Critics In Conversation: Toby Zinman

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[article originally published at Philadelphia Dramatists Center site, October 26, 2009.]

Toby Zinman.
Toby Zinman.

About Toby Zinman:
Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she was awarded the prize for Distinguished Teaching. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on contemporary American drama. She was a Fulbright professor of theatre at Tel Aviv University, and has received five grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (three times directing their summer seminar for teachers on Samuel Beckett’s plays). She was a visiting lecturer at Sias University in China during the Spring semester of 2008. Her third book, on Edward Albee’s plays, was recently published by University of Michigan Press, and her latest book, on Arthur Miller, will be published by Methuen Publishers in London this spring. That’s her day job.

Her night job: theatre critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as the regional reviewer for Variety. She reviews New York theatre for BroadStreetReview.com She has written for American Theatre magazine, the London Times and the New York Times.

Her third career, as an adventure travel writer, has taken her all over the world, doing ridiculous things like dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining the rainforest in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and rounding up cattle on horseback in the Australian Outback.

Interview with Toby Zinman

26 October 2009

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

Toby Zinman, Theatre critic for Philadelphia Inquirer, Variety, Broad Street Review

Martha Wade Steketee, Resident Dramaturg, Philadelphia Dramatists Center

Tom Tirney, Board Chair, Philadelphia Dramatists Center

SETTING

Martha and Tom met Toby in her University of the Arts office.  It is comfortable, small, full of books and sunlight.

MARTHA: First of all, let’s start with what got you into this gig.

TOBY: “It was a dark and stormy night”, what can I tell you?  I have a Ph.D. in English, and I’m a full professor here [at the University of the Arts] and I’m a career academic.  I just finished my fourth book. I give lectures internationally. I do the whole academic route.

TOM: You grew up wanting to become a professor.

TOBY: I did.  I did actually.

MARTHA: Where did you grow up?

TOBY: I grew up here in Philadelphia.  It was actually absurd that I knew that this is what I wanted to do, but I did.  The point is — and this applies both to teaching and to journalism — the point is to do something you love to do that you would do for free and to get someone to pay you to do it.  I have two such jobs and I really feel lucky every day.  That’s a good way to live.  That’s a good way to feel.  My training was in fiction, modern British fiction.

MARTHA: Where was that?  Where did you go?

TOBY: Temple.  All three degrees.  At one point, while I was teaching here, a young woman who was in the Department decided to go off to get her Ph.D.  She had been writing as the second banana critic for City Paper and she said: “You know, you ought to apply for that job.” And so I did. To back track a bit, on a whim, or one of those instinctive moments when you feel a bend in the road is approaching, I applied for a NEH postdoc seminar at Columbia in American Drama, American Theatre.

MARTHA: When was this?

TOBY: I don’t remember the chronology.  A long time ago.  And he took a chance on me.  I was the only non theatre person in the whole group.  Most of them were academic theatre people.  And so I had a really good time doing it. [It was with]  Howard Stein, who is now Emeritus at Columbia.  A great O’Neill specialist.  At any rate, I was at this point enchanted with Sam Shepard.  They were doing at La Mama a Shepard festival of the Jazz Plays and so I thought: I want in on this.  George Forenze was directing, and also taught at Columbia.  So Howard made a connection with him and I got in on all the rehearsals and whatever.  Max Roach, the great the legendary jazz drummer, was writing all the music for it.  I actually sat in Max Roach’s kitchen drinking cranberry juice and listening to him talk about music. I mean, I still go weak in the knees thinking about it.  American Theatre magazine took the piece that I wrote on it.  As someone what had no profile at all in the theatre world all of a sudden I was in a major magazine.  Then I went on to do a lot of stuff for American Theatre and I have written for them ever since, regularly although not so frequently of late.  At any rate, that’s how City Paper knew my name.  And so they hired me.

