JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
JANE HORWITZ: I grew up in the Chicago area and my parents were theater lovers. As soon as I was about 12, they would take me along if they thought it was a play or musical I might like, and their comments afterwards were always knowledgeable and perceptive. I think the first musical I saw was the touring company of “My Fair Lady” when I was maybe 6 or 7. The first non-musical play I saw was “The Subject Was Roses” with two of the three original Broadway cast in the touring show, Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson. I was about 12, I think. I know the play is not beloved by critics, but as a kid I was bowled over by the dramatic interaction on the stage. Having only seen musicals until then, I didn’t know such intensity was possible. Funny story: When I was also about 12, my parents took me to a touring production of “The Threepenny Opera,” having more or less forgotten what it was about. I was studying the playbill as we sat down and loudly asked my mother, “What’s a prostitute?” Her eupemistic and evasive answer was a riot.
JL: How long have you lived and worked as a theatre critic in D.C.? What brought you here? Why have you stayed?
JH: I moved here with my then-husband in 1985. We had met in Dallas, TX, where we both had our first jobs after grad school. I worked in television news at the ABC affiliate in Dallas and had been their film/theater critic and arts reporter for several years after sort-of apprenticing and earning my sea legs as a general assignment reporter straight out of journalism school. When we got engaged, we decided to leave Texas. We first landed in the Hartford, CT area, but after two years we decided to try somewhere else that suited both our careers better. And that’s when we came here. I got a busy freelance gig with WTTG/Ch. 5 as their film and theater critic, when the station was still owned by MetroMedia, not Fox. When Fox took over and the new news director cut out all freelancers, I lost that gig and had to scramble. I was invited to join the critics roundtable show “Around Town” on WETA/Ch. 26 (local PBS station) and have been with them ever since, in various iterations, from the half-hour show to the short “interstitial” segments we do now.
I also did some freelance feature writing and reviews in print – my first foray away from broadcasting. Eventually, The Washington Post chose me on a freelance basis to write “The Family Filmgoer” column, which began in the Style section, then moved to Weekend, and has been in syndication since 1994. In 1997, The Post’s then-Arts Editor John Pancake hired me to write (also as a freelance) the “Backstage” column, which included features and interviews with mostly local theater artists. I wrote that for 14 years. Now I am one of the freelance theater critics for The Post and occasionally also for Washingtonian magazine online. I stay because I very much like the whole DC area (apart from the traffic, of course) for its ever-growing cultural landscape and its physical landscape. I have a small but great circle of friends and colleagues and have now lived here longer than I lived in my home town of Chicago. And, I have watched the theater scene here grow from a scant few truly professional companies to a mind-blowing smorgasbord of theater – big, little, traditional, experimental, and everything in-between. So cool.
JL: How do you define the work you do? Specifically, what is the role of the theatre critic in the world of theatre? What contribution do you hope to make in the D.C. Theatre community and the American Theatre?
JH: I don’t call myself a critic very often, because to me, “critic” implies a certain scholarly background in the art one is covering that I don’t think I have. I’m just someone who has gone to the theater regularly since I was 12, and I try to bring to my reviews a sense for the reader of “being there” watching the show, and then, a kind of assessment of the show. I try to tell the reader whether I simply enjoyed what I watched and whether I think they will, and THEN, I try to assess the work on a sort of continuum. Where does it fit in the lexicon of theater across the ages? Is it derivative and unimaginative? Is it fresh and thoughtful? That sort of thing. I try not to engage in the John Simon “…and he/she’s ugly, too” kind of reviewing. I also hope, that in the years I wrote “Backstage” my coverage of the burgeoning small theater companies helped get them on the map. I didn’t cover them all. Sometimes it was just a question of time and space. Sometimes it was a question of whether they were professional enough not to be considered community or student theater, which we didn’t cover for the same time and space reasons. One had to draw the line somewhere.
JL: If your work as a theatre critic doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? How do you balance this work with your play viewing and criticism?
JH: This has been a nagging problem ever since I went freelance and I have never really solved it. When I had my three regular gigs – “Backstage,” “The Family Filmgoer” and “Around Town,” I made an OK living. When that ended – and I must admit, I had a good run with all three going strong – it became a struggle again. I have not, so far, done other work that is completely unrelated to arts journalism. That could may have to change. And my depressing advice to someone just getting started would be to try to get a full-time job WITH BENEFITS if at all possible, because decades of freelancing do not guarantee a comfortable retirement.
JL: What skills and traits do you feel a successful theatre critic should have when writing about theatre, especially when it comes to new plays?
