Mindful Reviewing

“Mindfulness” is getting to be a bit of a buzzword, I think. But I have found that I’m learning a lot from my study of it, and it’s certainly guiding me as I see and write about plays these days.

Now, I’ve always been a proponent of generous, compassionate reviewing. When we would bring new squad members on each summer to help us cover the FringeNYC festival, the main tenet I would share was always this: Remember, they didn’t put the show up just to annoy you.

The idea, of course, was to add some distance; to remind ourselves both not to personalize the experience and not to make any assumptions about it. Making theater is very hard work, and that is worthy of our respect and our attention.

Today, as I move to a post-reviewing mindset when I write about theater, I think a lot about a concept that underpins mindfulness: don’t want this show to be something else. This play or musical or performance is whatever IT IS, which may not be what you would like it to be. Wishing for it to change is unproductive.

We are so used to multi-tasking and distracting ourselves these days, and seeing live theater offers a rare but needed opportunity for authentic presence. Be in the room with the show, and let the experience happen as it will. Don’t judge. Don’t second guess. Don’t wish for something else. Take it on its own terms, as it is.

And here’s how to write about it:

  • Talk about what happened.
  • What occurred on that stage?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What did it make you think about?
  • What did you do after you left: Did you talk about it (what did you say)? Did you google something when you got home?
  • Did you learn something?
  • What has this experience done to you?

You’ll note that the preceding set of questions does not include things like: was the lighting good? Why do you think the creators made such-and-such a choice? Was this performance better than that one? Because, none of that matters. What matters is what happened to you—your experience. If you sustained a mindful attitude during the show, then you’re bound to have had an experience, and I for one will want to know what it was like.

Here are a couple of reviews that I think exemplify some of the ideas outlined here:

The First Play About Me

The show that changed everything about what I thought I knew about reviewing theater was Kirk Wood Bromley’s Smoke the New Cigarette.

I should not have been surprised to discover something I didn’t understand about theater (art!) from Kirk. But this particular lesson drew me up short.

Smoke the New Cigarette was part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, where it was performed at the (now gone) Bowery Poetry Club.

The conceit of the show was that it was a live re-creation of a podcast about a neglected indie punk band whose name was The New Cigarette. The podcast narration was done as pre-recorded voiceover in the show, while the excerpted “recordings” included in the podcast were performed live by Bromley and company.

The band within the show were presented as far-out eccentrics: makers of music deliberately without tone or rhythm. As I wrote in my review of Smoke the New Cigarette:

We’re invited to judge The New Cigarette’s work, over and over, as rotten, and in places we may indeed buy into that idea. Certainly there’s an over-the-topness and a blatant disregard for form and sensibility that both makes the punk designation valid and invites laughter or derision or just plain old mouth-dropping-open, depending on how you choose to feel about what you’re hearing and seeing.

The protagonist of the play was not this band or any of its members, though; it was the podcaster, an indie music enthusiast who turned into an indie website operator/writer who fell in love with The New Cigarette. I thought as I watched the play, and still think now, that the person upon whom Kirk based this character was: me.

In the review I wrote (emphasis added):

what I kept coming back to was a celebration of the valor of the crazed, eccentric, misunderstood, terminally alone artist. Not in a too-special-to-live Van Gogh context, but rather in a what-the-heck-is-the-point-of-art-unless-it-means-something-to-the-artist context. What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.

And after you process, think, and write that down, well…it can’t be unprocessed; it can’t be unthought; it can’t be unwritten.

And after coming to all of this, as I said at the beginning, everything I thought I understood about reviewing theater came into question.

By the way, here’s the full review and here’s the play itself on Indie Theater Now.

 

Evolving a Philosophy of Reviewing

I wrote the following for members of the nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad in 2012, eight years after I came up with these guidelines. I think a lot of what is here is right on the money.

***

I’ve written about 3,000 reviews over the past 15 years, give or take; and I’ve edited and/or read at least 4,000 more. So while I’ll be the first to say that there is no one right way to write a review, I also think I know something about what goes into a well-crafted theater review. In this essay, I want to share some of my observations with you. The place to start, I think, is with the mission of the theater review. What are we writing these for, anyway? Some possible answers might include:

  • To give potential audience members/ticket buyers information about a show, so they can decide if they want to see it.
  • To give the artists feedback about their work.
  • To provide a permanent, reasonably objective record or account of the work.
  • To initiate a conversation about the work, and by extension about theater as an art form.
  • To address themes raised in the work, possibly to make some larger point about society/the art/the world in general.

