Critics In Conversation: Howard Shapiro

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[article originally published at Philadelphia Dramatists Center site, November 5, 2009.]

Howard Shapiro.
Howard Shapiro.

About Howard Shapiro:
HOWARD SHAPIRO joined The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1970. He has been a general assignment reporter, has held the transportation, public education and State House beats, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1980-81. On his return to the city room, he established the demographic beat and covered the findings of the 1980 census. He has been an assistant national editor, assistant foreign editor, assistant city editor in charge of beats and deputy New Jersey editor. In 1988, he became the editor of the newspaper’s Weekend section, and after that, the newspaper’s cultural arts editor. He went on to become the travel editor, then wrote for seven sections including Travel, Food, Arts, Entertainment and Weekend. Howard began writing theater criticism eight years ago and now focuses largely on criticism and general pieces about the theater. Howie comments on Broadway on The Classical Network, NPR affiliates mostly in New Jersey, and teaches arts criticism and travel writing at Temple University. In 2006, Howie was a fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater for theater critics at the University of Southern California.

Interview with Howard Shapiro
5 November 2009

CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Howard Shapiro, Theater Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer
Martha Wade Steketee, Resident Dramaturg, Philadelphia Dramatists Center
Tom Tirney, Board Chair, Philadelphia Dramatists Center

SETTING:
Tom and Martha meet Howard in the lobby of the Inquirer Building at 400 North Broad Street. It is late afternoon. Howard takes the group on a quick tour– up elevators, past a warren of offices, and then a walk-way that features an impressive view of the main newsroom; think All The President’s Men. Finally, the trio claim a cavernous conference room and talk.

TOM: I’m going to let Martha start. She’s got a um…an agenda.

MARTHA: The idea of this project is to do something that’s happening in a number of other cities. Conversations with local critics and building a sense across the critics–some common themes. Backgrounds, what they love about it the job, reflections on the current Philly scene. Now, you’ve been here…

HOWARD: This is my 40th year.

MARTHA: What were you doing before?

HOWARD: I was a college student before this. I was hired here the day after my last final in 1970.

TOM: That doesn’t happen anymore.

HOWARD: Somebody had quit and they had a slot open. I was hired as a general assignment reporter on the City Desk which meant you covered anything that popped up. For instance, if you had a passport and something came up out of the country, you might be going there that day. If there was a fire down the street, you might be going there that day. It was very exciting.

MARTHA: Philly boy born and bred?

HOWARD: I’m a hick. I’m from Altoona, Pennsylvania, where they had one community theater and that was it. I grew up watching theater there. My parents took me there all the time.

TOM: Was that in the coal mines?

HOWARD: Altoona is not a coal town. It’s a railroad town. But there are coal mine towns around and other little towns, like Altoona, with great old theaters in Pennsylvania. I’ve been thinking of doing something on this but I don’t have time. The state has a rich heritage of theaters, many of them in Nowheresville – towns much smaller than my home town.

MARTHA: I would love to talk about that. You’ve got to pursue that. A work on…history of theaters in Nowheresville.

TOM: Related to that, the new NEA director [Rocco Landesman] is talking about releasing funds for institutions as part of urban revitalization.

HOWARD: That’s something that theater artists are of two minds about. In a place like Camden, New Jersey, it’s happening without any NEA funding. There are people who see it as economic development and not necessarily as art. And there are artists who don’t look at it as economic development. And then you have people saying let’s tax theater tickets in Pennsylvania which happened two months ago…

MARTHA: Well, the threat of that.

HOWARD: And our community says ‘Where did they come up with that?’ It’s obvious where they came up with that. These are people who think of theaters as economic engines in a community. Why didn’t they think of sports instead? And Landesman has been on both sides of this thing. That would be a good question to ask him.

MARTHA: We could interview him.

