What Makes a Critic Tick? | Feature | Chicago Reader

What Makes a Critic Tick? 

When people ask me, "Whom do you write for?" I answer, "The future."

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The following is an adaptation of Albert Williams's keynote speech to the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, given June 13 at the Goodman Theatre.

Director Tyrone Guthrie once said, "Everyone who goes to the theater has a right to his own opinion--but he doesn't have a right to have it taken seriously." What gives me that right? What is my role as a critic? What do I have to contribute? I'm not a theorist with grand philosophical pronouncements to make. I'm just a guy who operates against deadlines. I'm confused and perplexed by the way the world is going, scared and uncertain about what the future may bring.

What sets my work apart from the glut of media chatter that inundates us? Does what I do make any difference? Does anybody notice? Or care?

I can't define the "role of the critic." No one can, though many will try. Everyone has an opinion about that role, and those opinions often clash. Well, there can be no drama without conflict--why should drama criticism be any different? I think each critic defines his or her role by the way we each do our jobs. Obviously we're influenced by outside factors: the expectations of our editors, the nature of the media outlet we write for or speak through, the art we cover, and the cultural and civic identity of the communities we serve. And I do believe that both theater and criticism--indeed, all the arts and media--are performing a community service and have a responsibility to recognize that. But ultimately the role of the critic--as theorist or consumer guide, reporter or interpreter, booster or skeptic, writer of literary essays or purveyor of quickly digested info bites, aloof commentator or from-the-trenches correspondent--is highly personal. It's whatever each of us makes it.

My circuitous career path certainly shaped my perspective on what being a critic means. I'm very much a product of a 1950s childhood and a 1960s adolescence in Chicago and Evanston. My parents were writers and editors--my father was the radio critic for Saturday Review magazine--and they took me to see children's plays at the Goodman Theatre. They also took me to see the Old Vic's Hamlet with John Neville, Bert Lahr in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Marcel Marceau in his exquisite mime dramatization of Gogol's "The Overcoat," and Margaret Webster's famous production of The Tempest starring Arnold Moss. Moss was a friend of my father's, and after the performance we went backstage, where I played with his wig and false beard. I was hooked on theater at that moment. Or was it the day in 1960 that my parents took me to the kids' matinee at a brand-new comedy theater called Second City, where I got to improvise onstage with the grown-ups?

The first criticism that caught my attention, I'm not embarrassed to say, was in Famous Monsters of Filmland. The magazine was journalistic junk food, packed with bad writing and terrible puns. But its editor and chief writer, Forrest Ackerman, conveyed a sense of joyful, childish--in the best sense of the word--discovery that is the core of criticism, just as children's games of make-believe are the core of theater.

My father died in 1962. Out of that tragedy came a stroke of good fortune: my mother and I moved to Evanston, where Northwestern University exerted a strong influence on the public schools' theater and music programs. I appeared in a kids' play called Emil and the Detectives with a Northwestern grad student named Frank Galati. I was trained in the theater games of Viola Spolin and the chamber-theater techniques of Robert Breen. I hooked up with a schoolmate named Jim Dexter--now a newswriter for CNN--and we put out a horror-movie fanzine on a ditto machine. It was my first published work. I also bonded with another classmate, Jeffrey Sweet, now a well-known playwright and critic. His obsession with theater made him not only a friend but a mentor. I spent hours after school with him in his little room, where it seemed he had the script of every play ever produced, every original cast album ever recorded, every anthology of criticism ever published.

During the summers I went to the Evanston-based Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where musical theater was (and still is) integrated into standard summer-camp activities such as sports and arts and crafts. The place was run by two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, actresses who preached the gospel that every kid should have a chance to be a star but also to be in the chorus. They achieved this goal through an unusual system of multiple casting: during any given performance of, say, Annie Get Your Gun, there would be six Annies. Or six Dorothys in The Wizard of Oz. Each kid got her own scene and song before she rejoined the chorus.

