Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been
Personally, I blame Terry Galloway.
If not for Terry, who invited me to perform in an evening of her comedy sketches one weekend, I would have had no reason to come back to Austin after my graduation from UT and would have never set foot on the Esther's Follies stage.
And if not for Shannon Sedwick, who saw me perform in Terry's show that weekend and invited me to join the Follies, I would have never stayed in Austin and spent my first year after college performing and writing with Esther's instead of going back to Beaumont and getting a job that used my degree in studio art.
And if not for my Shakespeare at Winedale friend Jeff Larson, who invited me to sublet his room in a group house north of campus just then, I would have never had this very cool, very inexpensive, very old-school Austin place to live in when I stayed on – and then for the next six years.
And if not for Jeff's friend Neal Herr, who would talk theatre with me when he visited that house and, as a result, invited me to write about theatre for an alt-biweekly he'd been contributing to, I would have never started writing for The Austin Chronicle.
And if not for Chronicle founders Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, who, after my seven-year run covering theatre, invited me to be the paper's first Arts editor, I would have never joined the staff and gotten hooked on covering dance and classical music and comedy and art as well as theatre and become a full-time professional critic.
See, none of that was meant to happen. It was all an accident.
Which is why I've tended to – apologies to Mr. Sondheim – career through this career.*
The thing about being an accidental critic is that no one tells you what to do. No one tells you how to write a review. No one looks over your shoulder when you do it. No one assigns reviews to you or gives you a quota of shows to see. You're your own substitute teacher, really: not quite clear on the lesson plan but trying to get a handle on the basics and then bluffing your way through the rest of it until the bell rings. Plus, as long as you're in the classroom, you're expected to be in charge. At the Chronicle, there's a longstanding policy called "the Norwegian rules," which translates into: If you suggest something to do, then it's up to you to do it.
This became clear to me as soon as I started attending editorial meetings. In the Chronicle's Pleistocene era, when its office was still in a creaky old house near Austin Community College's Rio Grande campus, the staff and contributors would all show up on Wednesdays at 5 and pack into the lobby – sitting, standing, squatting wherever there was room – to pitch stories for the next issue. I quickly learned that if I had an idea for a theatre story – say, an interview with this upstart actor/director Ken Webster – I had to screw my courage to the sticking place, speak up, and say what it was. Whenever I did, my pitches were never shot down or even challenged – another thing about being an accidental critic, at least at the Chron: No one tells you no – but once I put one out there, it was up to me to write it and file it.
So I did it.** And kept doing it, in large part because Neal and the other guy who'd been writing about theatre before I came on the scene soon exited stage left, and with nobody else on the beat, I worried that if I stopped, the paper's theatre coverage would just go away. After all, there were no staff positions for arts writers – or writers for anything else that I knew of. Like most scruffy rags of its kind, the Chronicle depended on contributors stepping up and writing about subjects because they loved them. I loved theatre, so I kept writing about it for the Chron.
And the more I did, the more I found that I loved writing about theatre just as I loved theatre itself. It was another kind of spotlight to shine on people making plays in Austin, but one whose light extended into the wings and backstage and rehearsal rooms and rooms where plays got written. I wrote about new plays written by Austinites when those were still relatively rare, about pay for actors when that was still extremely rare, about city funding for the arts, about theatre for children, about comedy and its craft, about Shakespeare (maybe more than anyone cared for me to), about whatever and whoever I wanted. I cranked out enough copy to get a theatre feature in just about every issue and sometimes two or three reviews in a single issue. (This was the Eighties, and I was in my 20s, so I had much more energy then.)
With no guide or training manual for accidental critics, you pick things up as you go along. Like learning to review what's on the stage instead of what's not. That may sound like semantics, but it's the difference between giving my impressions of what the artists actually did and yapping on about what I thought they should've done – "When Macbeth left to murder Duncan, he stomped off loudly enough to wake the victim" vs. "It would have been much cooler for Macbeth to go do the deed silently slithering out like a snake."*** The former isn't exactly easy on the actor playing Lord M, but it puts the reader in the theatre where this show happens instead of in my head, where, let's face it, no one needs to be.
