Playbill On-Line reporter David Lefkowitz is spending the week of May 24-31 at the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Denver, from which he has been posting periodic dispatches. Here is the latest.
In a May 27 address to members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), gathered in Colorado for their annual summer conference, Daniel Sullivan, former critic for both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, shared his thoughts on a life devoted to journalism and reviewing. Sullivan, now co director of the National Critics Institute at CT's Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, told the assembled the trick is to be honest but not unkind.
"I do not believe in pussywillow criticism," said Sullivan. " The motto of the theatre is not `darling, you were wonderful.' It's not about sparing the feelings of those he writes about. If it entails saying no, firmly, that's the job. But I do think it's wise to avoid the gleeful tone of an avenger grinding his enemy, the actor, into the dust."
Sullivan recalled when he penned a number of songs and sketches for a revue, then read at the end of a positive newspaper critique, "`Kudos to Daniel Sullivan, etc. I suddenly realized how a couple of lines at the end of the review can leave a mark on the creators greater than the critic had intended. And if I can feel that way when my creative theatre writing is a hobby, how much stronger that must be for theatre professionals who depend on the kindness of strangers.
"We should be strong enough," continued Sullivan, "not to let anyone define our lives, but it's hard. We have to admire Edward Albee, who keeps on going no matter what is written about a particular play of his. And we feel for the William Inges, who believes the critics when they say he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, but also believes them when they say he's through." Sullivan, after reading excerpts from particularly juicy slams, also offered a practical reason to go easy on the vituperation. "If you slap someone that publicly, the sympathy goes to the actor, not you. Don't come off as a person whose basic joy is to inflict pain. Pick your targets. You don't need to be loved by theatre people, but you want to be respected by the people you write about, write for, and the people who read you."
Asked how close a critic is allowed to get to an artistic director or actor, Sullivan advised keeping a safe distance. "When it comes to fraternization, aka sleeping with the enemy, there's no right answer. It depends on temperament. Independence is the most important thing for a critic. I remember Brooks Atkinson's rule: `don't go out drinking with John Barrymore. '. You could then judge him strictly as an artist. Avoid doing lunches with directors who want to share their `concept' of the piece. It can be too much information. You just want to see the play and let it happen to you. You're not a collaborator.
"On the other hand, the British way is to hob nob like crazy. The same with Alexander Wolcott. And these days, few of us have the luxury of being `pure critics.' We do interviews and sometimes have to make the rounds of cocktail parties, so that if an artistic director resigns, we know something about the company if we have to write a story about it."
"But the peril of hob-nobbing," continued Sullivan, "is you get so tight with sources, you think of yourself as one of the gang. One midwest theatre was almost destroyed by a scandal over its artistic director. Before the whole thing broke, gossip continued for years because the local newspaper reporter didn't want to deal with it and get into a messy situation."
It's not surprising Sullivan approaches reviewing from a staunchly journalistic angle. He basically saw himself "as a newspaper person who happened to be assigned to the theatre." That said, he took it upon himself to learn more about the discipline he was asked to cover. Sullivan spent an academic year in the theatre department of Stamford University, where theatre historian Martin Esslin was teaching. That was helpful, but what really made the difference was when those around Sullivan would say, "How about hanging lights, painting sets, acting, directing?"
Said Sullivan, "Indeed it was really about that. Finally you get to see how hard it is to do, and how many steps are involved. I studied music theory with Virgil Thompson, and I asked him what do you do if you have to review a violin concerto and you know nothing about the violin? Thompson responded, ` take a violinst to the concert and then grill him. If your editor has a problem with it, tell him Virgil Thompson said it was okay!"
Of course, Sullivan has since had 30 years to learn what he needed to know about his "violin" -- the theatre. "Theatre is a sporting event, a contest," Sullivan told the ATCA critics. "They've got to get out there and talk to a thousand people and wrench, or coax, everyone out of their individual mindsets. That's what theatre's all about. And after thirty years, I don't deny that for me there's been some attrition. As a civilian, I'm more apt to leave at intermission. I nod out more often, which has to do with age and energy level (though I don't nod out when they've really got me)."
"But being a good critic," continued Sullivan, "makes you a better appreciator of life. It's a miracle -- what can happen in a room when a bunch of actors get together to tell a story. My favorite moment in theatre isn't when the curtain comes up. It's at the end, when the audience acknowledges what happened for them."
Concluded Sullivan, "A really good critic constructs a mosaic with all his reviews. You can add them up into a view of his life. My daughter is a theatre critic now, and I can see her in her reviews... Thirty years of reviewing has left me richer. It added to whatever I am."
-- By David Lefkowitz