Critical Juncture

As theatres and audiences face a brave new digital world, 12 of the nation's most influential theatre critics talk about their towns and their changing roles

By David Cote

Whenever I told friends that I was writing about 12 of the most influential theatre critics in America, I made sure to pause for the laugh. Are there a dozen out there? In this atomized age of Twitter and Facebook, with media outlets shedding arts staffers and shredding budgets, what constitutes influence? How was this list compiled?

Not scientifically, to be sure. But these 12 journalists made the cut for specific reasons: years on the beat, quality of writing, reach of their voice through syndication, and, lastly, understanding of the field. Another criterion is quite blunt: Many of them are "last man or woman standing" in their communities; after they retire or take a buyout, it's unclear if some blogger or junior critic will step up to fill the void. As such, they form a vital phalanx of critical opinion that chronicles and weighs work that national media outlets are content to ignore. These dozen writers may not be flashy prose stylists or even revolutionary thinkers about their art form. But they have dedicated years to the field—and certainly not to get rich.

As any historian will tell you, it wasn't always like this. Take a stroll through the criticism section of your local used bookstore (assuming you can find such a mythical edifice) and you will find hardbacks by Stanley Kauffmann, Robert Brustein, Richard Gilman or Eric Bentley—those deep yet entertaining thinkers who released collections of reviews and essays back when publishers did such things.

It has been at least a generation since a theatre critic enjoyed a position of national prominence. Frank Rich filed his last notice for the New York Times in 1993. Brustein dissected Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia in the New Republic four years ago, but has scarcely reviewed since. Theatrical coverage in Time, Newsweek and USA Today is brief, random and often vapid. And, without the broken bones and serial delays that made a three-ring fiasco out of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, national television won't touch the stage with a 12-foot-pole.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, director of theatre studies at New York University and editor of the Best Plays Theater Yearbook series, takes the long view. "In less than a hundred years, theatre has gone from being the dominant popular mass medium to something on the margins," he explains. "Even Broadway is at the margins of culture. It may make a billion dollars in ticket sales and attract 12 million people to theatres, and have plenty of big-name stars, but it is not central to culture." And while professional not-for-profit theatres around the country may be more intertwined with their communities, they've suffered the same cultural marginalization in the past few decades.

Economic contractions since the 2008 financial crisis have only exacerbated conditions for the regional theatre critic. Downsizing, merging and digitizing content have all taken a toll on media owners, who are constantly looking for ways to cut corners. Reviewers who are left on staff must do everything in their sections: write preview pieces, review those same artists, blog, tweet and keep an eye on trends in their fields. Burnout is almost inevitable, if the pink slip doesn't come first.

But not all is hopeless. Jenkins, who edited the 2004 book Under the Copper Beech: Conversations with American Theater Critics, sees vital opportunities for the next generation of theatre critics—so long as we regard the practice of criticism as something worthy of subsidy. "This is a time for people to be entrepreneurial about theatre criticism," says Jenkins. "There is probably a role for nonprofit arts criticism in America, funded on a not-for-profit model. I've always thought that Best Plays could be a home for something along those lines—creating an institute that allowed for more of a critical conversation from various localities, with regional editors, funneled through a central source. We're a huge, spread-out country, but theatre criticism is a small business. We all know who all the theatre critics are."

And if you didn't know who they are, read on.

Boston: Don Aucoin
Position: Chief Theatre Critic, The Boston Globe
Age: 55

Years on the beat: 1

Don Aucoin is the cub in this pack. Not that he lacks chops: He probably has more hard news experience than anyone else on this list. Since he arrived at the Globe in the late '80s, Aucoin worked the copy department, staffed the night news desk, wrote features and honed his critical voice while third-stringing on weekends. A true newspaperman, he has a little of everything in his résumé: covering gubernatorial elections, City Hall sessions and a stint as a TV critic. When theatre critic Louise Kennedy left the Globe last September, he was offered her position.

