Julianne Boyd on Theatre as Church and State

Blurring Boundaries Between Artists and Critics

By: - May 18, 2013

Boyd Boyd. Boyd Boyd Boyd

Charles Giuliano Traditionally there has been a sacrosanct distance between critics and the people we write about- actor, directors, producers, artistic directors. The norm has been like the separation of church and state. Gradually this is changing because of, as we have discussed, the downsizing of the newsroom particularly the drama desk. With the result that now increasingly critics are expected to also write previews, features, and interviews. Only a few of the most established publications abide by the old rules.

With the proliferation of blogs we find a blurring of the formerly distinct roles of critics and feature writers. Often we are asked by publicists to do advance stories, features and interviews.

Last summer, brilliantly, Williamstown Theatre Festival, staged several press conferences where the media had an equal shot at top stars like Brad Cooper, David Hyde Pierce, Blythe Danner, Patricia Clarkson and Tyne Daly. It was a win win resulting in tons of publicity.

After a career as an arts critic I came to focus on theatre relatively late. So I take a Socratic approach and seek relationships with mentors such as yourself. Back in the 1970s I learned about jazz and rock, which I covered for a daily paper, by talking with leading musicians. They took me to school.

One of the current relationships has been with Barrington playwright Mark St. Germain. What started somewhat tentatively has become richer and more complex. Talking in depth with Mark about Freud, Best of Enemies, Dr. Ruth and now the upcoming Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah has been an invaluable education on the process of developing new plays. It has broadened my understanding and appreciation of those works which I have been able to share with readers.

This summer we plan to see Scott and Hem in West Virginia and discuss it before it comes to Barrington. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway are writers I have read in depth. So you bring a lot to the production and at what point does that make writing an “objective” review more difficult. It becomes complicated.

Julianne Boyd That’s interesting.

CG Is objectivity sacrificed? Yet, I would never give up that relationship. The idea is to come to the theatre and a production with as much information as possible.

I have read remarks by major critics who state that they don’t read the script of a new play in advance and want to be surprised on opening night. They want to see the performance in the same way that an audience does.

JB What we have in common is an interest in overviews. How does this fit into something else? What is the growth pattern? Because you are a member of the American Theatre Critics Association that must be a part of that organization. I like that your take is different from other people’s.

I spend a lot of time thinking of that having been the president of the Director’s Union. I had to do that. That was my job. To think in a more general way. How all of the directors benefit from such and such a thing. It wasn’t just one specific instance. I think we have to think of ourselves as part of a whole. I always want to push the boundary. I think not enough people do that. If an audience will let you do that then you owe it to them. If that is their expectation.

CG When you have a dialogue about a new work or production which is in rehearsal and development how do you remain objective when you see it on opening night? Often we see a critic writing a puff piece preview then slamming the play in a review. Does the advance dialogue create expectations that are then too disappointing?

As a critic I find it very challenging to review new works by actors I have seen a number of times and gotten to know or had professional dialogues with. That’s quite different, for example, than visiting Indianapolis or Chicago, during an ATCA meeting and seeing actors and companies that I am not familiar with. What happens when we cover the same actors and companies season after season?

Being a part of a small and intense arts community, like the Berkshires, there is push back when you write tough and critical reviews. Ultimately, however, our obligation is to the reader.

I try to evaluate what is presented on its own terms. What is the production trying to achieve? What is the success and failure within that intentionality? What works? What doesn’t work? And why? In dialogues, at times quite contentious, we are told that it’s ok to write negative reviews as long as they stay within professional boundaries. That they don't just attack and don’t explain.

There is a lot of talk about professional standards, particularly when a theatre company feels violated, but nobody articulates what they are. There is no rule book or owner's manual. This important topic is discussed only when there are extreme examples.

JB That comes back to the first question you asked. What happens when critics also write feature stories? That is something to consider. I don’t think that we as artists can do anything about it. You can’t do anything about it. You don’t have lots of different writers.

Things change. The rules have changed a lot lately. A lot in the past 20 years. Certainly with the advent of computers.

CG A couple of years ago I attended a talk at the Colonial by Frank Rich. (Former theatre critic for the New York Times.) He discussed how he did not socialize with the people he wrote about and had a private life completely apart from his professional life in theatre. He did not want to know the people we wrote about. With one exception. Stephen Sondheim.

JB He was also best friends with Wendy Wasserstein (October 18, 1950 – January 30, 2006).

