features + interviews

Critics In Conversation: Wendy Rosenfield

[article originally published at Philadelphia Dramatists Center site, November 4, 2009.]

Wendy Rosenfield.

Wendy Rosenfield.

About Wendy Rosenfield:
Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater criticism for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 2006 and her Drama Queen blog for ArtsJournal.com covers “drama, onstage and off.” She was also chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001. Currently an M.L.A. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, she received a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Theater and Musical Theater, participated in the Bennington Writer’s Workshop, and holds a B.A. in English literature from Bennington College. She was the 2009 and 2010 Guest Critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s Region II National Critics Institute and is the proud mother of two small but enthusiastic theater aficionados.

Interview with Wendy Rosenfield
4 November 2009

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

Wendy Rosenfield, Theatre critic for Philadelphia Inquirer and Drama Queen blogger for ArtsJournal
Martha Wade Steketee, Resident Dramaturg, Philadelphia Dramatists Center
Tom Tirney, Board Chair, Philadelphia Dramatists Center

SETTING:

In the Wilma Theatre studio, late afternoon. Tom balances interview questions with gallantly offering to feed a parking meter for Wendy in the busy downtown neighborhood. Our first topic is inspired by considering how theatre and movies treat digital technologies – as plot points or means of social interaction. And we’re off.

TOM: I’m curious about why theatre can’t do digital well. They can’t portray modern sensibilities in relation to the internet and the digital age.

WENDY: I think people are so overwhelmed with technology and still trying to figure out their place in it, that the internet becomes the focus of the play instead of the way that people use the Internet in their real lives. It becomes allegorical. I’ve seen this trend where it turns into a murder mystery but none of it really has to do with how people actually use the Internet and social networking in their real lives. I think it’s getting closer.

TOM: Do you think Hollywood and movies do a good job of that?

WENDY: You know what? I don’t get to go to movies anymore.

MARTHA: There’s that typewriter / “You’ve Got Mail” dimension of this – show thoughts typed on screens …

TOM: Hollywood can seem to be able to portray technology because it has special effects and it has the ability to jump time. They can do it in a facile way. Theatre is still dealing with improvements in digital technology to the scenery, the stage … everything

WENDY: Certain companies and playwrights really have it, but I agree overall. There is a production of Hamlet that the Wooster Group did that is all about technology and all about the lack of actual human connection. They do Hamlet live and then in background and on TVs all over is the Richard Burton Hamlet. They are saying the lines at the same time as Richard Burton and sometimes it’s the actor and sometimes it’s Richard Burton. Phenomenal. And they’re not looking each other in the eyes, the actors, they’re watching Richard Burton as they’re saying the line. That really got to the core of something.

MARTHA: Tell us more about your personal and professional background that brought you to becoming a theatre critic.

WENDY: I graduated from Bennington College. I had been an English literature major. Then I worked as an editor at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, their publications editor. And I did some copy editing on a number of projects, and I landed at Philadelphia Magazine, I wrote a couple of pieces for them. Then I copyedited at Philadelphia Weekly. Basically I was waiting for a critic job to open up there and I just happened to be there when a theatre critic job opened.

MARTHA: What was it that drew you to theatre criticism?

WENDY: I always, always wanted to be a critic. I must be a freak or a horrible person.

MARTHA: I’ve been a critic and believe it’s an absolutely honorable thing to do. Were there critics that you read that inspired you?

WENDY: I did literary criticism all through college and I really liked that. And with an old boyfriend, during breaks, before email, we used to watch that old MTV show 120 Minutes and write critiques of all the videos and snail mail them to each other. I was always interested in deconstructing.

MARTHA: These are very different animals – literary criticism or even film criticism and theatre criticism. For you, what was the leap?

WENDY: I figured I would do either film or theatre. I did some acting, and I did some stage managing. I liked acting but I don’t think I was very good. I did scene studies. Bennington also had a really exciting theatre scene at the time. The playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman and a whole bunch of really exciting people were there at the time. Director Nicolas Martin was a professor there.

MARTHA: Things were percolating.

WENDY: Yeah. So when the theatre job opened I just jumped at it and said “Let me give it a try”.

MARTHA: That was at the Weekly.

WENDY: That was at the Philadelphia Weekly. I was there from 1994 to 2001. I was the chief theatre critic there. I took five years off after my second child. Then I read a review I didn’t agree with so I called up the Inquirer. So I started at the Inquirer.

MARTHA: So you’ve been at the Inquirer since ’06. But seven years at the Weekly.

WENDY: Yeah. I was seeing a lot of stuff and I didn’t have kids then and I was out all the time and we had 850 words per review which is just amazing. Such a luxury. That jump was pretty natural, from literature to theatre.

