Theater Blog Roundup: Theater as Risk, and as Gift. Helen Shaw on When NOT to Review

Theater has always involved risk, and pain, and these are often still viewed as necessary and good: “If you’re just doing what you know works, you can be great, but you won’t get to the ineffable sublime, because that involves risking everything…” actress Tonya Pinkins tells Adam Rothenberg in his Call Me Adam blog. “I love theatre that scrambles you… I want pain, humor, and heart all at once,” playwright Jake Brasch tells Adam Szymkowicz, in answer to the question Adam has asked 1,112 playwrights on his blog so far: What kind of theater excites you?

But risk in theater has taken on additional meaning that is considerably less romantic. In his post entitled “It took me getting COVID to realize this,” Ken Davenport wonders “what must it be like to have been a performer for the past few years.  To have this virus thing out there that affects your body like this thing does, when your body is what you rely on for your entire career.  Your vocal cords, your legs, your energy . . . they are what you need to do your job, and Covid comes after ‘em.”

This is the right context to question the decision of the Broadway League to make masks optional in Broadway theaters starting July 1 (a policy that yesterday was renewed for August.) In OnStage Blog, Chris Peterson writes that he’s “not entirely sure what the rush was to make masks optional. I haven’t seen any evidence of the majority of audiences staying away from theaters because they would be required to wear a mask. But I definitely see a large portion of audiences not going to the theater because masks are now optional.”

In a post in the same blog, entitled Re-learning how to be an audience member, Ashley Griffin details at some length the unspoken agreement between actor and audience, and how audience members have been breaking it in various ways. 

“Actor to Audience: This is a safe space. You will not physically be harmed in any way. Your boundaries may be pushed and it is possible you will be triggered mentally and emotionally, but we have done our due diligence to advertise what you will be walking into and if you are uncomfortable you may leave at any time….

“Audience to Actor: I am willingly walking into this space in order to be taken on a journey. I will respect the rules of the space. I trust that what is happening is crafted for my benefit and I will not do anything to endanger you or your work. You are safe….”

What the author leaves out – perhaps for a follow-up post – is the unspoken agreement that theater owners/producers make with both actors and audiences, and how they too need to do some relearning.


When Not to Review

Critic Helen Shaw, who’s moving from New York Magazine and the Vulture blog to the New Yorker magazine in August, explains to her (soon-to-be ex) editor Christopher Bonanos the three reasons NOT to write a review, in The Critics newsletter:

I know you see a lot of theater that you don’t write about, but even after a few years of working with you, I’ve never quite known how much. 
I generally see seven shows a week, and I write about two or three. One of my great luxuries is that I can see more than I write about. It is nice, sometimes, when you see something and think, Really, this will not benefit from a review at this point, and I don’t have to write about it.
There are three reasons not to write about something. One is that I’m the wrong person to write about it — that it is so far removed from what I could be capable of judging. The second more boring reason is that I only have a given amount of writing and thinking that I can do in a week, and sometimes I’m just emptied out. And then the third catchall reason is a shyness about writing about something that’s in development and unready, because it would harm it. Sometimes I look at a play and think, It’s not quite done; I might scrape some of the paint off if I went in with my little scrubbing brush.

Theater as Gift

Alissa Wilkinson, whose day job is a writer and critic at Vox, writes in her newsletter Commonplace Book, about “Corsicana,” a new play by Wil Arbery that recently ran at Playwrights Horizon, and how it reminded her of a book by Lewis Hyde entitled The Gift.

“Hyde writes about gift economies, about the exchange of gifts that powers the world, how gifts structure our relationships and our communities, and how the logic of exchange capitalism mostly threatens those relationships and the idea of the gift itself.

“That art is often valued strictly on the basis of what kind of money people are willing to pay for it is just the tip of the iceberg. That we often form relationships based around things we pay for, or the literal value we hold to one another, is devastating. To love based not on how someone can boost your status or fulfill your goals, but the gifts — not tangible, so often — that they might receive from you, or provide to you, is revolutionary.

“In Corsicana, there is not much money to go around. Instead, everyone is trading, tentatively, on the gifts they can give one another — the gift of listening, or of caring, or of creating a song, or of being forced into a realization about themselves. It’s a play about art, though nobody in it is in any danger of ever being rich from their art, either by choice or by accident. And thus it is a play about empathy and love beyond the logic of this world…”


In Broadway & Me, Jan Simpson suggests theater books for summer reading – all of which she’s actually read.

In Broadway Journal, Phillip Boroff details the latest in the legal battle between Spotco and Scott Rudin: “With the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird  adjourned indefinitely, a real-life court battle between its producer in exile and original advertising agency is heating up.”

Davenport again on how three big business strategies — from Disney (early access), Amtrak (bidding for upgrades) and the airlines (rewards points) — can work for theater.

In The Crush Bar theater newsletter, Fergus Morgan previews five of the best solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – one of twelve previews of Fringe shows he promises to write this summer.

In 3views, ·  ·  Annie-B Parson, James Allister Sprang, and Suzanne Bocanegra “review”  Jess Barbagallo’s Weekend at Barry’s/Lesbian Lighthouse – visually.

Annie-B’s, with explanation

“Take a look at Annie-B’s response to Jess Barbagallo’s show. Paul Lazar (Annie-B’s husband and Jess’ frequent collaborator) thinks of Jess as a son of Molière. With that in mind, Annie-B created a family tree for Jess, imagining where his work comes from. There’s sadness, but also sitcom and soap opera. There’s narrative and social critique, but with pointed, high-end writing. With this drawing, Annie-B creates a literal frame from which we can see the work through her eyes. She’s sitting next to it, not judging it, starting with “What do you see?” “What is your response?” This is really all we want from criticism: What did you see? What is your response?”

Note: You might notice my expansion of the definition of theater blog to include theater “newsletters” (many of them from “substack.”) Most of these are available on the Web, not just in your inbox.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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