Cary Mazer was then their first critic and so it was fun.  I never did that before.  And so it was fun to do.  And then I was busy here, I got hired here (I was teaching here only part time because my daughter was a little baby) and somebody quit and they had to replace him.  They did a national search and I got the job.  What happened was that I had to teach his courses, one of which was a course called “Modern Drama”.  Not only had I never taught, I had never taken such a course.  I figured: all right, I’ve written in English, I can do it.  Its not numbers, its not like calculus.  So I did it and I loved it.  And then it became contemporary drama as well as modern drama, and then it became American drama.  Somehow everything grew and grew and grew the way things do, and suddenly you find that you’re in the midst of a while different thing.  So I did the City Paper reviewing for 14 years.  And that was fun.

MARTHA: And at the same time it sounds like you were simultaneously approaching theatre academically

TOBY: Yes, absolutely.  It was all mix and match for me.  I’m not a compartmentalizing person, so everything all sort of sloshes together, informs each other and makes it much more interesting for me.  I have a lot of friends who teach the kinds of course I teach, in various places, and they’re not theatre critics, and they get to the theatre once or twice a month.

MARTHA: So this combination keeps you rooted.

TOBY: And I see everything. They just read it.  I see everything.  So it gives me a kind of currency.  I just came from teaching a course called “Contemporary Drama” and we are doing Pillowman and next week we’re doing The Four of Us.  I saw these plays in their original productions.  I cover London and the Canadian festivals.  I see a lot of stuff.   I saw Jude Law’s Hamlet before it came to New York.  I have a kind of credibility just by exposure, which is so much fun.  The access is so thrilling.  So I feel very privileged and I enjoy myself a lot of the time.

TOM: Given your background, do you delineate between literature and theatre?  Do you see a difference there?

MARTHA: Another way to say this is: when you approach entering a theatre, approach a live performance that has all those multiple dimensions — are different receptors firing for you, different than reading a book on the page?

TOBY: I tell my students at the beginning of every semester when I’m teaching a drama course, that you have to read the italics.   The stage directions.  This is an art form that is made to be on its feet.  It’s collaborative and the sense of community in watching it is important and they have to stage it in their minds and you have to imagine what this looks like.  In fact part of what is interesting is that some of my students are visual artists. They can see the stage as an arena in a whole different way.  They can really see and can move people around in that arena. Whereas actors always want to run around behind and be in it rather than looking at it.  I mean I see my job really as just heightened audience.

MARTHA: Talk more about that.  You see your job as “heightened audience”.

TOBY: Yeah, as a critic.  Because I’m just representing everybody in the theatre, but watching perhaps with more experience or acuity than they are.  I think the most significant and radical difference between fiction as literature and drama as literature is that when you read a novel, your relationship to the page is absolutely intimate.  It’s just you and it.  When you read a play you have to imagine everybody else.  And certainly when you see a play you don’t have to imagine everybody else, they’re already there.  Either the product of their work is there (the costume design or the lighting design or the sound design or whatever) or the actors are in fact there.  I don’t think I’m a conventional academic – even my academic writing is less “academic” than it might be.  Its not jargon-ized, its not pedantic, I try to be a little chattier and more familiar.  It’s as though I’m teaching, as though I’m actually talking to people.  Like having a conversation with the smartest class you ever taught.  I find that its fun to put on different hats and hear yourself in different voices.  I review for Variety – I’m the regional reviewer for Variety and have been for 15 years, and that’s a different hat also because you’re talking to people in the business.  You do not have to explain to them what the plot of Hamlet is.

MARTHA: So your current assignments are: Variety, The Inquirer, Broad Street Review.  What takes you to London?

TOBY: I pay for that because it’s always part of another trip.  I travel a great deal.  My other secret job (if I had a “day job” and a “night job” this would be my “weekend job”) is that I write adventure travel stuff.  I’ve done crazy stuff.  Rounding up cattle on the Outback on horseback, dog sledding in the Yukon, climbing Mount Sinai – I love that kind of stuff.   The London thing: I do a yearly roundup for the Inquirer.  The Canadian festivals I used to do for the Inquirer but I did for the Broad Street Review this past summer.  This is separate from my academic writing.  I just finished a book on All My Sons.  My book on Albee came out from the University of Michigan Press a year ago in the spring.  I keep busy.  I write very fast, which is good.  And that is what was so exciting about being hired by the Inquirer.  I had never worked for a daily before.  A weekly and alternative weekly … you get it in but my compulsion is to get things in and get things crossed off the list.  Done, my favorite word.  But writing for a daily is like no fooling around.

