Reviewing the Situation

We have more theatre reviewers in St. Louis today than ever before. When New Line was born, our shows got two reviews. Today, our shows get ten or eleven. Back then, the only two reviews were in print. Today, our reviews are in print, online, on the radio, and on local cable television. And I love that. I believe that reviewers are (or at least should be) a part of the theatre community, a part of the conversation. The more voices the better.

Some print reviewers (particularly in New York) worry that their "authority"is on the wane, that arts reviewing is becoming too democratic. I've read a lot lately about "the end of the professional theatre critic," and what a terrible shame it is that anybody with a blog can call themselves a theatre critic. I don't think this is a crisis; I think it's just another way our culture is changing in this still fairly new Information Age. And it's as it should be. It was never right that The New York Times could kill a new Broadway show.

The more voices the better!

For small companies like New Line, great reviews really can replace paid advertising (which we can never afford), especially now in the internet age. But for quite a few companies in town doing challenging, alternative work, that means we need intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded reviewers who write well, real theatre lovers who genuinely hope to be thrilled when they sit down in our theatre. And we're very lucky because there are quite a few local reviewers like that.

One of then is Judy Newmark, theatre critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I was presumptuous enough to ask her recently if she'd share her opinions about New Line and the local theatre scene for this blog post; and she was gracious enough to say yes. Here are her answers, unedited. You can tell from her answers how deeply she loves the theatre and the St. Louis theatre scene.

Tell us about a really amazing St. Louis production that you'll never forget.

Judy: Just one? There are so many! But okay . . . This was years ago, the old Theatre Project Company production of Bent, with Bobby Miller and John Grassilli. Not an upbeat play, no – it deals with the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany, and most of it takes place at Dachau. But “up” is where it went, and I mean, straight to heaven. It was as beautiful as a prayer, as intimate as a dream. The play was transcendent, the highest achievement of theater and the one I hope for every time I take a seat in the house. You never know.

What is the local theatre scene missing?

Judy: Room to fail. I don't know that that's a uniquely St. Louis problem, though. I think theaters everyplace – even nonprofit theaters, even theaters in academic settings – put way too high a premium on “success,” which means. . .look, I have no idea what it means. Money? Extended runs? Awards? Artists need the room to fail spectacularly, to learn from that without derision, and to come back, cocky as ever and willing to risk it all the next time out. We talk a lot in the theater about risks but insistence on “success” cuts the other way; it can't admit the possibility of disaster. You want security, buy a toaster. Theater needs to be a gamble, every time.

What does New Line do really well?

Judy: Small, ripped-stocking shows with brains and glands (not purses). A few of my favorites prove the point: Return to the Forbidden Planet didn't need a functioning robot, it needed exactly what it had, a guy wrapped in aluminum foil! I hated Into the Woods until I saw it at New Line, which cut the heavy-handed opus I had endured down to nursery proportions – and revealed a sad, soaring, sensitive show about the vulnerability of children. Or Cry-Baby and High Fidelity, two shows that didn't do well on Broadway but thrived in the intimate New Line environment. I could go on.

What does New Line need to do better?

Judy: I'd love to see longer runs, and more than three shows a season. True, New Line often sells out, which is great, and I don't want to see it move to a big venue, because small scale is integral to its aesthetic. But if more people came, shows could run longer and there could be more of them. New Line needs to reach that potential audience.

What can New Line learn from other local companies?

Judy: How to make a theater experience special from the moment a member of the audience enters – especially a newcomer. Not every lobby is gorgeous. But the lobby starts the theater, and needs some atmosphere. It's not good to feel as if the assistant principal might be patrolling the halls.

What can other local companies learn from New Line?

Judy: That imagination is priceless.

Give us 2-3 rules that a good theatre reviewer should follow.

Judy: Just one: Be an optimist. The people onstage, and their offstage colleagues, are trying to make art. Maybe they will succeed. If they don't, it's not a catastrophe. But if they do – who knows? It might even be transcendent.

Interesting answers, no? She's right about room to fail, but we do often get cool new companies popping up who give us that room, like current new kid, Tesseract Theatre Company, and standbys like Slightly Askew.

I love Judy's answers to my questions. She's so right about all of it. That's not a surprise, because she always writes really thoughtful reviews of our shows, often talking about them in the context of our past work, or in the context of our art form's history and/or trajectory. As an example, in her review of New Line's I Love My Wife, she wrote:
New Line, the little cutting-edge theater that could, is opening its 20th season with I Love My Wife. . . New Line has done well with Hair, which it has mounted several times. It’s also staged strong productions of Grease and Chicago, the beat musical The Nervous Set, the slacker musical High Fidelity, and Return to the Forbidden Planet, set either in the 1950s or the future, maybe both. Put them all together, and it's an era-by-era look at changing American mores. Miller’s anthropological twist on musical theater gives New Line a distinctive point of view, brainy and bold. I Love My Wife is an apt addition to that repertoire.

We take our work really seriously and it's very cool that she does too. The artists of New Line, and those of other local companies, deserve no less. And in fact, most of the local reviewers do take our work seriously. That was a real challenge in our early days, but only rarely today.

St. Louis is a hell of a great place to make theatre, not just because of a thriving, ever-expanding theatre scene and a growing audience hungry for exciting theatre, but also because of great support systems, like the incredibly supportive Regional Arts Commission and the other local funders, like the local press who frequently do really great arts preview pieces, like KDHX, whose reviewers and interview shows cover almost every piece of theatre in town, including community theatre and educational theatre.

I think local theatre artists would do well to engage as fully as possible with our reviewers. They are a part of what we do, and many of them are smart, insightful people with valuable things to say about our work in their reviews. As a producer, I'm usually just looking for great pull-quotes to put on our website and to post to Facebook. As a director, I like to say I don't care about reviews, and though sometimes I get a bit pissed off at a clueless or lazy review, I often learn a lot from the many smart, well-written reviews we get.

Years ago, I reviewed theatre for KDHX for a year or so, and I'm really glad I got a taste of that. It's not easy, particularly if it's not a great show you're writing about. Just as I'm glad I was a performer when I was younger, so I can understand the process our actors go through, it's also nice to be able to see the other side of reviewing.

We're very lucky to have a theatre scene as healthy and adventurous as ours, and we're lucky to have someone like Judy at our city's only daily paper, who's so completely and passionately on our side. Thanks, Judy!

Long Live St. Louis Theatre!