Saturday, February 9, 2008

Mosaic Theater puts a Critic to the Question

This interview was originally published in Mosaic Theatre's Newsletter. It's rare for a theater producer, director or actor to have a chance to question a critic; Richard Jay Simon is all three. He did a terrific job with this interview, and I asked if I could re-post it here. I appreciate his willingness to share this interview with South Florida Theatre Scene.

Be sure to read his blog TILES (linked in our sidebar), and be sure to check out Mosaic Theatre.

Ten Questions with Miami Herald Theater Critic Christine Dolen!
By Richard Jay Simon

I'm often asked questions about the role of the critic so I decided to ask one of the best in the region, Christine Dolen of the Miami Herald. Also check out Christine Dolen's Blog, Drama Queen which is updated regularly and offers her insight into the theater world. Alas, the questions and answers.

Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? What sparked your passion to become involved in the arts? Have you ever been involved in any other capacity aside from critic? How did you become a theater critic for the Miami Herald and tell us a little about your journey in becoming one?

A: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and remember reading reviews even as a kid (I know -- very strange). My father, Bill Hindman, was an actor, and when I was a preteen, he did a couple of years of summer stock theater just north of the city, and I'm guessing that's when I got really interested in theater. During junior high and a bit in high school, I acted in a few teen/community productions, but I quickly realized: 1. I didn't have my dad's talent; 2. I was too self-conscious to be an actor.

Bill Hindman
I majored in journalism at Ohio State University and did some freelance film and theater reviewing when I was on the staff of the Columbus Dispatch. I was hired as an arts copy editor and rock music critic at the Detroit Free Press, and while I was there the theater critic left on a fellowship, so I filled in for awhile. I was hired at the Herald as arts editor, then returned to rock criticism, then got the theater critic job when the previous critic left in 1979.

Q: If you weren't a theater critic, what might you be doing to earn a paycheck? Feel free to discuss odd jobs that you've had since you were a kid.

A: It's probably sad to say, but I'm not sure what else I would be doing. The only non-journalism job I ever had was at a fast-food place in high school, and I don't think I'd want to go back to that. I'd probably be some sort of editor, I'm guessing. But I hope I don't have to find out.

Q: Please share your best and worst experience in your career. A local actor once told me that he was going to send a certain critic a copy of the Vincent Price movie "Theater of Blood" which is a B horror flick where an actor seeks revenge on the critics who gave him awful notices. Any wild stories to share and of course, feel free to omit the names of the individuals or organizations involved.

A: My friend, former UM film professor George Capewell, his actress-wife Cynthia Caquelin (who also taught at UM and New World) and I always agreed that the worst thing we had ever seen locally was an independent production of the play "Modigliani," which was directed by the (very bad, very egotistical and dialogue-challenged) leading actor's girlfriend. A few things came close, but nothing else here bottomed out quite that horribly. It's hard to say what were the best experiences, but I would count the Broadway production of "Nicholas Nickleby," a production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" starring Derek Jacobi and the first time I heard "Anna in the Tropics" read among things I'll always treasure.

Q: What was the most memorable interview you have conducted or story you have covered and why?

A: Again, it's tough to pin down one thing. I'll never forget interviewing Tennessee Williams at a cafe in Key West, and later writing an obituary of him that was published in the Herald AND in an English-language paper in China.

The first place I ever interviewed Edward Albee was in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, as he sat and petted the Algonquin cat. I was always a little terrified of interviewing him -- he is SO bright and quick, and he doesn't suffer foolish questions -- but as I did subsequent interviews with him, I came to appreciate his humor and the warmth underneath the formidable intellect. I have also loved writing about theater talents from Miami who are having an impact on the larger world: Nilo Cruz, Raul Esparza, Tarell McCraney. And, way back when, I interviewed both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (though not together).
In my rock critic days I: Went to the circus with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; flew on Led Zeppelin’s private plane; sat beside Billy Joel & behind Kris Kristofferson as we watched Stephen Stills perform in Havana. But that’s another interview.

Q: Please discuss your process as a reviewer. Do you have specific guidelines or criteria which you use to judge a production? Are new plays viewed differently than established ones? How are fledging new theatre companies judged versus established companies?