JH: You have to either be able to repress any prejudices you have about new versus old styles of theater, or you have to admit them IN YOUR REVIEW. You have to have a long memory and you have to keep learning about new trends in theater. That can become a problem as you get older. Sometimes I have the sense that I’ve seen everything before. But you MUST remember that your readers, especially the younger ones, haven’t! You have to keep your perspective fresh. You need to bring in topical references to help people anchor themselves or to help them picture what you’re writing about. You must be honest about your emotional response to a play, for they are the most important. Trying to sound too erudite or pedantic – a failing of mine, I often think – in a daily paper (and not in The New Yorker, for example) puts readers and editors off. Still, it is also a reviewer’s job to take a play on its own terms and decide whether it succeeds, and where the piece belongs in the whole world of theater, whether it is major, minor, or a trifle.
JL: What is your writing and viewing process? Do you read the script prior to seeing a production? Do you research the author and/or world of the play? Do you read the program notes?
JH: I always read the program notes, and check up on the background of the playwright, but I only read the script if I’m about to interview the writer. I often did that for “Backstage,” but if I’m reviewing, I just let the play hit me cold and see what happens. I might ask for a copy of the script afterwards for reference as I write my review. Sometimes I’ll quote a couple of lines from the play, for example.
JL: In the article, “Ohio Critic's Tough Words Elicit Rough Reaction,” Denver Post Theater Critic John Moore states: “There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.” What guidelines, rules or standards do you have for your own work? Have you always upheld them? If so, at what cost? If not, what shifted the line for you?
JH: I agree with all of that, and referred to some of the same things in earlier answers – none of that “he/she’s ugly, too” kind of writing. I try to be honest about my emotional responses to work, and I try to highlight good acting and note poor work without being cruel. I feel like I bend over backwards in this regard, and yet I am often amazed how artistic directors and others can read a truly mixed review and see only the bad. I guess they’re just too close to the work. If I have learned anything, it is to avoid cleverness just for the sake of it, and to recognize the amount of work that goes into productions, even ones that don’t work. That does NOT mean, however, that I or any critic should say something is good when it isn’t. As a reviewer, you are also something of a consumer reporter, telling people when and where to spend their hard-earned money. And besides, telling people they did good work when they didn’t, just to be a booster, does no one any favors. It’s akin to these helicopter parents of today telling their little ones “good job!” every time they do something ordinary. They’ll get out into the world and wonder where all the praise went.
JL: What is the greatest part of being a theatre critic? What has been your most difficult challenge?
JH: The greatest part is getting to go to the theater all the time! That is my synagogue/church/mosque/temple, where, when things are working, one can safely navigate the human soul, sometimes in ways that also feed the eyes and ears with beauty and music and poetry. Sounds corny, but that’s the truth.
JL: Who are your favorite playwrights? What is it about their work that inspires or draws you to them?
JH: Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, Chekhov, Sarah Ruhl, Lanford Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, plus usual suspects Shakespeare, O’Neill, T. Williams. Also Pinter, despite the cold-fish aspect. In musicals Sondheim and his various collaborators, and always Rodgers&Hammerstein, Lerner&Lowe.
JL: DC artistic directors …
JH: Won’t list “favorites,” but it is a certainty that DC area theater would not have grown into the ever-expanding scene it is today without the likes of pioneers Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth) and Joy Zinoman (Studio) and Jerry Whiddon (Round House) and Jim Petosa (Olney) and, among smaller theaters, Chris Henley (WSC Avant Bard), Carolyn Griffin (MetroStage), Kasi Campbell (Rep Stage) taking chances – note, all of these but Shalwitz and Griffin are “emeritus” now – and raising the bar in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. Everyone here today stands on their shoulders. More recently, Molly Smith, has transformed Arena Stage, both physically and, sometimes more controversially, in its programming. Anyone I left out, please ascribe it to forgetfulness.
JL: DC actors, designers and directors are ..
JH: I always look forward to seeing Rick Foucheux, Holly Twyford, Nancy Robinette, Brian Hemingsen, Jennifer Mendenhall, Craig Wallace, Will Gartshore, Michael Russotto, among many others, whom I feel I kind of watched grow up as artists. Among the younger generation, Erin Weaver, Danny Gavigan, Erika Rose, Patrick Bussink, Felicia Curry, and on and on. The fact that there are too many to mention (or for me to be able to remember offhand) is a great thing.
