DISCOVERING ONE’S OWN CREATIVITY: A CRITIC’S BACKGROUND
When first did you notice your creativity?
When I was three years old, or less, I recall reciting poems before a large audience. In those days, you made certain that your children took lessons of some sort—tap-dancing, singing, and reciting of poems. It was the Shirley Temple syndrome, although that child actress had not yet appeared in film. A neighbor who had artistic aspirations, taught me to memorize and act out lengthy poems.
Soon she was booking me into various halls. I recall one such place—a home for “wayward girls” it was called. When they showed me the large room with many cribs, filled with babies, I puzzled over why they were there. I stood on stage in the large hall, reciting poems, complete with exaggerated voice and gestures, enjoying the attention I received. Shyness would come later.
As we had no radio, and there was, as yet, no television, we would listen to my grandfather’s crackling radio, once even hearing a distant thin-voiced Enrico Caruso sing an aria.
When first did you experience drama?
Indirectly, through my mother, who told us the story about her brother Frank—known as “the Dummy.” He played the violin, and, at one point, hit a wrong note. My hot-tempered grandfather rushed into the room and smashed the violin over his head—breaking that instrument, but not Frank’s head.
What was your family’s relationship with theatre?
No relationship whatsoever. My parents were not intellectuals. They were not interested in the arts.
I am sorry to hear it. Did you get to see any live performances as a child?
No, but there were the weekly movies at the Liberty Theatre on Broad Street in Providence, Rhode Island. Every Saturday morning, I was given a dime, and off I would go—to view a feature film, a second film, usually a cowboy movie with Tom Mix or Hoot Gibson, a cartoon, and the RKO news from one of the Big Five Hollywood studios. I would sit through it enthralled, as did every other neighborhood kid.
In the warm weather we were a gang of kids, with endless street games. One girl had an abandoned backyard hen coop, which we turned into a theatre for plays.
That sounds like fun. When did you actually see your first play and what was your reaction?
I can hardly remember the first play—probably at age 12, in eighth grade, when I was allowed to direct a class play, God knows what play.
However, more to the point, the earliest professionally performed play I remember vividly in my career was “Ivanov” at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York. I had been assigned to cover it for “Show Business,” a little New York paper for which I was reviewing at the time. That Chekhov play and that little theatre itself made an enormous impact on me, causing me to choose a thesis for my doctorate—“The history of the Jewish Repertory Theatre.”
FEELING TORN: FAMILY “FAILURES” AND EDUCATION
How supportive of your creativity and your self-esteem were your parents, or were they puzzled by it all?
My father was seen as the family failure. Though he was devoted to my maternal grandfather, serving as his chauffeur and gofer, he was disdained—more servant than heir-apparent. The message of inferiority, the lack of self-esteem, was etched into him—a legacy I inherited. My mother often confirmed this legacy, saying, “You’re just like your father!” in moments of exasperation.
Thus began my life-long dichotomy—my longing for adventure and my need for security, the yin and yang of life, at least of my life. These two conflicting drives would mark every important phase of life as I grew older. I longed to be exactly like my peers. On the other hand, I was driven toward different goals, always, somehow, out of sync.
You said that your “father was seen as the family failure.” Did this perception have any effect on your family’s expectations of you, growing up and going to school?
Not my parents, but my grandfather inspired me in a way that they did not. Since I was an earnest little pupil, there being no distractions, I brought home perfect test scores. I remember showing one marked “100%” to my grandfather. “Only one hundred percent?” he asked. “Is that the best you can do?” After relating this to my teacher, she gave me “125%” on the next test, and “200%” following that.
Looking back, where did your education begin?
I was saved by my grandfather’s bookcase, located in the family’s downstairs hall. Two of my uncles had gone to college briefly. Uncle Paul, the eldest, was enrolled at Harvard, but he ran away after a few months, joining the circus as a musician.
Thus their schoolbooks languished in the front hall bookcase, awaiting my perusal. It led me to a new love which later paid off at Brown University. There were also Shakespeare’s plays, which I hardly understood, but loved all the same. Later, when I began to get around on my own, I discovered the small neighborhood public library. I would stand gazing at the shelves, wondering with despair how I would ever manage to read every book.
WHEN THEATRE ARTS LEAD TO THE LOVE OF ONE’S LIFE
Decisions we make early in our childhood and adolescence can have a tremendous impact, especially our experiences at school.
True. In those years, Providence, Rhode Island, had introduced the junior high school system with numerous extra-curricular activities. I hardly knew which to choose—the school newspaper, the drama group, or the art club. Finally, drama won out, where I joyously wrote plays, acted, and directed.