Aucoin displays Yankee restraint but unmistakable pride when describing his beat. The Boston scene, as he sees it, is in a period of unusual ferment, with the big houses—American Repertory Theater, Huntington Theatre Company and ArtsEmerson—supplemented by smaller resident troupes such as Company One and Lyric Stage Company. From formal experiments by ART's Diane Paulus to classics shepherded by Peter DuBois at the Huntington and international touring acts at ArtsEmerson, Aucoin relishes the diversity of his beat. In his reviews, one can see the classic journo, a seasoned deadliner who sticks to accessible, unstuffy prose with carefully reasoned aesthetic calls. Aucoin does sound a warning note about the failure of most companies to attract younger audiences—especially galling in a major university town.

Quote: "After three or four years I tend to move on to a new beat. That's one of the beauties of journalism: You can stay under the same roof and do wildly divergent things. But I could definitely see myself staying here for many more years. I feel like I've arrived at a propitious moment. Ed Siegel, one of my predecessors, wrote a piece for WBUR arguing that Boston theatre may be in a golden age. That accords with my own sense. This is a pretty good moment."

Seattle: Misha Berson
Position: Theatre Critic, The Seattle Times
Age: 61

Years on the beat: 20

In her two decades reporting on and reviewing Seattle theatre, Misha Berson is witnessing one of the scene's roughest periods. In April, the debt-crippled Intiman Theatre fired its staff and canceled its 2011 season. Over at Seattle Rep, fiscal astringency has meant fewer new-play commissions. And the beloved Seattle Fringe Festival imploded in bankruptcy seven years ago. Still, Berson sounds a positive note: The Intiman is planning a comeback in the summer of 2012 and theatremakers in the Northwest have proved resilient.

Berson came to criticism through arts administration: In the early '80s she was executive director of the service organization Theatre Bay Area, and performing arts director of the Fort Mason Center, both in San Francisco. For a dozen years she reviewed for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, sharing the beat with playwright-critic Robert Chesley. Between her zest for arts journalism, her training as an actor and her experience as a producer, Berson believes she has a healthy appreciation for the actor's process and the challenges of running a company. Like many a critic in the cash-strapped media, she frequently has to switch between critic and feature-writer hats, a juggling act she doesn't mind. "It's very helpful. I learn a lot from talking to artists," Berson says. "There are times when it is difficult: You might have a lovely conversation with someone, you know what they're trying to do, and if they fail, you have to point it out."

Quote: "It's hard to be an actor in Seattle because there's not a lot of ancillary work—film or television production. So the actors who stay here really invest themselves in the community. We have a rather strong musical theatre scene at Fifth Avenue Theatre and the Village Theatre. And it's not all schlock; you see a lot of new chamber musicals. But I don't believe that Seattle has the level of formal experimentation that I saw in San Francisco or what's going on in Vancouver."

Miami: Christine Dolen
Position: Theatre Critic and Blogger, The Miami Herald
Age: 61

Years on the beat: 32

It's hard to imagine the recent media contractions benefiting anyone, but longtime South Florida critic Christine Dolen finds that her influence has grown as a result of layoffs. The two other major dailies in her area, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post, eliminated their staff theatre critics, and Dolen's Miami Herald has content-sharing agreements with both papers. "My reach as a critic is larger than it used to be," she notes. "I have mixed feelings about that." Dolen covers three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward (where Fort Lauderdale is located) and Palm Beach, which takes her as far north as West Palm Beach. She praises the vibrancy and ethnic diversity of South Florida's stages, home to Cuban artists, as well as South American, Latin American and even Russian talent.

But recent departures have left a vacuum in the arts scene: the Coconut Grove Playhouse stopped producing in 2006 (efforts have been made to reopen its doors, with $20 million already approved), while Palm Beach's Florida Stage shuttered in June. Dolen points out that while these companies collapsed in different ways, both accumulated crippling debt and lost subscribers. She doesn't foresee more casualties. "There are other companies struggling in this economy," she admits, "but most are staying artistically and financially nimble." Dolen can appreciate the need to change. With more than three decades at the same publication, she is one of the few lifers on this list, but she speaks enthusiastically about blogging, an obligatory duty for most reviewers. "It may have made me slightly looser, more casual at times," Dolen muses. "I can write about things that wouldn't make it into print or wouldn't be fodder for a full online article; it enhances what I do."