Harand was practicing ensemble theater and nontraditional casting long before those notions were politically correct--and believe me, a lot of the casting was really nontraditional. Harand taught me to put aside preconceptions about how a role should be played and to look for the special qualities each individual might bring to a role, a perspective that has served me well. Harand nurtured talent--among its alumni are Jeremy Piven, Billy Zane, action-film director Andrew Davis, and a host of movie and TV producers and writers. More important, it bred lifelong friendships. One of my teachers there, Estelle Spector, is now my teaching partner at Columbia College; another was David Rush, a playwright well-known in regional theater. Todd London, former editor of the American Theatre magazine and artistic director of New Dramatists in New York, was one of my campers when I was a junior counselor. Thirty-five years later we're still close friends, and at the risk of bragging, I think we're the only camper-counselor team ever to have both won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

In the mid-60s a family friend and actress named Bea Fredman drew my attention to a new community theater in Chicago operated by the Hull House social-service agency. Hull House Theater, under the direction of Robert Sickinger, introduced local audiences to experimental drama from Europe and off-off-Broadway: Beckett, Arrabal, Pinter, Albee. Sickinger's bold tastes as a director and his advocacy of a neighborhood-based, grassroots theater in Chicago attracted such emerging young talents as David Mamet, Mike Nussbaum, composers Polly Pen and Alaric Jans, and Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who went on to write Grease, the show that put off-Loop theater on the international map.

I apprenticed at Hull House, running lights for kids' shows in exchange for acting classes, but I was too busy or too young to see most of the shows. Instead I devoured all the information I could from newspaper reviews--principally those in the Chicago Daily News by Richard Christiansen. When I was a senior at Evanston High School, I requested a meeting with Christiansen, hoping to get him to write about a show we were doing--the world premiere of a musical by my schoolmate Jeff Sweet. (The teacher who directed it, Bruce Siewerth, is now chair of the Jeff Awards Committee's non-Equity citations wing.) Christiansen received me in his office and kindly explained that he didn't review high school shows. His infinite politeness softened the rejection. Since then he's had plenty of opportunities to write about Sweet's plays.

At Indiana University I studied opera direction under a teacher named Ross Allen, who taught me an invaluable lesson. Reviews, he said, were a research tool--the best ones were written not just for their own time but for the record. Returning to Chicago, I joined one of the new off-off-Loop theater companies that had sprung up as part of an exploding political and artistic counterculture. It was called the Free Theater, because we performed for free. Directed by composer William Russo, it specialized in original rock operas and appeared off-Broadway as well as around Chicago. I worked with the Free Theater as a performer and writer for four years, so I know as well as anyone what it's like to bask in a good review and suffer through a bad one. I've been panned by the best, including Claudia Cassidy, Edith Oliver, and John Simon. Yes, I can proudly say that I've been Simonized.

Looking back on those days helps me keep in mind how important any review is to theaters--how hungry they are for literate feedback, positive or negative. It's like what Georges Seurat says to his art-patron friend in James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George: he doesn't want his approval, but he does want his opinion.

The last show I did with the Free Theater was a pair of one-act commedia dell'arte operas called Isabella's Fortune and Pedrolino's Revenge. The music was composed by Russo, and the libretti were written by Jonathan Abarbanel and me. We scheduled a press night for August 8, 1974. But during that day we started getting last-minute cancellations, not only from the critics but from all the friends we'd papered the house with--they all wanted to stay home and watch television. As it turned out, we were being upstaged by Richard Nixon, who was resigning that night. Only two people showed up--Jack Hafferkamp from the Daily News and his date. We put a portable TV onstage so they could watch Nixon's farewell before we gave them a private performance.

Isabella's Fortune transferred to New York for a brief run. After it closed, I stayed there for a year. I landed my first job in journalism--as a typist and proofreader for the Village Voice. Proofreading gave me the chance to closely read edited manuscripts, in this case by such writers as Julius Novick, Michael Feingold, Andrew Sarris, and Nat Hentoff. It was great training, and I highly recommend it to any writer.

I returned to Chicago and spent the Jimmy Carter years--national malaise and all--touring as a singer in a rock 'n' roll band. It was a tremendous learning experience: playing clubs in places like Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Coal City, and Lima, Ohio, shook up all the smug urban-liberal assumptions I'd picked up during my youth.

