Gail Burns Part Two
Publishing GailSez Since 1997
By: Gail Burns and Charles Giuliano - Jan 08, 2012
Charles Giuliano Your notion of GailSez as “one stop shopping” for those with an interest in the theatre of this region is certainly accurate. During high season I am often interested to see what other critics have to say about the shows we cover. From your site we conveniently have that easy access.
Writing criticism is itself a craft. We work on our own skills and study those of others. If you follow this with any focus you come to know and appreciate the style and point of view of other writers. We all bring something different to the process. There are peers whom I respect and learn from. They help me to find aspects of a play that I may not have understood or appreciated. You and Larry (Murray, Berkshire on Stage)) have a taste for farce and comedy that I don’t. Larry and I do not share the same interest in classic theatre. Peter Bergman (The Advocate and Berkshire Bright Focus) mostly focuses on the actors and their performances. I often like to put the drama into a larger historical context.
With your writing, frankly, often I don’t know what to think. GailSez indeed. The review may be as much about your Aunt Tillie or childhood memories as the play itself. We have discussed this in the past. Again I ask just what is your focus? What is it about a production that strikes you as important to convey to the reader? Anyone who follows your work knows that it is not about consumer advice. Although from time to time theatres pull out quotes from your reviews for their print ads.
A strength and weakness of self publishing on line is that we have no editors to report to. This can allow for freedom of expression but also may lead to a lack of editorial focus and oversight. We can all use a good editor. I am grateful to those who helped me to tighten up the prose over the years. As self employed writers we don’t have anyone to look over our shoulder. So who do you look to in terms of peer review? You do not have a comments function on your site so how do you receive and filter through feedback?
It was disturbing when Nicholas Martin, then artistic director of Willamstown Theatre Festival, revoked your press seats two seasons ago. That decision was not reviewed last season under Jenny Gersten. What was it about your coverage that they objected to? Did that in any way change your approach to reviews? Because of your very strong voice and deep roots with audiences that buy tickets several of your peers, including myself, feel that the move has hurt WTF more than you. It also served as a warning, particularly to non print reviewers, that we are all vulnerable.
Our first obligation is to the reader. Often they decide on seeing plays based on our reviews. If we are not fair, objective, and honest the reader catches on very quickly. Particularly if, on our advice, they have paid good money for a bad play. I feel that an important aspect of the success of a critic is creating trust with the reader. If we are constantly concerned about what the theatre might think then the game is over. I know you feel strongly about keeping your distance and avoiding conflict of interest. But, frankly, I enjoy snacks in the lobby after an opening. It takes more than a free cookie to buy a good review. But if I really don’t like the show we don’t hang around.
Gail Burns I put a lot of thought into naming my site back in 1997 - when there was no such thing as a "blog," by the way. Today I am annoyed that the name leads people to believe it is a blog, but I am also glad that I didn't go with a more specific name because the site has grown and changed and having a fairly nebulous name has allowed it to do so.
Remember that I was anxious to ensure that a wider variety of voices and opinions were heard, and so to me the name GailSez defined the site as the place you could find my opinion, but also made it clear that my reviews are ONLY my opinion. Really what GailSez is "Go to the theatre. Read about the theatre. Write about the theatre. Talk about the theatre. Love the theatre. Support the theatre. Act, dance, sing, write, direct, design, laugh, cry, applaud, sell refreshments in the lobby, make donations - make the theatre a part of your life." My reviews are a very small percentage of the total material on the site.
My reviews are very personal. All reviews are. When I write I am always writing as a white, middle-aged, straight, Protestant female, married with children. That's who I am. I sit in seat G5, you sit in seat C12. We literally see the stage from different perspectives. You and Larry and Peter and I all like to share previous experiences we've had with various shows - which I love.
You and I like to add a lot of historical details - I enjoy doing a lot of research, reading biographies and source material. For instance Barrington Stage will open their season with "Fiddler on the Roof" and I already have Solom Aleichem's "Tevye and his Daughters" on my reading pile. I will probably invite a friend who is a practicing Jew to go with me to the show. The information I gather will inform what I ultimately write. But if I am inspired to write about my dachshunds too, then I will! I don't pretend that my opinion is anything other than my opinion. If you don't like the way I write there are plenty of other critics out there for you to read, and you can link to them from GailSez.
That being said, I do work very hard on what I write and frequently go through two or three drafts before I post. I hack out a lot of the personal crap during that process (in other words, it could be worse, Charles!!) If I made any money out of GailSez I would love to pay a copy editor too. Even though I do several passes trying to catch spelling and grammatical errors and those annoying Department of Redundancy Department glitches, I always find dumb mistakes when I look back at a review. Bleah!