Quote: "Having more voices discussing a production is valuable. There are bloggers who write reviews and comment on theatre companies, and that's important, too. But writing about theatre for a major newspaper—online and in print—helps to remind the public that these companies are producing and growing and often doing good work. I'm concerned about what will happen when the day comes when there is no longer regular theatre criticism in this area."

Austin: Robert Faires
Position: Arts Editor, The Austin Chronicle
Age: 53

Years on the beat: 18

Texas is too rangy for a single critic to dominate, and Robert Faires doesn't pretend to have a say about what plays in Houston or Dallas. As arts editor of the Austin Chronicle, he's responsible for overseeing not just theatre (which he's been reviewing since 1984) but also dance, visual arts, comedy and classical music—and that keeps him busy. He partly attributes the vibrancy of the Austin theatre scene to the constant influx of young talent from the University of Texas at Austin, but also to the creative tension that his city generates, being an oasis of liberal energy in a mostly conservative state.

Among his favorite companies, there's the ZACH Theatre, which produces local versions of contemporary musicals such as Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. And of course you can't discuss Austin theatre without including the Rude Mechs or Salvage Vanguard Theater. "In many ways, I think that Rude Mechs and Salvage convinced people in Austin that theatre could be made a different way here," Faires notes. "They showed that you could not only make compelling theatre but also survive for 15 years. And they're showing no sign of stopping; they're doing crazier, more original stuff every year." Faires, who grew up near Houston but has lived in Austin since 1976, is toying with writing a history of Austin theatre, which today boasts dozens of small, lively troupes that he likens to garage bands.

Quote: "Austin has been a refuge for young people all across the state for decades. Recently, I had the chance to interview Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt for the golden anniversary of The Fantasticks, and they were saying the same was true in the 1940s. They grew up in these small outposts around the state where no one was interested in theatre or the arts; they'd come to University of Texas, and suddenly they'd find all these people who shared their creative drive."

San Francisco: Robert Hurwitt
Position: Theatre Critic, The San Francisco Chronicle
Age: 70

Years on the beat: 19 (and 14 years before that at the East Bay Express)

Few critics have seen their scenes grow like Robert Hurwitt, who has reviewed San Francisco Bay Area theatre since 1978. When the young Hurwitt (armed with a degree in English) relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1964, the city was better known as a growing countercultural mecca than as a theatre town. But the late '60s saw the arrival of American Conservatory Theater and Magic Theatre (both of which emerged in 1967), Berkeley Repertory Theatre (1968) and more in the following years. "Part of that was obviously fueled by the Ford Foundation handing out seed money," Hurwitt says, "but it was also fueled by the long-term excitement here for mixing forms, which goes back to John Cage and the Tape Music Center, and Darius Milhaud teaching here—not to mention the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which started up in 1959."

The fervor for experimentation that lasted through the '70s has faded somewhat, Hurwitt notes, replaced by a passion for new plays. He estimates that San Francisco sees somewhere between 120 and 200 world premieres each year, plays that make the rounds of the regional circuit. "I think there's a lot of attention paid to trying to give plays more life, and the focus of that is not particularly on New York," Hurwitt says. "But if Berkeley Rep can take 10 plays to New York over the last decade, that's all well and good." Despite his status as elder statesman of Bay Area theatre criticism, Hurwitt is wryly circumspect about his power.

Quote: "At the Chronicle we have a rating system. Some papers have stars, but we have a little graphic called the Little Man. He's either jumping out of his chair enthusiastically, or sitting and applauding, or leaning forward attentively, or falling asleep, or the chair is empty. That Little Man has been with the Chronicle since the 1940s. The Little Man has a power that far exceeds the critic, whoever that critic has been. So it behooves the critic to be modest."

New York: Charles Isherwood
Position: Drama Critic, The New York Times
Age: 46

Years on the beat: 7 (before that, 7 years as Variety's chief theatre critic)

Ben Brantley may have seniority over Charles Isherwood at the New York Times, but the latter has had more effect on the national scene, helping (or harming) the careers of emerging playwrights (Sarah Ruhl and Will Eno are among the favored), greasing the wheels for shows from other towns to transfer to Broadway (August: Osage County) and stalking Off Broadway for new voices at major nonprofit houses. While Brantley will take working vacations in London, Isherwood heads out to Chicago, San Francisco or Louisville's Humana Festival to scout for fresh work. Depending on who you are, that's either good news or bad. Many a writer has felt the sting of his dryly funny, elegant but undeniably prickly prose.