In 1980 I turned to journalism, parlaying press contacts I'd made from my band into the opportunity to write about theater, music, and film. The first lead review I had published in the Reader, in 1986, was of a revival of Lanford Wilson's The Rimers of Eldritch by a little storefront theater called Reflections. Reflections folded after a season or two, but one of its members, Michelle Madden, became a dear friend as well as one of off-Loop theater's most beloved and most passionate publicists and advocates. Madden died of a heart attack this past March at the age of 54; it fell to me to contact her former Reflections colleagues with the news. I won't go all Twilight Zone and speculate on whether fate chose me to write that review in 1986 so that I could bring people together for her memorial in 2002. But when we talk about the impact our reviews have, it's worth remembering that they may have consequences we never consider. And that the people we write about, and work with, and care for aren't here very long. Nor are we.

At the Reader we say, only half-jokingly, that we write for people who don't go to the theater. Yet the Reader stands as the paper of record for Chicago theater, especially the off-Loop troupes that define Chicago theater's artistic core. Indeed, the Reader has played a crucial role in developing that theater by being connected to the cultural world it covers. We don't set up any artificial distinction between the "readers" and the "artists," because we recognize that many of our readers are artists.

Part of my job at the Reader is compiling theater and performance listings--150 to 250 per week, even during the summer, when the established theaters take a break and a slew of fledgling companies and festivals take advantage of what used to be an off-season. I also coordinate and assign the theater reviews, spreading them among a team of a dozen writers, each of whom has an individual voice and vision, each of whom probably defines the role of the critic in a different way. Many of them are or have been active in the theater as actors, playwrights, directors, performance artists, singers, and publicists. Most also hold day jobs--bookstore clerk, dot-com marketing manager, editorial assistant, AIDS legal caseworker, teacher. One's a househusband who's staying home to raise the baby he and his wife recently brought back from Ukraine.

As assignment editor I get to "deal in dreamers and telephone screamers," to borrow Joni Mitchell's phrase. Most of the calls are polite, but some are rude, pushy, or just naive. I get requests to assign certain reviewers--and demands to not assign certain reviewers. This theater loves Jack but hates Justin; that one adores Justin but refuses to admit Jack. One theater despises Kelly, then realizes it got Kelly confused with Kerry. I'm certainly not exempt. One playwright I reviewed wrote me a letter that ended by saying, "Please send this through your spool manager and subject it to a violent act of reverse peristalsis!" Another playwright was so incensed by one of my reviews--not a bad review of one of his plays, but a good review of a play by someone he didn't like--that he put on a show with the charmingly misspelled title Richard Roper, Richard Christensen, and Alburt Williams Are Big Fat Idiots.

Happily, we also get calls and letters from artists, emerging and established, who are grateful that we take them seriously, who appreciate and learn from our feedback, even if they don't agree with it. I think most artists worth their salt welcome intelligent, creative criticism, and are influenced by it, in the long term if not immediately. In 1982 I spent three months in Great Britain with my lover Emlyn Williams, the Welsh playwright and actor best known for writing The Corn Is Green and Night Must Fall. Emlyn toured with a one-man show in which he portrayed Charles Dickens reading from his books; my job was to run around whatever town we were in and pick up all the papers that had reviewed the show. Emlyn didn't want to read the reviews while we were on tour--not because he was afraid of bad ones, which he seldom got, but because he didn't want the good ones to make him complacent or self-conscious. But once back home in our Chelsea flat, he would carefully read each review and paste it into a huge scrapbook, one of several dating back to the 1920s. Skimming these scrapbooks was his way of learning how he'd changed over the years--and how he might build on or undo those changes to make his work better.

I said that each of us defines the role of the critic for himself. I define the role of the critic as a teacher. A teacher, ideally, is someone who knows more about the topic at hand than most of the students--someone who's done his research and isn't shy about bringing it to bear on the discussion. A teacher is a stickler for accuracy, checking his facts, making sure names are spelled right. A teacher encourages the best by always demanding better. A teacher is interesting to listen to and sensitive to his own use of language.

