Booking It! New York Times Chief Theatre Critic Ben Brantley On Criticism, Writing and Watching Magic Happen on Stage

News   Booking It! New York Times Chief Theatre Critic Ben Brantley On Criticism, Writing and Watching Magic Happen on Stage Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with New York Times chief theatre critic Ben Brantley.
Ben Brantley
Ben Brantley Photo by Brent Murray

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Did he like it? That's the question that comes to everyone's mind when Ben Brantley's New York Times review is published shortly after the curtain goes down on a Broadway opening night.

Brantley, the chief theatre critic of The New York Times since September 1996, has been with the esteemed publication since August 1993. Before the Times, Brantley got his start as an editorial assistant for the Village Voice (1975) and an intern for The Winston-Salem Sentinel (1976). He was a reporter and then editor at Women's Wear Daily (1978-1983) before being the European editor, publisher and Paris bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily (January 1983-June 1985). He reviewed films for Elle magazine (September 1988-March 1993) while simultaneously working at Vanity Fair (January 1987-August 1992) prior to his time as a staff writer at The New Yorker (August 1992-July 1993).

Brantley is the editor of "The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century," which was published by St. Martin's Press in 2001. He received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 1996-1997.

We speak to Brantley about what it takes to be a journalist, what he looks for in the theatre, what excites him as an audience member and the perils of the ever-evolving world of journalism in a time when social media steps to the forefront. Theatre journalism can be such a niche market. What kind of advice would you offer to someone starting out?
Ben Brantley: Anything involving theatre now, I think, demands a passionate commitment because, as you say, it's not only niche, but it's a receding niche. You know how they tell you never to become an actor unless you want to do it more than anything else? I do think, if you become any kind of theatre journalist — much less a theatre critic — it has to be because you love it, and it's what you want to spend time with more than anything else. I suppose that would be my first criterion. After that, follow your passions. See as much as you possibly can, which if you love it that much, you're going to want to do anyway. Talk about it as much as you can, write about it as much as you can. The advantage that people coming [up] now, or beginning such careers now, have is that they can post it on their own. They can create their own websites, their own blogs, which at least get those words out there. And, read all the time. Read plays, read other criticism — get that kind of conversation going in your head.

With blogs on the rise, what does the future look like for journalism and critics? I find it so interesting that someone like Perez Hilton, a celebrity blogger, could go to the theatre and "review" something. What does that mean for people who have degrees in journalism? What does the future look like?
BB: It doesn't look too promising, does it? I wouldn't say it's very funny. At a certain point, will journalism even exist as a paid profession? I think that's a moot point. Presumably, there will be audiences… Eventually, I think there will be some kind of shakeout in all areas of journalism, where readers or receivers of information will realize that they want something that's vetted as opposed to un-sourced things appearing. At this point, it's too easy because the Internet is still such a frontier land, even as long as it's been in existence. It's still easy for things to show up that haven't really been checked or… You can say anything. This doesn't apply so much to criticism. I think everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, and it's great if it's out there. The difference, I guess, between the "tweeted," for example, opinion and a more considered one is simply that — that it is more considered. It's someone who has taken the time to digest it and think about what they've seen. I don't tweet. I have a Twitter account, but only because someone else was imitating me. When you're writing, obviously, you want to go with your instincts, but you don't want to rush to put them into print. There are too many dangers in that. It's great to feel that rush of emotion, but I think the function of the critic is to translate that emotion into some more rational consideration of those feelings and where they come from.

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With you not being active on Twitter, where do you make your discoveries about new talent and about new works? I think that we are turning into such a social-media driven society where people are looking to Twitter and to Facebook to immediately find something new and exciting.
BB: I'm on Twitter, I just don't post. I read it. But, also, it's still just word of mouth, isn't it? …Which I guess is what Twitter is. Buzz will be heard no matter which medium it's channeled through. No matter where you get the information, whether it's online or on the phone or on the street, there are going to be some voices you trust more than others or that will tantalize you more than others do. But, one of the advantages of the digital age is that people are willing to publicize themselves — they certainly have a lot of platforms to do it — and a lot of people contact me directly. A lot of theatre artists will say, "I got this going on. I think you might like it," and I do read such dispatches, and if I have the time, I'll often find myself wanting to check them out.

What do you keep your eye on? What kind of playwrights or stars or theatre companies do you think are doing it right? What are the places developing new works that are worthwhile?
BB: You're less likely to see it at the more obvious institutional theatres — I think at least you're not going to be on the ground floor in that case. There's certain companies that I'm always — whether it's as venerable as The Wooster Group or as relatively recent as the Elevator Repair Service — going to be interested in what they are doing because they are companies that created their own vocabulary and their own particular perspective, theatrical perspective, on how to do things. I mean, the joy of New York… Even though I think New York is strangling itself by becoming like London — so expensive that it's hard for young talents to exist here — there's still places to go, whether it's the Bushwick Starr, or HERE still manages to be the forum for fresh talents. And, you find stuff on Theatre Row still that you don't expect. The New Group, even though it's not so many original plays that they do, there's still a certain vitality in the combination of star names and less obvious, less unsung, talents coming together. And, I go to London a lot. There's so much transatlantic traffic right now, it's almost as if it all exists in one world.

