Terry Teachout delivers 20th anniversary Perspectives in Criticism address, ‘The Power of Enthusiasm’

Terry Teachout delivers 20th anniversary Perspectives in Criticism address, ‘The Power of Enthusiasm’

Chicago, June 15 — In a series extending back to 1992, Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal theater critic, delivered the Perspective in Criticism talk at the ATCA annual conference. Its success could be measured by the many conversations (and arguments) it occasioned. “Terry Teachout may be America’s Critic but so are we,” said ATCAn Charles Giuliano from the Berkshires. 

Previous “Perspectives” speakers have included such well-known critics as Michael Finegold, Ernie Schier, Henry Hewes, Frank Rich, Dan Sullivan, Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley, and Jay NovickClick here for a brief history of the series.


By Terry Teachout, Theatre Critic, Wall Street Journal

Terry Teachout

Thank you very much. I’m honored to be speaking to you today, and of course I’m always glad to be back in Chicago, which I’ve come to think of over the years as something of a second home. Likewise this wonderful space, in which I first discovered the joys of regional theater…but I’ll get back to that a little later.

Jonathan says that you want me to talk a bit about what I do, how I do it, and how I came to be doing it in the first place. Now I expect that everybody here has a tale to tell that’s at least as unlikely as the story of how a middle-aged journalist became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, it is true that I do something unique: I cover theater from coast to coast, not just on isolated occasions but the whole year round. I review about a hundred shows a season, and of them, roughly fifty are outside of New York City.

I think that the story of how I came to be doing such a thing may well be of interest, at least to this audience. So I’ll keep the reminiscences as brief as possible and devote most of my time to talking about my work at the Journal.

First, though, a bit of autobiography. I never expected to become a drama critic. My academic training was in music. I worked for a number of years as a professional performer, a bass player, and throughout that time I doubled as a music critic. Eventually I started writing about the other arts as well, and on occasion I wrote about theater, though my main interest as a critic was in lyric theater—opera, ballet, and modern dance.

It wasn’t until I went to The Wall Street Journal that I became a working drama critic, and it wasn’t my idea to do so. The Journal approached me about writing a drama column in 2003, to which I said, “O.K., I’m game, so long as you understand that this is strictly an experiment. Let’s give it a try.” That was nine years ago, and I’m still trying.

That said, it’s also true that I spent a good-sized chunk of my youth doing theater. I saw my first show, a small-town high-school drama-club production of Blithe Spirit, when I was twelve years old, and I was instantaneously stage-struck. I joined the drama club as soon as I was old enough, and a year later I landed a part in a community-theater production of Oliver! I was the Artful Dodger, and my voice changed in the middle of the second performance, just like that.

This disastrous occurrence put an end to my days as a musical-comedy performer, but I kept on acting in straight plays all through high school and college. At no time did I ever consider going professional—I was too busy trying to figure out whether I wanted to be a writer or a musician—but I loved the world of theater passionately, and though I left it behind when I graduated from college, it left a permanent mark on me.

I started writing criticism when I was twenty-one years old—way too young—and I’d give a lot to take back some of the things I wrote in those far-off days. I remember how shocked I was when I read a book about doctors that pointed out matter-of-factly that every intern kills a few patients, from ignorance or inattention or simply not having gotten enough sleep the night before. The trouble is that there’s no other way for him to learn how to be a doctor: he has to do it, right or wrong. I’m afraid I killed a few patients when I was in my early twenties. I wish I hadn’t, but I think I learned from the experience, just as I learned from the experience of getting up in front of an audience and giving them a chance to clap—or hiss.

Above all, I learned to appreciate what Wilfrid Sheed has called “the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night.” Between my work as a not-very-good character actor and my experience as a much better professional musician, I acquired a deep respect for the craftsmanship that goes into what performers do, night after night.