But I wouldn't want an editor who told me how to write. GailSez is a labor of love and writing about the theatre is literally a calling for me, a biological urge. I do a LOT of writing that isn't personal to me. These reviews are my babies. This is what GailSez is all about.
I read lots of other critics' work and always have. Back in high school I read all of George Bernard Shaw's theatre criticism and I used to rush to the school library to read John Simon in New York Magazine every week. I loved how nasty he was! I have read Robert Benchley, Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr, Frank Rich, Mel Gussow, Alec Woollcott, Ben Brantley, etc. These days I don't have time to read the NYC reviews with any regularity but I do get The New Yorker and read John Lahr and Hilton Als religiously. I read everything that I link to on GailSez, and that's a LOT of local opinion and information.
Among my colleagues here I really admire Jeffrey Borak's writing the most. I think he is an excellent critic - very fair and very knowledgeable. I also love how Chris Rohmann writes his StageStruck column for The Valley Advocate. I have recently had a chance to get to know Chris, which has been a pleasure.
I don't have a comments feature on GailSez because they really are a lot of work to manage properly. There is an e-mail link right at the top of the front page, so I am hardly hiding from my readers or discouraging their input. I do hear from a variety of people and I reply to all except the most ill-mannered. Lots of times people tell me they are only writing to me because they know I won't make their comments public, so I am probably hearing from a very different constituency from those who like to see their comments on the Web. The vast majority of my e-mail from readers is constructive and thoughtful and very little is rude and angry. I am always grateful when people write to correct an error or to add some interesting information. I always correct any mistakes that are pointed out to me ASAP. My motto is : "I am happy to correct my stupid mistakes, but my stupid opinions I will defend to the death."
When I sit down to write a review my focus is always to try to give the reader a sense of what I experienced in that place and at that time. What did I see and what did I hear and how did it make me feel - those feelings often involve memories. I always have a copy of the script beside me, unless the play is unpublished. You will notice that I often open my reviews with a quotation and generally that quote is NOT from the play itself. I keep a Commonplace Book, and have since college, and as I do research on each play I start a file of quotes and comments that intrigue me. In other words I will start my "Fiddler on the Roof BSC 2012" document as I read "Tevye and his Daughters." I may or may not use that information in the final review, but I will keep it with the document I save on my hard drive so that I can find it and refer to it the next time I review "Fiddler..."
Obviously, there are readers who enjoy what I write and the way I write it - this past summer the front page was getting about 10,000 hits her day - and there are people who don't. But, as I said before, my reviews represent a very small percentage of what's on the site. In addition, the companies where I review represent a very small percentage of all the companies I list and post information from on the site.
I can guarantee the companies I cover that every single person who visits GailSez is a potential ticket-buyer/donor/volunteer/participant because the site is only about legit theatre in this specific geographic region. If you don't care about theatre here, you ain't gonna visit GailSez! I use tags a LOT in my posts - for instance for every press release I post I create tags for the presenting company and any names contained within the release. If your granddaughter played "Annie" in a local production and you do a search on her name you'll pull up the GailSez page with that press release and links back to the presenting company.
That brings us to another important focus for me in my work - creating a record of theatrical activity in this place and time. I believe that this is an extraordinary place and time for theatre, by the way. What is happening here is really special and deserves to be written about and remembered and preserved. GailSez functions as an online archive for the past 15 years.
I have no idea specifically why my press privileges were revoked by Nicholas Martin. I have never met Mr. Martin or had any direct communication with him. I have heard rumors that it was this sentence or that remark that I wrote, but the fact is that I don't know. I have been quite harshly critical of the WTF for years, so I am sure there are plenty of sentences and remarks I've written that they don't like.
Ultimately, all critics review at the discretion of the producers/directors. Companies are under no obligation to give free seats to anyone. The landscape of arts journalism is changing dramatically right now as the print media dwindles and the Web is still struggling to find a way to monetize content. As I realized back in 1997 anyone with HTML skills could launch a site, claim to be a critic, and request press seats and the companies obviously cannot afford to foot that bill. Right now I have longevity on my side. I've been an independent Web critic longer than just about anyone and I have worked very, very hard to earn the trust and respect of the companies where I review.
You can look at my "banishment" from the WTF in two ways: 1) They perceive me as a very small and unimportant fish in a big pond and considered me easily disposable; or 2) They perceive me as a big enough fish to be a real threat and they wanted to shut me up. Either way, Nicholas Martin knows my name, which I find hilarious.
Because I am one of only two theatre critics who actually live in Williamstown - Ralph Hammann is the other and I am not sure he is actively reviewing right now - and because I am well known and well liked around town, my banishment is yet more proof of how little the WTF cares about relations with the local community, a topic I and others have criticized them for repeatedly over the years. They literally don't give a damn about the town in which they stage their productions in July and August. They are a New York City theatre company who rents a stage here, they are not a regional theatre.