I did act in little plays and skits for the eighth grade class in junior high school—but later, in high school, I was not given any opportunities. Central High’s only claim to the arts was one school play a year, and, on auditioning for a role, I was told I was “too short.” I was just five feet tall. No matter. I concentrated on “Cultural French,” “Business English,” and, most importantly, “Shorthand and Typing.” I mastered shorthand and typing, skills which, it turned out, served me remarkably well all my life.
Sometimes educational impulses can come from people other than parents and teachers. Was there anyone who awakened in you the desire for more than just the regular school subjects?
Yes, Tony Lutrario, who would become my high school sweetheart. He was of a different caliber, different from any boy I had known. It was Tony, the school’s brightest, most promising student, the class president, the yearbook editor, who would introduce me to the world of culture and the arts, history and civilization, the city’s museums, galleries, and libraries. Where did this boy get this drive, this knowledge? Certainly not from Central High.
GROWING UP JEWISH IN THE UNITED STATES BETWEEN WORLD WAR I AND II
What was it like growing up Jewish?
Among my best childhood friends were Ruth and Bernice who lived with their grandparents. They regarded me skeptically, and one day, on reflection, said, “She’s a nice little girl, even though she’s Jewish.” I got the message. Being Jewish meant being sub-standard, below par, somehow shameful. I longed to be part of the pack, exactly like every one else.
You went to school during the time that Hitler came to power, and you experienced those dangerous times shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
That is correct. The summer following our senior year, Mr. Brownsword, one of our English teachers and the yearbook advisor, wanted to take us all on a biking/hostel trip to Europe. But it was 1938, and none of us had the necessary $125. Again, I have wondered what turn my life might have taken, had we made that trip! Would we have been trapped in Europe? Would we have been caught up in the War? Would I have had a direct encounter with the Holocaust?
During racially sensitive times in Europe and the U.S., the Jewish community, too, seemed to impose strict apartheid rules on young people who were reaching out across cultural, ethnic, and religious lines.
True. Let me give an example. June 1938 marked an ending—my formal education and my parting with Tony. Once out of school, I dared not continue to see him. “You will break your mother’s heart,” my father warned me sternly, but never mentioning names or specifics. This was not only a parental view, and a Jewish view, but a widespread community view. In those rigid times, one did not cross the line from one ethnic or religious group to another. Though I continued to write to Tony, occasionally to see him, the halcyon days of high school were over.
Those formative years before World War II must have been challenging, to say the least.
They were. Much as I longed to be like every one else, fitting the norm and marrying at 19, I was always out of sync, it seemed to me—always the wrong age, place, time, sex, or ethnic background.
That sounds like a lot of turmoil for a young person.
It was. Add to that the hurricane of September 1938. With the hurricane, a great tidal wave came in from the Atlantic, moved into Narragansett Bay and swept up the Providence River, engulfing downtown Providence. Only later did we learn that all of downtown Providence was flooded. People in those buildings had climbed on desks and tables to escape the water, but drowned nevertheless. For years, I had recurrent nightmares of running from a tidal wave. Each time, as I watched the wall of water sweep in, I would debate whether to climb to the top of a tall building or run further inland to higher ground. The dream always ended indecisively.
It seems that you persevered, in spite of those challenging circumstances.
Well, I was hired by the Providence School Department to work at Nathan Bishop Junior High School. The school, located on Providence’s East Side, had a strangely-mixed population—both the city’s wealthiest Jews and the near-destitute “Bravas”—Portuguese Blacks from the Azores. It was not a happy mix, though animosities never exploded, but simmered below the surface.
An explosive racial mix . . . did the administration know that you were Jewish?
Very much so. I learned that I had been hired because it was politic to have one Jewish secretary. Why not a Portuguese secretary, I would wonder in later years. But such thinking, of course, was far down the road.
My best friend in that period was Martha Berstein—and, in fact, the whole Berstein family. Martha, too, was a secretary, working for Rosenberg Jewelers. Martha and I laughed at the restrictive Providence rules, the Jewish values, but lived by them nevertheless.
You seem to have built some interesting friendships.
True, but there were problems that I did not foresee. For example, in those days, I was also friends with one Dorothy S. She was very bright. Only later would I discover that she was suffering from mental illness. In the 1970s, when I was in my '50s, married with four children, living in Westport, Connecticut, Dorothy S. was in her '60s. She would be in and out of mental hospitals, and would track me down and send me a series of threatening letters, blaming me for her disastrous life. She would feel I had stolen everything from her—that I would go on to college, marriage, children, while she was left with nothing. Those letters were indeed scary, ominous, but police officers told me no action could be taken against her unless she attempted to kill me.