Isherwood came to Gotham from the West Coast, where he was a drama critic for Backstage West, then Variety's increasingly respected chief critic. His tenure at the Times has been a contentious one, with Isherwood being regularly vituperated on the blogosphere by everyone from struggling Off-Off scribes to Jon Robin Baitz in the Huffington Post. Isherwood tries to ignore the noise. "I've found that to remain reasonably sane—underscore reasonably—it's best to ignore that," he says. "You'd go crazy if you Googled yourself every morning. I've never Googled myself in my life and I don't plan to." Of course, the position of Times critic carries its own stigma. Robert Brustein famously called for the position to be abolished. A top theatre critic at the Times would be despised even if he were a sweet, fuzzy kitty. And Isherwood is no pussycat.

Quote: "In New York, there's this 'Broadway or die' mentality, where you can only get enough attention for a show to be a success if it's on Broadway. So you get a lot of shows that go there and flop and lose money for investors. But it's worse for Off Broadway, because that scene has lost its cultural cachet. You'll still have aficionados who follow work there, but I just don't think that popular audiences are going to Off Broadway the way they did in the 1980s."

Chicago: Chris Jones
Position: Chief Theatre Critic, The Chicago Tribune
Age: 47

Years on the beat: 15 (before that, freelancing for Variety since 1987)

While some critics find it hard to generalize about their region's theatre, Chris Jones's Chicago has a readymade profile: blue-collar, profane and prone to violence. Rightly or wrongly, this perception has grown from the Windy City's association with early David Mamet and the emotionally volatile work of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the 1970s. While pointing to the intellectual rigor of Lookingglass Theatre Company, Jones allows that the tough-guy element is there. "There is a sense that the people I write for are very interested in work that reflects truth," the Manchester, England, native says. "It sounds simplistic, but at the end of the day, that's the Chicago style: truth and intensity."

Jones estimates that he reviews anywhere from 200 to 250 shows a year at his city's 200-or-so venues. And it's a refreshing range of large to small. Thanks largely to the work of his predecessor, the beloved critic-advocate Richard Christiansen, the Tribune theatre critic not only covers the big houses but also the city's dozens of storefront companies. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Ohio State University, spent a decade covering out-of-town Broadway tryouts across America for Variety before moving to Chicago to teach and review local theatre. When Christiansen retired in 2002, Jones gave up a tenured academic position and took the chief theatre critic job—a decision he now wryly half-doubts. Who knows what the future will hold, but Jones does not lack for visibility: From his perch at the Tribune, he's not just Chicago's top theatre critic, he also reviews major Broadway openings for the Tribune chain of papers. So his views are disseminated to Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Quote: "It's a funny town. In the last 10 years, there's been an explosion of storefront and waterfront companies. And there's also been a renaissance of Chicago theatre's reputation in New York. Now people follow theatre in Chicago more readily than they ever did. If a show is a hit here, five minutes later you're seeing agents and people on the planes going to see it."

Washington, D.C.: Peter Marks
Position: Theatre Critic, The Washington Post
Age: 56

Years on the beat: 9 (plus four at the New York Times before that)

As befits a guy who covers theatre in our nation's capital, Peter Marks is politic in his remarks: He admires the companies on his Beltway beat, but sees where they can grow; he cut his teeth on the New York scene, but observes that its influence has waned. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and New York—a balancing act, he admits.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Marks was a theatre reporter for the New York Times when, in 1995, the arts editor asked if he was interested in the second-string critic position. For better or worse, the affable reporter discovered that he harbored a critic inside. From 1996 to '99, Marks distinguished himself as a one of the most respected Off-Broadway critics the Times ever had: a clear, engaged writer and an open-minded reviewer of new work at the city's nonprofit companies. He took those talents to the Washington Post in 2002, where he finds the theatre scene "surprisingly vibrant. It's one of those eternal secrets, because people think of D.C. for politics and museums—they don't think of it as a performing-arts town." Marks often gets asked if there's a lot of political theatre in Washington. "They get so much political theatre during the day," he says with a chuckle. "It's the last thing they want." While he has seen D.C. become more of a conduit of Broadway shows—recent productions of Next to Normal, Ragtime and Follies all came from his town—Marks would like to see his city develop more of a sense of locality.