I've come to realize that my use of language as a critic has been strongly influenced by the writers I most enjoyed in my formative years: Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Archibald MacLeish, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, Patrick Dennis, Terry Southern, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and of course Shakespeare. Not that I'd ever compare myself to them as writers, God forbid. But the music of their language--their phrasing, their sentence structure, their delight in wordplay, their use of imagery, parallelism, sonority, consonance, assonance, alliteration, their choice of whether to end a phrase with a stressed or unstressed syllable, when to repeat a word, and when to use a synonym, their ability to choose the precise word to convey a particular nuance or subtextual implication--is embedded in my ear as I write. I think their influence gives my writing a strength that, I hope, supports the points I have to make. Writing is the process and language the tool with which I organize my jumbled thoughts and communicate my understanding of the art I've seen. But I have to be careful not to let the sound of my writing obscure my content or disguise muddled or shallow thinking. Sometimes my editors will question what I've said or how I've said it and suggest alternatives. Even if I reject their suggestions, their criticism helps me find better solutions.

A teacher challenges the material he's discussing, and in so doing challenges students to think for themselves. A teacher stimulates critical and analytical thinking and fosters controversy in order to challenge pupils' preconceptions. A teacher facilitates a mutual learning process, helping his students learn from one another as well as from him. A teacher learns from his students too.

A teacher also has to deal with budget cuts, internal politics, community pressure. He has to give fair and sensitive treatment to his mediocre, dumb, and hostile students without shortchanging the gifted ones. He has to be wary of spoiling his favorites and losing his objectivity. He has to find the narrow space between being a cog in the machine and a wrench in the works.

One of my favorite plays is David Mamet's Oleanna. What interests me isn't the play's hot-button topic of sexual harassment; it's how Mamet, a teacher himself, dramatizes the dilemma facing a college teacher. Mamet's protagonist wants to criticize the academic system while also availing himself of its benefits--a salary, tenure, the right to spout off. He's a provocateur but also a parasite, an outsider by inclination who's trying to find security on the inside. He wants to raise questions, but his student comes to him looking for clear-cut answers and resents him when he doesn't provide them. What about critics? We expect free tickets and prime seats from theaters we lambaste. We write flattering advance stories on plays we then turn around and pan. We deal with a system of hype and snipe, stroke and provoke, schmooze and bruise. It's a real dilemma that arts journalists face.

Stimulating critical thinking may be the toughest part of a critic's job in a culture that prizes instant opinions over long-term reflection. We're swimming against the tide in a TV-dominated mediocracy--a ratings-driven and focus-group-tested system that's controlled by spin doctors, hypemongers, and advertising strategists, a world in which celebrity is confused with accomplishment and popularity is a euphemism for marketability. To be a serious critic or artist in this poisonous climate is to be an intellectual resistance fighter.

Theater is a small world where collegial relationships and personal friendships can create better art. But the risk of conflict of interest is ever present, whether it's critics reviewing the work of their friends and former students and teachers--a situation I frequently face--or playwright-critics winning playwriting awards that have been handed out by their fellow critics. There are no across-the-board answers to these concerns; each case has to be judged according to its own circumstances, and--as with any question concerning the "role of the critic"--disagreement is to be expected. The important thing is whether the choices we make as critics satisfy our own sense of integrity and our credibility with others.

But there are some guidelines I can offer critics. Don't use theater reviewing as a social outlet, and don't presume that just because actors are polite at opening-night parties they're glad you're there. If you review your friends, don't try to spare their feelings by pulling your punches; you don't do them--or your own credibility--any favor by writing a review that brims with lack of enthusiasm. Remember the witch's song in Sondheim's Into the Woods: "You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." Fair doesn't equal gentle; polite doesn't equal bland. But tough doesn't equal nasty either. Some people find slice-and-dice reviews entertaining to read, but I think they demean the critic more than his subject, and all too often a flair for invective masks a lack of substance.