I used to teach a college course in criticism, and on the first day I always gave my students a handout called “The Fifteen Commandments of a Critic.” Some of them were just plain horse sense—be simple, be brief, be specific, wear a watch—but the last three bear on what I’ve been talking about. They are:

Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can’t do.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong.

And, last but very definitely not least:

Don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic!

That’s what I think criticism should do, at its best. It’s about enthusiasm, and passion, and love—and if it’s not about those things, then it’s no good.

I just used the word “love.” I mean it literally: I love art, and I love my work. I don’t love the act of writing— few writers do, which is why so many of them are alcoholics—but I love everything else about what I do. For one thing, I love my work because I think I’m fulfilling a necessary and valuable function. Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, once wrote something that is very much to the point:

One of the wonderful things about art is that everybody has to discover the criteria of quality for himself. They can’t be communicated by word or demonstration….You have to find out for yourself by looking and experiencing. And the people who try hardest and look hardest end up, over the ages, by agreeing with one another in the main. That I call the consensus of taste.

I think that helping to shape this consensus, and to speed its creation, is a highly honorable pursuit, one that when done well is good for the world of art. I think of myself as a kind of advance agent for posterity—someone who tries to make sure that people get their just deserts now, not when they’re eighty, or dead.

That’s why there’s nothing I like better, nothing in the world, than going to see something good and writing about it afterward. The awful truth is that I don’t really like writing bad reviews. I can’t understand critics who live to write stinkers. Why on earth would anybody want to sit through a bad performance, just so he can pan it? I have better things to do with my evenings. When I go to a performance, I always side with the performers, at least at first, and if things go wrong with an opera or a play, I feel for the people on stage and backstage, unless I have personal knowledge that they’re dreadful people who deserve to crash and burn, which does occasionally happen in this business.

For the most part, though, I think we’re all on the same side, performers and critics alike, and if I’m a good critic, it’s partly because I believe this to be so. I’ve always tried to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his whole adult life immersed in the world of art, not just as a critic but also as a practitioner. That experience is the best preparation I could possibly have had for what I now do for a living, and no day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for it.

As I say, I never imagined becoming a drama critic, but as soon as I did, I knew that I’d found my vocation at last. Unlike most of my colleagues, I write about all of the arts, and within a few weeks of launching the Journal’’s drama column, I realized that this unusually wide-ranging experience had prepared me unusually well for writing about theater, which is, of course, a synthesis of the arts. Being a drama critic allowed me to use everything I knew—about literature, music, dance, painting and sculpture, culture in general—and that was a revelation. At the age of forty-seven, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

A year into my tenure at the Journal, my editor, Eric Gibson, called me up and told me that the paper had just focus-grouped its arts coverage. The comment heard most often was that it was too “New York-centric.” So Eric asked whether I’d be willing to try doing some out-of-town reviewing. I said I’d be glad to give it a try, but I didn’t know anything about regional theater, so he’d need to give me some time to find my footing.

In fact, I’d already paid my first visit to Chicago Shakespeare, but that was purely fortuitous—I’d been visiting my best friend, who lives in Chicago, and felt like taking her to a show while I was in town. I wasn’t yet thinking about integrating regional coverage into my regular routine. So when Eric suggested that I give it a try, I started by going back to Chicago, then visiting a couple of summer festivals in New England. I liked what I saw, and the following summer I hit the road in earnest.

By the end of 2005 I’d seen shows in eight or nine cities, but it was like throwing darts at a board—I didn’t have a plan. So I printed out a list of the Tony Awards for regional theater and started working my way through the companies that had won. Every time I saw an actor, director, or designer whose work I found especially impressive, I looked at his bio, made a note of the other companies with which he’d worked, and added them to the list. By that time, most regional theaters had figured out the importance of website design, so it was easy for me to track what they were doing in any given season.

The list kept on growing, and soon I was following the seasons of something like two hundred and fifty professional theater companies throughout America, and visiting as many of them as I could squeeze in between Broadway openings. The Journal liked what I was doing. So did my readers—the feedback was overwhelmingly positive—and the more out-of-town shows I saw, the more I wanted to see.