MARTHA: I like the fact that there was a review that you disagreed with …

WENDY: It just motivated me to get back.

TOM: This reminds me of an interview with Quentin Tarantino, who had done some acting. Someone asked him what gave him the most insight to become a director, and he mentioned acting. Do you draw from your experience in acting just as much as you draw from your experience in education and literature?

WENDY: I don’t. I definitely am script heavy and I have to sometimes fight that. I can tend to get bogged down in my script analysis. I just did this NEA Fellowship. We had to take an acting class as part of that and do a scene with the other critics. I am so glad that we had to do that — to reflect on what it’s like to be “in the moment” and what to look for on stage. I was grateful that they included that in the program. But my experience as an actor is so limited.

MARTHA: Related to that, in addition to acting and directing, are there aspects of production that are particularly important to you?

WENDY: I think it’s totally production specific. There are some, like one at McCarter not long ago, where the set was the whole production. It was just such a major part of the production. I think that the set more than other elements figure into a review just because generally it’s such an obvious statement. Sometimes the sound does, sometimes the lighting does. All the time, with a production, if it really adds something to a production I’ll mention it. If it’s not meant to be noticed I generally don’t mention it. I remember a lighting designer once saying “If you notice my lighting in a production then I’ve done something wrong”. That definitely affected me. It really depends on the production. Different directors and different designers want to accomplish different things. Acting and direction and script are always the most obvious things to cover.

TOM: How does being a mom affect your appreciation of art?

WENDY: Whenever “dead child” plays come up I have problems. That’s my own personal thing that I need to deal with. I’ve noticed that being a parent has made me a really strong advocate for challenging smart children’s and family theatre. I think it’s fantastic that these major theatres are putting all their regular resources into family shows because that’s the next generation of theatre goers. I’ve gotten to the point with my kids now, where sometimes they fight over the extra ticket. My daughter, who is now eleven, has seen more Shakespeare than a lot of adults and she can talk about it. I feel really lucky to be raising my kids as a theatre critic.

MARTHA: So for them it’s part of life then.

WENDY: And it’s great to see the Philadelphia theatre community responding to the fact that people have kids. Not shutting them out but helping to grown that audience, which will very quickly be their supporters.

MARTHA: When you’re writing, who do you see as your audience?

WENDY: I’d say my audience is people who love theatre and are interested in theatre. I don’t have a specific audience member in mind. I think that also changes from production to production. I think that the readers who are looking for the big brand naming touring shows are looking to find out if that show is a facsimile of what was on Broadway. If they are going to get that same experience — that is basically what they’re looking for. People who are looking for the smaller, quirkier companies want a different kind of review – more production-specific. Not that the big shows don’t deserve a deeper analysis, but I think the smaller shows sort of call for that.

MARTHA: Are you specifically assigned to particular kinds of productions?

WENDY: I get a mix of stuff. At the beginning of the month Howard Shapiro will find out the month’s assignments. Toby likes to stay in Center City and we each have our assignments, but we can each say that we’d love to have a particular show, and we can hash it out that way. With the Fringe Festival it’s different. The three of us sit down and we sort of scramble. Parcel it out. Because everyone wants to see everything. But it’s hard.

MARTHA: So they do an initial “sift” and there are remainders.

WENDY: We each have a sense of what we go for, so that is taken into consideration also. I like the pop culture stuff, the edgier and new theatre stuff. Everyone has their area. That said, I will see something like the touring Spring Awakening that I loved.

TOM: One of our previous interviews talked about their personal relationship with the theatre community. Do you feel that you’re a part of the theatre community, or because you’re a critic are you standing outside of it?

WENDY: I am not a part of the theatre community. I am a journalist, on the outside looking in. I have the privilege of having access to all the theatre I want, but I’m definitely outside. On my first go-round, my first job, I used to go to cast parties and talk to actors and directors. And I found that the longer I did that, the harder it was going in with real objectively. I feel very grateful that I have those five years to step back because I don’t do any of it any more. I have one best buddy who is an actor and playwright and I will not review him. I feel like I’ve been on both sides and to keep outside is a much more successful. That said, you’re called on to do features so often that it helps to have your ear to the ground.

MARTHA: So do you have a personal or company line that if you’ve done the feature you won’t do the review? A simple rule that allows you to do a developmental piece in which you’re not reviewing a production you’re talking about?

WENDY: Yes. That’s also the Inquirer’s rule. Once you’ve gone that far into a production [if you do features or interviews pre-opening], it’s harder to be objective about it. I do try to stay out of it. As I said, I don’t feel I am part of the theatre community. And I don’t think the theatre community sees me as part of the theatre community. It’s not necessarily as though there’s an adversarial relationship, although I’m sure that to some people it is. I think it’s complementary, actually.

