Pillbox

An interview with the president of Drama Critics' Circle

On Thursday, I interviewed Adam Feldman, the chief theater critic and national theater editor at “Time Out New York.” We talked for about an hour on theater criticism, the future of Broadway, and the Tonys. You can follow him on Twitter @FeldmanAdam, on Instagram @adfeldman, and read his articles in Time Out. Here is an edited excerpt from our discussion.

Me: Thanks for having me. I’m writing this for a section in the school newspaper that’s more freeform so I’m trying to write about what it means to be a theater critic and your thoughts, like how theater is changing.
Adam Feldman (AF): That’s a pretty broad topic. I have a lot of thoughts about being a theater critic. As you know, I’ve been doing it for a while so those are sort of different from my thoughts about going back to it now or about the future of Broadway, or about the Tony Awards or any of that so, I mean, just ask away.

Me: So what’s your process for when you’re writing a review for a play?
AF: Usually, there’s a period of previews before the play opens. In olden times, the critic would go to the show on opening night and would file the review that night, and it would go into the next day’s paper. Now, there’s a period immediately before the show opens when the press is invited, usually within a few days of the official opening date, and then the press will hold back its opinion until opening night. I’ll book a date, and we usually get two seats. I like to see shows with a few days of leeway until I have to file the review, because sometimes it’s good to have space to reflect on what you’ve seen and let it sink-in to organize your response. Most of the reviews that we’ve run historically in Time Out are fairly short or getting longer now that we’re less print-bound. Now we’re not print-bound at all, but the brevity of the reviews was partly a function of the design of the magazine when it was a print magazine, and now we’re sort of figuring out exactly how that will work (but that’s in my case personally).

I try to track my response to things while the show happens. They usually provide us with the script so that I don’t have to take notes about the dialogue exactly, which can take you out of the experience. I try to be a good audience member — a responsive and open audience member. I don’t go in with a checklist of things to checkbox in that I’m looking for because every show works differently. They have different intentions, different strategies, and different aesthetics. There’s a first-level response which is I was involved in it, did it capture my imagination? And if so, why? And how? And if not, why? And how? We have a star system where most things kind of fall into the 3-4 range. We don’t give half stars, so it can be a decision because four looks like a big recommendation and three looks like a sort of middling review. A lot of it also involves finding interesting ways to write a review. You don’t want to just pedantically layout the same thing every time, you want the writing itself to be engaging, and you want readers to enjoy reading your review. You want to find any angles on it that might be of interest to a general reader or in my case probably a slightly more theatrically inclined reader. I think that my job is to write for a relatively informed audience that is interested in finding good examples of the kind of theater that New York can do. Next, I examine my response and try to form it into an engaging expression of my opinion, and I try to give it little tests for its reliability and fairness. No person in the world is capital O objective, but there are ways of sorting out your biases. You try to be fair to the show that you’re writing about and you also try to separate your own “small t” taste from something like a “capital T” taste. If I happen to like certain kinds of things more than others as a matter of personal taste, that’s a different thing from my critical evaluation of them. If I’m a restaurant critic, and I happen to love grilled cheeses, I’m not just gonna only write good reviews of grilled cheeses. Even if I don’t happen to like octopus, I should be able to recognize a good octopus when I taste one.

Me: Thank you, that’s a very good answer (laughs). Do you feel like, when you’re watching a play on your own time, you still find yourself getting this critical mindset?
AF: It’s more fun to just see a play when I’m not writing about it. I can relax and don’t have to think about it as rigorously as I would if I were criticizing it. But of course, I will have critical opinions. Maybe the fact that I see so much more than most people might guide the course of my response to things in certain ways — because I will have reference points that a lot of other people won’t have. I’ve seen hundreds of shows a year for more than 20 years. I think for a lot of people going to the theater is a special occasion; they will see one show, a big Broadway show, and it’ll be exciting. You know just that experience is very exciting by itself for someone who doesn’t do it very often, but for someone who does it very often that experience itself is not exciting anymore. The work that I can see within that context is often very exciting, and I try to stay as excitable about it as I can.

Me: Do you ever review a play that’s a revival of a play you already reviewed?
AF: Yes that’s happened. I’ve seen many different “Companies,” “Summer in the Park with Georges,” “Hamlets” ... There are shows that people do regularly and you find yourself analyzing the production more specifically than you would probably with a new play. If it’s a play that you’ve seen before, then you’re much more alert to the choices that are being made by the director and the actors. You just have a different set of reference points, so you try to separate as much as you can the work of the writer, the director, and the cast. And that can be difficult, especially in theater and especially for new works, because good actors can make an ordinary text seem great and bad actors can make a very good text seem mediocre. Also, the work of the director is a lot less obvious than it is in a movie. In a movie, the director’s work is central. Every moment, you have no choice but to see what the director is choosing to show. The director’s work in theater is a lot subtler: You as an audience member still have the choice to look wherever you want on the stage, so a director’s job is often to guide the audience to look where they are meant to be looking. That’s the nature of the beast.