MARTHA: So Broad Street, Variety, and Inquirer assignments – how does it happen differently for each of them?  Are you making the assignments?

TOBY: At the Inquirer, we do it jointly.  The last schedule, Howie made up a list.  I used to do it.  What are all the shows that are opening and let’s eliminate all the shows we’re not going to review.  We eliminate partly by their level of professionalism, the length of the run, and other items.  So then we get this list, and I basically do all the stuff in Center City.  When there is more than one opening in one night,  then Howie or Wendy will do the other one.  We talk. Somebody will say “I don’t want to see that play again” or “I hate that play” — so we have a conversation.

MARTHA: So you do this on a month-by-month basis.

TOBY: And within the month there is a certain degree of fiddling around because things come up.  Mainly we stick to it, and we’re all very responsible professionals so there is no leeway, there’s no slack here.

MARTHA: So for Variety and Broad Street, it’s very different.  Do you say “I’ll cover this” or does Variety assign you?

TOBY: Well, they are two different things.  For Broad Street Review, I’m doing New York.  And I choose which New York shows I’m going to see, partly because of my schedule because New York works differently.  They have Press Previews, as you probably know.  And sometimes there are times when I’m teaching.  I have other obligations.  If I have a Philadelphia opening I can’t ditch that for New York, that would be outrageous.  So I have to finesse that.  And also: I don’t want to see everything.  I don’t want to see a lot of the big musicals.  So I’m not going to run up to New York to cover something that I don’t want to see.  With the Inquirer, it was assigned.  When Howie and I were divvying up New York, mainly he did the big musicals because he loves musicals and he knows a lot more about musicals than I do.  So that’s the way that happens.  And Variety will sometimes assign me something, sometimes I’ll suggest something to the editor there, because I think it’s important, because I think it’s good, because I think it’s likely to be good.

MARTHA: You can pitch it, but it’s a low key pitch.

TOBY: A very low key pitch.  Because part of what I’m doing is being a champion of Philadelphia theatre.  Nobody was covering Philadelphia theatre in Variety for a number of years.  So when I started, because this was international coverage, this is a good thing.  So sometimes PR people from Philadelphia companies will call me wanting me to review for Variety.

MARTHA: Because they know about this arrangement and how you can pitch your stories.

TOBY: Sure.  But unless something makes me convinced I want to pitch it, I’ll say: this is your job.  You’re the pitch man, you’re the PR person.  I’ll give them the contact information, but it’s not for me to promote it (a particular production).  Because I think that any critic that gets him or herself involved as a flack gets into trouble.

MARTHA: That’s a line between doing features and reviews sometimes.

TOBY: The basic rule we have at the Inquirer is that if you do the “preview” (or advance piece) you don’t do the review.  Because you’ve already invested yourself in it in a way. And then it’s embarrassing if you’ve written a promotional, preview piece and then you go and you hate it.

MARTHA: I was inspired by interviews done by David Zak (on Examiner.com) of a few of my pals in Chicago, and his few simple questions.  For example: “What about your job makes you crazy with joy.”   I know you have said that you don’t like to segment your life.  But what thrills you about theatre criticism?

TOBY: It seems too obvious an answer.  You see stuff that’s really really good.  And you’re so thrilled.  And whether that’s because its such a good play or one actor made one gesture that was so perfect or something else.  There are just so many ways to be delighted in the theatre. I just reviewed “She Stoops to Conquer” at McCarter.  A dazzling production.  Production values through the roof.  Actors who can turn an accent on a dime, whose voices can range up, down, and sideways.  Costuming beyond belief gorgeous, and hilarious.  This is one kind of pleasure.  This is a different thing from going to see a new play and you have no idea what is going to happen.  That is such a pleasure when you don’t know a play and you just go and think: that was really good.  And that feeling as you walk out of the theatre that you’re not done with it.  That there is so much more to think about and you can just review it in your mind.  I don’t know if that’s an answer.

MARTHA: Oh, absolutely it is.  I love that phrase –“when you walk out of the theatre you’re not done with it.”

