Critic Spotlight: January 2021
Primary outlet: Houston Press
Let’s start with the basics. You have worked for the Houston Press for six years, but before that you were up in Calgary doing radio?
Yes. We’re originally from Toronto; we moved to Calgary 12 years ago. I was the theater critic for CBC Radio, which is kind of like Canada’s BBC.
How did you get started in criticism? Do you have a theater background?
I have a journalism background and I was also a theater kid. When I started as a journalist, I was both a newspaper reporter and a television reporter. I worked a number of different beats, but because of my interest in the arts, I sort of morphed over into doing arts coverage from a journalistic point of view.
In Toronto, I had sort of a sidetrack into PR for a while. It was sort of a midsize firm, and I had about 15 people working for me. When we moved to Calgary I sold the business side, wanting to get back into media. I loved the city, but I looked around Calgary and saw that there was a lot of cheerleading, cheerleading about the arts, but not a lot of actual examination of the arts. Everything was four stars, everything was great.
I thought, there’s a really great, plucky indie scene and a lot of really interesting things going on. That community deserved better than just, “this is great.” So I set up a website and started to do criticism online. Within a month or so, CBC asked if I would join them because they liked what I was doing.
What parts of the theater scene in Houston are different from Calgary?
It’s not as big. Which is shocking considering that Houston is the fourth largest city in the US. I think it’s sort of top heavy in Houston. I was coming from a place where there were so many small independent companies doing really cool creative work.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some terrific companies here; I was just surprised at how I expected it to be a bigger scene than Calgary. Then Hurricane Harvey, unfortunately, just devastated the arts. So many theaters flooded. They couldn’t fundraise because all the money was going to people who were losing their homes. It was absolutely horrible.
Unfortunately, a lot of the smaller companies just did not exist after that, or if they did exist, they were only programming one or two things a year. Now with the pandemic, we’re worried about who’s going to be left when this is all over. There hasn’t been a new company opened in ages. When I first moved here, there were something like 35 to 40 companies. Now there are far fewer than that.
Do you have a philosophy when it comes to criticism? What’s the first thing you look for?
I have my own personal tastes — I really don’t like farce, for example — but I try not to lead with that when I’m seeing a show because I think my job is, firstly, to ascertain what this company director or writer is trying to say, and if, in fact, they are achieving that.
If I’m going into a review, at first, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s my cup of tea or not. Do I understand what they’re trying to achieve? And are they achieving it? I also try to lead with, Why am I seeing this now? What is it about this production? Or what are they trying to say? Or why is this being programmed? And how does this fit into where we are right now in the world, the theater world, and the general arts milieu?
It takes about a year and a half, when you’re new to a city, to sort of figure out who’s doing what, what their style is, and what they’re capable of. Once you get comfortable in the community and get a good handle on what’s going on, there’s a benchmark: I’ve seen them do work before. Are they reaching that mark in this production?
Do you have a favorite kind of theater?
The more disturbing something is, the happier I am. I’m very happy when there’s entertainment, but I like to be made to think.
Do you go to Broadway?
I’m not a huge fan of the large Broadway productions anymore; the production over substance just doesn’t interest me. I’d rather be in a basement in some small weird building seeing something fantastic than see movie stars on the stage singing.
The pandemic has forced theaters and other storytellers to find creative ways to keep their arts alive. What are some of the best or most unusual things that you’ve seen this year?
Do you know “Staged?” It is a BBC production, starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant.
Oh my god, why am I not watching that? (Interviewer’s note: I have since rectified this situation.)
The premise of the show is that they were supposed to be in a play before the pandemic, the pandemic shut it down, but the director still wants them to rehearse the play on Zoom together. They’re playing themselves. It is one of the funniest, weirdest, really smartly written things I’ve seen.
The one immersive theater company in town has had a couple shows, and one element of one of their shows was a tarot reading. You could have one on one tarot readings online. The actress that plays this character is a very experienced tarot card reader, so you had 30 minutes with her and she’s fully in character, she’s fully dressed up, there’s like the whole background scene of her lair.
I think one of the problems with all of these virtual shows is that disconnect of sitting in front of a screen watching something, which feels very different than going to a theater. You don’t have that physical closeness to either the actors or the other people watching. The fact that they had a personal experience was really quite special. Those are the most exciting things that are coming out of this. Even when theater comes back (in person), this personal, intimate type of theater might and probably should continue.
It’s been wonderful to chat with you. Could you send me links to some reviews or articles you are especially proud of?
— Interview by Karen Topham. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.