TOM: My observation comes from the artistic side – feeling that the critics would not do their job if they didn’t feel that they were ambassadors to a wider audience for the theatre.

WENDY: There have been a lot of panels I’ve been on, where there are speakers, and a lot of times the message will be to a room full of critics: here is what the theatre community wants from you. It’s nice to know what the theatre community wants from me, but I’m not writing for the theatre community. I am writing for the Inquirer’s readers. And the theatre community is part of that, but our job is not to be nicer or to pull our punches or to sell tickets. Our credibility as critics is all we have. I really feel it’s our job to very clearly state where we’re at, what sort of theatre we’re advocating for, and have an open mind as much as possible. And reflect our tastes in our reviews. We can’t be everybody’s friend.

TOM: Being everybody’s friend is what the artist has to go through. Maybe that is just projected upon the critic who is seen as part of the theatrical community.

WENDY: I have a friend in the community who has said to me: I appreciate so much more a review if it is harsh on me and accurate than one that is a softball and flatters all over. It helps neither the audience nor the theatre; it doesn’t bring anything. She would rather be criticized accurately than criticized in a diffuse way.

TOM: You mentioned that you tweeted. Do you blog as well?

WENDY: Yes, I blog for ArtsJournal, a blog called Drama Queen. My blog writing is a different story. There it’s much more inclusive of the theater community, because it’s more like an editorial opinion column and there isn’t that barrier of formality and journalistic distance. Also, readers of theater blogs are just generally the theater community, as opposed to readers of reviews, who are mostly the paper’s subscribers.

TOM: Do you get a lot of feedback from your work?

WENDY: Not as much as I would like. People comment on the blog, and they will occasionally comment on the Inquirer site. I try to kind o mix it up a little bit on the Inquirer review. I feel that if that comment section is there, then it should be live. Theatre is a lively art, and the discussion about it should be just as lively. If we have those comment sections, those interactive elements, we should use them. Some journalists say that you should stay off and let the audience have their say. I think it’s more interesting to get into a discussion, and when I’ve done that I’ve found that there’s been some real understanding that has evolved from it.

TOM: What kind of feedback intrigues you or helps you?

WENDY: Very specific feedback. Unfortunately if I write a good review, a positive review, there’s no comment. When I write a negative review, then the comments show up, which is really a shame. On the Inquirer page it’s usually the negative reviews that get the comments. A couple of people have pointed out holes in the review and I totally appreciate that. A specific critique — which is what I hope my critique is. That is totally helpful and great.

MARTHA: I come from another regional theatre town, Chicago, and as a dramaturg I’ve been kind of mapping out the theatre world here in my own little way. It’s fascinating to find out how deep and long your experience is here in this city. So I wonder if you could reflect on the last 15 years, and Philadelphia’s role in the national theatre scene.

WENDY: Since I started, the theatre here has completely exploded. When the Live Arts Festival started I thought that was really exciting time. There were a lot of cabarets and performance art, which was kind of my specialty back then. It is maybe ten times bigger now. It’s so exciting. And it has a huge national presence. I find when I go out of town people know about Philly theatre or they’ve heard about Philly theatre and they want to come to Philly to see theatre. It’s definitely gained some reputation. There are a lot of outlets for new plays now. And I think that the Live Arts Festival is so great because it has such as citywide, galvanizing effect for the three weeks. It really gets people excited and it brings a new audience to the whole rest of the season. And it pushes the envelope in terms of what producers and companies are willing to produce, and are willing to take chances, and I see them doing it so much more. Emerging playwrights are being produced in so many theatres, the little theatres, the itinerant ones … so much site-specific stuff. The Latvian Club always has stuff; there are always strange little spots where you can go see stuff outside the Live Arts Festival. So I think it’s had a phenomenal effect on the city.

MARTHA: This past year was my first Live Arts Festival, and it was really thrilling. I’d see some of the same people over and over. You’d sit next to someone you’d seen earlier that day or the day before at another performance, and barriers are down, and you start talking. People are engaging with theatre, walking up five flights of stairs to a space they hadn’t been in before, experiencing theatre outside their season subscription series. They’re engaging in theatre gluttony and loving it. [I am a happy theatre glutton and this is a compliment, believe me.] Asking each other: how many plays are you seeing this week?

WENDY: It’s really exciting. Somebody told me that at some of the other Fringe Festivals there isn’t a single spot to gather afterwards. So having the Fringe Bar as they do here where everyone can come and talk about everything. This was my favorite Fringe Year ever.

MARTHA: Do you have favorite theatre critics? Outside of Philly?

WENDY: I like Isherwood in the Times. I love Kenneth Tynan.