You can do some or all of these things in any given review, but for me, the main goal of a review is always to get people to see the show (or, if they can’t see it, to read the play or engage with the artists so the play can be done where they are). Often we will see shows that we don’t want to encourage people to see, and those are harder to write about. But when the art is worthy, or has worthy qualities, the review should always be intended to entice people to partake of it. This leads to several reviewing tenets that I have picked up over the years that I think are really important:

  1. The review must tantalize. Don’t give away the stuff that thrilled you–don’t reveal any of the show’s surprises or twists. You can offer a taste, but you must make sure that you’re giving the reader the chance to savor the entire wonderful experience that you got to have when you saw the show. This is often difficult, and a lot of reviewers (including me, sometimes) break the rule–we just can’t resist passing on the delightful detail or hilarious joke. But we must resist! Try to eliminate anything that seems to be telling the reader what specific things they should be expecting. Let the show do what it means to do to its audience on its own (amuse, convince, shock, whatever). Our job as reviewers is just to get them there.
  1. The review must be honest. Hyperbole has a purpose, but must be used sparingly. A show I just reviewed was in the style of Ionesco, so in the review that’s what I said; I didn’t say it was as good as The Chairs, just that it was in the same tradition.
  2. The review should be concise. Less really is more when you’re writing a review. Say enough to whet the reader’s appetite; explain the story enough to support what you need to say about the themes … and then stop writing. (The suggested word count really is useful here: a review that’s more than 1000 words long almost always needs to be cut!)
  3. The words you use should be clear, direct, and substantive. Nothing is more boring and more useless than a review that contains only empty adjectives like good, great, terrific, fine, excellent, etc. You will need to use these some of the time–absolutely!–but be sure that the meat of your argument is made with persuasive, concrete language.

Reading so many reviews over the years has also taught me some things not to do. For instance:

  • A review is not a report card. We are not grading the artists, we are responding to them.
  • A review is not a prescription. We are not teaching the artists how to do their job better, we are responding to the job they did. And similarly, we are not suggesting what the show ought to have been about, we are reacting to what it is (or seems to be) about.
  • Most people aren’t famous. When I read a review of a star-studded show like the 2012 revival of The Best Man on Broadway, I am certainly curious about James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury, et al, and their roles in the show. Most casts are not star-studded, though, and so we can’t expect that our readers will know or care about the people involved with them. If we want them to know and care, we have to give the readers good reason to do so. If we have nothing important to say about them, we really don’t need to mention them.

I haven’t yet talked about how to write a review of a show you don’t feel enthusiastic about. So let me deal with that now.

  1. Choose shows carefully, so that the chances of feeling enthusiastic are as high as possible. (By which I mean, NEVER ask to review a show you think you won’t like. It doesn’t do anybody any good.)
  2. Engage with each show that you review on its own terms. I see lots of shows that I don’t personally love or even enjoy but that nonetheless I am able to appreciate for what they are. Keep that in mind when you start writing the review. Nobody expects anyone to like everything, but it’s not the show/artists’ fault that something isn’t to your taste. Don’t punish work solely due to your personal preference.
  3. Weigh the available resources against the result. A FringeNYC show has little to no control over the lighting, sound system, and other technical elements; don’t focus on those when you’re reviewing at FringeNYC (unless dazzling results have been achieved) because it’s just not fair. On the other hand, a big-budget Broadway musical many years in development ought to have its act together, especially when it’s charging $100+ for tickets.
  4. Always err on the side of generosity. To bring back a saying I often share with nytheatre.com reviewers; no matter how much you hated the show you just saw, remember that the artists didn’t do it just to annoy you. In the indie theater world especially, making theater is tough work, and the people making it are doing it at substantial sacrifice, almost certainly because they have something they feel compelled to share with an audience. Honor that impulse always.

 

nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad Guidelines (2004 Edition)

I’m going to be talking about the evolution of our reviewing squad on nytheatre.com for the next several posts. To set the stage, I want to share some documents that have never before been made public. Below are the guidelines we provided to our reviewers for the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. With only a few modifications, these were the same guidelines we used through 2014. I’ve bold-faced the statement that most reviewers told me was their favorite; it was the signpost for our squad for more than a decade.