JEWS AND THE ETHNIC HIERARCHY
Those experiences must have been frightening. On the other hand, you lived in Providence, Rhode Island, a culturally and ethnically rich part of America.
Yes, those were years of intellectual growth, following the introduction to the arts that my high school boyfriend Tony had given me. I was avidly reading classic literature, visiting the Providence Art Museum and the large downtown Public Library, discovering whatever cultural outlets Providence had to offer. This was long before the post-war cultural explosion that would affect Providence as well as the rest of the country. It was also the years of dating boys—Jewish, of course.
How integrated were the various ethnic groups in those days?
Providence was a city of separate communities, each ethnic group confined to its own location and its own identity. The Italians lived in one part of town, the Jews in another, the Blacks in still another. Other ethnic groups also had their places. There was a hierarchical structure.
How did Jews fit into that ethnic hierarchy?
In my parents’ view, the Jews occupied the top level; the WASPs, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, next; then the Irish; the Italians; and the unfortunate Blacks at the bottom. Though I was vaguely uncomfortable with these values, I never really questioned them—outwardly or inwardly. That would come later, as my world view and life experiences broadened.
Though my parents had severed all connections with their ancestral past, as had many Jews of that generation, they maintained those prejudices. Examined in later life, I saw it as a defensive measure. Jews had had a long history of shabby, unfair treatment, official and unofficial anti-Semitism, and they paid it back in kind. Yet, at the same time, my mother looked down on Yiddish accents, carefully seeking out an accent-free husband. My handsome father spoke English as if American-born, although he had come to America from Lithuania as a ten-year-old. He filled the bill.
FROM A SOCIALLY RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR JEWISH WOMEN TO THE FREEDOM OF BROWN UNIVERSITY
How does a young Jewish woman find partners in what sounds like a socially restrictive environment?
Among the Jewish boys I dated, one emerged as front runner—namely, Jerry Clamon. He was a decent, kindly fellow, with a good sense of humor which I appreciated, though I still longed for Tony, my Italian high school sweetheart. But Jerry, a successful young businessman who controlled his working hours, picked me up in his car every day after my workday ended. It was pleasant to have a car ride home and not resort to the interminable trolley rides, transferring downtown from one trolley to another. However, my relationship with Jerry dragged on, with his urgency topped by my indecision.
What became of that relationship?
Jerry would later die in the War, killed in the Normandy invasion . . .
I am sorry to hear that.
. . . an event giving me a posthumous appreciation of the fine human being he had been.
What other kind of life-changing shifts did you experience as a result of those traumatic experiences?
When I was 20 years old, I became restless, ready for a change, after four years at Nathan Bishop. One day, I attended the graduation of my old friend Bea Schwartz. Despite her Central High background, she had managed to enter the “Normal School” in town, which later became the Rhode Island College of Education, and acquired her degree after a four-year program. Suddenly, sitting in the audience, I had an epiphany. Why shouldn’t I go to college, even now? If Bea could do it, perhaps I could do it.
But it was 1941. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and war had broken out. In my restlessness and confusion, I applied to Brown University. They put me through pre-college exams. I easily passed the English and History, based on my own years of reading, and the College accepted the recommendations of my tutors for math and language. I was on my way.
All’s well that ends well?
Not quite. Even with my jubilation, I felt a kind of shame. I was too old. Why hadn’t I entered college, like every one else, right out of high school? Fortunately, I looked younger than my 22 years, easily passing for eighteen, and I told few people my true age. Was I, once more, in the right place at the wrong age?
I entered Pembroke College at Brown University in September 1943—conditionally. Tuition per semester was $225. However, my parents were surprisingly cooperative—and indeed proud of me and my aspirations. A twenty-year insurance policy they had purchased for me at birth had just matured for $500—money which they gave me. And I was no longer expected to give part of my earnings to the household. I had my waitress earnings plus a $200 per semester Brown scholarship. Amazing! Suddenly I had enough for the first year of Brown for both tuition and expenses. Why hadn’t somebody told me years earlier that this was possible!
MAJOR BREAKTHROUGHS: THERE IS NOTHING LIKE RAGE TO FUEL ONE’S DETERMINATION AND DRIVE
Great. How did your family and friends respond to your having made a major breakthrough?
