Confessions of a Community Theater Critic
In a not-so-small but theatrically challenged American city, how low can you go?
It's about 5:00 in the afternoon, it's been raining all day and now into the night, and the radio says it'll keep raining well into tomorrow. The phone rings. It's my arts editor at the Baltimore City Paper. He sounds like he's ready to go home. "I've got a play for you," he says. The rain is beating against the windows. "Hapgood," he says. "By Tom Stoppard. You good with it?" Before I can think of an excuse not do it, he thanks me. I pop a burrito in the microwave and watch it expand slowly. Then I find my green notebook, call and cancel on my girlfriend, and grab the car keys. I head out into the cold, wet Sunday night. This will be my 123rd night of Baltimore community theater. But who's counting?
I started counting five years ago, when the editor at City Paper decided he needed someone to cover local theater. That was partly because someone else had gotten sick of doing that, and had started a column on local bars. I was the man for the job: I was a writer in need of some steady work, I hadn't seen any plays in Baltimore yet, and, maybe most important, I was willing to do anything for very little money.
They eased me gradually into the job. For the first assignment I was sent to Center Stage, Baltimore's regional theater, to watch Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I got free tickets, they gave me press packets and, on opening night, they gave me cheap champagne. I came home, dissected the play, summed it up, listed three good things about the production and one bad thing, and ragged on one actor. I was the Frank Rich of Baltimore, and I hurled my bolts of insight from the mountaintop: If you like your Shakespeare straight up and easily pegged, the Bard's later plays can be problematic. I could offer veiled criticism: The main characters are a little less fiery than one might expect. And I could always end with a bang: This is the late Shakespeare, who pleases some, tries all, and doesn't really care if you walk away a little confused.
Just when I thought I had the job down, I ran out of professional theater to review — which, in Baltimore, doesn't take long. But I kept getting assignments from the City Paper, and I noticed some funny things happening. The ticket prices started plummeting. I didn't need to make reservations. The audiences were getting smaller. The people in the seats were getting older. The theaters were harder to find. And the actors weren't necessarily bad, but, well, let's just say they stuck to their day jobs. I had quickly spiraled down through Baltimore's few examples of semi-pro theater. And minor-league theater. And, because it was the only place to find more shows, I ended up at theater in the rough.
The people on stage were policemen, computer programmers, starry-eyed sophomores, retired schoolteachers. The plays weren't classics, but they weren't exactly cutting-edge: Broadway standbys (Art), comic dramas (Fuddy Meers), zany madcap farces (Lend Me a Tenor!), and musicals, musicals, musicals. And Sondheim.
My readership changed. I was no longer writing for potential theatergoers, people looking for my advice on whether to shell out for tickets. I wasn't even being read by the actors in the plays. I was being read by their best friends and close relatives. And they knew who I was. They knew where I lived. And they knew when I screwed up the names: Thanks for the review and glad you found the show enjoyable. Just a couple of little points...The "stern taskmaster" you describe is actually Florindo, played by Chris Hickle.
This is not a gig for the weak of heart. It's for the eternal optimist, the dead-end journalist who doesn't believe in dead ends. It's for the tolerant, the cheerful, the brave and gratuitously creative. It's a job for someone who doesn't have a lot to do on weekends.
Tonight, it's a job for someone willing to log 30 or 40 miles in the pouring rain for a community theater production of Stoppard. The place is Villa Julie College. I have no idea where the college is, so I call for directions and somehow end up talking to the athletics department. Forty-five minutes later, I've done exactly what the guy at the athletics department told me, and I still have no idea where I am. Something's wrong. There are signs above the highway telling me that if I keep going, I'll arrive in Philadelphia. Standing at a gas-station phone in the driving rain, I discover I'm so far lost that the call to the college is long-distance — and I don't have enough change to pay for it. And no, I don't carry a cell phone. I slam down the receiver so hard that its earpiece breaks. Eventually, at a House of Pancakes, I get change, and I reach the athletics department again, and this time I'm transferred to the school's arts director. I tell her I'm lost, wet, and, apparently, on the outskirts of Philly. She tells me it's not that far.