TOBY: Who wants to see a play that’s like a tissue?  You use it, you’re doe with it, you throw it away.  I don’t like disposable art.  There’s plenty of it that’s entertaining, but you don’t need me for that.  I mean you don’t need me to tell you that you’ve been entertained.  You know that yourself.

TOM: Do you find that movies are disposable art?

TOBY: No, some are, some aren’t.  It’s the same as television.  There is some wonderful acting on television.

TOM: You’re talking about the mode of the entertainment.  So there are plenty of plays out there that are disposable art.

TOBY: Sure.  Cats, say.  You don’t need me to write about Cats.  I could.  And I have.  And I do.  But it’s not going to illuminate anything, unless you want me to do a whole number on T.S. Eliot.  But nobody does.  Nobody wants to read that if they’re going to see Cats – this is completely irrelevant.

TOM: I was unaware of how much theatre you saw beyond Philadelphia. 

TOBY: I have context.

TOM: This is a tremendous amount of material to be drawing in.  We were wondering, we always ask how an artist prepares.  How do you prepare for seeing a play that you’re going to review?  Are there any methods?  Do you read the play?

TOBY: Going out to dinner with a friend.   That’s the best preparation.  I don’t prepare.  I’m as prepared as I’m going to get.  I know what I know, I read what I read, I don’t take each play as a research task.  I want to go to the theatre as an audience member, only an exceptionally well-informed audience member.  Although never sell other audience members short – there are a lot of smart people out there.  And just go and watch it and see what happens.  Take notes as what happens, happens.  I rarely go back and read them, but I find that writing them fixes it more clearly in my mind.  But I don’t prepare in that way.

TOM: I’ve never really had the opportunity to talk to a critic and understand where they are coming from, so I just have this idea of how they prepare.

TOBY: Most critics don’t have Ph.D.s in English.  So if I’m going to see a play by Shaw, I know my Shaw.  I know my Shakespeare.  I know my Chekhov.  I know my Beckett.  I know this stuff.  I really know this stuff as dramatic literature. So what I’m interested in then, is: I know the play is good. Is the production good?  But sometimes you go to a brand new play and you have no idea whether the play is good.  I mean: who is this guy?  I don’t know, let me see.  And in those cases where the playwright is unknown, sometimes it’s a famous playwright and it’s just a play you haven’t seen or else it’s a play that no one has seen.  That’s one thing.  And then what you’re thinking about is other plays by that playwright that you’ve seen or read or whatever.  But sometimes it’s an unknown person and you have nothing to go on.  Well, good.  Show me what you got.  Then part of the difficulty, and this is where people get crabby, is in trying to separate the production from the play.  Obviously most experienced theatre goers can make some distinction of that sort.  They can see a play was really really good and the production was weak, or they can see that this is a really rubbish script but was lucky enough to have knockout actors in it.  Sometimes you get everything together.  Yea!

TOM: Particularly with new plays, do you see it incumbent upon yourself to make that delineation for the readers or the audience talking about the production versus the text? 

TOBY: If I can.  That’s hard to do, because you’ve never read it, you’ve never seen another version of it.  I can think of one occasion when I saw a new play.  There were some local actors who were good and you could tell that they were doing a really good job, and it was a really wretched play.  Wretched.  So, I could tell that, and I could say that, partly because my sympathy was with these actors who were trapped in this thing, doing it over and over and over.  They must know it’s a bad play, gosh how could they not?  That kind of thing.

TOM: You mentioned something earlier, that you don’t sell the audience short because there are a lot of smart people in the audience.  I love that. I wonder if you could talk about that.  I think one of the greatest mistakes a writer can make is selling the audience short. 

TOBY: I think a play should be an occasion to rise to.  And I think it’s better if it’s harder and you need to come to meet it, rather than have it patronize you (underestimating what you know, what you’ll get, what you like).   Of course this is not the same for everybody.  So sometimes I walk out of a play thinking: what condescending sentimental rubbish.  And have someone else whose opinion I respect love it.  All right, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.  If one critic were always right, we’d only need one critic. It’s a matter of opinion.

TOM: I wonder if selling the audience short from the writer’s perspective is an artifact of how it’s actually written?  For instance, if you have playwrights collaborating in a workshop setting and there are actors or directors continually asking them: what does this mean?  Does it matter if they know what if means if the playwright thinks the audience will know what it means?