Mixed. For example, our family doctor, Dr. Kenniston, whose two daughters had gone to Pembroke, remarked, “I understand you’re going to Pembroke, and they took you in conditionally.” Apparently my mother had shared this information during a visit to the good doctor. Trying to console me in case I didn’t do well, he added, “That’s nice that you’re going there, but don’t worry, you don’t have to be a top student.” This evaluation of my capacity, apparently, was based on my “conditional” status. Although I was fuming after this exchange, I smiled, thanked him, more determined than ever that I would indeed become a “top student.”
Good for you. I understand that you did so well in your studies at Brown University that you became an English Honors student.
Yes, and this is how it happened. Based on both an essay I had written and my English exam, I was put into an advanced English class, skipping the usual introductory course, with four other students—Don Parks, Barbara Whipple, Dorothy Hiller, and Connie Coulter. Though these four were years younger than I, we found ourselves operating on the same wave length, and they became my best friends. We would all go on to become English Honors students—becoming part of the small, elite program—and cementing our friendship. It was fortunate that I connected with them, since I was conscious of being an outsider, a freak.
English, as it turned out, and specifically the English Honors program, became my choice. The Honors program consisted of very small classes—with discussions instead of lectures, with written papers instead of exams. Just before graduation, we would be called upon to take lengthy comprehensive exams, spewing back, in essay form, the knowledge we had acquired in eight semesters.
The highlight of my Honors program was a summer class in Shakespeare, even though it would be years before I would have the astounding experience of seeing Shakespeare on stage.
How did you handle your academic success?
Well, everything went fine until my “B” grade in a creative writing class which spoiled my all-A record. I recall bursting into tears in Dr. Israel Kapstein’s office. “What’s wrong with a ‘B’?” he asked, puzzled, but I viewed it as a failing grade. I was also convinced that I would never be a creative writer—at least not a writer of fiction.
Apparently you survived your one “B” among all your “A’s” and moved on.
Yes, literally. Even though I had had little direct experience with New York City, I viewed it as the center of the universe—offering a dazzling, glamorous life style. My life—my real life—would begin when I moved there.
EDITING A ZIONIST PAPER IN NEW YORK CITY
How did you get a foot in that New York City door?
Through a publication called “Editor and Publisher,” I found an ad for a secretary in the public relations office of a New York company, and was hired via mail. I arrived in the City with a battered suitcase, a half-finished telescope, a few clothes and dollars. It was not easy finding accommodations in those busy post-war years, but I rented a bed in the Martha Washington dorm. It was like a hospital ward, and I left quickly as I could.
And, in answering an apartment-share ad, I lived briefly at the Beaux Arts Apartments on East 44th Street. However, this arrangement ended abruptly, when my roommate objected to my entertaining visiting college friends, like my friend Dorothy Hiller, who had come for dinner and stayed overnight.
Loss of a new home, job hunting during economically hard times. Were you thinking about calling it quits?
No, I didn’t give up. My new employer was Radio Inventions, or RI, a company comprised of engineers. They had invented a process called “radio facsimile” which sent printed copy over the air waves, arriving at the other end in print form. They expected this process to revolutionize the newspaper industry. However, RI never did succeed, though others would develop the fax process which would not replace printed newspapers, but would serve other purposes. Working there for a year as they struggled for success, I found myself stuck in the secretarial job, and, when a copywriting job opened, a young man, a MAN, was hired from the outside.
Was there any chance of getting a job in the Jewish publishing world?
I had forgotten this, until you raised the question. Although disillusioned at first, I began to hunt for newspaper or magazine jobs. After graduating Brown University in 1946, and having moved to New York, I eventually got a job on the editorial staff of a small Zionist paper. At that time, in spite of my upbringing, I hardly knew I was a Jew. I certainly had little, if any, knowledge of Zionism, a movement which aspired to a Jewish state in Palestine.
My job was mostly rewriting interminable, convoluted editorials written by German-born Board members into understandable English. I earned less pay than I had at RI, that is $40 a week, instead of $50. However, I found the job was gratifying, especially as it gave me the opportunity to attend and review cultural events of a Jewish nature—plays, films, etc.
What was the name of the Zionist paper in New York City?
It was called “The Answer” and was sponsored by an organization called the American League for a Free Palestine. It had strong right-wing views, insisting that all of Palestine and Jordan should revert to the Jews, based on Biblical authority.
How did you, as a young writer and editor, handle the task of working with German-born Jewish exiles?
As a political neophyte, I was not interested in its politics, but the position gave me the opportunity to edit copy of cultural events, dealing with Jewish themes. It was during that time that the new Jewish state—Israel—was born, and I covered that event as well. It was also, for me, the beginning of a true and dawning sense of identity with my Jewish roots.