Me: So more about movies — what do you think about movie actors going to Broadway? Do you think they have a unique perspective?
AF: I think it’s a bit of a mistake to categorize people as movie actors. They’re actors, and they have skill sets. Many of them had stage backgrounds before they became movie stars. A lot of people that we think of as mass-culture stars also happen to be trained theater actors, and sometimes even if they’re not, they turn out to be very good at it. Some actors are doing their first stage work and turn out to be natural and have the command and skill set necessary to pull off the stage performance. I thought Jake Gyllenhaal did very well in “Sunday.” I’ve also seen him in a couple of other things and he’s acquitted himself very well on stage. There are times when I’ve seen actors who are clearly out of their element: it showed in the way that they held their bodies and used their voices on stage. There are ways that you have to open up a performance on stage — you have to make it read from farther away. It’s usually in the direction of underacting rather than the direction of overacting. Sometimes there’s some compensatory overacting but usually, when a movie star performance doesn’t go well on stage, they’re not making the most of the medium.

Me: So why did you decide to become a theater critic?
AF: In my case, it sort of found me. I’ve always enjoyed reading theater criticism, I enjoyed theater very much and I did some theater and when I moved to New York I had some free time and would sometimes go chat on an Internet early message board with other theater enthusiasts. Someone saw what I was saying on those boards and asked me to write reviews for them and then led to another thing and I ended up at Time Out. It turned out it was something I liked to do; I was doing it on the side at first and then at a certain point it became a full-time job. Now it has been my full-time job at Time Out since 2003. I always had opinions on theater and I enjoy writing and I enjoy being part of that conversation. I enjoy helping people find the best stuff to see. It can be difficult to know what is worth your time and money so I want to steer people toward the best work, I want to push the culture forward and push the art forward, and that sometimes also means steering people away from things that you think will not be worth their time or their money I know it’s painful to get a bad review, but I think it is its part of a healthy ecology of the system.

Me: So speaking of pushing theater forwards, do you think theater has changed in any broad ways since you started writing for Time Out?
AF: It changes a lot from moment to moment. It reflects larger cultural shifts. It also reflects in some ways the economics of making theater. In the 30s, for example, you had a lot of two-and-a-half-hour comedies with casts of 30. You find that very seldom anymore because it’s extremely expensive to produce and hard to make back your money on. Many serious plays have casts of four and have to write around that. Musicals are a little bit different because they have the potential to earn more money. There have been trends back and forth. There’s a trend towards a certain kind of jukebox musical where they use existing pop songs and try to get audiences who have residual affection for that music and try to work it into the show. The sound of Broadway musicals has evolved over the past 20 years. A lot of Broadway musicals for a long time were holding onto a style that had become sort of retro. It’s a constantly changing scene, there’s no one thing, and it moves in different directions. This year, for example, in the fall Broadway season, there is an unusually large number of plays by African American writers that is certainly a reflection of a lot of the cultural discourse that happened last year and after the George Floyd murder, and so a lot of producers were responding to that conversation by saying “well, when we come back, we’re gonna lead with this.” It wasn’t a collective choice, but that’s what ended up happening, because everyone had the same idea. This was an unusually fast reflection of the culture, possible in part because everyone had suspended their seasons anyway. The entire culture evolves and theater reflects that evolution.

Me: Do you think COVID-19 is going to change the ways that theater is produced in any permanent ways?
AF: It’s hard to know. If people continue to feel awkward about going out with large groups of people, then theater will certainly suffer. If it dies down and it becomes just like, “oh remember the great flu of 1918” then I think it has a good chance for recovery. The challenge is staying afloat during these times, in part because COVID has harmed tourism, and Broadway theater, in particular, has become quite dependent on tourist attendance. For these shows to keep running when a big part of their audience base is reduced that’s a real challenge. How things go in the new year will depend in large part on the course of the disease.

Me: Do you think there’s gonna be a hit coronavirus play or musical in like 15 years?
AF: I don’t know. I don’t think there will be a hit one. There might be something that takes it on, but it’s a little on the nose. There might be a show that is centered in this time and obliquely uses the concerns or reflects the concerns of this time. And a lot of creative people had a lot of time off in the past year, so I don’t doubt that a lot of the work that we’ll see in the next few years will reflect some of the changes that happened to them during the past year. “Come from Away” is sort-of about 9/11, but it’s about something that happened in relation to 9/11. I have seen some other shows that have tried to address 9/11 and they have not been able to. You can make stories out of people’s decisions about how to deal with it or about the way that they interacted with each other during it, or the way that isolation forces people into confronting themselves, but it won’t be about medical drama.

Me: Hopefully you’re right.
AF: I don’t know, maybe there will be a great way to do it. I want to stay open to anything.