What, for you, makes a performance memorable? What is that moment like for you when you see someone on stage and say, "This can be the next star"?
BB: I don't think you really say that when you're watching it. You just know that suddenly a switch has been turned on — both by the performer and in you. It's a kind of simultaneous thing where the sky lights up. Sometimes it will be a performer who has been around… Like Annaleigh Ashford in You Can't Take It With You now.

I loved her performance in that.
BB: Wasn't that a great performance? And, it's so particular — so idiosyncratic — and it's a standout performance that also fits in perfectly within the context of what the show is trying to achieve. It's not something [where] the show suffers because this person is so good. But, she's the essence of it concentrated, and she just "has it." If you could bottle it, it would be great, but you can't, and when it comes along, you just have to stop and nod your head and say, "Wow. There it is."

What do you think makes a critic a good critic? Is it something that you can study? For me as a writer about theatre — I performed all my life — and I feel like that helps me to write about theatre because I know it from the other side. What qualifies you?
BB: I think that does help. I spent the first 22-23 years of my life being involved in theatre in some degree or another — probably not the first three or four of them — but from that moment on, I loved working with theatre, studying it, being around it. And, I think it does help to know what it feels like, even if it's only from amateur performance on the other side of the footlights. Do I think it's necessary? I don't know. There's certainly… Pauline Kael, who is the critic I read most closely when I was growing up, had no particular experience. She studied film at Berkeley, and she ran a film program or participated in one, but had she worked in movies at that point? No. And, often I think people who are in the discipline they're writing about aren't necessarily the best critics because they think, "Oh, this is how I would have done it," and you want a little more objectivity than that. But, yeah… It's good to know the mechanics of what you're writing about — where it comes from, the history — so yeah, we should probably all have to at least spend a little time on stage at some point or another, at least in the wings.

What keeps you excited about going to the theatre? When some people cross that line and go to the theatre for their job, it can become a job. What keeps you excited as an audience member?
BB: I love having it as my job. I didn't become a professional theatre critic until I was in my late 30s, so I came to it fairly late, but I'd always been going to the theatre, and I probably knew more about it than any other subject, but the nice thing about it being your job is you have to pay attention. If it's not [your job], you can be more selective about what you see and when you go. You can walk out after intermission, and I think you're not really giving the show a full chance. To be paid to pay attention means you're never bored, even if the show's not good — even if it's tedious, even if it's repetitive, you're still looking… You're focusing on it in a way you wouldn't otherwise. I think nothing's boring if you really, really look at it, so I'm very grateful that I have a job where I really have to look at things.

Speaking to that and to paying so close attention, do you feel a strong responsibility as a critic, especially as chief theatre critic for The New York Times?
BB: Yeah, sure, but I think any job you have — whether you're Homer Simpson in a nuclear power plant — of course you have to feel responsible. But you can't be paralyzed by it either or else you'll freeze up and there won't be that kind of ease in your voice, which you need to talk to people about what you love.

What is your take on reviews? Do you think they can make or break somebody or a production?
BB: I think you can call attention to something that might not be seen otherwise and help in that. Obviously, with straight plays without big stars, those things do rely on criticism more. Then there are things that are going to slide under the radar that don't need critical endorsements. Most of what Disney does is beyond criticism. Anything that stars Hugh Jackman, although he's mostly done really good stuff, I think is beyond criticism. It's smaller things that need critics and rely on that kind of opinion, so I think you've got to be kind of cautious not to just jump up and down on them.

With theatre becoming more and more commercial — and we're seeing so many stars put in — will people come solely for the stars? Like you said, does the critique matter at that point?
BB: No, no, no, no, no. And, it's like going to a freak show. It amazes me that at this point in history, where we have more access to the lives of famous people — the famous and glamorous — there's still this thrill that comes just from the idea of being in the same room with someone like that. And, so what? But nonetheless, it's a very primitive thing. When I was in London this summer, I went to a performance of Monty Python's reunion at the O2 Arena — huge, huge place [with] tens of thousands of people — and it was just gigantic screams. I had a good seat, and you still couldn't really see the live people, but people were obviously willing to pay hundreds of dollars just to be in the same room with these people, and that's some strange thing that I would take a social psychologist probably to explain fully. It's interesting. There are fewer stars than you think who guarantee that the audiences will come. The things that Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane are among them — at least in combination.

I've been following the press on Lindsay Lohan in the West End. I find it so interesting that people are already reviewing her performance, and she's still in previews. Do you think that is fair at all?
BB: No, I don't, but it's not professional critics who are doing that, and how do you stop? What do you do? Say, "You can't buy a ticket unless you swear not to…"? It's just the nature of civilization now. It's just unfortunate. But there has always some of that. There would always be, "The word on the street is…" Well, the word on the street now is the word on the Web, in a somewhat more tangible form.

