A toast to …

Terry Teachout (1956-2022)

About twenty years ago, at the dawn of the blogosphere, I started my own blog to write about theater, drama, and playwriting efforts. At the time, the only critic with a blog presence was Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I dropped him a short note alerting him to my own web site and suggested that he might find it of interest. Terry did more than that; he responded enthusiastically, both at About Last Night and in personal emails, and so began a friendly relationship. Terry and I did not see eye-to-eye on many aesthetic issues, but his generosity and open-mindedness made our disagreements more on the order of cheerful exchanges of views instead of bitter arguments. And on several occasions it turned out we did surprisingly agree on certain plays, music, and social issues, and this deepened my respect for his perspective.

Terry and I would get together for lunch once in a while, and a few times I was his +1 for press previews; I would also run into him occasionally when I myself was a freelance theater reviewer for the New York Times. (Once I came across him during a press preview for a particularly uninspired Broadway musical comedy. When I approached him to say hello, he looked up at me from his aisle seat, widened his eyes, and said with a smile, “Boy, did somebody put you on the wrong list.”) And when, in 2006, he kindly agreed to accept a press ticket for my own play, he not only attended but gave it a rave review on his web site, a review that brought considerable cheer and happiness to the director and cast of the play, not to mention myself. And, because I was familiar with Terry’s journalistic integrity, which nobody who knew him would deny, it was doubly appreciated; had he not liked the play, a tiny-Greenwich-Village-theater bagatelle rather than a Broadway extravaganza, he would have responded to it with a kind, but silent, smile.

Since then Terry and I remained in only occasional contact, but it was with great sadness that I read of his passing at the age of 65 this morning. In the years since, Terry had written highly-regarded biographies of two of the jazz musicians most important to him, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He began a side career of writing and directing plays himself.  And Terry was particularly admired and beloved for his unstinting devotion to regional theater productions, travelling far and wide (at least, before corona set in) to cover out-of-the-way plays and musicals that otherwise would not have received national attention; indeed, Terry was the only national theater critic to spend any time searching out theater on the highways and byways of this huge country of ours, and for this alone I’m sure he’s at Heaven’s check-in desk.

Terry had his share of sadness over the past few years, becoming a widower two years ago, but had recently found love again, a love he was unashamed of expressing on Twitter, his preferred social medium, where he posted with sometimes alarming frequency. I’ll miss seeing his name and his posts there, so a toast to you today, old friend. We hardly knew ye.

Back to basics

Yesterday in one fell swoop I wrote a little sketch — a bit over seven pages — for my 11-year-old daughter Billie, who is taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. It’s the first dramatic writing I’ve finished in the past six or seven years. As I wrote earlier, Billie’s stage debut, even in the context of an acting class open rehearsal, engendered some melancholy in the Old Man, but apparently produced a few sparks out of the ashes of my previous ambition. Last night we sat around the living room and read it out loud — a coffee-table read, I suppose — and it met with approval from the cast, all Hunkas.

In part it must have been the challenge of writing for my own 11-year-old daughter that fanned that spark into a tiny flame. The challenges were profoundly unlike writing for adult performers, who have a much broader range of experience and training to draw from. Concision is key, of course: attention must be held, and the attention span of an 11-year-old is already paltry to begin with. It’s good if there are a few jokes in there too; the characters and situation must be immediately identifiable and relevant to their experience.

But primarily I found that, in writing for her, I couldn’t go too far above her head, at the same time acknowledging that 11-year-olds are surprisingly aware and mature, so I couldn’t write down to her either. This is especially the case after the past few years, when pre-teens have had to navigate a particularly treacherous landscape, ridden with frightening pandemics and what appears to be the collapse of American democracy, which undermines everything they might learn in the classroom (and pedagogy is always a few years behind the curve). Socialization, for this reason, has been an ongoing struggle for them, and the struggle doesn’t end there. Two days ago David Leonhardt assembled a depressing list in the New York Times of the pressures facing children these days, and I’m sure most parents and educators would concur and agree, even if this kind of reporting rarely makes it into the newspapers.

