Longtime Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson reviews a quarter-century on the job, as she steps down from her post.
My first week as Seattle Times drama critic, back in 1991, I got lost en route to a show.
A longtime San Franciscan and a Seattle newbie, I had a confusing city map but no GPS, cellphone or brightly lit marquee to guide me. On the darkened Seattle Center grounds, I finally found Seattle Repertory Theatre and dashed in to review Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” — by, yes, the skin of my teeth.
So began a job that lasted longer, and was more fulfilling, dynamic and central to my existence, than I’d ever anticipated. I was subbing for former Times critic Wayne Johnson during his sabbatical, then he returned, retired and I stayed on. For 25 years. Now I’m stepping down as a Times staffer (though not away from Seattle, writing or the arts).
How to summarize the last quarter-century of my life on the aisle? Dear reader, please forgive a lack of dramatic structure in my attempt.
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I wrote about theater in San Francisco for a decade, and have been entangled in this perpetually dying, reviving, thrilling, exasperating medium of live drama in various capacities (presenter, performer, administrator, writer) since childhood.
But being a daily newspaper critic was a full-time immersion and rigorous test. Did I have the stamina, appetite, sheer insanity to attend, ponder (much less write about) 100-plus shows a year?
Printer’s ink flows in my veins, so to speak (my dad was a newspaperman). But could I turn out reams of copy pronto, with some semblance of intelligence, clarity, candor and respect for my readers and the art form? Could I keep up with the surprising amount of news on my beat?
That’s been my daily challenge. But even when I’ve (often) not met it, I’ve been lucky: I had some very supportive Times co-workers. And if Seattle was a respected theater town in 1991, it’s grown theatrically more sophisticated, diverse and esteemed over time.
The scene and this beautiful city have long attracted gifted and ambitious artists, young and seasoned. And more than a half-dozen spiffy new theaters have been built on my watch.
Sure, there were times when the last thing I wanted to do was drag myself to another production of a well-worn classic, or slog through the rain to a show that sounded unpromising, or worse.
But maybe my best qualification for the job was restless curiosity. Art never stands still, and you to have to follow it. It fails, succeeds and surprises, with manifold interpretations of love, lust, revenge, politics, science, history, war. Paraphrasing Maya Angelou (who borrowed from the Roman dramatist Terence), nothing human is alien to theater.
A not-so-secret truth: the vast majority of shows merit not a rave or pan, but a more slippery thing, a mixed, nuanced review. I never considered it my role to sell tickets or warn people away. I wanted to provide historical and aesthetic context, the tone of the event, and articulate my sense of what artists attempted and achieved, onstage and beyond.
Some favorite things about the job? Watching Seattle actors. Serious, committed, versatile, a long parade of them, way too many worthy ones to single out (even in my annual Seattle Times Footlights Awards).
The work of resident directors of vision, distinction, style at their considerable best — Daniel Sullivan, John Kazanjian and Stephen Wadsworth, Bartlett Sher, Warner Shook and Linda Hartzell, visiting titans like Peter Brook.
Watching talented playwrights emerge and evolve. Seeing the fringe scene grow into an adventure playground for works of substance and daring.
Sitting in Seattle Children’s Theatre student matinees, among digital-age kids engrossed in a staged story.
Taking in the important 20th-century African-American play cycle of the late local resident August Wilson, mounted by Seattle Rep. Knowing August, a marvelous raconteur and fellow blues-lover, over coffee at Victrola or the Mecca Cafe, and on a patio surrounded by snow-capped mountains at a playwrights festival in Valdez, Alaska.
Some long, totally-worth-it theater epics lasting five, six hours and more: Alan Ayckbourn’s “Revengers’ Comedies” at ACT Theatre. Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” at Intiman Theatre and LBJ plays at Seattle Rep, Book-It Rep and Seattle Rep’s captivating “The Cider House Rules, Parts I and II,” Seattle Opera’s last “Ring” Cycle.
Seeing artists from around the world push the boundaries of performance at On the Boards.
Talking with so many fascinating people: “Cider House” author John Irving, moved by the dramatization of his novel. Broadway legends Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. The irrepressible, cackling Dame Edna Everage. Comedy’s Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Eddie Izzard. Genial author Wendy Wasserstein, and eloquent master Edward Albee. Oh, and Paul Newman, for a profile about screenwriter Stewart Stern. (When Newman left me a phone message, many women in the newsroom “happened” to drop by my desk to listen to it.)
Faye Dunaway, set to appear here in “Master Class.” (She kept interrupting the interview to scream at her maid and take a call from her priest.) David Mamet approving government censorship of arts funding — a minority position among playwrights, to say the least. So many encounters with the amazing monologuist Spalding Gray, who loved performing here.
Like most critics of anything, I’ve received my share of fan mail (rare, appreciated) and hate mail (rare, sometimes creepy). The wife of an actor I found fault with accused me of destroying her family. A stage mother was incensed by a critical note about her child, a (professional) performer. There have been some blistering tirades (a few from misogynists and racists), a threat on the radio. Angry retorts from readers when I didn’t share their love or hatred for a show.
It was all part of the gig: If I dished it out, I also had to take it. (There were many interesting, less toxic exchanges with readers, too.)
One of my toughest tasks, and privileges, was writing obits for loved and admired theater artists. Digging into the financial problems and demise of beloved companies (Empty Space Theatre, Group Theatre, etc.) was difficult in another way.
When theaters tottered or died, it just underscored what fragile constructs they are. I still believe the really good ones are community treasures, life-enhancing amenities that need and deserve a more sustained, ample level of support in this expansive boomtown with wealth to spare.
The value of arts criticism and “power” of the critic is always being debated. But with the decline of print media, the role of full-time newspaper arts critic is nearly extinct. Still, as long as theater is made and performed, writers and media outlets — including The Seattle Times — will be reporting and analyzing it. For me it won’t be multiple dispatches a week anymore, but I’ll keep my hand in as I pursue other ventures.
Like actors we are “ brief chronicles of the time,” though what we write about may long outlive us as portraits of self and society.
Thanks for reading all these years, or even just this once. And whether I’m scribbling notes, or just there for pleasure, I hope to see you at the theater again soon.