CG I didn’t know that. Interesting. If you’re only going to have one friend, or two, why not the best? What critic wouldn’t want to have regular conversations with Sondheim? Who would possibly refuse that opportunity?

JB As I understand it when Rich was a Harvard Sondheim had one of his first musicals playing in Boston. Rich wrote a review for the Crimson and Sondheim got in touch with him. They formed a friendship way back then. I love stories like that.

CG What floats your boat this season?

JB Finishing the capital campaign is a big one Charles. It’s a biggie.

We’re starting to commission plays and musicals. I can spend more time on that when we finish the campaign.

I’m excited about the whole season. It’s very varied. We’re starting rehearsals.

We haven’t talked about Stage Two other than Scott and Hem. We’re doing Muckrakers by Zahd Dohrn. A world premiere directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

(A young female activist brings an older man—a famous political hacker/journalist—home to her Brooklyn apartment to spend the night. But as they start to expose each other’s secrets, personal and political desires collide, testing the limits of privacy in the modern world.)

It’s about the digital age. What’s public. What’s private. How much of our lives should be exposed on line.

I’m trying to do all four plays on Stage Two in such a way that they will elicit conversation and dialogue. What floats my boat is having audiences talk about the shows they just saw. We want to start dialogues with people. Not just I’m going to theatre and then I’m going to dinner. The more an audience hangs around after a show. They want to talk. They talk to strangers. Talk to us. That’s really exciting because that’s what theatre’s about.

CG Can we talk about Broadway? How many shows are star driven with Hollywood actors on the marquee. So many revivals. Where is the originality and excitement?

JB I don’t know. I’m a Tony voter and I’m still seeing them. I’m almost but not quite done. It has not been a great year. It just hasn’t. There’s some great things. Some wonderful things. But it’s all about the bucks. It’s all about what producers think will bring the money in. They sometimes misjudge.

CG Did you see Fiona Shaw?

(Colm Tobin written solo piece Testament of Mary for the Irish actress Fiona Shaw. Directed by Tony nominee Deborah Warner, the Scott Rudin Club production marks the first collaboration between Shaw and Warner to premiere in the United States. It has gotten mixed but mostly negative reviews. We saw her unforgettable Medea in London some years ago.)

JB I did. I did not like it. She’s brilliant but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted something more. It wasn’t very good.

When Alan Cumming (Macbeth) and Bette Midler (I'll Eat You Last) didn’t get Tony nominations the producers pulled the Tony tickets. So I’m not seeing those shows. I saw Orphans the other night. I did not think it was bad. I thought it was a good production. Did I love it? No. Did I like it? Yes. It appealed. I thought there was an audience for it. What I liked, I was surprised I’m loving it, but I am, was Kinky Boots. It was so much fun. My husband and I went last Saturday and we laughed our heads off. It’s a feel good show. We need those. It also said something about people’s prejudices.

Southern Comfort on Stage Two is the last show we haven’t talked about.

(Book and lyrics by Dan Collins, music by Julianne Wick Davis, starring Jeff McCarthy. A world premiere. Winner of the prestigious Jonathan Larsen Grant, Southern Comfort is the story of male transgendered Robert Eads and his trans girlfriend Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy) as they navigate life and its challenges in the back hills of ‘Bubba Land’ Georgia. A celebration of a uniquely American family living life openly, honestly and courageously in the community they have grown to love.)

If any show challenges our audiences this summer that’s the one. Jeff McCarthy is playing Lola Cola. I’m very interested in transgendering. Since we chose to do this last fall it’s been more and more in the news. So we’re just a half step above the curve of what’s happening. I think this is going to elicit a lot of conversation and it’s based on a true story. It’s a documentary.

CG It sounds like I Am My Own Wife which you did some time back.

JB Well. It’s a little different from that. She was in the middle of a lot of subterfuge hiding from the Nazis during World War II.  I’m not sure how honest he was or not that’s still not proven.

These people are trying to live openly in the United States. They are talking about taking hormones and changing their bodies. Not these characters but some also have operations so the genitals are different. I just finished a wonderful book on that called “She’s Not There” written by Jennifer Finney Boylan a professor at Colby College, a transgendered male to female. I was just in Barnes and Nobles and she has written another book about starting as a father and continuing as a mother.

I go into rehearsals with Dr. Ruth this week and have to concentrate on that.

CG You work so hard on putting together a season. Considering the audience are they there for entertainment or art?

JB Both. Entertaining does not mean funny or humorous all the time. I can be entertained if I think more deeply about something. I’m trying to give the audience an experience that combines both entertainment and art.