When you're reviewing something, and when you're looking at something in the theatre, do you focus overall on big picture? You said you're never bored, so do you find yourself being nitpicky?
BB: I mean, it's both. The details can all be exquisite, but unless they add up to that big picture, the show hasn't succeeded. You've got to have a double focus at all times, whether you're conscious that that's what's happening or not… There's the idea of the big picture and the smaller ingredients that feed it. And, also, I think when you're watching, your mind [is] reacting and sort of sifting through things — the intellectual response. But there's also your gut, which is the more important reaction. No matter how much you might be able to justify a show, it's not a success unless you've really felt it, so you go with your gut first and then you try to figure out intellectually why it works and why it elicits that response from you.

Talking about going with your gut, do you ever go in, see something, go with your gut and afterwards feel, "Oh, maybe I got that wrong?" Do you read other people's reviews?
BB: Yeah, I do. But look how different they all are. My standard response to readers who email and say, "We must not have seen the same play" is always, "We didn't see the same play. It was probably on a different night. Every performance is different. I was in a different seat in the house, most likely." But, also, you can't erase who you are when you go to the theatre, and no matter how you try to be wholly objective, you bring your own life history to it — you bring your body temperature, you bring this whole skew of elements that make us individuals… I think it's dangerous to think, "Gee, I got that wrong because other people thought differently." When I look back, I don't think, "If only I'd written something different" because to the best of my ability, I tried to recreate what I felt at that moment. And, you may go back and see something again and think, "Well, I do feel differently now. I see something I didn't see before," but I don't think what you write the first time is inaccurate unless you lied to yourself.

Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself as a writer. How did you pave the path to The New York Times? A lot of people have that goal to write for the Times.
BB: It was a long and winding road. Let's see… I went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which is basically graduate prep. It's intensely academic, but I took a semester off when I was there, worked for the Village Voice as an intern — didn't write… I did some photo research, [but] basically I just opened letters and answered phones. First job I got out of college where I could get a byline was at Women's Wear Daily, which turned out to be the greatest graduate school I could have gone to. You were exposed to a lot of things, you got to write in a lot of different veins. I worked for them first in New York then in Paris, where I was the bureau chief. And, the story that I tell every time I do this kind of interview was: The very first interview I had out of college was [with] John Fairchild, who was in the head of Women's Wear Daily. [He asked], "If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?" And, I said, "Chief theatre critic at The New York Times," and we both realized this was probably an unrealistic goal, but it was what I answered. We sort of laughed and moved on. And then, after Paris, I came back to New York, worked under contract. I was on staff — at first Vanity Fair, and then when Tina Brown, then the editor of Vanity Fair, went to the New Yorker, I went with her. [At the] same time, I was writing movie reviews for Elle magazine, and my first editor there was Alex Witchel, who at the time was going out with Frank Rich, and she subsequently married. When they were looking for the new second-string theatre critic at the Times, and Frank was first-string critic, Frank called and said, "Can we put your name into the hat?" And, I said, "Sure," but I didn't think anything would come of it, and something did come of it very quickly. I did I think six audition pieces. It was just agreed that I would write a certain number of reviews, not to be printed, but just to show that I was comfortable with that vocabulary. I think that it was in six weeks that I was on staff.

What kind of journalism programs, writing programs or internships would you recommend to a young writer?
BB: Well, again, it's got to be something that you want to do first of all. I come from a family of journalists. Both my parents were, and my sister was, and my brother was, and I was writing for newspapers from the time I was ten, literally. So it's always been like an artisan's craft for me — journalism — just something I did. The main thing, again, is just to read and write as much as you can. It's like singing in a way — either you have an ear or you don't. I mean, you can be a good reporter, I think, without becoming a good writer. I think they're two different things, but if you do have the ear, you can cultivate that, and it's like learning to play the violin — it comes from practice and listening. I think when you read and something just flows for you, you have to listen to it. You listen to the words, and you try to create a sense of rhythm that's yours, but that you get from reading writers who can do it in your head.

What makes something worthy of coverage? There are so many things happening in New York City — so many concerts, shows, companies…
BB: First of all, you have the no brainers — the things that you have to cover, [such as] the Broadway openings, the Equity Off-Broadway openings, the institutional theatre openings — and then you look at track records. What you don't want to let slip through your fingers — and inevitably sometimes it will — is the next, exciting new thing. And, sometimes something will have been around for a while before you twig onto it. Well, Fiasco Theater I was on board with pretty early. I think they're amazing. I like these small theatre companies… Last January, [Bedlam Theater] did Hamlet and Saint Joan in repertory. These are bare-bones companies, often with a very limited number of ensemble members, and nonetheless [they] are able to give you the whole canvas of a great play. That's when you realize what counts more than anything is, again, passion… What gives me hope is that this stuff does keep bubbling up. And, that's what you want to be around for when it does, and it can happen… I guess it's happening all over the country, all over the world.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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