Don't be shy about trumpeting the work of artists you admire, but beware becoming the "official chronicler" of your pets. It does a playwright no good to have a file overflowing with glowing reviews and interviews from a variety of publications if they're all written by the same person.

Don't be afraid of being out of step with popular taste or the so-called critical consensus. There's always more than one side to any story. Don't worry about whether your review helps sell tickets or close a show. There's no way you can--or should try to--determine how what you write will affect a reader. I once panned a production of Hair, and a couple of weeks later I got a letter from a man who said he'd bought a ticket to see the show because he couldn't believe it was as bad as I'd said. And it wasn't, he added, it was worse.

Use adjectives sparingly and adverbs even more so. Emlyn Williams once told me that when the play Mister Roberts was in tryouts before opening on Broadway it was about 20 minutes too long. The play's coauthors--Tom Heggen, who'd written the novel it was based on, and Josh Logan, who was also directing--had fierce arguments about what to keep and what to cut. Emlyn, who happened to be on the scene, offered to take the script back to his hotel and see what he could do. Heggen and Logan cautiously agreed. The next day Emlyn brought back the script. He hadn't eliminated a single character, incident, or line of dialogue; instead he'd trimmed almost every adjective and adverb, bringing the play down to a decent length and clarifying the action in the process.

Critics signal the standards of excellence they expect from artists by the standards they set in their own work. Why should anyone take the opinion seriously, remembering what Tyrone Guthrie said, of someone who gets facts wrong, misspells names, or uses poor grammar or imprecise words? Sloppy sentences like "Born in 1911, Tennessee Williams's breakthrough came in 1944 with The Glass Menagerie" have become all too common. If you're reviewing a play based on historical fact, do your research. Don't rely on the dramaturge's program notes or the playwright to be historically accurate. The playwright has a right to artistic license, but the reader has the right to know how freely the playwright exercised that license--and to expect that the critic has a handle on the truth.

Check your language, your facts, your assertions, and your assumptions. If you're admonishing a director for using an all-white cast, make sure one of the actors isn't actually a light-skinned African-Asian-American. Don't say "disinterested" when you mean "uninterested." If you're writing about Second City's famous alumni, spell their names right, especially if they're movie stars. And for God's sake, don't call a transsexual a "drag queen," as one former Reader critic did. Boy, did we hear about that one!

Expect artists to succeed, but respect their right to fail. Theater is about process, about the long-term growth of an artist and the community, about the risks of live performance. And failure is part of that process and that risk--as is the thrill of discovery. Take into account the theater company or producer's pragmatic concerns--financial resources, available talent, technical limitations, audience tastes--but don't compromise the artistic expectations you uphold. "Drama criticism," said George Jean Nathan, "is, or should be, concerned solely with dramatic art even at the expense of bankrupting every theater in the country."

I said before that teachers facilitate mutual learning between pupils and themselves. Critics are part of an ongoing learning process: we respond to what the artists present to us; the artists respond to our response--maybe not this season or next, but down the road. Our response changes as their work changes, and we and the artists change in response to the evolving expectations of the communities we serve--which of course change in response to the work the artists produce and the coverage we give it.

When people ask me, "Whom do you write for?" I answer, "The future." The reply often surprises them. The future, after all, doesn't buy tickets; it doesn't even read today's paper. Except that it does. In 1966 I was the future--the 15-year-old kid reading Richard Christiansen's reviews of Hull House and Second City shows because I couldn't go to them. The specific words he wrote--or any critic writes--are less important than the cumulative excitement they generated over time, the sense of discovery they engendered, the standards of excellence they encouraged, and the way all these things have filtered down through the years. Few people today read George Jean Nathan, for example, but his legacy lives on--in the plays of Eugene O'Neill, whom he championed when others didn't, and in the generations of artists and critics he inspired and the critics and artists they inspired in turn.

With every review a critic publishes--with every word he writes and rewrites, every draft he throws out and every draft he polishes--he's building the future. And a personal legacy. I've quoted Stephen Sondheim above, and I'll do so again: "Careful the things you say. Children will listen." I hope he's right.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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