"Try to hurry," she says. "The play's scheduled to go up in ten minutes."
The Villa Julie College Players are waiting for me. I head back along the same highway at about 90 miles per hour—peering through the downpour, avoiding cars on my blind side, trying to make out the exit numbers. Then I exit. Three deer step out in the road in front of me, their red eyes in my headlights. They vanish. And then I see a small white sign for the school. It's a tiny, dark, nonresidential campus with one athletic center and one arts center, a large, squat, leaning tower of Pisa.
The lobby is deserted. The arts director is sitting at a table; she hands me a carefully prepared press packet like a baton. I apologize for being late. She accepts the apology. They'd held up the play for 15 minutes, she says, and then gone ahead, because the actors have to go home. I've missed the opening scene, she tells me. But I know what she's thinking: If I pan the show, I'm toast, because she'll write a letter to the editor saying I arrived midway through the first act.
The 400-seat theater is empty except for a few audience members, most of them with flowers. The enormous stage is similarly empty — there's not much of a set, just a man and woman in dialogue. I can barely hear them in the cavernous hall, but the guy is talking to her in a fake Russian accent about the Heisenberg principle. There's a little note in the program itself. According to the laws of quantum physics, light is generated not through waves but in particles of matter and antimatter. I don't know what they're talking about — I keep forgetting that with Stoppard, there's a reading list you're supposed to complete before seeing the play — but I take out my notebook and begin to madly scribble fragments of their lines.
Meanwhile, strange things are happening on stage. A briefcase full of classified information is swapped between two identical-looking figures. I still can't get their names straight. There's something about identical twins. British secret agents. Some sort of leak.
I'll need to show I've actually been to see the play. Pastiche, I think. Theatrical montage. Sparse set. Beckettian. Swiftian. Pirandelloesque. I give up. I'm sitting there wedged between chairs, digging my fingernails into my forearm: It's what I do to stop myself from falling asleep.
During intermission, I ask the acne-riddled undergrad at the urinal next to mine whether he understands what's going on. I ask the question casually, not letting on that I'm actually a semi-professional theater reviewer. He tells me he hasn't the faintest idea, just knows the actress. I look at the program. He's probably the guy she dedicated her performance to, along with William Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and her family. And he's probably wondering why an older guy in a raincoat is coming out here on a Sunday night to watch a play his girlfriend is starring in.
I return to my seat, and the characters on stage are talking about quantum theory and how nothing is as it seems. The actors seem as confused as I am. There is a large chubby guy in a poncho. Then there's a woman with red hair, who looks a little like – who was it, Liv Ullmann? I actually saw Liv Ullmann, years ago, in something by Ibsen. But I can't hear anything this actress is saying. I am starting to nod off. My pen and notepad fall to the ground.
Then I'm jolted awake by a violent explosion: a gunshot. I remember a note in the program warning me about it. I have no idea who's shooting whom, or why, but the shots keep coming, one after the other. People are exchanging identities. This is all occurring in the Cold War. Usually, even in the worst case scenario, things start moving toward the end. It's not happening. The voices all maintain their monotone. One actress, I notice, is walking around on crutches. That doesn't seem to have anything to do with the play itself.
When I emerge, 40 or 50 minutes later, my ears still ring. A small crowd of kids is congregating in the lobby, waiting for their friends to come out, and I head to the garbage can full of opening-night microbrews. It's a breach of journalistic integrity to take one, but it was a breach of something — I'm not sure what — to come here in the first place. I drink two beers with strange names. The arts director tells me a little about the college — mostly about how it's not as far away as everyone thinks it is.
It's 4 a.m., and I'm back home. I got lost again on the way back, plus the car sort of broke down — and now I'm finally sitting down to write the review. I stare at the monitor. Nothing comes to me. The rain has stopped by now, and the rosy-fingered dawn is rising above Baltimore's skyline. The world — or at least the friends and family of the cast — is waiting to see what the drama critic of the Baltimore City Paper has to say about Hapgood.