POST WORLD WAR II EXPERIENCES: MARRIAGE, CHILDREN, AND THEATRE CRITICISM
With the end of World War II, a new life dawned for many people around the world. What impacted you during those days?
Actually, it was the marrying time, right after the war. Bill Backalenick and I were on a bike trip through Connecticut when he proposed marriage. He claimed he was kidding, and I said, “I’ll let you know in Old Saybrook.”
Once we reached Old Saybrook, the answer was “yes.”
That sounds very romantic. I guess like most young professionals who become parents, you spent many years juggling many different responsibilities.
Very much so.
How did you recognize that you wanted more than the American dream of marriage, family, and a white picket fence, that you actually wanted to break away from a conventional life to study drama criticism?
At first, I didn’t—though I’d always loved reading plays, which I saw as literature. I came to theatre by way of journalism. Working for small Connecticut newspapers, I found that an editor would occasionally throw theatre tickets on his desk for any staff member who wanted to cover a show. I found this far more interesting than covering crime or politics.
Then in 1979, I took a leave of absence from my job and enrolled in a summer program at Oxford University. Seeing Shakespeare and other productions all over England, I fell in love with theatre. It marked a turning point.
Wonderful. What happened next?
Returning home, I applied for and was accepted into the doctoral program in Theatre History and Criticism at City University of New York (CUNY). Thus began a new journey.
ACADEMICS AND THEATRE CRITICS AS ROLE MODELS
Mazel tov. What stood out for you the most in your Ph.D. studies in Theatre Criticism?
I had applied for this CUNY Graduate School program over one offered at Yale because I felt that New York was the heart of the theatre world. This proved to be true—for me, at least, although initially, I wondered what could be taught about theatre that couldn’t be covered in one lecture. I learned differently—that, in fact, the history of theatre is the history of the human race, or so I felt and still do. It was a wonderful experience, on many levels.
Moreover, the program itself proved to be a global experience. Of the ten in our class, eight were from Africa, Iran, Korea, and South America—and two from the U.S. We became a close-knit group, learning from each other as well as from the professors. I also took copious notes in shorthand, sharing the notes with my fellow students who were struggling with English.
Who were some of your drama professors?
I had many memorable professors, including Albert Bermel who wrote the definitive book on farce, Glenn Loney who specialized in contemporary theatre, and my beloved advisor Charles Gattnig. The two day-long comprehensive exams were a snap, but the orals were tough. However, Dr. Gattnig saw me safely through that harrowing experience. Finally, in 1987, aged 65, I completed my degree—certainly the oldest in my class, and perhaps in the program.
In the theatre department at CUNY, how much emphasis was placed on the nitty-gritty of writing effective reviews, compared to theoretical approaches to theatre criticism?
The emphasis at CUNY was on the theoretical, not the practical business of mounting shows. My courses called for researching the various playwrights, like Strindberg, O'Neill, etc., and historical eras. The program wasn't preparing me per se to become a critic, but in fact proved to be excellent training for just that.
I had seen pursuing this degree in theatre criticism as a stimulating, gratifying way to spend my waning years. Little did I realize that it would lead to a serious career.
What was the subject of your dissertation?
The Jewish Repertory Theatre. My dissertation was published by the University Press of America in 1988: "East Side Story: Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre." It won several national awards, including a first-place National Book Award in History and one from the National Federation of Press Women in the early 1990s. I also received awards in journalism and theatre criticism, including a New York Times Publishers Award, which I received while writing for the New York Times—“The Gray Lady” of American journalism.
Irene, I don’t know anyone as hard-working as you are. You certainly deserve an article about your life as a theatre critic
Thank you. I hardly deserve this attention, and feel that there are others out there more worthy of your good work.
I admire your modesty. Allow me this immodest proposal: Could you arrange for a theatre person to shoot some photographs of you sitting in a theatre, taking notes?
But I am too old, too gray. Couldn’t I get someone to take a picture of a young, attractive actress instead? . . . Well, maybe I could ask a friend who directs a theater in Connecticut to use his theater for a picture of me—one of the gray ladies of theatre criticism.
Wonderful. Who were your greatest role models among theatre critics in those days, and what was it about those critics that attracted you?
Then, and now, among the critics I’ve most admired are Robert Brustein, who had written numerous books on theatre; John Lahr, one of the critics for The New Yorker; and, reaching back in time, George Bernard Shaw.