***

Please DO:

– Be fair, open-minded, and objective when you’re seeing the show and when you’re writing your review

– Try to leave behind and/or ignore any prejudices or predispositions you have about the show or the company

– Write a review that is your honest response to the show: that’s all anyone can ask of you

– Think about the experience in the room and how it made you feel and what it made you think about

– Be clear: use vivid examples and simple descriptive language

– Be quick:  FringeNYC only lasts 17 days (for example); the faster we post the review, the more impact that review will have on the production, on the audience, and for the reviewer

– Get excited: if you love the show, let us know it in your review

– Give credit where it’s due:  Mention names, and not just of cast members but the behind-the-scenes folks as well.  Be sure to double check spelling of all names!

– Be respectful: if you hate the show, remember that the artists involved have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it happen—they didn’t put it up just to annoy you

– Remember that your objectives as a reviewer for nytheatre.com are to: (a) provide constructive, honest, timely feedback to the artists; (b) provide an interesting “read” for audience members that gives them an idea about what the show is like and helps them decide if they are interested in seeing the show themselves

– Let Martin know about something that’s extremely worthwhile. I’m always on the lookout for new plays for our annual anthologies and I’ll check a show out if you tell me about it.

Please DO NOT:

– Be mean-spirited. If you are, I will delete the offending passage(s) or even not publish the review

– Be egotistical: The review is about the show, not about you. Don’t use this as an opportunity to show the world how smart or knowledgeable you are, or how you would have done something differently.

– Compare the show to another production you once saw, unless it’s absolutely essential to the point you’re making. This goes for performances, designs, etc.

– Give away the ending or other surprises. The point is to entice the reader to see the show for himself/herself.

– Worry about writing a literary masterpiece. All we’re looking for is a clear, concise, honest reaction to the production.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO HAVE A GOOD TIME WHILE YOU’RE IN THE THEATRE AND AT YOUR COMPUTER KEYBOARD!

Am I Doing This Right?

Back in the day, as a self-employed novice professional theater critic, I had nobody to give me performance reviews–except for the folks who I wrote about and the folks I wrote for.

Reaction from fellow audience members was encouraging right from the start. What surprised (and delighted) me was that actual real theater professionals were also reading what I wrote, and were occasionally taking time to let me know that they liked what I was doing.

Barry Edelstein sent me a wonderfully kind note after my review of his revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Roundabout (1997). This was only a few months after nytheatre.com started, so the encouragement of a professional like Barry went a long way toward making me think I might be on the right track.

Upbeat reviews often make people happy, and over the years a number of them have been gracious enough to thank me. (See the Jay Evans note, for example.) Dev Janki, who originated the role of Fakir in Side Show (1997), emailed me: “BY THE WAY… I posted your review on our call board weeks ago!! WE LOVE YOU!!”

Wow, that made me feel good.

***

But–and this is something important I learned about my own craft, from my own experience as reviewee–praise isn’t really enough. What we all really seek is validation, that sense of being understood as well as valued. I soon discovered that connecting with work in that deeper way was my true objective. And I found out, from time to time, that I was accomplishing it.

Bill C. Davis wrote this to me after my review of Avow (2000): “It’s as if you interpreted a dream. You understood and you were eloquent and clear.” Love that imagery of reviewing as dream-interpretation!

Karen Sunde, on my review of her play How His Bride Came to Abraham (2003): “You captured what I long to convey, and so gracefully…. Thank you for your understanding.”

On the rare occasion of a review of non-professional theater (a production of Barnum by community theater in Brooklyn), director Phill Greeland wrote: “Positive mentions aside, we were almost more fond of the fact that you communicated ‘who we are’ so beautifully.” I liked that.

***

On March 18, 2005, I got two emails. One was from Glyn O’Malley the (late) author of a play about the Israeli-Palestinian situation called Paradise, who wrote: “You have been the only NYC critic thus far who has done so without political bias; who reviewed the play and my production on its own merits and ‘got’ what I set out to do.”

The other was from Richard Willis, one of the actors in Aquila Theatre Company’s update of Aristophanes’ The Wasps, entitled A Very Naughty Greek Play. He said, in part: “Reviews have been mixed for the latest Aquila show in New York City, but unbelievably this is the only one that mentions the political content, which seems to be a sign of the times in this country… this reviewer grasps exactly what we were trying to do.”