A: The bottom line is this: Good theater is good theater. Critics evaluate the play (particularly in the case of a new script) and the production; the performances; the direction; the design. We try to analyze what works and what doesn’t. We try to place a play in the larger context of that author’s work, or a production within the context of the work a particular company does. Writing about a new play is slightly different (and an interesting challenge). New works are seldom perfect the first time they’re produced, so if there are flaws, you point them out and analyze them. New companies usually don’t have the resources of established ones, so certainly you take that into account, but again – good theater is good theater.

Q: When you see a theatre with empty seats, do you feel any obligation or responsibility to give a positive review to help generate ticket sales?

A: No, I don’t. While I realize reviews can and do have an effect on sales (sometimes slight, sometimes major), there are enough critics in South Florida that theatergoers can access a spectrum of opinions about a production. Pulling punches, being “nice,” damages a critic’s credibility. Although what we do involves opinion writing, we are also journalists, and it’s our obligation to be accurate and honest.

Q: Does an audience's reaction (or lack thereof) to a show or the size of a house ever influence your review? Many producers fear critics attending a performance that is not well attended, especially for a comedy, might have a negative impact on a review. Is that a myth?
A: The audience’s reaction or the size of an audience has nothing to do with how I review a show. I have sometimes loved shows that an audience clearly didn’t like, and vice versa. An audience comes to a production to be entertained (or moved or enlightened!). A critic is there to analyze and reflect on a production. If there seems to be a major disparity between the way the audience is reacting to a piece and the way the critic sees it, the critic (as a journalist) really has an obligation to comment on that/analyze it as part of the review.

Q: Often times a glorious review with an ambiguous headline can mislead a reader, deciding whether or not the article is read. Ultimately that can have a significant effect on ticket sales. Is it fact or fiction that critics do not select the headline for a story?

A: Critics have nothing to do with headlines (or photo captions). Those are written by the folks on the copy desk. They should reflect the overall tone of the review – positive, negative or mixed (in which case, the headline should be neutral). Generally, the system works, though certainly there have been times when I felt a headline (which is, after all, just a few words) suggested a review was more negative than it actually was. And yes, that bothers me. That’s why I would resist a star system (like the one used with movie reviews) for theater reviews: It’s too easy for a reader to just look at that and skip the more nuanced analysis in a review.

Q: For me, there is nothing worse than sitting through an awful production. Yet, as a producer, I must see a lot and attempt diplomacy. Have you ever walked out of a production that you were covering? Do you find yourself after seeing a bad show desperately trying to say at least one positive thing about it? Do you find yourself after seeing a good show playing devil's advocate to find something negative?

A: The only time I ever left a play I was reviewing actually involved a Broadway production of the Scottish play, many years ago. But in writing a capsule review of it (the format I use when writing about multiple Broadway productions), I said in print that I had bailed at intermission, and said why.
If I go to a play that I’m not covering and it’s really bad, I feel no obligation to stick it out to the bitter end. But if I’m reviewing, I must and do stay ‘til the end.

I do NOT try to say something positive about a poor production, nor do I search for something negative to say about a good one. That has nothing to do with the critic’s task or process.

Q: Describe how you see the development of theatre in South Florida over the years, from when you started to now. And as you look in the "Christine Dolen Crystal Ball" how do you see the future of this arts community?

A: When I began as the Herald’s theater critic in 1979 (I know – before some of the people reading this were born!), there wasn’t much homegrown theater here. Ruth Foreman was a longtime force in theater, and there was (unlike now) the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Caldwell, touring Broadway theater. Small and sometimes wonderful companies came and went: I particularly miss Area Stage and the Acme Acting Company.

Now, the region is home to so much good theater and so many small- to medium-sized companies. We have a burgeoning play-writing scene, a strong talent pool, artistic directors who compete to get provocative scripts from New York and regional theater, plus so much new work. It’s a great time to be in theater or writing about it. My hope is that the Coconut Grove Playhouse can be reborn (before too long!) as a strong regional theater reflective of the cultural richness of South Florida, a place where everything from new work to the classics can be produced. I think that’s the only thing missing from an otherwise vibrant theater community.

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