I'd say John Lahr in particular was an influence. I admired that he took the broader view, setting his piece against an historic background. I've rarely had that opportunity, since newspaper reviews must be brief, succinct, to the point. I'm not writing for scholars—but for readers who want to know whether they should see a show. In any event, years of writing articles for the New York Times has trained me to write in that fashion—and I find it difficult to break the habit.
COMING INTO ONE’S OWN AS A THEATRE CRITIC
When you look at your work now, compared to your early theatre criticism, how would you describe your evolution as the senior, the doyenne of Jewish theatre criticism in the U.S.?
In some ways, the writing hasn’t changed at all. However, I don’t find it easy to start a review, or any kind of piece, and the thoughts whirl around in my head. I find myself wondering if I can clarify the ideas, organize the material. But, usually, once that opening paragraph takes shape, the rest begins to fall into place. As to critiques, I now have much more of a basis for comparison, and, indeed, frequently draw comparisons. Once I get started, the words do come more easily than in earlier years. There are times when I suspect that I am on automatic pilot.
Of the hundred reviews that you have written for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website, which did you enjoy writing the most, and why?
I can’t single out any particular reviews, but when I’ve had an occasional reader response from time to time, that has been pleasurable. For instance, when I reviewed Robert Brustein’s off-Broadway play, “The English Channel,” I got an enthusiastic letter from him. Apparently the critic, for a time, had turned playwright. Imagine! That eminent critic writing to me! It initiated a correspondence which went on for a time.
A CRITIC CAUGHT BETWEEN THEATRES AND READERS?
Looking back at your reviews, what’s the most difficult review you have ever written?
You might want to know that I’ve gone back through my e-files to find a “difficult review,” but to no avail. Sometimes, reviewing can be formidable, sometimes it goes smoothly—depending on my state of mind, exhausted condition, or outside distractions. But this has to do with the techniques of reviewing, rather than the subject matter itself.
What do you do when you see a play that is poorly written, or poorly directed, or some of the actors are doing a poor job? Do you give yourself permission to be blunt and direct or do you try to salvage whatever you can?
I do or did find it hard to be bluntly critical. Over the years I’ve tended to be gentle, muting the criticism or not even mentioning poor performances. Even in a critical review, I would seek out the good points, adding the “on the other hand.” But, of late, I’ve become blunter, more ornery, letting the arrows fall where they may. It’s probably an indication of old age, now that I’m turning 89 [on August 12, 2010].
Seen from another perspective, have you written reviews where you regretted having written them the way you did?
There is always the feeling of doubt, especially when I find myself alone in my view, with all other critics lined up on the other side. Sometimes, reading a New York Times critic I respect, or John Lahr in the New Yorker, with an opposing view, I question my response: “Did I miss something here? Do I know what I’m talking about?”
On which websites can readers access some of your articles and how can people reach you directly?
Of course, All About Jewish Theatre (AAJT), the world’s largest and best Jewish theatre website. For New York area theatre criticism www.ctcritics.org and, my own website: www.nytheaterscene.com. Readers can also reach me directly at email@example.com.
How much influence do you think theatre critics have on directors and actors on the one hand, and on the general public on the other?
That’s a big question. It warrants a book. Why don’t you write it?
Seriously, critics do influence readers in their own regions, and the New York Times reviewers probably nationwide. We critics all have our fans, I guess. Here in Connecticut, I’ve had readers call and ask advice as to what to see, or meet me on the street and say they went to a show after reading my column.
But, no doubt, the Times critical power is waning in the face of the growing power of the Internet. It’s always interesting to note when a Broadway show, which most of us critics have hated, goes on to a long run. So how do we gauge this “influence”?
Interesting question. Could you give some examples of some of the best and worst responses you received to your reviews?
Lots of acclaim over the years, which has been nice. Every so often, a director cries out in protest. For instance, I criticized a production of “The Boys Next Door,” a play about a group home for retarded men. As it happened, one actor in the show had just such a son, and he took my critique very personally and thus the director fired off a letter to the editor. This happens rarely, because producers, directors, and even actors know it is unprofessional to respond by chastising the critic openly.
I frequently go to a neighborhood coffee-shop run by an actor who has since become a good friend of mine. “You critics,” he often said to me, “you do such harm to the actors, who work so hard!” Consequently, I set up a critics’ luncheon at his place, where he was able to have a dialogue with about 14 of our Connecticut critics. It was a lively, informative and, I think, fruitful exchange. We may not have all ended up best friends, but we acknowledged there was a place for both.