Quote: "I wish there were a community of writers who you could look to as Washington playwrights trying to create work with a Washington stamp. More like Chicago, where you feel like there's a stable of writers energetically creating work that's set in specific communities that the audiences know. I don't know if it's because it's such a transient community or divided racially. There are a lot of Washington plays; they're just not by writers from Washington."

Los Angeles: Charles McNulty
Position: Theatre Critic, The Los Angeles Times
Age: 45

Years on the beat: 5

Most of these critics will drive some miles for their job, but Charles McNulty schleps anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours as he chases curtains at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre or La Jolla Playhouse all the way to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. "The San Diego Freeway and I are on such intimate terms, I'm considering filing for domestic partnership," McNulty quips. His beat is Southern California, dominated by Los Angeles's multi-venue Center Theatre Group and the town's looser network of 99-seat Equity-waiver spaces. That latter constituency, McNulty admits, clamors for more of his coverage.

Of his colleagues here, McNulty is easily the intellectual heavyweight, an academically trained critic and dramaturg who writes with both grace and gravitas, historically informed and aesthetically curious. He spent about 12 years working in literary departments at various East Coast regional houses (including the Public Theater and the McCarter Theatre) before going over to the "dark side." McNulty is never flashy, bitchy or vindictive; he criticizes from a place of deep conviction about the expressive versatility of theatre, with enough aesthetic room for the traditional book musical and the European-inflected avant-garde performance. He names Gordon Rogoff, professor at the Yale School of Drama, as a critical mentor, and spent two years editing Michael Feingold at the Village Voice while also refining his own style. ("Editing is too grandiose a term for what I did," McNulty demurs. "Michael's formidable brilliance doesn't need much editing.") His influence stems from the authoritative quality of his writing, but also from his bicoastal profile—he regularly covers major Broadway openings. McNulty also posts critical musings from London, putting him on a par with Ben Brantley as one of the highest-profile American critics.

Quote: "Los Angeles is a notoriously hard-to-define place. Its sprawling geography spurns casual acquaintance. There are many competing versions of the city. And the theatre scene is too large and diverse for any one critic to do justice to alone. The L.A. Times has a solid roster of experienced theatre critics working alongside me to help tell this town's story."

Denver: John Moore
Position: Theatre Critic, The Denver Post
Age: 47

Years on the beat: 10

The joke about regional newspapers is that they'll assign the sports reporter to the theatre desk. In John Moore's case, that's how it shook out.

The modest, affable journalist hails from Denver, but was living in North Carolina when the Colorado Rockies were formed in 1993, and he landed a job coordinating the Post's baseball coverage. For the last decade, he's staked out a reputation as Colorado's top theatre critic and reporter, a role he's wary about. "Since the Rocky Mountain News folded, I guess that's the case, whether I want that mantle or not."

Moore's statewide beat sends him tooling for hours over mountain roads in his 2004 Subaru Forester. "I'm putting a lot of miles on my car," he says with a laugh. "But we think it's important to focus not just on the metro area. Outside of Denver, you've got Theatre Aspen and the Creede Repertory Theatre, which was started by Mandy Patinkin, but it's 250 miles from Denver."

Moore walks a delicate line as a critic-reporter, making sure that Denver's more than 100 active companies (including the flagship Denver Center Theatre Company) get his attention in terms of news but also as a straight-shooting critic. In addition, Moore praises several high-quality summer theatre companies dotted around the state, attracting theatre-loving vacationers with picturesque views and surprisingly solid drama.

Quote: "These mountain-town theatres don't just add to the economy. Some actually drive the economies. Mineral County has only 450 residents and Creede Rep is one of its largest employers. It draws audiences from all over Colorado, New Mexico and Dallas. They get 20,000 people to see seven or eight shows in rep in a tiny town. And they don't just do light summer fare. This past summer, Creede did The Road to Mecca. It's, like, great theatre in the strangest places."