TOBY: I don’t know.  I have a couple of possible answers.  I think the playwright is the last person you want to ask what a play means.  I think critical analysis or interpretation and creating a work of art are two different jobs.  And two different motions of mind.  I don’t think you ask an artist what his artwork means.  It seems his job is to make it.  Certainly Tom Stoppard knows what his plays mean but he writes very intellectual plays.  Not everybody does.  Sometimes my students will ask: do you think he really meant all of that?  There is a fine line between over-reading the text and under-reading the text.  Any difficult work of art is an invitation to interpret.  And that is an invitation that is part of the pleasure of going to the theatre or of looking at work of art or listening to music, or whatever.  Part of what I’m saying is that I enjoy that motion of mind.  I’m an analytical person.  And I think the kind of creative leaps my mind makes are essentially interpretive.  Which is why I’m on the side of the footlights I am.

TOM: Do you think it matters what a playwright means in his or her text?  I like the notion that the last person you want to ask what a play means is the artist.

TOBY: That’s different than saying do you think it matters if you understand what it means.  I DO think it matters that you understand what it means.  But I don’t think you need to go to the source to find that out.  I think it should tell you what it means and you need to respond to that in your way.  Not everybody is going to get everything.  People enjoy themselves as they will, as they can.

TOM: I encounter writers who really want to control every aspect of who their play is interpreted. 

TOBY: There is great precedent for that.  Samuel Beckett .

TOM: There is great precedent for that.  But when you’re dealing with a collaborative art form you’re going to have to —

TOBY: Collaborate or be a tyrant.  And if you’re a tyrant you have to earn your tyranny.

MARTHA: I wonder if you could reflect on Philadelphia’s role in theatre in America these days.

TOBY: It’s a very lively theatre community.  There are so many companies big and little and in-between.  And that seems to me very exciting.

MARTHA: I’m the new person in town.  Is this significantly different than10 years ago?  5 years ago?

TOBY: Maybe not 5 years ago, but certainly significantly differently than say 15 years ago.  I mean, partly because theatres have been built from the ground up.  So you have actual buildings that weren’t here before.  And major companies in them.  So places that started as a little hole in the wall like the Wilma did doing exciting theatre are now in a big house.   Philadelphia Theatre Company which used Play & Players .  And InterAct at the Adrienne.  They divide up venues in interesting ways.  It’s an interesting mix of big and little, and old and new, and experimental and main stream.  I think that keeps it interesting.  I think that this has fostered a theatre community of actors and directors who actually can work and live in the city and live relatively normal lives.  I mean no actors live normal lives because they work nights, they work weekends .  But they can work fairly steadily and have a house and a family, rather than people who have those kinds of careers where they are on the road all the time.

MARTHA: I’m shifting my own lens, being new to town from Chicago.  Do you see Philadelphia now as its own theatre community not just an extension of New York, and that it plays a distinct role In theatre nationally?

TOBY: Its relation to New York is completely different than it used to be back in the day.  Back in the day, Philly was the tryout town.  It was considered the toughest tryout town.   This is where Arthur Miller premiered Death of a Salesman.  I mean, it was a whole thing. These were real tryouts.  It had a whole different cache, a different buzz, a different excitement.

MARTHA: It was on its way —

TOBY: It was on its way … someplace.   Then one would have gotten to see a lot of important things, but not for long.  So that has really changed.  One of the things that is different also, and I suspect this is true in Chicago as well, is that most of these theatres are subscription houses, so most shows have a limited run.  Maybe sometimes if it’s a huge success it will be extended for a week.  But that’s it.  They’ve got subscribers; they have another show that they have to get in to that spot.  So it’s not the same kind of theatre as it is in New York.   If it’s a hit it’s a hit and it will run a year and a half.

MARTHA: In Chicago some theatres can extend for sizable chunks of time, but that is the exception. Yes.

TOBY: So that’s a difference.  I don’t think I know any other city’s theatre world in the way I do Philadelphia so I’m not sure I can do a real theatre comparison.

MARTHA: The comparison that is really useful to be reminded of is this historical shift from the “theatre as a transient commodity evolving toward Broadway” to being a place where things develop and stay here and then have a life somewhere else.