HOWARD: Frankly, I don’t see why you can’t see it as both at the same time. There are so many examples in this region: Bristol Riverside, Media Theater for the Performing Arts. The new theater in Camden that’s coming up, the South Camden Theater. Clearly, in Media and Bristol both of those projects have done a great job for those districts. They’re hoping that the Devon which is now bargaining an equity contract in the Mayfair neighborhood of the city and where there is really no live theater—they’re hoping that will do that too. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after this interview, the Devon Theatre canceled the remainder of its producing season, citing a for lack of funds.]

TOM: It is hard to think of theater as an economic engine outside of Manhattan. The for-profit paradigm seems to only work in New York where it’s fiercely economic, but outside of New York, it’s hard to see that model holding up anywhere.

HOWARD: Well, I don’t think it’s the same theater. As someone who covers Broadway, I am sometimes confused about what I’m doing until I realize that here in the regional theater you have theaters that have a mission. On Broadway you have theater with one mission. It’s not the same. They need to make money to make the theater work there. We’re talking in Philly of theater which has become a minor industry but with a whole lot of gift-giving and support. It’s an artistic enterprise. And it has become so large and vibrant that one of these days soon it will get its 1000th equity member.

MARTHA: Wow! How many Equity houses are there?

HOWARD: There are 20 with standard Equity contracts on varying levels in the wide region. And there are 20 more with their own seasons and special appearance or guest artists letters of agreement with Equity That’s a lot for us to cover.

MARTHA: Absolutely. I came from Chicago.

HOWARD: Chicago is at least double in size.

MARTHA: They have this special non Equity arrangement in Chicago so that there are Non Equity houses that…um…

HOWARD: Is this the ninety-nine seat arrangement?

MARTHA: I think it’s part of it. The specifics escape me but the number of houses that were under Equity arrangements and those Non Equity houses with special permissions were just huge.

HOWARD: Chicago has that…ever since regional theater really developed and the Ford Foundation came in …. Chicago has been especially on the ground floor of that. Equity has some specialty agreements that have not been needed in Philadelphia. One that I learned about was the L.A. theater agreement. If you have a 99 seat house, you can hire Equity members without a standard contract.

MARTHA: It’s a version of that.

HOWARD: L.A. is a special city because there are so many out of work actors between gigs. I’ve never found Equity to be a union that wants to be responsible for things not progressing. And so it makes sense for them to have that agreement in L.A.

TOM: I don’t think we’ve needed it in Philly.

HOWARD: In Philly you might say we’re lucky. We don’t have those kinds of houses because we don’t need them. We have theater companies that grow into Equity contracts and from time to time, into LORTs [League of Resident Theaters]. We have five or six. You know, I was shocked to find this out but the Walnut Theater is so big it’s a special level of LORT.

MARTHA: I have a question related to this. The activity, the growth or your reflections on the role that Philadelphia plays in the national theater and it’s kind of burgeoning…

HOWARD: I don’t feel completely comfortable answering that because I don’t know enough about…I know a little about Houston and Chicago .…

MARTHA: That’s OK … let’s talk about Philadelphia.

HOWARD: I think that any theater community that wants to be on the national playing field has to develop new work. Which is I guess where the PDC comes in. You just can’t be doing another old chestnut for the 16th time. According to the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance one in ever four plays in the region this season are new work, which is really an achievement.

A theater company is measured in the eyes of other artists in the nation, not necessarily audiences. Audiences don’t give a damn about what’s going on in other cities.

The second thing–and you see this now in Chicago—is that it’s really important that a town be able to support the craft: it allows you to buy a home, raise a family, put your kids through school, have cars…live a normal life! However, the city’s artists have to be known on a level outside their city. I’m not sure that’s happening here. I get a lot e-mail from people who are fans of certain actors and they say, “Isn’t it great that I can always see this person here in Philadelphia?” And I think it is. But it would be even better if we could see this person elsewhere too. If we can’t, there is an insularity that may be good for the city but not necessarily good for us on a national scale.

