What It’s Like to be a Theater Reviewer

From 1999 through 2013, I was a full-time professional theater reviewer (among many hats that I wore back then). That meant that I went to the theater about six times a week. As I wrote, a few years back:

We certainly don’t have a say in when we get to do our job: myriad random factors, across decades, have bequeathed to us a crazy calendar that keeps us busy almost every Thursday through Sunday, plus the first week of most months and just about all of April and August.

Within a day or two after seeing each show, I had to write and edit a several-hundred word article about the experience I had.  There was also time required to select and schedule the shows, prepare in some tangible way (by, for example. reacquainting myself with previous work by the artists involved), and to let the press people and (sometimes) the artists know about the review once it was posted.

Counting the time to travel to theaters, that amounts to at least a 40-hour work week. I think many laypeople don’t think about it this way; I know I didn’t until I started doing it.

***

I am not complaining! Far from it: I am one of the lucky ones, a person who got to spend most of his adult life doing a job that he was passionate about and genuinely enjoyed. (This is still true, by the way, though the job duties are different these days.)

But I know that when I started nytheatre.com I really didn’t know what the life of a theater reviewer was going to be like; and I think that having lived that life for a long time, there’s some valuable perspective to be imparted in explaining what is was like:

  1. It was almost never spontaneous. A theater reviewer has to schedule shows weeks (and sometimes months) in advance. The more commercial the show, the less leeway you have in when you can go: there may be just one or two designated “press performances” to choose from, and if you don’t grab ’em when they’re offered, you may well miss out. The thing I find I value most in my life post-reviewing is that I DON’T have firm plans for every night of next week. But for 15 years, I ALWAYS did.
  2. It was never in the same place. Reviewers go where the shows are. That meant, for one thing, having to fight the throngs of tourists in Times Square way more often than I ever wanted to. It also meant having to commute, as it were, all over NYC. A typical week could be: Tuesday night at 78th Street Theater Lab, Wednesday night at Symphony Space all the way uptown, Thursday night at the Brick in Williamsburg, Friday night at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, Saturday afternoon at a Broadway show and Saturday late night at The Club at La MaMa. And bear in mind that all of this commuting was taking place at off-peak hours, meaning that taxi cabs might be near-impossible to find and subway trains and buses were likely operating less frequently.
  3. The agenda for each afternoon or evening was beyond your control. Here’s something I wrote for an article called “Confessions of a Critic,” which appeared in The Dramatist (the magazine of The Dramatists Guild) in Jan/Feb 2009: “We don’t get to decide what we’re going to write about—we don’t get to pick the titles or subjects, we don’t get to choose who will be involved, we don’t get a hand in what the finished products will look like. Learning this was one of the hard lessons of becoming a theatre critic. When I started writing reviews, I was sure that my wisdom would mold the emerging talents I was writing about. What I have discovered, though, is that while my encouragement has been helpful to many artists in a variety of ways, no one is looking to me for guidance or permission or even approval. This is as it should be.”
  4. It was often, in its way, pretty uncomfortable work. There’s a reason that theater reviewers usually get reserved seats (and, if you’re lucky, they’re on the aisle). That reason is that theater seating in NYC is notoriously unaccommodating, with little elbow room, little leg room, and–too often–poor sightlines for the shorter folk. So having access to a seat that management deems slightly above average (because, say, it’s on the aisle and near the front) is not just a perk but really a requirement: if I can’t see the show, it will be hard to write about it. I learned pretty quickly to travel as light as possible–only wear a coat if you HAVE to, and bring as little else with you as you can manage. I also learned something I already kind-of knew, that the better a show is, the less any of this matters.

Again, this is not meant as a plea for sympathy. All occupations have their downsides. But I know that I used to think that reviewing was going to be this really glamourous job, all hobnobbing with celebrities and influencing the taste of the masses. This proved not to be even remotely true.

Instead, an activity that for me had been purely diversionary and joyous (going to the theater) became an activity that required a great deal of effort and energy. The sense of carefree diversion morphed into a sense of careful duty. The joy remained, happily…until it began to drain away, and when that happened I knew it was time to take a break from reviewing.

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