TOBY: That is something that Variety always wants to know: does it have legs?  They don’t want to review a local show if it’s not likely to have a life after this production.

TOM: Variety compared to most theatre publications is a fiercely economic publication.

TOBY: Absolutely.  They are aimed at producers.  They are the money guys. Absolutely.  The really scare thing is if a new show opens here and I give it a rave.  I did once when I first started writing for Variety, after a while some producers came down to see it and they took it to New York and it was such a bust they lost so much money.

MARTHA: It was their responsibility not yours. 

TOBY: I kept trying to say that.  You can see after all these years it still niggles at me.  They are the money guys and they are also people in the biz.

TOM: But it was an honest review.

TOBY: Oh absolutely.  It wasn’t like the cousin wrote the play and I wanted to promote it.

TOM: You don’t want to be associated with a wrong review …

TOBY: Oh, there are legion. Frank Rich wrote a whole book about his “wrong” reviews. It’s inevitable.  You see a show once.  Reviews he wished he hadn’t written, that kind of thing.  It’s a snap judgment.  You see it once, early.  It hasn’t even really gotten its legs yet.  And you see it early, you go home, and you write.  And consider it for twenty minutes.  How could some of them not be wrong?

TOM: Have you ever had the opportunity to change your mind?  In print?

TOBY: Not in print.

TOM: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an instance, ever, where someone like Ben Brantley wrote “I wrote this last week, but I think this now”.

TOBY: Part of the problem is that you’d have to go back and see it again. And where would he find that time when there are a million new shows snapping at his heels?  You do the best you can do.  You do the best you can do.  Somebody has a right to feel insulted if you did not give this its due.  But if you’ve given it your best “due”, that’s it.  The circumstances are just odd.  It’s an odd routine.  But there it is. I didn’t make it up.

TOM: When you sit down to write, how do you see the role as a critic? Who are you serving principally? 

TOBY: The readers.  The readers.  Which is something that the theatre community doesn’t understand. They think I’m writing for them.  What, how many people is that?  Four hundred people?  As opposed to say four hundred and fifty thousand who read the newspaper.  I’m not writing for the theatre community. I’m not in their employ, they’re not my —

TOM: Daily constituency.

TOBY: Exactly.  I’m writing for the readership.  And if that readership has vested interests then it has vested interests.   That’s a different story.  You don’t write a story about Bernie Madoff as though you’re writing for his immediate family.  Because that’s wrong, it’s unjust, it’s inappropriate; it belies the task at hand.  Part of what I try to do is be professional, whatever profession I’m professing at.  I try to do it the way I think it should be done, not the way I’m being sometimes coerced to do it.  The theatre community can become extremely importunate.

MARTHA: So you feel like you’re writing for the theatre going public.   Sometimes do you feel as though you can be in a conversation with the production itself?

TOBY: Sometimes I hope they’ll read it because sometimes I feel as though the director never really sat where I was sitting in the theatre to discover that one of his actors was inaudible, but that can change.   There was one production I saw at [a local theatre] where people were applauding at inappropriate times and I remember saying that in the review and they had big notices up, and a friend of mine who went on a subsequent night said: it worked, nobody is doing it any more.

MARTHA: You mean applauding in ways that didn’t serve the production.

TOBY: Yeah.  It was just wrong and bad.  Sure, sometimes I feel as though I’m talking to the playwright.   You really didn’t need that character there whose function is only to explain what we’ve just seen happen on stage.  You think maybe that would be helpful, even though that character is played by an actor whose work you admire.

TOM: Do you feel it’s your duty as a critic to say to readers that you need to go see this.

TOBY: Sometimes.

TOM: And you shouldn’t go see this.

TOBY: Well, I don’t say it in those terms.  I mean I do say the positive things.  I will conclude a review by saying “don’t miss this one”.  Part of it is that people know who read me, read me, and they know if they saw something I said to see and hated it, that if I say go they won’t.  That’s a relationship too.

MARTHA: They learn your taste, your style, your approach

TOBY: Precisely.

TOM: There is a relationship with the readers who know your work.

TOBY: Do you agree with Ben Brantley all the time?