CG All My Sons wasn’t entertaining.

JB A lot of people thought it was entertaining because they were so affected by it.

CG The Crucible,  All My Sons, Laramie Project. One wouldn’t call them entertaining.

JB That’s only part of it. I’m trying to give them an experience. Do you think you had a worthwhile experience when you saw those shows?

CG Absolutely.

JB So experience would be the right word. I don’t think I would use the word entertaining. Although I know a lot of people do. I’m trying to create different experiences with each play. So people don’t say, oh that was a comedy, I’m going to see one just like that next week.

CG For most of my life I went to the theater to be entertained. About eight years ago I switched and started going to the theater as a professional. Before that I would occasionally be assigned to cover as a second or third string critic for dailies. But when I took on the full time role that changed the experience. I think I’m more impatient. The minute you have to write a review it becomes work. A job.

JB I think your reviews are very even handed in general. I think you understand the artistic process. You may be impatient but I think that being a feature writer and critic is bearing on your reviews. I think that’s why you write the reviews you write.

CG There are two primary criteria by which I judge the success of a play. First there is time. How often do I look at my watch. Second how aware do I become that my ass hurts from sitting too long.

JB (Laughs) That’s funny. That’s funny.

CG It’s absolutely true. If I can suspend time and become so absorbed that I am not looking at my watch. I’m afraid that’s too often the case. Time seems to stand still and I become impatient and just want it to be over. And, unfortunately, I am not blessed with an adequate bottom. I’m a big guy with a small ass. Theatre seats can really hurt.

JB I’m so glad we have comfortable seats. I’ll never put you in a wooden chair.

CG In that sense theatre becomes very personal and physical. It’s about an awareness of time and comfort. If what’s on stage can make me loose a sense of time and discomfort then that’s great theatre. To be totally absorbed by what we are seeing on stage.

JB I agree. Do you remember way back when reading Peter Brook The Empty Space?

(In The Empty Space, director Peter Brook outlines his theories on the theater by exploring four different meanings of the word theater - Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate.

"Deadly Theatre is the theatre of commerce set up to make money for its producers. It's the theatre of imitation, trying to mimic the box office successes of the past. This affects all aspects, permeates every level. The Directors rely on the old clichés and gimmicks of the past without exploring the texts for their deeper meanings. The Actors do not move past the emotional facades of the roles, playing the surface knee-jerk reactions that they get from text, resulting in stereotypical portrayals. The Audience accepts this Deadly Theatre because they have sought out an honest experience, and rather than accept the disappointment of the less than authentic encounter, they feign excitement and appreciation. Brooks posits that the Audience would rather acquiesce here in order to avoid feeling left out of a cultural loop designed by an elite who have embraced Deadly Theatre. The Critics play the society column game of declaring the big budget shows as overwhelming hits without any true critical analysis. Deadly Theatre is the theatre of repetition…")

He talks about different kinds of theatre and how we are going to affect lives by doing theatre today. Which was then the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the things he says and I think of when I go to the theatre is “I do not want to do deadly theatre."  It’s theatre that’s filled with ideas that mean nothing. Filled with ideas and I want to sleep after the first twenty minutes. I think that’s people with really great intentions. It can be serious and have lots of ideas. All My Sons is serious. But it moves. Arthur Miller is brilliant of course.

I think what we all try not to do is Peter Brook’s definition of Deadly Theatre. What we try to do is theatre that can reach our audience.

Charles I go to the theatre a lot. I see my plays time and time again from the back of the house. I can tell if the audience is with them. I have a sense. I can just tell after the first five or ten minutes if they’re really with them. There’s an energy in the room that’s going toward the actors. I can tell when they’re disconnected.

You can also tell by coughing and people moving around. You can really tell.

I’m trying to do theatre where the audience’s attention is always on those actors, They're driven to those actors. They’re riveted to them.

That’s entertaining. I don’t think I try to do art. Not Art with a capital A or art with a little a. What is it?

But what floats your boat this summer. What are you looking forward to?

CG On the Town. Oklahoma at the Colonial. Mother Courage with Olympia Dukakis and John Douglas Thompson at Shakespeare and Company. Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah (During an ATCA meeting of The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in West Virginia) then at Barrington. The third season of Jenny Gersten’s Williamstown Theatre Festival as it unfolds.

JB We’ll see you on May 25 for Bashir Lazar.

CG Let the games begin. Or, as we Sicilians say “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant.”

Part One

Part Two