Me: You have touched on this a little, do you think that these plays should be made more accessible?
AF: There’s a lot of different things that can make theater seem a little out of reach for people, and they all have different issues attached to them. One thing that did come out of this past crisis was streaming theater. Although it’s tricky because it’s not really theater in a very specific sense — in the sense that it isn’t a live event, but is a recording of a theater production or it is theater people doing a live video production. One thing it did call attention to is the lack of full captures of shows that people might be interested in seeing. In Great Britain, the National Theatre, for example, has a long-running series of cinematic releases of their place where they have multi-camera highly-skilled captures of the performances. Commercial Broadway really doesn’t do that and with the success of “Hamilton” last year for Disney and “Come from Away” this year, more and more people are realizing that there is a market. There are a lot of people who don’t live in New York or can’t afford to go to the theater and would love to see shows in this way. Hopefully, there will be more of that and hopefully, that’s one lesson that we’ve learned from the past year.

Me: I read your article about the best performances of the Tonys, and that got me wondering what you think goes into making a great performance?
AF: For a good Tony performance, a combination of things. One factor is how it was shot. A number that works like gangbusters in the theater, you take it out of context and plunk it down at Radio City Music Hall you lose some of that energy and compression and excitement that the number has. And sometimes, the opposite happens, and a good number can really be heightened by the camera. The smaller numbers tend to do better because they don’t get lost in the space. Some of the bigger numbers that are now playing to 6,000 seats were designed to play to 1,000 seats. But mostly the material has to be there to begin. Sometimes there will be one where the material isn’t great but it just lands like gangbusters in the performance. A lot of it is the choice, and that can be very important for the show. “Grand Hotel” is a solid show with one absolutely phenomenal number that they sold like crazy on the Tonys, and that performance kept the show open for two years. That’s the dream: when you go to the Tony Awards, that it will really connect with an audience.

Me: Do you think that the Tonys work well as a showcase of these types of acts?
AF: Yeah. It’s one of the only times that the national audience can see what’s happening. It’s still the gold standard in terms of presenting Broadway’s wares to a national audience. It’s a national advertising platform, but it also celebrates mostly New York productions. New York theater is a local industry and it is amazing that it has this national platform and I think it’s great. It’s a celebration of the whole process of making Broadway theater.

Me: Do you think it was more difficult for people to vote for shows they hadn’t seen in a while?
AF: In a weird sort of way, it kind of evens the playing field because often people vote in May and that’s why there’s a big crush of shows that open in March and April. They want to be foremost in the voters’ minds, and so shows that open in the summer or fall can be at a disadvantage. In this case, everyone was at least a year out, so in that respect, it’s probably evening the playing field a little. I think it made less of a difference for me, because I pay very close attention to these things because of my job anyway so I remember these things more than a more casual voter might. But it’s a strange year all around, and not everyone had a chance to see everything. Only the people who did see everything can vote, and that might change the way that the voting goes.

Me: When it is time for you to vote do you ever go back and see shows?
AF: There have been times in the past when I’ve gone back when something opened earlier in the season and they will sometimes invite voters back to refresh their memories.

Me: So this is the question going back to when you talked about how you became a theater critic. From there, how did you become the president of the Drama Critics Circle?
AF: At that point, it was a two-year rotating gig and I had some changes that I thought were overdue, so we had a little election. I won, and I ended up doing this second term, and then by that point, I was sort of entrenched in everything. I have been doing it for 16 years now (which is way longer than the previous record of four). I think there may be some people coming up that have some interesting things that they want to do, and it may be my time to step aside soon. That doesn’t require that much responsibility, that position is mostly we get together twice a year and we vote on awards.

Me: What do you want people to know about the Tonys that you feel is misunderstood about them?
AF: I think there are a lot of things that people don’t understand about them. I publish these explainer pieces all the time about the way the voting goes down. If you go to our Tony page, you can see some pretty in-depth coverage of the evolution of this year’s Tonys. There are those kinds of little nitty-gritty things. I think that one fundamental thing that people seem to get wrong is that people think that they should be open to off-Broadway shows and things like that, and that’s just not what the Tonys are — for various reasons, but mainly practical ones. There aren’t enough seats in off-Broadway theaters to accommodate Tony voters, the end. It can never happen unless they change the entire way that Tonys are awarded. If they are awarded by a committee, then they could do it that way but then it wouldn’t be the Tonys. The point is that you have a broad voting base and specifically focus on Broadway theater. There are awards for off-Broadway shows and they are their own thing.

Me: Thanks! I just have one more question: Where do you want Broadway theater, or maybe just theater in general, to go? Are there any trends popping up that you’d like to continue?
AF: Yeah! I want it to keep on pushing in new directions and I want it to keep challenging us. I would prefer that people write new scores — it’s more interesting to me and it feels less compromised. There are certainly ways to take jukebox musicals and make them into something artistically interesting, but it’s difficult because that wasn’t the thing for which those songs were originally conceived. I would love it for New Yorkers to get back into the habit of going out to the theater more and reclaiming it as the New York cultural activity that it is. When it works for me, theater can be really thrilling and engaging in a special way. It’s a very special event that New Yorkers and visitors should in my ideal world, be taking more advantage of. Partly that’s going to be on the theaters themselves to create work that is interesting and relevant, and I encourage producers to put more adventurous stuff on Broadway. But, if they do, then they have to also find that it is commercially viable. So that’s on us as an audience to go to that work and support it. It’s a beautiful experience.