Most of the things I picked up along the way as an accidental critic were pretty simple. Be open. Respect the effort. Pay attention. Get involved. Maybe this is your fourth Glass Menagerie, your eighth Hamlet, your 15th Christmas Carol. Don't write it off before the curtain goes up. The story may be the same, but the production is different, the actors are different, something's different even if it's just you being a little older, sitting in a different seat, viewing things from a different angle. There's always the possibility of seeing something you haven't seen before, and it may not be visible until the final moment – you know, like the Avengers eating shawarma together after the credits in the first movie. You miss it if you check out before that.
And trust me, I know the feeling of desperately wanting to check out of shows before the end. Or before the middle. Or before the second scene. You feel the work has been produced just to drive you to distraction, every choice made to exasperate you. But I can say with confidence that it hasn't. See, in line with other things no one tells an accidental critic: No one says, "You can't be a critic and an artist." So, weirdly, I kept doing theatre after I started writing about it. Some projects I initiated, but many – the majority – came about because people invited me to work on theirs. That wouldn't have flown at other media outlets or maybe in other cities, but at the Chronicle it was practically seen as a plus. It meant that you knew the community you were covering.
So I already had a strong sense of the effort involved in creating work and getting it before the public, but once I began reviewing, and, to be honest, reviewing work that was not quite the gold standard for artistic excellence, I couldn't help but think about all of the blood, sweat, and tears expended to mount that work. Look, no one starts to make art by saying, "Let's make something really shitty, something that will bore everyone out of their skulls." People spent money they didn't have; took time away from family, friends, pets, streaming Friends, whatever; risked looking like fools, to create this thing and share it with people. So I came to greet each new work – painting, play, dance, stand-up act, concert, book – with a respect for the effort and an openness to what it had to say.
That was never more true than with works attempting something new. With work that's been done before, the odds are in your favor: If Jane Q. Audience liked it once, she might like it again. But if it's not been done, all bets are off, friend. She may hate it – worse, she may not get it, or even try to get it. For the critic who may be the first person to write about that new work, well, it's the old "with great power comes great responsibility" bit. I'll never forget witnessing Sharon Bridgforth's early plays: weaving stories of Black life, of Creole life, of women loving women, of prayers and blood, in language so lush and dense it was more poetry than drama. Holding her works to the standards of the well-made play would have been an injustice. They weren't operating from the same place as Miller or Ibsen. They were far south of the mind, in the heart and soul and gut and feet and ... well, you get the idea. Works that original and fresh deserve – and need – to be viewed and reviewed on their own terms. So I strove to reflect the character of those plays with reviews as lyrical as I could write.
The last significant thing I picked up was to get involved, by which I don't mean using a lot of the first person and nattering on about myself and what I think is important about me (although that really seems to be what I'm up to here, doesn't it?). It's about not leaving the world outside the door of the gallery, the concert hall, the comedy club, the theatre. The globe keeps turning while you're in there and may keep turning in your mind, too, and sometimes – many times – it's worth reviewing what you've seen with the world in mind.
Twenty years ago, who could stop thinking about 9/11, even when looking at a work of art? I couldn't. I had seen the Rude Mechs' staging of the Chuck Mee play Big Love, and while I was writing the review, the thought of not mentioning 9/11 felt so wrong, like turning a blind eye to all the suffering and horror of that day and its effect on us. I kept thinking about the play and ways in which it spoke to tragedy in life, and it gave me a new way to write about the production. I ended up making just a brief reference to 9/11 in the review, but that reference gave a larger context to what was on that stage and how it could be seen. And since then, I've worked to be aware of the world, or my reactions to what's going on in it, when I'm seeing creative work and not to be afraid of bringing that into the review. It feels valuable.