MARTHA: It’s fascinating to ask that question to a range of critics; young critics and folks who have been doing that a while…

HOWARD: To tell you the truth, as much as Toby [Zinman] and Wendy [Rosenfield] and I work together, we don’t get a chance to sit down and talk about stuff. We’re all at theaters on given nights. And when we’re all at the same one, it’s such a big occasion for us that we don’t talk about theater. Critics don’t talk about theater in the theater anyway, it’s dangerous.

MARTHA: Let’s talk about this. Practically, how do you share assignments at the Inquirer? Toby suggested that you and she take a crack at some of the key ones and then you bring in Wendy to make sure everything is covered.

HOWARD: Wendy was hired a couple of years ago when there was just too much theater for us to cover. That was ‘06. They’re freelancers and I’m the only one who’s on the fulltime staff. And that too is a reflection of arts journalism in this age of deacline…or this age of media where the market is spread thin for newspapers. There used to be two theater critics full time. I can’t tell you the year. We have a special problem for critics: multiple openings on the same night. Unlike the Broadway League, which is very careful about monitoring opening night dates, there is really no way to do that in Philly.

MARTHA: You are going to cover something as an Inquirer critic you run it through the Broadway League?

HOWARD: No, not at all. What I mean is that the Broadway League is the old League of Broadway Producers. Among other things, they’re a clearing house for productions that are going to open–I have hardly ever seen two shows open on the same night on Broadway. But Broadway is a different animal.

MARTHA: Oh, they coordinate the openings.

HOWARD: They’re a clearing house for that. In Philly, when a company is doing four or five shows a year, there aren’t so many dates around– there are only so many nights in a year. One night in March 2009, on a Friday, we had six openings. Let’s face it, there are a finite number of theater backers. If you are supporting one theater and another one is opening that same night which you are also supporting, it seems like a tough decision to make. I’m not saying this as a matter of concern for critics – really, who cares about critics and their schedules? — but I’m always surprised at it from the standpoint of parties who must market themselves to sponsors and other supporters.

MARTHA: So how do you figure out coverage at the Inquirer?

HOWARD: We’ve had a shift here at the paper. We don’t cover Broadway anymore. That was my main assignment for a while. So Toby would put together the Philly schedule and I would concentrate on Broadway.

In March, we decided that with a shrunken staff we should be writing about stuff that can only be found in the Inquirer. And we ceded coverage that could be found in other places. So I’ll make the initial review list and call everybody up to find out the opening nights because nobody lists the opening nights, except at individual Web sites. And then we can see what the conflicts are.

MARTHA: So the Theater Alliance isn’t facilitating that? Will they have that in the promised new website? The re-design? Will they have that?

HOWARD: The Theater Alliance is great in many ways. I’m not sure why they should help us with finding out when opening nights are. But I’ve had P.R. people call me from theaters and say ‘Hey, are there two or four openings the night we are opening?’ So I’ve been the clearinghouse.

We assemble the list a month out. And I say what I’d like, Toby says what she’d like, and Wendy does, too. And that’s all the dream-world stuff. And then there is the reality stuff. What can we cover and which of us will be available on those opening nights, many of which are now on weekends? We probably do 8 or 9 versions of that schedule until it’s set in stone and it’s never really set in stone.

One more thing about how we do this. Toby also reviews for Variety. We have an agreement, if she’s writing something for Variety, another one of us will write it for the Inquirer otherwise she’ll have too big a voice. And if one of us already knows we really can’t stand a show — not the production of course, which we haven’t yet seen, but the actual play or musical – we try to have one of the others review it.

TOM: How do you approach your job, your role as a critic? And ancillary to that, when you write, who is your audience? Who do you think your audience is?

HOWARD: Who do I think of?

MARTHA: … the average theatre-goer.

TOM: Your audience is somewhat predicated on how you view your role.

