Michael Phillips, theatre critic for the Los Angeles Times, has been named to succeed Richard Christiansen as the chief drama critic of the Chicago Tribune. He will begin his duties surveying the Windy City theatre scene in mid-January 2002. Chris Jones, Chicago reviewer for Variety, will be second stringer.
Phillips, 40, arrives in Illinois with a wealth of experience, having covered stages in several parts of the country. Prior to his three-year tenure at the L.A. Times, he spent 15 months as theatre critic as the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. Before that, he was employed at the San Diego Union-Tribune for seven years, four of them as a reviewer. The quartet of years prior to that found him in Texas, on the payroll of the now defunct Dallas Times Herald.
Phillips said he applied for the Tribune job soon after hearing of Christiansen’s plans to step down. “It was the first really difficult decision of my professional life,” he told Playbill On-Line, “the L.A. Times being such a good paper, and the theatre pretty interesting, if you can get used to the mileage. But Chicago, it’s reputation proceeds it, it’s a bigger theatre town. I saw some of the formative shows of my life there. At Steppenwolf, I saw And a Nightingale Sang..., and it just destroyed me.”
He also noted that, since he was from the Midwest and his wife from North Dakota, it was hard not to be tempted by the locale. “No one could scare me with talk about the cold,” he joked.
Phillips is acquainted with Christiansen, having been his student at the Eugene O’Neill Center in 1984. The longtime Chi-town scribe will reportedly stay on at the Trib, writing occasional features and articles. Chris Jones has for many years covered the Chicago scene for Variety. Though hired by the Tribune as a second stringer, Phillips mentioned that he didn’t care for that title, intimating that he may be generous with Jones in the division of the Chicago beat.
Richard Christiansen, the chief theatre reviewer of The Chicago Tribune and the leading critical voice in Chicago theatre for more than three decades, will retire in early 2002. Christiansen told Playbill On-Line in April that he hasn't set an exact date when he will lay down his pen, but late January or early February were likely times. He added that he would continue to write the occasional article or review for the paper that has been his home since 1978.
Christiansen gave several reasons for his semi-retirement, two of which had to do with the comforting sound of round numbers. The writer turned 70 years old recently, an anniversary which got him thinking about slowing down a bit. Also, 2001 marked his 45th year in the rarefied business of theatre reviewing and reporting.
Christiansen — who was born in one Chicago suburb, raised in another and has lived in the Windy City all his adult life — began his career at the old Chicago Daily News in 1957, holding various titles including entertainment editor and critic at large. When the News folded in 1978, he jumped to the Tribune, where he has remained ever since.
As a critic, his opinion has long held great sway in Chicago, where his influence has been akin to Elliot Norton's during the latter's heyday as Boston's premier reviewer. He is most closely associated with chronicling and nurturing the Chicago theatre renaissance which began roughly 30 years ago.
"Very late in the 60s and early in the 70s," said Christiansen, "a lot of the groundbreaking theatres came into existence, like Victory Gardens, which is still around. Some have passed into history, like the Remains Theatre and Wisdom Bridge. By the time Steppenwolf came into view in the mid- 70s, there was already a feeling of momentum and that something quite exciting was happening in Chicago.
"Chicago is unique," he added, "in that its reputation was built on the back of small theatres instead of large theatres."
Christiansen is still fiercely loyal to his home town. He has never tired of his job and, though he has had offers, has never been tempted to leave the city. "I still do enjoy [reviewing]. I know lots of people finds it palls after a while. I still get a kick out of it." He said that he might write a book about his experiences covering Chicago theatre, but that nothing specific has been planned.
—By Robert Simonson