And what do I have to say? It was bad? It was so bad it was good? The kids were so bad you couldn't say they were bad? Or should I just tell the world to stay away from drama students trying to do plays they don't understand, especially on cold, rainy nights? By 6:30 a.m. I'm tired. My day job looms. I remember the last letter to the editor, written in response to a review I'd spent days agonizing over: This is a harangue by someone who does not like the play or the writer. It gives the reader no sense of the production itself. As such, it is lazy and worthless.
Yes, there's a little bitterness. I have bigger visions of my role as a critic. But my critics seem to think that somehow it's my role in life to drive out there, 50 miles or so (including detours and retreads), because they have something special to show me. The world doesn't care what I write or how I write it; the actors just want the thumbs up. I can't give it to them every time.
But just as I decide to let the world know that this particular production is a disaster, I remember a 20-year-old college kid who got panned in his college newspaper for his leading role in a Sam Shepherd one-act. John Barry was shameless in his overacting. It's precisely these people who give contemporary theater a bad name. Two decades later I still remember the name of the guy who wrote that. Alex Lee. I don't know where he lives, but if he had a less generic name, I'd probably have found his address by now. I remember what he looked like that night, squinting superciliously through his glasses in the front row, passing judgment on me, when all I wanted to do was act. And to be honest, I wasn't that bad in the play. He just caught me on a bad night.
The rain has stopped, for the moment, at least. I've taken slings and arrows in my life, but the ones in print take a lot longer to heal. Okay, it was a crappy production. Tom Stoppard's going to take the bullet. Not that I have anything against Stoppard. It's just that if he hadn't written the play, I wouldn't have wasted my rainy night trying to squeeze something useful out of an amateur production. I start to type: Stoppard is funny. He's smart, he makes you think, he makes you drink. The problem is that unless someone puts a cork in the Merlot at some point, he won't shut up…
That's it, Tom. Take that cork and shove it. And another thing. If I'm only getting paid $55 for a sidebar review, don't tell me to bone up on Richard Feynman if I want to get the jokes. And the actors themselves. Think of them. They have day jobs. You know what a day job is? Did they ever teach you that at Oxford?
It happens every time. I can't slam bad community theater. I want to. I want to be contrarian. I want people to hang on my next word. The dream will never die: getting drunk on martinis at Sardi's after closing down a Disney-sponsored Broadway production, and possibly, later in life, getting a chance to rant on a weekly basis in the opinion pages of the New York Times.
But when these actors read my reviews, they know I'm one of them. For most of us, cultural Baltimore is a marriage of convenience: We're stuck with one another. Outside my window, Saint Paul Street is tricking with people who can't afford to live in DC, artists who never made it big, and lecturers who are desperately juggling four or five courses. Huge swaths of the city to the west and east are stuffed with people whose chances for success are small.
Then there are the shoebox theaters trying to squeeze out a little applause from people willing to watch. That population — people who like to watch plays just for the hell of it — is admittedly getting older and smaller. Now, in a world where it's constantly pounded in our heads that there's someone more interesting going on somewhere else, people need to be told why they're doing it and what they're going to get out of it. In Baltimore's community theater, that's not always clear. There aren't any big names, and no one's breaking new ground. It's not guerilla theater, and it's not fringe theater. It's exclusive, durable, conservative, filled with core actors and playwrights who are a little jealous of their turf and a little grumpy with people who wonder why they don't take a few more risks. You can't blame them: They've created a small comfort zone in a city where theater is underfunded, overlooked, and loved by a shrinking crowd of advocates. Whenever I try to play Frank Rich with them, there's one question I can't get out of my head: Does the world need one more unread reviewer telling unseen actors to stick to their day jobs?
After 123 reviews, I don't know the answer to that question. Meanwhile, it's 7:55. I've still got to give this production a thumbs up or a thumbs down. In one hour, my editor will be sitting there, in his warm office, wondering casually where the hell my 400-word theater sidebar is. And I need the 55 bucks. I head back to the computer and my fingers fly across the keyboard. I start off with a breach of journalistic integrity. I call it cushioning the blow: "The Villa Julie Players offer Tom Stoppard a talented cast…" And now for the nugget of truth: "in Hapgood, they barely get a chance to show it." • 11 September 2007
John Barry is a freelance writer and teacher in Baltimore.
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