Theatre Critic Peter Bergman Part Three
Covering the Berkshires and Beyond
By: Peter Bergman and Charles Giuliano - Feb 17, 2012
Charles Giuliano While the Berkshires are notable for four major theatre companies: Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, you cover a number of other companies.
During high season I am always amazed at how many performances you manage in any given week; particularly since you have a day gig. That’s a remarkable and exhausting commitment.
The companies have attempted to extend the shoulder seasons with activity concentrated from June through October including a few seasonal and winter productions. WTF, which rents from Williams College, has a limited and well defined season.
Along with Jeffrey Borak of the Berkshire Eagle, and Gail Burns of Gail Sez, you cover theatre year round.
Can you discuss the ground rules for your schedule? Is there a geographic limitation? For example, the drive time or distance to and from your home? Within that radius are there other criteria? Is there a difference, for example, between companies that you cover in depth and those you review now and then?
Are there assumptions about the theatres you cover beyond the four major ones? When you visit a company numerous times there must be a notion of what to anticipate. It is natural to assume covering companies that consistently provide strong productions and avoiding those that do not. Would you care to identify companies that audiences should know about and pay more attention to?
How often do you visit New York to see theatre? It does not appear that you review New York shows. Can you discuss that? Of course, as you have stated you started as a New York critic seeing some 20 plus shows that first year when you were just 14. Is it mostly a matter of logistics entailing a full time job and other commitments? As well as the expense of visiting and staying over in the city?
Peter Bergman Sadly, Charles, your last thoughts are all too true. Going to New York City is an expensive enterprise and an exhausting one. It never used to bother me, seeing a show, getting out at eleven, finding my car and driving the three and a half hours home, getting to bed about 3 in the morning and getting to my computer about six thirty to write a review. Nowadays, I admit, that's more of a strain and a pain than it is anything else. During those busy summer months I review theaters in Columbia County, New York, and even the top end of Duchess County, theaters in Berkshire County and close border towns like Chester if I can get them into my schedule, and three theaters in Vermont: Oldcastle in Bennington, the Dorset Playhouse and the theater in Weston. I've been approached about doing some Connecticut venues as well and in many cases I would do them if I could get them placed into my schedule. I like to keep the travel time to no more than two hours each way, four hours of travel for a two hour play.
Partly that's due to my daytime schedule. I run a museum and we're open six days a week - Thursday through Tuesday, closed on Wednesday - and I sometimes cannot get away from Austerlitz, NY in time to make an opening. For example some of the critic’s nights at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield have 5PM start times and I am not closed yet, so I have to schedule a later performance. That wreaks havoc with the theaters who regularly open a show every two weeks on the same day, but I've been able to schedule and reschedule as needed so far. I haven't missed much, as you noted.
Most weeks in July and August I see between 5 and 6 shows a week and on rare occasions I see and review 7 shows. In those two months in addition to reviewing nightly and running Steepletop in the daytime, I teach on Monday nights and Wednesday mornings for Berkshire Community College's Road Scholars programs. They get the benefit of my knowledge and background in theater as I prepare them for whichever show they will be seeing on Tuesday night as part of their program here. Then on Wednesday mornings we review the show together. I have already seen the show and published my review, but they haven't seen it and in my preps I try not to influence them with my opinions of the production they will see which is a very different approach for a critic to take. We often have rather spirited back-and-forth banter on those morning sessions. And, by the way, I love it when folks disagree with my opinions. They all get my review at the end of the session, so they know what I've gone on record with before the class ends.
What I bring to any play or musical, no matter the venue or the regularity of my attendance at those places, is an honest appraisal of what I see and hear. Hopefully I don't judge a group of total amateurs with the same value scale I use for a completely professional company stocked exclusively with Actors Equity members. What I do consistently look for, and I think I said this earlier, is what each member of the company brings to the stage, and that goes for designers, actors, directors, musicians, choreographers and anyone else credited with anything for the production. I want to see the best in them and from them always. When I don't, I say so. Sometimes I can find fault with something that is no one's fault. I criticized the awful wigs one actress wore in a production of "Pal Joey" - yes, a Rodgers and Hart show again - a few years back at the Ghent Playhouse. It turned out that those "wigs" were the actress's own hair. Big Oops. I apologized when I met her. I was harsh about panty lines seen in what should be a body-clinging gown that is so sexy the actor cannot control himself. That was a mistake made by the costume designer and the director. I called them on it.
Sometimes I find that an unschooled actor or actress whose work I recognized as totally amateur in a production a few seasons back has progressed with time and exposure to the point where a wonderful performance has emerged. I am thrilled to recall in writing the aspects of that person's journey on the stage. As critics we really shouldn't be deciding which companies to cover and which not. Our job is not political in the sense of pronouncing once and for all a single condemnation. We never really know what a company will be able to deliver in the future even if we know what they've given to their audiences in the past. We're neither God nor Government. We're opinion-staters.