Theater and drama may prove to be a saving grace in this case, because theater — in-person, simple, text-based theater — may provide at least one avenue to understanding this world and permit a means of living in it. My play had nothing to do with coronavirus or politics; it was really just a little anecdote, based on my observation of Billie and her friends. (And writing a play like this tested my powers of observation and empathy too.) But if we can still negotiate our relationships on the stage, person-to-person even if we still can’t see the lower halves of our faces through our masks, perhaps we can make up for some of that lost socialization. Somehow writing plays for people this age gets you back to basics. Which is where we all seem to be nowadays.

Like father …

A few weekends ago, my daughter made her stage debut at the Lee Strasberg Institute here in New York. It wasn’t a formal production — more of an open rehearsal for friends and family of the young students — but nonetheless there she was, at 11 years old convincing and entirely off book for both of her scenes and, I must add, I was proud, as any father would be. And, I must admit, simultaneously hopeful and melancholy. I have spent a good part of my writing life as a playwright and critic, with stints at the New York Times and the Guardian and elsewhere, though that was another world ago, back in the Pleistocene Era. Still, if theatre is in the genes, I suppose it’s been passed on to the next generation, which is perhaps where it belongs.

I don’t really know why children take to the theatre so, but they do; I didn’t get there myself until my teens. My daughter and her fellow students had been part of the fall youth workshop at the Strasberg Institute, learning method acting, stage fighting, dance, and a little camera work; after the scene study, she and her friends also participated in a round of improvisation. It could be that children have greater access to their imaginations and the ways in which their bodies can personify those imaginings. After these past few years, any sort of escape from this reality seems laudable. I’m 59 now, so I should add that I also envied them this access. Youth isn’t wasted on the young. They seem to know quite well what to do with it.

To make matters more personally confounding, Billie also came across an old play of mine in the bookshelves called Snow’s Day and asked if there was a part in it for her. I had to disappoint her; set on the last day of an aging professor’s career, the play didn’t have a role for, much less appeal to, an 11-year-old girl. But, inspired, I did pass along to her something more appropriate and considerably more successful, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. This she liked, though the two characters she liked the least were George and Emily. Apparently cynicism, like a penchant for the dramatic arts, can be passed on through the genes as well.

Snow’s Day was the last play I wrote, about seven years ago, and I think it still might be the last play I ever write. I’d thought it might be my farewell to the theatre, but obviously I was wrong; somehow Billie keeps me in the game, at least as an admiring parent. (Billie has re-upped for the winter session at Strasberg.) It could well be that theatre and drama are properly young people’s passions — young at heart, if not in body, perhaps; but I can’t say that I’m young at heart these days myself, so am delighted to leave it to my daughter and her new friends, who certainly are. Nonetheless, her performance did poke the ashes a bit; I recently found myself re-reading The Cherry Orchard, and even made a few notes for a new play that would include, as a character, a 12-year-old girl. Maybe it’s a family business now, and Billie’s trying to pull me back in. Whatever happens, whatever Billie does, I’ll be in the stalls, cheering her on. And with luck, she’ll be able to score me a house seat on the aisle.

Salad days

Edited January 29, 2020

Yesterday I was delighted to find in my mailbox Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture, Megan Vaughan’s survey for Methuen Drama of that peculiar critical pursuit in which I played some small part from 2003 through 2010 or so under a variety of titles, primarily Superfluities Redux but also this eponymous journal. I can’t imagine there will ever be a more reliable history of the period: Megan’s done her homework, and rather astonishingly she must have spent years tracking down so much of my writing, little of which I’ve taken the trouble to preserve. She has also been a theatre blogger herself, and her prose is delightfully light-footed as she traverses the international canvas that we bloggers smeared our paint across in those halcyon days.

Not that I didn’t wince on occasion, but that’s hardly her fault, and the selection she made from my own blog is characteristic enough of my writing at the time. The tidal wave of the past didn’t sweep me off my Proustian feet as I paged through the book, but when Megan says on the first page of the introduction “The theatre blogosphere has made a more significant and far-reaching contribution to theatre — its practices as well as its profile — than anything else in the twenty-first century” — my gosh, I’m not so sure we were up to that.