Not to be treacly, but some of the most valuable lessons I've learned have come from being an accidental critic. And now here I am, after 28 years as the first and only Arts editor, a cumulative 35 years of writing for the Chronicle, and who knows how many pieces I've cranked out****, and I'm finally making my exit stage left. I can't say the time just flew by – no, I've really felt all those years, every damn one. But I can honestly say that the time has been a great gift. I've been able to track artists and companies from their first steps on the local scene to their rightful place on the national stage. (Rude Mechs, Forklift Danceworks, Daniel Alexander Jones, and the aforementioned Ms. Bridgforth leap immediately to mind, but there are many more.) To watch the improv community flourish and seize the attention of the city and the nation not once, but twice. To see long-gestating cultural facilities finally get built and then become vital gathering places for the city. (The Central Library, the Long Center, the Carver, the ESB-MACC, the Blanton, to name a few.)
The trade-off has been being around long enough to see too many members of the Austin arts community pass from not only the scene but the world. Fortunately, I've had the forum here to chronicle their lives and contributions to the city and the world, and that's been an honor. Those memorial pieces may be the most valuable writing I've done for the paper. They also spurred me to recognize outstanding members of the arts community while they're still among us so they can see that their contributions are appreciated. Most of that has been through the Austin Critics Table – a group I'm very proud to have been part of – and the annual awards we handed out for 20 years, as well as the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, which at last count has inducted 129 artists, educators, administrators, and patrons who have made significant contributions to the city's cultural scene over many years.
I couldn't have predicted that I would ever have this job, much less that I would have it for this long. It's as much a surprise to me as anyone else. And every step of the way I've been surprised, constantly surprised.
What, I get to interview Meryl Streep? Laurie Anderson? Tony Bennett? Robert Goulet?***** The number of personal heroes I've been allowed to speak with one on one staggers me: Randy Newman, Horton Foote, Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, Peter Schickele, Tony Kushner, Barbara Cook, Lily Tomlin, ... the list is embarrassingly long.
I get to illustrate my own features? And sometimes the cover?******
I can have Guy Juke do the cover for one of my feature packages?*******
The mother of all surprises may be that, of everything I've ever written, the thing that has gotten the most attention, that has been seen by the most people, that has left my biggest mark on the interwebs, was a lark of a piece I wrote in 2000 about the superstition tied to Macbeth. The play is allegedly cursed and said to have been the cause of countless injuries to theatre people through the centuries, and my piece was just an aggregation of spooky incidents connected to productions of the play. And yet it's received more than 100,000 hits since it was published and been linked to all over the net. The piece turned 20 last October, and it still gets at least 5,000 views a year.
Well, now the surprises are coming to a close. The last one will be for you, dear readers: I'm finally going to stop talking about myself. Thanks for following me this far and for however long you've been with me on my accidental journey. Thanks also to Nick, Louis, Kimberley, Brenner, Raoul, Margaret, all the writers who helped cover the arts, all the art directors who let me draw and were patient with me missing deadlines, and everyone else at the Chronicle for helping me along the way. And last but not least, thanks to everyone in the arts, comedy, and literary communities who provided such rich inspiration through all the years and made me want to share your stories.
Where to now? Well, I started with theatre, and I'm still with it, so you may find me at the same place theatre people always go after a show: I'll be at the bar.
* See the Follies 11 o'clock number "I'm Still Here."
** My first Chronicle byline was not, in fact, the Webster story – that came 10 months later – but a review of the play Picnic at Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Alas, not online, but Lana Dieterich might remember it.
**** I do. Roughly 2,500 features, columns, and news items; 1,200 reviews; 200 interviews; and 200 illustrations, several of which were used as covers.
***** Not a joke.
****** The degree in Studio Art does get some use after all!
******* A personal favorite, the "Born in a Barn" package about the number of Austin theatre companies whose histories can be traced back to UT's Shakespeare at Winedale program.