In 2006 I reviewed shows in fourteen different states, plus the District of Columbia. After that, I stopped keeping count. I simply went to any place that sounded interesting, and I still do. Each season I try to visit three or four companies that I’ve never seen, though I also make a point of paying annual visits to theaters with consistent track records of artistic excellence. A few regional theaters—most of them, as it happens, in Chicago—are on the gold-star list of companies that I try to visit twice a year.

In the beginning, I was startled by the high quality of the shows that I was seeing out of town. I actually used to say things in my reviews like “This is as good as anything you’ll see in New York.” Then I realized that was provincial, like the old Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” In time I figured out that theater in America had become—and I think I may possibly have been the first person to use this word in the context of American regional theater—deprovincialized. To put it another way, I came to understand that New York was no longer the “center” of theater in America, that American theater has no center. It’s everywhere.

In retrospect, I think the turning point for me was my first trip to Florida. I’d never been to Florida for more than a day or two at a time, and I confess that I didn’t really expect to be all that impressed by what I saw there. I started off by flying down to Fort Myers, a city of which I’d never heard, to see Florida Rep, a company about which I knew nothing. All I knew was that they were doing Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, and I said to myself, “Brian Friel in Fort Myers, Florida? What’s that all about?” Well, what it was about was a gorgeous production, as good a Friel revival as I’ve seen anywhere.

Then I drove across the Panhandle to West Palm Beach to see yet another company about which I knew nothing, Palm Beach Dramaworks, which at that time was performing in a converted storefront. They were doing The Chairs. Ionesco in Palm Beach—go figure! And it was, if anything, even better. In retrospect, I think that was the moment when what had started out as an assignment turned into a mission.

In a nutshell, what I’m trying to do at the Journal is tell American theatergoers that you don’t have to go to Broadway, or to New York, to see a first-rate show. You can do it right where you live, wherever you live. Beyond that, I’m trying to get my readers to start thinking of Chicago and Washington and Philadelphia and San Francisco—as well as Spring Green, Wisconsin, Ashland, Oregon, and Lenox, Massachusetts—as destination cities for theater. Places to which you can go specifically to see theater, the way people go to New York to see theater.

The problem, and it’s a big one, is that nobody else in America, nobody at all, is doing what I do. The New York Times runs a modest amount of regional-theater coverage, but most of it is in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. They come to Chicago and Los Angeles from time to time, but rarely anywhere else. And that’s it. No other newspaper with a national audience covers regional theater. Time and Newsweek gave up on it long ago.

A newspaper in Florida once ran a story about me called “Terry Teachout: America’s Drama Critic.” Now, I rolled my eyes when I read that. I mean, it’s pretty pretentious-sounding, right? But you know what? It’s true. If you want national coverage for your regional theater, it’s me or no one. I’m it. I’m Guffman. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Because I’m the last man standing, I take my work very, very seriously. I spend a lot more time on planes than I’d like to be spending. I spend a lot more time away from my wife, Mrs. T, than I’d like to be spending, though she travels with me as often as she can. The Journal loves what I’m doing, but they’d be all right if I said I wanted to do less of it. I’m the one who insists on seeing fifty shows a year on the road.

So what keeps me going? Mostly I do it because I love to do it. Perhaps because I became a drama critic in the middle of life, I still have an inexhaustible appetite for seeing shows. I get excited every time the lights go down. It doesn’t always last, but it’s always there.

But I also do it because I know how much it means to the men and women about whom I write. Not surprisingly, I get a fair amount of e-mail from the directors of regional theaters. The funniest letter I ever got came from a guy who at the time was running a tiny little company right here in Chicago, Strawdog Theater. I’d reviewed their production of another Brian Friel play, Aristocrats, and he wrote to me the week after my piece came out. This is what he said: “You remember how small our theater is. The actors can see everybody in the audience. Well, the day your review ran in the Journal, we sold out that night’s show, and when we came out on stage, it was the first time we’d ever seen anybody in the theater wearing a pressed shirt!”