SENSITIVITIES IN DIFFERENT JEWISH COMMUNITIES
Addressing those Jewish playwrights who tend to ignore tackling problematic issues within the Jewish community, Theodore Bikel, at the conference of the Association forJewish Theatre in Vienna, Austria, in March of 2007, advised: “To Jews and non-Jews in the audience, we must show not just a rosy picture, glossing over blemishes, but a picture as close and sometimes as painful to the truth as we can come.” Do you agree with Theodore Bikel’s suggestion? If so, could you give an example or two where you observed one-sided portrayals in contemporary Jewish drama?
I’d call it as I see it. Playwrights can do what they will with their material, but it’s up to the critic to lay it out for the public. If the critic sees it as a black-and-white piece, lacking the nuances, he should say so.
If it’s true that the Jewish community is the most supportive of all theatre goers in the U.S., do you find that such support can also be problematic? Given the horrendous history of persecution of Jews and its aftermath in form of latent anti-Semitism, even in our own time, some Jewish theatre goers and Jewish organizations have pressured theatres not to perform certain plays. Against this danger of enforced censorship, what could theatre critics do to write with fairness about dramas which address problematic issues that could be interpreted as being critical of Jews or Israeli politics, such as My Name is Rachel Corrie or Seven Jewish Children?
We’re in tricky territory here. There are all kinds of Jews, with all kinds of attitudes of right and wrong. It’s true that Jews do support theatre enthusiastically. I’ve read that Israel, for example, has the highest percentage of theatre goers of any nation in the world. In that sense, they are strong lobbyists. But I would hope that theatre producers would not be influenced by protesters within one segment of the Jewish population. If I were reviewing these two plays, I would hope to review them without bias. Or, if I thought the plays had a particular message, I would bring that out in my reviews.
As a theatre critic, how do you deal with plays such as “Lebensraum” or “Born Guilty” that seem to thrive on black and white portrayals of Jews and contemporary Germans as an “us vs. them” dichotomy?
I’ve been mulling over this question, a kind of heavy self-examination. On reflection, I honestly believe that I assess a play, not on its political message, but on its quality as a drama. If a play is simply didactic, hammering home a message, it’s not going to be an effective piece. On the other hand, whether or not one agrees with the politics presented is beside the point.
I think of “Masked” by Ilan Hatsor, an off-Broadway play I saw a few years ago about three Palestinian brothers. That play was very human and nothing short of wonderful. They were three beautifully-drawn characterizations, and their impassioned interchange was most believable. I can imagine that some Jewish protest groups might have banned the show, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I gave it a rave review.
CAN POLITICAL AND EMOTIONAL RESPONSES TO JEWISH-THEMED PLAYS LEAD TO PRESSURE AND BOYCOTTS?
How do you feel about special interest groups protesting a particular play or musical, seeing it as an attack on their values?
You cite as an example “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” which I didn’t see. Personally, I feel that we as a nation have become much too litigious and too willing to stage protests, carrying this trend to ridiculous extremes.
I think of a recent example which has nothing to do with Jewish groups. I’m a director and co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle, which gives annual awards for outstanding work in Connecticut theatre. We recently cited a young girl playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” I hadn’t seen the show and didn’t know she was deaf, but other critics praised her overwhelmingly, so she was given the award and invited to our annual ceremony. Next came a note from her mother, a deaf woman, who demanded a “signer” at the ceremony.
Before we critics had a chance to respond to this unexpected request, wondering where to get a signer, how much it would cost, etc., we learned that the state’s entire deaf community was furious with us. Within days, we were told, there was a widespread protest from the deaf people, a condemnation of our group.
Mercifully, this story ended happily, when we explained that, of course, we would cooperate. But it was an inappropriate reaction, to say the least.
Do you see similar emotional responses among some Jewish groups?
Yes, many of these protests from special interest groups, including Jewish groups, are similarly out of line. Most importantly, writers should be able to offer the truth as they see it. And we critics should consider how well the play works, how dramatically effective it is—plot construction, character development, etc. Politics should not enter into it.
Could one’s own bias as a critic interfere in the way one presents plays?
Yes, I must confess that deep-seated, unexpected feelings rise up in me when I see a play with Jewish themes. These are feelings that have grown with the years, certainly not felt in my earlier years. Something in the genes, I suspect. Thus, I have a tendency to want to support pieces which make the Jews look good and feel negative about those which do not. I even tend to have a loving, forgiving attitude toward a poorly-written play if it has a Jewish theme. It’s rather like a parent looking indulgently upon a less-than-perfect child . . . I am aware of this trait, and I deal with it.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG THEATRE STUDENTS
Irene, what advice do you have for theatre students who would like to become drama critics?