Minneapolis/St. Paul: Graydon Royce
Position: Theatre Critic and Fine Arts Reporter, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
Age: 57

Years on the beat: 12

On the arts website Minnesota Playlist there's a video interview of Twin Cities critics Quinton Skinner, Dominic Papatola, Camille LeFevre and Graydon Royce. The interview was taped about two-and-a-half years ago. Today, two of those talking heads—Skinner and Papatola—have pretty much left the business. Skinner is now director of communications for the Guthrie Theater, and Papatola has scaled back to one review a week for the Pioneer Press. That leaves Royce (like Christine Dolen, above) with a louder voice on the local scene thorough sheer attrition.

In measured, polite tones, Royce expresses concern about a sort of aesthetic conservatism in Twin Cities programming, which can bespeak boredom or playing it safe in tough economic times. He notes that the Guthrie seems to be cutting back on new-play development (with the exception of prestige projects such as Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures) in favor of out-of-town musical tryouts. He laments the loss of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which closed shop in 2008. And he even mentions the local Children's Theatre Company that has lately favored Disney or Annie over new scripts.

"I'd have to say the Twin Cities are really searching for an identity," Royce says. "In the larger companies, it seems that there is a tentative sense of putting out entertainment and trying to stay alive. Not that anyone's going out of business. But right now, there's not a strong identity. They're putting on high-quality productions of plays and musicals that have name recognition and seem to be popular with audiences. On the other hand, you have a pretty vibrant group of small theatres that is more aggressive and interesting to watch." Of course, being a newspaperman who serves a general readership, Royce is limited in how much advocacy he can practice, apart from interpreting season lineups for the occasional trend piece.

Quote: "We still have a major dinner theatre here, which is kind of a throwback for many communities, but here it's one of the bigger niches. The plays are surprisingly good. It draws a lot of local talent, and since they can pay and run 52 weeks a year, it attracts a lot of good musical-theatre talent in town. These shows have four- to six-month runs, so it keeps people employed. And that drives the quality of it."

Philadelphia: Toby Zinman
Position: Theatre Critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Age: 68

Years on the beat: 5 (before that, 14 years at Philadelphia City Paper)

Now what's a nice English professor like Toby Zinman doing in a racket like criticism? Pure luck, explains the bubbly academic, who maintains her faculty position at University of the Arts as she files tart, jazzy notices of Philly's regional and fringe scene. Zinman has published a book-length study of Edward Albee as well as dozens of scholarly papers, and believes that her literature background gives her a special aptitude for parsing dramatic text—although she admits to being a sucker for evocative lighting design.

If the level of ire you raise among artists is a sign of influence, then Zinman has considerable sway. Few critics in this stable have been subjected to the sort of ad hominem attacks she has endured (with the exception of her onetime editor at Variety, Charles Isherwood). Zinman darkens at the mention of the article "The Bitch of Broad Street," from the September '06 issue of Philadelphia Magazine. The report addressed Zinman's supposed status as the most hated woman in Philadelphia theatre due to her allegedly sadistic reviews, in effect giving the targets of her reviews a platform to vent spleen. "Oh, that was so, so horrible," she says candidly. "That really made my life a misery. I was walking around weeping all the time. Up until that point, I had been under the delusion that I was part of the Philadelphia community. With that article, I wasn't." Of course, the bad press hasn't stopped her; Zinman maintains a busy schedule not just in Philly, but with frequent expeditions to New York, London and Canadian festivals, giving her readers in the City of Brotherly Love a truly global picture.

Quote: "When I write a review, my instinct is always pedagogical. I want to teach whoever's reading it something that seems worth knowing. But the trick of course is not to be pedantic. Part of the pleasure of enjoying writing is to put on different hats. So when I write a review, I'm not wearing the same hat as when I write a paper for an academic conference. Although I've always felt, as an academic and as a journalist, in the margins, that's where I like to be: not completely this or completely that."

David Cote is theatre editor and chief drama critic at Time Out New York.