HOWARD: That’s absolutely right. When I’m reviewing, I get paid to write opinion pieces and get paid with the understanding that I will be totally honest about what I feel. If I can be totally honest about how I feel without holding it back, then I’ve fulfilled my role.

These are opinion pieces and I’m trying to get you into the theater with me when you’re reading me. Whether you go to the theater or not, I want you in the theater beside me. The only way I can really do that is make you see the play and production through my eyes; not from the director’s or playwright’s eyes, not from the producer’s eyes, not from the dramaturg’s eyes, and not from the cast’s eyes. I come to this through travel writing. I learned really quickly that if I’m in Venice, I need to have you there with me, otherwise it doesn’t work. I transfer that right on to what I do to being a theater critic. That’s harder and harder to do in a shorter space but it’s doable. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between travel writing and theater criticism.

MARTHA: That makes absolute sense to me. You want to say to the critic: take me into the theater and put my butt in the seat.

HOWARD: That’s exactly the way to do it. There are some basic rules in this that I consider part of being a critic, for me, anyway. One is to review the show that is in front of you; not to review the show that you want to see in front of you. Two: respect the genre of what you’re seeing even if you hate it.

MARTHA: Farce for me. I am challenged by farce.

HOWARD: OK, you may be challenged by farce but if you’ve been around theater long enough you know when one is being done well. I got the best advice from Gene Roberts who was editor of this paper for 17 years and really a brilliant editor. He appointed me once to edit a section we have on Fridays called ‘Weekend,’ a tabloid that fits into the paper. He said, “You really like Philly and you understand Philly so edit this for your enjoyment.” What a piece of advice is that.

I write these reviews for me. I really think that all I am is an audience member with a big mouth. I’m not in the theater, I don’t study the theater, I’m not a theater academic. I’m not a theater artist, I don’t want to be one. I’m a journalist. And when I seem to know a lot about the theater, it’s only because, I’m a good reporter. I do my research and my homework.

TOM: Are you satisfied with the amount of feedback you get?

HOWARD: In talking to other critics around the country who say they don’t get much response, I understand that I get a lot of feedback. People in Philly take the theater really seriously. Sometimes people play games and they want to tell you you’re an idiot and they don’t say they’re related to the production, but Jeez, I know how to read a program!

But, most of the stuff I get is honestly written.

TOM: How do you deal with the negative letters and emails?

HOWARD: I got one the other day that said, ‘I’m afraid your review is going to hurt the theater.’ I thought ‘Man, if I walked into a theater thinking whether or not I was going to hurt that theater, I could never do this job.’ Most times when people write to tell me they disagreed, they write why they like or don’t like a show in opposition to what I wrote. I write back, ‘I’m really glad you got something out of a piece of theater that I couldn’t find.’

It’s also not for me to worry about an actor’s feelings. I’m not usually outright dismissive because there is no point in it. Anyway, I wish people in a production would not read the reviews until after the run because it’s not my job to be talking to them.

TOM: Have you discerned an evolution in the audience when you started out as opposed to now?

HOWARD: It’s really interesting to me that the huge audience that comes out for the Fringe doesn’t translate over the year. I think companies develop audiences and those audiences are somewhat attuned to the companies’ different missions. And so there is a splintering of audiences that way.
You don’t really see the same people who go to the Walnut going to the Wilma. And the Walnut is an entry audience. People who go to the Wilma regularly…maybe they once went only to the Walnut. But the Walnut perhaps is how they got interested in theater in a broader sense. I even see differences between the audiences of the Walnut third floor and the main stage.

TOM: There are so many different ways to approach this question—is it the nature of the production companies having changed? Were all production companies in say, the 1970s all non-profit like they are now? You just won’t find that many for profit companies anymore…that has got to do something to audiences.

HOWARD: In the 70s we still had the final stages of the New York tours happening in Philadelphia. I saw Chicago in ‘75 before it went to Broadway. And that was largely how people defined theater in Philly. There were two non-profits: the Drama Guild and Society Hill Playhouse.