That was a good day.

***

Morgan Jenness, one of contemporary theater’s staunchest supporters, forwarded a note she got from one of the players in Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge (2009):

Okay. I know we’re not supposed to care about reviews, but wow! What an astonishing pleasure when a critic actually does their job of entering into the world of the creative artist–as opposed to putting their own agenda on what they think that work should be–and communicating effectively to their readers. Hurray.

These are words reviewers must live by.

***

Of all the comments I have ever received, none has made me prouder or happier than this one, which Kirk Bromley forwarded to me after I published my review of his very difficult play it has no title (2009). The comment itself was from composer John Gideon, one of Kirk’s longtime collaborators. He wrote:

That Martin is one insightful dude.

I always like reading his reviews because he always manages to tell me what the show we’re doing is about.

I could not ask for anything more.

 

 

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.

The Tony Awards on TV (Learning about Musicals, Part 2)

After Shady Grove closed down, the world of theater was generally as far away from my pre-college life as an archetypal Timbuktu. But there were lifelines.  Occasionally, there’d be an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show or some other TV program that recreated a pivotal moment from a contemporary musical. And once a year the Tony Awards telecast opened a window onto the magic of Broadway.

Even though I was pretty small when the Tonys first hit CBS in 1967, I watched. I know this because I still remember seeing Mary Martin and Robert Preston perform “Nobody’s Perfect” from I Do! I Do! (my sister and I loved the part where Preston goes after Martin: “This is a piece of paper…”).

I think I missed the 1968 show, but I know I have seen every one since. From the early ’90s on, because I was actually seeing just about all of the nominated shows live on Broadway, the TV experience lost some of its luster.

But before that, as a theater lover who lived relatively far from NYC and (in the ’70s and early ’80s) saw practically no theater at all, the Tonys were a high point of the year. As Nita Congress (mother of my nieces Julie and Sarah) wrote in her blog, “Live theater is so fleeting, so ephemeral; and to be able to get a glimpse of it—particularly when that might be your only chance to see the shows and their creators—was a privilege and a thrill.”

Except for 1971 and 1975, the Tony telecasts always featured scenes from at least some of the nominated best musicals. Through ’77, the excerpts were lengthy, unrushed and utterly loving: you get a true feel for what each of the shows were like in almost every case. Thanks to a YouTube user known as PoochSmooch, all of the shows are available online, and they are all worth watching. I’ve had a blast re-living musical theater history, watching remarkable performances like Joel Grey and company in Cabaret (1967), Bonnie Franklin and company in Applause! (1970), the opening number of A Chorus Line (1976), and the musical number montage from Annie (1977) featuring Andrea McArdle, Reid Shelton, Dorothy Loudon, Robert Fitch, Barbara Erwin, and a host of adorable orphans. (This, to my mind, is the best Tony show number, ever.)

So how did the Tony telecasts prepare me for my eventual vocation? First, they made me want to GO and SEE theater, to be part of it. Original cast albums are terrific, but they don’t have the dynamism and immediacy of a live performance, even on stage. After I saw Angela Lansbury sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on the Tonys, I HAD to see her in Gypsy. (Couldn’t though: the run at the Kennedy Center was sold out already.) And I really really really wanted to see Annie (but didn’t; bummer).

So the Tonys pushed me toward the theater more powerfully than other forces. And revisiting the classic stars and shows preserved on these videos reminds me of the sheer joy and delight–the irreplaceability–of great talents doing what they love and do best for an audience.

A final note: the 1971 telecast was the 25th anniversary celebration of the Tonys and features moments from Tony winning musicals from 1947-1970. It is spectacular. Imagine Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Alfred Drake, David Wayne, Yul Brynner, Gwen Verdon, Richard Kiley, John Raitt, Robert Preston, Robert Morse, and Vivian Blaine all recreating their classic musical numbers on a single TV show. Actually you don’t have to imagine it: just check it out:

 

Original Cast Recordings (Learning about Musicals, Part 1)

When I was a kid, I first discovered musical theater through the wonder of the original cast album. It was 33-1/3 LPs in those days, and the collection we had in the Denton household was relatively compact and extremely eclectic. From the time I was, let’s say, 4 years old, until my senior year of high school, this was pretty much my musical comedy universe:

ankles anniegun brigadoon birdiecabaret camelot carousel damny fiddler finian gentlemengreenwillow guys gypsyhellodlly irma kingandi kissme_ mame milk mosthappy musicman mfl newgirl oklahoma paljoey sweet westside wildcat 31RAE4RHZ3L

[Note: the album cover with no title on it is Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow.]