Among directors, I love John Vreeke’s work with actors. Others whose work I always approach with eagerness include Jeremy Skidmore, Michael Dove, Kasi Campbell, Joy Zinoman, Howard Shalwitz, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili…
We have a strong roster of scenic, sound and lighting designers in this area, from Giorgos Tsappas, whose “brutalist” abstract designs with metal are always arresting, to the comic-infused designs of Natsu Onoda Power, to A.J. Guban’s whimsical work for Constellation’s myth-based shows, to veterans such as Tony Cisek, Russell Metheny, and Daniel Wagner (lighting), Dan Covey (lighting) and many others. I just recently reviewed a 3-play rep by Pinky Swear Productions at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and noticed that on a shoestring, lighting designer Chris Holland expertly expanded on the shifting moods of the plays. The work of costume designers such as Helen Huang and Debra Kim Sevigny is always a treat to see. The late William Pucilowsky ingeniously clothed Washington Stage Guild casts in elegant Victorian and Edwardian garb for their Shaw and Molnar shows, though his budget was small.
And I must not forget Tom Teasley, the composer/percussionist and world music maven whose live work at Constellation shows has added so much.
I am sure I have left many people out.
JL: DC playwrights are …
JH: Often intriguing in their work, but still need to stretch and get productions that earn broader attention. I just saw two 1-acts – the previously referenced ones at Pinky Swear, that with some polish could have life beyond DC. Some of the wonderful “devised” and/or site-specific work by dogandpony dc and Taffety Punk pushes boundaries that other cities should note, but these are group efforts more than the voices of individual playwrights.
JL: DC audiences are ...
JH: Pretty smart, I think, and good – but not great – about remembering to silence their cellphones. I still have internal fits about the coughing thing, that when one person starts, you get all this “sympathy” coughing around the auditorium. It’s worst at The Shakespeare Theatre and the Ken Cen, for some reason, and it almost ALWAYS happens during the quietest moments in a show. Audiences at the smaller, more experimental theaters are very quick on the uptake.
The worst audiences, it seems to me, are season ticket holders who go because they kind of have to, then don’t like the play and start grumbling in stage whispers. Then there are the sound-enhancing headphones that whistle and squeak. Ah, well.
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your work?
JH: Arena Stage under Zelda Fichandler and then Doug Wager, and The Shakespeare under Michael Kahn were national pioneers in the area of “non-traditional casting.” Diverse casting, especially in classical plays, is a given here nowadays. Less so in contemporary plays where “realism” might mean casting all-white actors in a play about a white family, or all-black actors in a play about African-American family. Or, for example, how could you “non-traditionally cast” David Mamet’s “Race” without changing the whole play and its (rather bizarre) meaning? I don’t know the answer to that. The biggest tragedy is the failure of DC theater to keep a well-funded, nationally recognized African-American regional theater up and running.
As for impacting my work, I have had to learn along with the American public to approach questions of race and gender with broader knowledge and sensitivity, and learned through mistakes, too.
As a reviewer/journalist, I can’t really assess whether my gender in particular has affected my employment. I have always managed to work, though unevenly compensated, as a freelancer. And my early days as a critic were actively encouraged by a male news director who thought he saw a gift and pushed me toward it.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based theatre critic who has just moved to the area?
JH: Find a day job you don’t hate, so you won’t starve and you can start getting vested in some sort of a pension and other benefits. I’m not kidding! You wait too long, you’ll be sorrrrry! And there are precious few full-time jobs as theater critics left in this country. I bet we can count them on just a few hands and feet.
Then…whether you’re a veteran critic simply coming to a new city, or a newbie just starting out ‘cause you “just love theater,” or (like me) thought you could act and then realized you couldn’t, start going to theater all the time and everywhere. Find out who’s doing the newest stuff of quality and see it. Find out who isn’t, and give them a miss for a while, hoping they’ll improve. Find out who the veterans are who can give you a sense of theater history in DC -- it’s quite an interesting history. If you’re really new to the game, try to audit theater history courses at area universities. Some of them (perhaps all of them) are taught by local theater artists. Hang around for talk-backs when the playwrights, directors and actors take part.
If you can’t afford tickets and can’t get on press lists right away, volunteer as ushers, though that’s a pretty crowded pool, I think.
Don’t assume that the big theaters are doing all the good work, and conversely, don’t assume that the big theaters are never interesting. Neither is true. There’s interesting work going on at Arena, the Shakespeare Theatre Co, Woolly Mammoth, Studio, but also at Rep Stage, MetroStage, Forum, No Rules, Synetic and many others.
Don’t be too forgiving of small, cash-strapped companies in terms of production values. That’s part of their creative job, making a show look like something on a dime. There’s no excuse not to and it’s part of what helps small companies get to the next level. As an example, I’d refer you to Forum’s staging at Round House Silver Spring of “bobrauschenbergamerica,” in which Natsu Onoda Power replicated Rauschenberg’s iconic works in theatrical materials like papier-mache. I’ve seen whole ornate sets at Signature in that company’s early days made from styrofoam sprayed with paint.
My rant now has ended.
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I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!