The best letter I’ve ever gotten, though, was one that I received a couple of months ago. I’d gotten a tip from a reader about 1st Stage, a new company in Tyson’s Corner, a suburb of Washington. They’d managed, God knows how, to build a hundred-seat house of their own in a strip mall, and a correspondent of mine who lives in Virginia told me that they were doing first-rate work. So when 1st Stage put on Warren Leight’s Side Man, which is one of my favorite contemporary American plays and one that I’d never gotten a chance to review in the Journal, I went down to Tyson’s Corner with my fingers crossed.

It was great, and I said so in the Journal the following week. And a few days after that, I got an e-mail from the company’s managing director. This is what she said:

I don’t know if it’s good form to thank a reviewer, but I am delighted with what you wrote about Side Man at 1st Stage and had to tell you about the reaction to your review. Perhaps the most important result is that our embattled and exhausted artistic director is so pleased and happy to see that the art is at the core of what he’s been killing himself for over the last five years. He was sure at the end of last year that art had nothing to do with running a theater. Your review made it clear to him.

Your article was also a help in crossing a perceptual barrier—the strip mall, cheap tickets, “can’t-be-good” view in people’s minds. We need our community to understand that good theater is available in the boondocks! So thanks for coming to our little place off the beaten track and for having faith that we could deliver.

You know what? I cried when I read that. I really did. And then I said to myself: I’m going to save this letter on my laptop, and I’m going to look at it the next time I’m stuck in O’Hare, waiting for a plane that’s two hours late and asking myself why in God’s name I keep on doing this.

Maybe what I write about Broadway makes a difference, and maybe not. But what I write about regional theater definitely matters. It sells tickets. It tells people in Virginia and Florida—and Chicago—that they don’t have to go to New York to see something great. And sometimes it changes the lives of talented artists who are asking themselves the same thing I ask myself when I’m waiting for a plane: why in God’s name do I keep on doing this?

Let me tell you one more story, not to make myself look good but so you’ll know how much our work as critics can matter to the people about whom we write. A few years ago, I flew out to Milwaukee to review the Rep’s production of The Norman Conquests. It was cold that December, bitterly and miserably cold, and I had to go through hoops to get there and back again. I did it because I love Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, and because…well, you know why. I saw in that production an actor whom I’d seen the previous year at the Guthrie and at A.C.T. in San Francisco, and she was terrific. Just extraordinary. So I said so in the Journal, very emphatically.

Last summer I happened to meet this actor in a lobby, and I told her how much I’d admired her performance in The Norman Conquests. And she said to me, “You remember how cold it was that winter? I was living in a little room in Milwaukee, and I couldn’t go out because it was so cold, and I didn’t know anybody in town. I was the only out-of-town actor in the cast. I was lonely, and my marriage was breaking up, and I was wondering if maybe it was time for me to start thinking about doing something else for a living. And that Friday morning, the company manager called me and said, ‘The Wall Street Journal reviewed us today.’ I told him that I don’t read reviews while a show is still running. He said, ‘You’d better read this one.’ So I went out and bought a paper and read it…and I cried. Because you gave me hope, right when I needed it most.”

That’s the best part of my job, and the part that matters most: I get to ring the bell for excellence, whether I find it on Broadway or in a tiny theater halfway across the country. And sometimes, in expressing my enthusiasm for what I see there, I also manage to give hope.

I don’t claim to be a perfect critic, but I’ll claim this much: never in my life have I feared to be enthusiastic, and I hope I never will. My enthusiasm makes a difference. So does yours—in ways that you can’t even begin to imagine. Don’t you ever forget it.

And now, with Jonathan’s help, I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have about my work, or whatever else interests you. Let ’er rip!

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