Theatre journalism is generally not considered a stepping stone to higher places in the media world.
Those self-sacrificing souls who venture into the narrow and unremunerative field of drama criticism tend to stay there for their entire career, assessing show after show until they are visited by either a pink slip or the Grim Reaper. Examples of practitioners who have graduated from Times Square or the West End to a larger field of reportorial inquiry are few and far between. British critic Kenneth Tynan spent his last years writing lengthy profiles of cultural figures that had an influence beyond the theatre. New York Times critic Frank Rich left his post to eventually become one of the nation's leading, left-leaning political commentators. And now there's Jeremy McCarter. After three years as the drama critic of the New York Sun, and then three more at New York magazine (replacing John Simon), he took a post last year as a senior writer at Newsweek, writing about broader issues in the arts and culture. Now a year at the news weekly, and with a new book coming out, McCarter talked to Playbill.com.
Playbill.com: What made you decide to leave your post at New York magazine for Newsweek?
Jeremy McCarter: I'd been writing about theatre full-time for six years and, when an editor from Newsweek approached me with the offer to stretch out a bit, I found it impossible to say no.
Playbill.com: Were you feeling burnt out on writing about only one subject?
JM: I wasn't burnt out, but I was definitely excited about the chance to explore some new terrain. I've always tried to find connections between theatre and what's going on outside the theatre. And this was a chance to do that more directly. Playbill.com: At Newsweek, what percentage of your writing still focuses on the arts?
JM: Most of what I write for Newsweek is about the culture, but it's culture broadly defined. For instance, I wrote an essay earlier this year about the role culture played in getting Barack Obama elected President. Not just TV shows from the last ten years, but the way that there's a tradition in the American culture that I think prepares the American mind to vote for someone like Obama. Without entirely meaning to do it, I've been exploring the broad influences of culture on politics and vice versa.
Playbill.com: The only other theatre critic in recent history that I can think of who made the transition from writing exclusively about the stage to writing about the larger culture is Frank Rich. Do you see him as a career model?
JM: Frank has made the transition out of theatre and established an extraordinarily influential post at the Times. His writing about politics I read with interest every week. However, my interests are mainly cultural, and I think Frank's interests seems to be more political.
Playbill.com: Over the past year, there have been many dire predictions about the future of theatre criticism as a profession, what with many posts being eliminated and several critics let go without being replaced. Your own position at New York, in fact, has not yet been permanently filled, but is occupied by a rotating array of writers. What is your take of the situation? What is the future of theatre criticism?
JM: From what I've heard, it's been really dire for the last couple of seasons. What makes the situation ominous now is the tough times for theatre critics are part of the tough times for everybody, for the entire working press. I have a feeling that theatre critics may be canaries in the coal mine for all the other critics and other journalists.
Playbill.com: What did you think of the decision by the Tony Awards organization to eliminate theatre journalists from their Tony voter lists?
JM: Hilarious. I think it's a wonderful Gilbert & Sullivan gesture. It's a perfect expression of topsy turvy logic; critics are by far the least conflicted people in the Tony voting pool. To single them out for their conflict of interest is really exquisite comedy.
Playbill.com: What do you think about the choice of Rocco Landesman to head the NEA? That would seem to be a meeting of culture and politics that would provoke your interest.
JM: It's an exciting choice. I think there's a lot of potential for Rocco to rejuvenate the way we talk about the arts. I'm intensely curious to see how this will play out.
Playbill.com: What made you gravitate toward British-born, political journalist Henry Fairlie as a subject for your first book? It's an interesting choice for someone who began as a theatre writer.
JM: My first job after school was at The New Republic. When I was there I fell in love with Henry's writing. He had died in 1990, but his name was still very much in the air at the magazine. I was the editor of New Republic on-line and was looking for writers from the magazine's history to feature. When I started looking into Henry's writing, it became clear that a website couldn't do this man's writing justice. It was too timely, it was too provocative, too funny. I thought an anthology would be the right way to present that to readers today. It took a few years, but it's finally out.