, and then by a new editor,  but my intent was always to do previews, interviews and news. Given the amateur compensation, I didn't have time or the resources to do as much as I wanted.

Theatre of course can be done anywhere, and the back of a wagon has been its principal venue for much of its history.  But writing about theatre is much more awkward in a small place.  The great writers about theatre like Eric Bentley and Kenneth Tynan could also be participants (Bentley wrote and directed, Tynan chose plays for the National Theatre) but they had the scope and the room to do both. (Not that I was ever given the opportunity here, except a couple of times in very limited circumstances.)  There's something even a little ridiculous about being a theatre critic or reviewer here.

On the other hand, I never would have wanted to be, say, the lead reviewer for the New York Times.  I knew Frank Rich before he became that, and talked with him about it while he was doing it.  He was philosophical about the effects of his reviews, but the alleged power to close a show (which he disputed he really had, but others claimed his reviews did to such an extent that it became conventional wisdom) is not something I ever would have wanted.

The career that was closer to my comfort zone was that of Frank Rich's colleague, Mel Gussow.  He was the second-string critic for the Times for many years.  He didn't get the big Broadway shows.  He either wrote about off and off-off Broadway shows, or did features and interviews connected with some big productions.  He interviewed Tom Stoppard (that quote comes from one of his), Edward Albee, Pinter, Samuel Beckett and others, and published book-length collections of these interviews with several of them, over years and decades.  In the process he got to know them, and they got to know him.

He wrote for the Times for 35 years, and became a valued part of the international theatrical and literary communities. After his death in 2005 he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.   It was a modest career and yet a capacious one, and I admire it.