I think it would be great if more people paid attention to the small companies in their towns and surrounding towns. Community theater can surprise you. And I mean that in many ways. If someone is doing a new play, something perhaps by a local writer, it's worth a look. You might learn something; you might learn, for example, not to bother with these folks again; you might find that there are people you know but never knew they had talents. I love going to local community theaters, most of them perform in the "off-season" or non-professional season and they not only fill the entertainment gap between October and June they often give a lot of pleasure. The Ghent Playhouse, for instance, always has something worth seeing in every production, although some shows are not very good and some are just an immense pleasure and treat. During those busy summer months I always enjoy seeing what the Theater Barn in New Lebanon has to offer and I've been disappointed a few times and said so in my reviews but, again, they've delivered incredible work in other presentations. I used to review a company in Troy, a professional and training company with mixed casts, that could present the most wonderful theater imaginable and a few months later, with a different show, leave me wondering "what were they thinking!!!"
That's part of the joy of this and part of the difficulty as well. You never know what to expect. Good actors can give poor performances in the wrong roles. Good shows can suffer the idiocy of a director's "vision." Mediocre plays can present as overwhelmingly humorous with the right people in the right roles. As a critic all I can do, and I would love it if this was universal, is tell my readers what I saw and what I heard and how it made me feel. . . yes, "feel". . . and then encourage those readers to make up their own minds. There have been three shows in my experience that I have hoped an audience reading my review would decide to avoid. In at least two cases audiences went anyway and either agreed or disagreed with me - sometimes violently. In one case, a Broadway play by Garson Kanin called "Come On Strong" I actually only reviewed the first two acts because I couldn't stand the piece and left before the third act. It starred Van Johnson and Carol Baker, had a beautiful production and was just about the worst play I had ever seen. It closed quickly. I was glad.
CG Thanks for sharing your insights with us about a career as a theatre critic. Is there something that has been left unsaid? Perhaps you have an overview of the current state of theatre as an art form? Or, having covered it for many years do you sense a shift in writing about theatre? Do you regard the expansion of ever more opinions through on line sites and social media as a positive development? In the sense that the audience now has a far greater range of information to guide them? Or has the exponential expansion of writing about theatre tended to dilute the status and influence of committed professionals such as yourself?
PB "The theater is dying, the theater is dying, the theater is totally dead," wrote Oscar Hammerstein II in a song for "Me and Juliet" back in the early 1950s. It's something we hear in one way or another all the time and it's never true. New shows, new plays and even - now - new television shows about new theatrical shows keep happening and without them we'd be left with only revivals of older pieces and that would last only so long before someone would get the idea that something new might be worth trying and it would all start up again. Frankly, that kind of fresh new approach might be just the shot in the arm that the theater needs, a wholesale restart. However it is highly unlikely that we'll ever see it. And we really don't need to because each new generation of playwrights and directors find new ways into presentation.
What never changes though is the combination of emotional and intellectual response. For the audience it is always the same thing: "touch me with something, make me respond, make me feel." For those who refuse to be touched there is the higher ground response of interpreting and reviewing on a purely educated overview. From either point of view if a play doesn't motivate its audience to react then there is something wrong with the play or its production. Sometimes, as a critic, I get angry at what I've seen. That's a legitimate response. I just saw the revival of "Wit" in New York with Cynthia Nixon and a cast and crew of folks who are known in this region for their work here, including Michael Countryman, Greg Keller, Irene Sofia Lucio and others. This is a play that is difficult to watch, about a woman with incurable cancer being administered an experimental drug that has, itself, killed others. We watch her deteriorate and die in a play she herself describes as unsatisfying. Nixon is so incredible in the role that emotionally it is hard to stay out of it. For her and her audience there is a synthesis that makes them almost as one. I didn't like the play when I first saw it back in 1995. I still don't like it, but this time I was deeply affected by it. I am older now and have experienced some of the things that the main character presents and that has altered my appreciation of the play. But certainly the actress's work and the director's vision and rhythms have also affected my sense of the piece.
As long as people keep going to the theater we will have theater. What we see will always be affected by the history of those presenting their seasons. What we may need to do, as an audience, is make our feeling known about what we're getting and what we'd like to be getting from our local theaters, professional or community. Involvement on every level is what theater has always required.
If someone sees one play a year then it is a matter of choice. If someone sees a dozen shows a year there is still choice but there is also a degree of compulsion. For me, and anyone like me, seeing shows is both a choice and a compulsion and even more than those it is a responsibility. If I ever find myself disliking more than liking what I see I might be compelled to stop going, but in all these years that has never happened. I still enjoy the experience and I love the work. I love seeing what people think, and that's what theater is really: getting into the minds of creative people and seeing what's been inside them. Having the opportunity to write about that part of the human experience is what gives me the late-night thrills. I'm not ready to give that up, not yet. Hopefully I never will.