What we were primarily up to, I think — Laura Axelrod, Isaac Butler, Mac Rogers, Garrett Eisler, Matthew Freeman, Rob Weinert-Kendt, and the rest (all of whom are well represented in Megan’s book) — was explaining ourselves to ourselves, each other, and whoever else might find us of interest. We could go on at whatever length we liked, and our comments sections invited responses that were sometimes more illuminating than the original posts themselves. It was a virtual community, and like any passionate community, it generated argument, good will, friends, collaborations, enemies, and interested bystanders. And where are they now? Well, burnout was always a risk; a lot of us have families and kids, which generate the need for earning a decent wage and cut deeply into the keyboard time; for some of us, passions have shifted; for others, there are new opportunities. (For me, the blog led to brief stints writing about theatre for the New York Times and the Guardian.) And Ben Brantley, as he was back in 2003, is still the lead theatre critic for the New York Times, and Jim Nicola is still the Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop.

I still have warm feelings for all of these people, and am proud of whatever we were able to do at the time, but in the U.S., at any rate, there doesn’t seem to be much of a blogosphere of any kind any more, for theatre or anything else; Twitter and Facebook have marginalized the individual voice into closed, monetized systems, parasitic on our privacy, that permit us to block or unfollow anything we disagree with, while we bloggers let it all out into the open, whether our readers were in our “friends” or “followers” lists or not. Happily, Megan reports in her book that things may be different in the U.K. Blogging as a critical form continues to have a life there, as well it should. The landscape’s far different now — and thank god that the form is far more heterogenous than it was when we started out, all those cisgendered white middle-class people with university educations. Ultimately, it is to be wished, the young newcomers from across the spectrum will lead criticism and theatre itself to newer and more hopeful horizons.

A few days ago, Megan groused a bit that I’d retired so much of my own material from those salad days, but it seems a lifetime ago. Some of the material I deemed worth keeping around is still available; there’s Word Made Flesh, a collection of several essays first published at my theatre blog and, though it’s now out-of-print, I’d still sign my name to it; and these notes on Richard Foreman, I feel, are substantial enough to keep in the archive. In print, I also contributed to this collection of Foreman plays and this collection of essays about Howard Barker, a quite different animal indeed, who also drew my critical attention at the time.

Foreman retired from theatre making about the same time I retired from theatre writing, and given the great impact his theatre and theory had on my own sensibility and temperament, I suppose that’s no surprise. I’m not sure what I’d write about drama and theatre now, these many years later, and sometimes I’m curious as to what I’d say. But a tip of my hat to Megan, who reminded me that once I had a great deal to say indeed.

My past comes back to haunt me

I must have started this blog about twenty years go. I began it in the quaint delusion that I might one day carve out some kind of career in the theatre, either as a playwright or as a critic, perhaps both; about ten years ago I dropped all this, however, for a number of reasons both good and bad. I was reminded of this early ambition when I recently received word that Megan Vaughan’s book Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture is scheduled to be published by Methuen next February. Some time ago Megan interviewed me for the book, a pleasurable experience; a more amusing experience was to find recently that in the promotional material for the book Methuen wrote:

The work of prominent and influential early adopters such as Encore Theatre Magazine and Chris Goode in London; George Hunka and Laura Axelrod in New York; Jill Dolan at Princeton University and Alison Croggon in Melbourne is featured and considered alongside those who followed them.

That I had followers of any kind produced a bemused smile. I suppose I was sort of prominent at the time — the blog led to a stint as a freelance theatre reviewer for The New York Times and theatre essayist for The Guardian — but influential? This produced more a laugh than a smile.

As I said earlier, I haven’t been going to the theatre for a while. But when I did, I was most impressed by the work of Richard Foreman, and my blog featured quite a bit of writing about the avant-garde playwright and director. Like myself, Foreman’s been away from the theatre for more than a decade now, though he continues to work in film. (Some of his recent activity, along with his films, can be found here.) I’ve collected most, but far from all, of my writing about Richard’s work here, for the sake of the archive. Richard was truly prominent and influential, and his work continues to be the most powerful I was privileged to see and write about during those theatre years of mine. I haven’t had the opportunity to polish, organize, update, or revise any of this writing — 12,000 words of it, apparently — but as a reminder of my checkered past I thought it appropriate at least to keep it all in a safe place.

(I should mention two recent Foreman-related publications here as well. Plays for the Public, a collection of Richard’s last plays, will be published by TCG next month. And Neal Swettenham’s 2017 Richard Foreman: An American (Partly) in Paris discusses Foreman as a quasi-European artist.)