Not only participate in theatre itself, but see as much theatre as you can. Read widely and live life fully—whatever that means to you.
Also, join and become actively involved with professional organizations, such as the American Theatre Critics Association , the Association for Jewish Theatre , or the Drama Desk. I belong to all of them, including the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the Outer Critics Circle, and the Connecticut Critics Circle. But, truthfully, I hardly dare advise anybody. It’s a strange, wonderful business, and, for me, a great joy.
A number of theatre students want to know how you prepare for a review, and how you go about composing it? Also, how do you deal with deadline pressures, etc?
Whenever I can, I tackle the review the very next morning after seeing the show. I've had an overnight to let the experience simmer, but it's still fresh in my mind. Sometimes, at 2 a.m., lying awake, I have the opening paragraph, and that's a big help. It gives me the impetus and the theme. But more often, I wake in the morning and think, "Oh God, what am I going to say? How can I pull these jumbled thoughts together, organize them, express them?"
It's often challenging to get started, and I think, "Perhaps I've lost the skill? I'll never write another review?" But somehow, once I get started, the words pour out, as if I'm on automatic pilot. From where do these words come? From somewhere in the recesses of my mind? I suspect that the best part of writing a review is seeing the finished product.
BALANCING ONE’S PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE AS A THEATRE CRITIC
As a prolific theatre critic in the New York area, how do you balance your professional and your personal life?
Not so exhausting at this point. I’ve cut back. I’m running out of energy. Maybe six or seven shows a month. I used to cover that many in a week, mostly in New York. To a great extent, seeing theatre became my social life. I either brought along a family member or invited a friend. Dinner before the show, and there you are.
You began writing your memoirs about the earlier parts of your life. Will you write more about your later life?
I considered continuing with my memoir into later life, but vetoed it. However, this interview with you has given me another idea: to write the story of my life as a critic, how it evolved, peak experiences, challenges, etc.
Great, please send me an advanced copy. I would love to review it.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF LIVE PERFORMANCES?
Given the poor economic situation and the growth of film, television, and web-based entertainment, how do you see the role of live theatre in our own time and in the foreseeable future?
I know it’s tempting to think theatre will fade away, given the electronic competition. But I put my faith in live theatre. It has managed to survive for over 2000 years . . . and if it faded in various bleak eras, it always bounced back. There’s some kind of human need, it would seem, to have that living breathing players-audience exchange. Recently, observing a group of excited young kids, my own grandson among them, put on a version of “Twelfth Night,” I came away with hope for the future.
Irene is there anything else you would like to share?
Definitely. I'd like Moti [Sandak, editor-in-chief of AAJT] and his readers to know just how remarkable I think his All About Jewish Theatre website is. He has done—and continues to do—a monumental job. He offers world-wide coverage of Jewish cultural activities, with an amazing amount of information and resources. At the same time, he manages to keep the website lively and entertaining, as well as informative. It's attractively-designed, with a wealth of pictures to break up the text.
Irene, it was an honor listening to you. Congratulations on your 100th review for All About Jewish Theatre. I wouldn’t be surprised if you reached the 200th mark soon—not counting the many hundreds of your reviews in other publications.
IRENE BACKALENIC: PUBLICATIONS AND SOURCES
- All About Jewish Theatre www.jewish-theatre.com Tel Aviv, Israel (New York area correspondent), since 2003
- Answer, The, weekly newspaper of the American League for a Free Palestine (copy editing, covering Jewish cultural events in New York), 1947.
- Back Stage, New York (theatre reviews and occasional articles), 1987 to present.
- Bridgeport Post (free-lance, feature articles), 1965-71.
- Christian Science Monitor, Boston (occasional free-lance articles).
- Connecticut Post (theatre reviews), 2005 to present.
- Fairfield County Magazine, Connecticut (occasional free-lance articles).
- National Jewish Post & Opinion, Indianapolis, Indiana(reviews, columns, features), 1990? to present.
- New York Times, The (free-lance--feature articles, stringer-suburban news), 1971-77.
- Sepia Magazine, Fort Worth, Texas (occasional free-lance articles).
- Show Business, New York (theatre reviews), 1985?
- Stamford Advocate, Connecticut (theatre reviews), 1986?
- Trumbull Times, Connecticut (on staff—reporter, columnist, feature writer), 1977-80
- Westport News, Connecticut (and other Brooks newspapers, theatre reviews), 1986-2007.
- Westport Town Crier, Connecticut (covering courts, police, feature pieces), 1963-64.
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