TOM: No.

TOBY: Do you agree with Charles Isherwood?

TOM: I think he’s pretty good.  Yeah.

TOBY: Well, you see, that’s what I mean.  But you read Ben Brantley.  That’s the point.

MARTHA: You’re right.  If people are clear about their perspective and if they’re fair in that you know what’s informing their judgment, you may disagree with it as a reader but you know what’s informing it.

TOM: I almost agree with almost everything Terry Teachout writes.  But what I didn’t get — he gave a great review to The Little Mermaid.  I was shocked.  I went to go see that premiere.

TOBY: A moment of weakness.  I didn’t read the review nor did I see the show.  But I imagine he would have said something as if he were himself surprised.

TOM: I think he was.

TOBY: Well there you are.  You can’t be fairer than that.

TOM: Print journalism is in a crisis.  Theatre on its own is somewhat in a crisis in competing with other forms of entertainment media.  And we would like you to talk about the future of how people are going to be informed by criticism.  How are they going to get their information about theatre?

TOBY: I don’t know.  One of the things that I worry about is that because there are so many blogs and so many self-appointed experts, there will be so much judgment floating around where you have absolutely no idea whether the person is a legitimate source of opinion or not, or is just babbling because people love to babble.

TOM: There is this controversy right now happening about blogs where Congress has stepped in to philosophically ask the question: should bloggers have some kind of disclosure to say if they are getting paid by a company or service.

TOBY: It’s not even a matter of getting paid. I want a disclosure, if you’re making judgments on a play, what expertise you have.  If it turns out I’m reading some 15 year old drop out.

MARTHA: Right.   An adequate description of who is writing the blog.

TOBY: In other words, I agree that print journalism is certainly in a crisis.  But what the solution to that crisis will be I have no idea.  If I knew I would solve it.

TOM: The blogosphere, as ubiquitous as it is now, I feel is in its infancy stage, at least juvenile stage. It is difficult to know where to go.  I’m speaking specifically for theatre.  And then there is the problem of consistency.  You work for a daily.  You’re going to have a certain amount of work printed and out there so people will be informed in a timely manner.  That’s not true of the blogosphere

TOBY: philly.com is the obvious site here.  I don’t know the answer.  I don’t Twitter.  I don’t Facebook.  I don’t blog.  I don’t do those things.  I’m an extremely private person.  I’m willing to be forthcoming within certain parameters.

MARTHA: So the on-line content you generate is because the outlet you write for puts information on the internet.  But you’re not doing it.

TOBY: I’m not doing it.  And what I was really saying is that I’m not reading it.  So I have very little perspective on it.  I’m an old-fashioned girl.

MARTHA: That’s actually very useful to know.  There are many people like you in the Philadelphia community too.

TOBY: I suppose in some way BroadStreetReview.com is an online magazine, not a blog, but it’s on line.  People will reply in opinionated ways about the opinions expressed.  All that’s fine, it’s a conversation, and it’s a good dialogue.  I wouldn’t dream of wanting to insert myself into that.

TOM: I haven’t made the adjustment yet.  If I’m not reading the review …

TOBY: Just as you said, there are a lot of people like you, what I’m saying is that there are distinctions to be made.  And I think distinctions are important.  And I think that very often people blogging about this or that, or Twittering about this or that, are not making distinctions.  They are just reacting.  I have neither the time nor the patience to read people who are telling me that they are about to take a nap.

TOM: Someone who is writing a blog may not have a philosophical approach or any discipline at all.

TOBY: Discipline is really a key word here, used in both its meanings.  Partly because I really believe every review I write, there has to be some evidence of a shaping hand.  It has to be crafted.  I’m not saying it’s a work of art. I’m saying that it has to be worth the ten minutes that it will take someone to read it.  It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has to have some facility with language.  It has to have, if possible, a zingy opener and a zingy conclusion.  It has to have something that makes it interesting to read because that’s what journalism is about.  It’s written by people who know how to write, and that that makes it fun or interesting or pleasurable or whatever to read.  So that when you say that you read Teachout or Isherwood or whatever, part of what you’re responding to that they write so well.  It’s not just their judgment, it’s their facility with language.

 

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