Philly audiences are pretty smart. You do new work here and get away with things here. Even New York people tell me that. Everybody here, all of the major companies I can think of do new work. And it’s for three or four weeks. If people are willing and it’s selling well, it can go an extra week. People don’t mind new experiences in theater in Philly. I think that is really true.

TOM: What are you saying about that? Was it true 20 years ago? 30 years ago?

HOWARD: I don’t think it was true then. I think the Fringe and Live Arts has promoted that a lot. So maybe there isn’t a big all-year crossover between some of the younger people I see during the Fringe; that may be a money thing. Look at the Fringe…lots of weird stuff, cutting edge, some of it wonderful. Did you like the Fringe?

MARTHA: I loved it. Gonzales Cantata!

HOWARD: We didn’t get to see that. You [to TOM] wrote me during the Fringe that you didn’t get to see as much as you wanted because you were in production. I thought I would see and write about more but I got involved in reporting and writing stories about the Fringe—and so I didn’;t see some of the Fringe I wanted to see –because there was so much meat there.

TOM: I loved the Inquirer’s and City Paper’s coverage of Fringe. I hope the media coverage broadens next year to TV and radio. It was encouraging for the Inquirer to give Fringe so much space.

HOWARD: The Fringe is a real challenge. If you believe that an opening night is in fact a piece of breaking arts news—as we do at the Inquirer– and you’ve got 200 shows opening in 16 days, you have to decide just what is art news! That decision is about a four-and-half-hour meeting sitting with the Fringe book among Toby, Wendy and me ending up ‘This looks interesting’ and submitting the list to Becky Klock, our cultural arts editor, so that she can green-light all this coverage and make suggestions – and then going there. That’s how we got to your play, Tom.

TOM: And when was that?

HOWARD: We picked our coverage on August 5th.

TOM: How can you make those choices? That’s even before the previews.

HOWARD: The issue here is that you read the descriptions from the Fringe book (and some of those are from the dream world!) and you don’t really know what they are about!

TOM: I wonder what Live Arts and Fringe can do for you guys early on.

HOWARD: They actually meet with us in July, and that’s always a great start for the planning. And they can talk about only the Live Arts shows because they don’t know the Fringe shows in the same way.

TOM: That’s what I’m talking about. Do they have any way saying “These shows are interesting” other than looking at the summary that the playwright gives to them.

HOWARD: No, but they make sure to give us all the different Fringe press releases the presenters have written. Here is what led us to your show, to be honest. At the meeting with the Live Arts folks, which includes Nick Stuccio (head of Live Arts/Fringe) , someone asked, ‘Is there some theme that just developed this year?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, money. Look at all these shows about money at Live Arts.’

And then I decided that’s a story, possibly for the Sunday paper, and Becky, my editor, agreed. So I came back and started to write about it and looked at the Live Arts/Fringe schedule book for money themes in the Fringe guide. There were many – Nick was absolutely on target. I stumbled on your show, which was one of them, and we decided to review it just because the picture looked good.

TOM: It was a picture of a cartoon man hanging from a phone cord—like a hangman, you know– with the receiver to his ear in one hand and in the other hand was an open briefcase with papers spilling to the four winds.

HOWARD: Toby, Wendy and I met at a big deli downtown to hammer out what we might cover. And on the way to the meeting, my car of 10 years died. I took the train and left the Fringe guide all marked up in the car; all the things I thought we should cover. I said ‘Jeez, I don’t know what I marked in the Fringe because I left the damned book in the car.’ I was doing it by remembering the pictures. ‘Wait a minute, there is this show about money. Oh look!’

And it was yours.

MARTHA: Here’s how you did it: a dead car, a forgotten book, and pictures.

HOWARD: And an image in my head.

MARTHA: One question we’d like to get to is about writers that you like. And other critics that you like.