It’s probably worth mentioning that while I saw several of these shows in summer stock at Shady Grove, I only saw one of these productions in the theater myself – Merman in the Annie Get Your Gun revival at the National Theater in DC in 1967. (Read something about this in the archive.)

We also had a few original soundtrack albums: The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Doctor Dolittle, The Wizard of Oz, plus 8-inch albums of Hans Christian Andersen and Call Me Madam; a weird little TV soundtrack of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan; a Mary Martin recording of songs from Anything Goes; an operetta album with The Red Mill on one side and Up in Central Park on the other (which I very rarely listened to).

And then were two great historical compilation albums, both of which I wish I still owned (and which I can remember almost word for word). We had Joe Laurie’s Show Biz, a history of vaudeville narrated by George Jessel that featured rare recordings of the likes of George M. Cohan, Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, and Harry Lauder. And we had Merman: A Musical Autobiography, which was a four-record compilation of Merman’s hits, interspersed with deliciously hokey narration.

From all of this, what did I learn that helped me become a theater reviewer?

First, because I really devoured these albums for the most part, playing them over and over, I learned a couple of dozen standard scores pretty much by heart. And I became curious to discover more work by these same actors and composers and lyricists.

Second, and much more important, I learned to appreciate the work, good and bad, for better and worse. I think even as a kid I recognized that Wildcat was not in the same league as Fiddler on the Roof, but I loved it just the same. Even the biggest and/or most forgotten flops have nuggets of wonderful in them: I still love the hokey finale of Ankles Aweigh, “An Eleven O’Clock Song,” and though a lot of Loesser’s Greenwillow is  ponderous, the song “What a Blessing” is a gift that will never stop giving. [Here’s a sample: “What a blessing to know there’s a devil / Ever leading me into some vice / And though easily led, I can hold up my head / Knowing I’m fundamentally nice.”]

All of this work was lovingly preserved, despite what critics and audiences may have said about it. In the ’50s and ’60s, when digital recording wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye, this was a major operation that cost a lot of money. And so kind of on the courageous side — an important lesson about theater to always remember.

Falling in Love with Indie Theater

fastest
The New Group’s production of The Fastest Clock in the Universe (1998)

Back in 2011, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards folks invited me to be a guest blogger on their “Full Of IT” blog. I wrote three pieces for them in the last week of January that year. One of them, titled “Why I Love Indie Theater,” reverberates clear and strong.

The piece begins with this confession:

When I began nytheatre.com, nearly 15 years ago, I was a Broadway guy. For me, back then, “New York theatre” was the stuff that got done between 42nd Street and Lincoln Center, with the occasional anomalous foray to Greenwich Village, or, rarely, somewhere else in Manhattan. All the other stuff—what used to get lumped into a category called “off-off-Broadway”—was completely off my radar. My preconceived notion about it was that it was located in undesirable parts of the city, was experimental and/or somehow dangerous, and probably lacking in the professionalism (not to mention lush production values) that I was used to.

I then debunk my preconceived notion (which should not surprise anyone reading this!).

There’s a great paragraph in the article about how the theater I got exposed to in 1998–the first full year I reviewed on nytheatre.com–changed my perspective about the NYC theater scene. Here is what I wrote, now annotated with links to reviews of those productions from the nytheater indie archive:

Thinking back on some of what I saw in 1998—the year I really found my niche and shifted my energies and nytheatre.com’s focus to the world of indie theater—makes me feel a little giddy: Matt Maher in W. David Hancock’s The Race of the Ark Tattoo at P.S. 122; Kirk Wood Bromley’s The Death of Griffin Hunter at Walkerspace (the first show of his I ever saw); Let It Ride!, the first production of Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight! series, at the Lamb’s Theatre; Tim Cusack in Rachel Kranz’s Stunt Man, Eric Winick’s Ian Fleming Presents Steve Gallin in Nobody Dies Forever, and David Summers & Gary Ruderman’s “So, I Killed a Few People…”, all at the 2nd FringeNYC Festival; Marc Geller’s revival of Dark of the Moon at T. Schreiber Studio; Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the old INTAR space on Theatre Row; David Fuller as King Lear in Rod McLucas’s production for Theater Ten Ten; Joe Calarco’s R&J at the John Houseman Studio Theatre (before it went off-Broadway); Letty Cruz’s revival of The Mulligan Guard Ball at Creative Place Theatre; Mark Lonergan’s The Return of Avant-Vaudeville at Nada, where we saw the first glimmer of what would become his first hit, Velo/City; Storm Theatre’s revival of The Shaughraun at Looking Glass Theatre; and Jason McCullough’s Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig at ATA (which was directed by Adam Rapp before he was famous; Shay Gines was the publicist… and that’s where she and I first met).