MARTHA: Have you seen the John Lahr collection of his journals?

WENDY: Yes. I read that. Tynan is so debauched, he’s so conflicted and such a complex person. Aside from his journals, he advocated for theatre that he really believed in and I think that that’s really critical for a critic.

MARTHA: He was able to embrace his own fandom in the course of his writing. I find that a fascinating challenge in critical writing. I find myself wanting that kind of thing, while taking responsibility for one’s opinions.

WENDY: I totally agree with that. I try to do that too. If it’s just something that I’m completely in love with and I know it, I think it’s really important to lay your bias bare. It’s nice to avoid that bias if you can, but you’re human. It’s important to let people know that this is where you stand on something.

MARTHA: Who do you read? Who do you like to read?

WENDY: John Lahr is someone who is so involved in the theatre community that his writing is nice, but a little too soft for me. Tynan and Isherwood – you feel their passion for that subject. You know where they’re coming from. You know what to expect from him. Brantley from the Times, you know his biases too, but he’s not as sharp a critic I don’t think. And overall, bitchiness is different than passion. If you’re tearing something down and you can back it up, say exactly what you found at fault, then that’s good criticism to me.

If something is well written, it’s worth reading. Sometimes I’ll write positive reviews and people will like them, but I find that pretty often people, if I slash something to pieces that I hated, and I thoroughly stack it up, I’ll get emails from people saying “oh my goodness I loved that review”. So if it’s a fun read, that’s another reason why you can’t be the theatre community’s best friend. You’re writing for an audience. They want to read something interesting that gives them a different or deeper understanding of what they’re going to see, or what the play is all about.

When you’re a critic, your credibility is all you have. If you start telling people to see things that are mediocre and you don’t make it clear in your review that you find it mediocre then people will not read you any more. There are critics I don’t read anymore because they totally lost me for that reason.

TOM: Do you read Teachout?

WENDY: It’s funny — we’ve been corresponding a bit. He has been saying that he’s been wanting to come to Philadelphia and see theatre.

MARTHA: Does he contact you because of the kind of theatre that you review?

WENDY: He is a blogger for ArtsJournal also. So I guess he reads my blog and I read his blog and so he contacted me through the blog.

TOM: He loves blogging. He’s my hero by the way. I love Terry Teachout.

MARTHA: So you are hitting on so many different dimensions and outlets. Getting your stuff out there. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and the Inquirer web site. Where do you think arts journalism is going?

WENDY: I think at this point you have to have a real entrepreneurial spirit if you’re going to succeed as a critic. I love my job at the Inquirer. I cross my fingers and hope that it makes the transition to have criticism be exciting. I’d love to see more multi-media. I’ve talked with another critic about doing some of that kind of work. I think it’s really important to stay current with all the emerging technologies and social media. Because whatever way it shakes out, I want to be a part of it. I know critics who are starting their own blogs and web sites and have financing for that. Doug McLennan who runs ArtsJournal just had a big forum program, National Arts Journalism program, and awarded $10,000 to a new arts journalism model on line. There are people out there who are modeling the way. There is no doubt that it will be on line, and there is no doubt to me that it will involve multimedia in some way. I know a lot of critics who are stuck in print media and don’t want to expand much. Fine if you want to hang on there but I can’t do that. I love the job so much that I want to make sure that I have a future at it. I don’t have the time to run my own web site or to start my own business, but certainly I want to be involved in it, and I want to be prepared to be involved.

TOM: Do you have a vision?

WENDY: I think the niche web sites, Philadelphia theatre sites, will do very well. I hope newspaper web sites catch up. They really should be in the vanguard. They’re not now but hopefully they will be. But if not these niche web sites then the future might be that newspapers develop hyper-local niche web sites within their own web site.

MARTHA: Did you say hyper-local?

WENDY: Yes, this is the buzz word. Which is why I feel so lucky to be a theatre critic rather than a film critic. With theatre, this is your community, you can have a direct hand in shaping it, in championing it.

TOM: That’s a paradigm for other specific news outlets like Politico. With the demise of all these pages, a newspaper has to choose what’s more important for their media readers. Is it Washington news that they’re getting from multiple news sources (web, tv, national newspaper, other local newspapers, or AP), or is it City Hall.

WENDY: There is a web site now that just does development news, and they try to cover development that’s not being covered in the paper. They pay their writers and they are constantly seeking out development stories. A non profit model might work.

TOM: So back to Philly’s place in the national scene.

WENDY: We are totally there. Whenever I talk to people in other areas of the country, they want to hear about Philly and they want to see things in Philly and they’ve heard the buzz about Philly. What would help would be a number of plays that go national. I think the word is absolutely out. It’s a great theatre city. I feel so lucky to be here right now.

 

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