HOWARD: I really like Toby and Wendy, first off. They are great colleagues personally, and I think that together, we offer breadth about the nature of theater here. I love reading Terry Teachout from the Wall Street Journal. I think Terry Teachout really, really takes you there. I’m a fan of both Brantley and Isherwood. I’ve liked Brantley for a long time. Isherwood was also really good when he was writing for Variety. I like David Rooney, the theater editor and New York critic for Variety. I think Misha Berson in the Seattle Times is an excellent critic, and read her online. I’m sorry Michael Phillips is no longer writing theater because he was a wonderful, incisive theater critic. He’s with the Chicago Tribune, now as a film critic.

Moving on to writers who aren’t critics, I like Bill Bryson; he’s two kinds of writer. His travel writing is wonderful. But he is a great writer about the English Language. Check out his book Mother Tongue, whose every page has something fascinating. Here is a really shameful admission: if I could be anybody as a novelist, I’d be Dick Francis. Some people say he’s formulaic. And I respond, ‘Yeah, there’s a reason. Formulas work!’ I’ve never read a Dick Francis piece that I wished I hadn’t written myself. It’s clear, the characters are well developed, you want to be with them–even if they’re evil! And he has a command of language.

HOWARD: My best time spent on the job, reading scripts, are reading William Shakespeare. Because it’s such a complete joy to me to sit and be able to do my job with something that is so satisfying and energizing.

MARTHA: Do you read plays before you see them in the theater?

HOWARD: Now, if I’m seeing a classic, I read the play before I go. It’s a well-known work and I can’t afford to come in cold when people in the audience know it. I’ve probably seen Romeo and Juliet 18 times or so but believe me, if I was going to see it next week, I’d read it a 19th time before reviewing it. But if it’s a new play, I will refuse to read it unless I’m writing a story about it before it opens, in which case I probably will not be the one to review it.

I really think that new work should be reviewed like old work. Put it this way: Audiences don’t pay any less money for new work than they pay to go see anything Chekov wrote. So I why should I make allowances for new work? And I also believe that reading new work before you see it brings you into the audience unlike everyone sitting around you. And that’s a bad thing. I want to be surprised. My best nights in the theater are when the work is new and I forget even the name of the play when I walk in.

Why wouldn’t I want new work to be as exciting and as mysterious to me as the people sitting beside me? For me, “studying up” on a yet unfrozen script before seeing it on opening night takes all the drama out of the drama. We should respect a playwright’s right to surprise us and the playwright’s right to be fresh.

I don’t look at the programs before I see the show, any show. I never read the director’s or dramaturg’s notes until after I’ve submitted a review to Becky because I don’t want to be influenced nor do I want to make fun if I think they don’t reflect what actually happens onstage. I do all my research after the play in the few hours before submitting.

I actually said to you [to TOM], practically writing directly to you–although I hardly ever do this because I don’t write for theater people, I write for a general audience —you should write another play, as a way of saying, ‘This was really good.’ It wasn’t cued so well, but it was good. Maybe you’ll do another one.

There’s a big discussion about how critics ruin new theater, I hear from time to time. And the line goes that they ruin it by not giving a play a chance and not understanding that it’s still in development. Hell, a ticket that costs sixty bucks isn’t in development! And why should we treat a play as if it’s not yet ready for the stage when it’s being prsented on the stage? By the same token, I can’t really look at plays that are actually in development – I can’t go to a staged reading or anything like that because I don’t want to judge the finished product by what I’ve seen in development.

TOM: You need your professional detachment.

MARTHA: That’s very clear and that makes total sense.

HOWARD: That’s just the way I operate. I’m not saying that’s right for other critics. For me, I know myself. This is about making judgments and writing opinion. I know what gets in the way of my judgment and clouds it. And not being able to be surprised by something new would definitely get in the way of my judgment.

TOM: That’s a great one to end on.

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