It would not be overstating the case to say that these productions, and others I saw that year, taught me about 1000% more about the possibilities of theater than 20-odd years of Broadway/off-Broadway had. Thanks to the quality, diversity, and sheer exhilaration of this work–and to the welcoming embrace of the community of artists who made it (most of whom remain good friends 20 years later)–I fell in love with indie theater.

Here is how I closed that blog post (emphasis added):

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is that I don’t have to supply the topic for the evening’s entertainment—that’s the job of the playwright and other artists. All I have to do is show up, watch, and listen.

So, to all the indie playwrights, directors, actors, producers, designers, etc. who are reading this: I’m never going to tell you what kind of art you should make. The only thing I want you to do is to make the art that you know you have to make, and to do it with honesty and without cynicism, embracing the independence that working outside the mainstream provides. You inspire me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Documenting MDD

Rob Reese reminded me of an interview I did with Micheline Auger on her website Theaterspeak in 2013.

Check it out.

It is, if I may say so myself, really good. I tell an even better version of the nytheatre creation story than the one I put up here. I talk a lot about how I learned about theater during my formative years (which I expanded on somewhat here). There’s some great stuff about how Kirk Bromley’s play Smoke the New Cigarette changed my approach to reviewing. (“What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.”)

The interview also includes a succinct narrative of the history of NYTE and its various programs and accomplishments. And it features some very concise words of wisdom that I am still proud of (this is what Rob quoted in his Facebook post today):

Do the work you care about. Do your work: don’t write Facebook posts when you’re disturbed about something happening in the world; make a play instead.

This is probably even more relevant now than it was 4 years ago.

***

Looking back at this interview prompted me to seek other interviews I have given online over the years:

  • Jody Christopherson’s The Life and Death of Nytheatre.com: An Interview With Martin Denton (Huffington Post, Oct 2013) – my favorite quote is this: “I look back over these 17 years and recognize all the astonishing things that I have done and that have happened to me as a result of founding and running nytheatre.com — from emceeing the Opening Ceremonies at FringeNYC more times than anyone else, to being a character in a play that Gus Schulenburg wrote for Nosedive’s gala a couple of years ago, to just actually knowing all the remarkable, talented artists I have come to know since 1996. Not to mention that one podcast when there were two accordionists in my living room.”
  • Doug Strassler interviewed me for the NYITA Blog (Oct 2013) – Doug talked to me about the initial conversion of nytheatre.com into an archive-only site and the rise of Indie Theater Now.
  • Loren Noveck’s The Great Play Download (The Brooklyn Rail, Dec 2011) – Loren talked to lots of associates and colleagues as well as myself in crafting this piece about the genesis of Indie Theater Now.
  • Zack Calhoon featured me in the People You Should Know series on his long-running theater blog (Visible Soul, Feb 2011) – Zack asked, among other things, about the genesis of our publishing program for this piece.
  • Tim Cusack’s Not the Same Old (Stage Directions, March 2010) – on the 10th anniversary of the Plays and Playwrights anthology series.
  • Christina Hamlett interviewed me for her Inklings series (Independent Publisher, January 2005) – favorite quote: “Right this minute [sometime late in 2004] there are about 188 current productions listed on nytheatre.com, plus more than 160 coming attractions. Time Out-New York, which is known for its comprehensive listings, has about 140 this week. In September 2004, we reviewed 51 productions on nytheatre.com; in contrast, Time Out-New York and the Times reviewed about 35 apiece.”

Thanks to Chris Harcum’s Martin Denton, Martin Denton, I’m being interviewed again lately: we did a piece that we hope will soon be in The Brooklyn Rail, and TDF Stages is calling on Wednesday. So the documenting continues…