Podcast Episode 88 Transcript – Charles Isherwood

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport. I am honored to have with us today one of the most important voices in theatrical criticism on the planet. Please welcome to the podcast New York Times theatre critic, Mr. Charles Isherwood. Welcome, Charles.

Charles: Thank you.

Ken: So, Charles, which came first for you? Was it your love of the theatre or your love of writing?

Charles: Well I think I was a natural writer before I became a lover of theatre because as a child I used to write lunatic stories which I would be very embarrassed to read today, I’m sure, and theatre really didn’t come into my life until I was in my early 20s because I grew up in a suburb in northern California and we didn’t go to the theatre that much. My parents did, they went to ACT, and the kids stayed home, but I was a huge Pauline Kael fan and I was a huge movie fan – I would start reading Pauline Kael and get more and more into movies and somehow, between having, I think, a certain natural writing instinct or talent and becoming obsessed with Pauline Kael, that ultimately led to my career, such as it is.

Ken: And where did the career of criticism begin? How did it start?

Charles: Well, I moved to Los Angeles after college – I now call that the lost decade in Los Angeles. In fact, without that, I would never be where I am today because I started working at a magazine which folded and then Variety gave me a job as a copy editor. At the time they didn’t have a reliable or regular Daily Variety LA theatre critic and I had gotten much more interested in theatre by this point and I sort of had my Ruby Keeler moment where I went in and said ‘Hey, let me do this! I can do this!’ and it turned out well. I started becoming the main Daily reviewer for LA Variety and then they moved me to New York.

Ken: Do you remember the first play or musical you ever reviewed?

Charles: Well, actually I did write for Backstage West in its infancy before. That’s how I had my Ruby Keeler moment – I had my little reviews to show. $5 I got paid for those reviews, by the way. Some reviewers are probably still getting paid that!

Ken: If.

Charles: I know, I know. So, wait, what was the question?

Ken: What was the first review? Do you remember?

Charles: Oh, the first review? No. I think it was a small play in Pasadena called Murder for Rent which was, of course, impossibly bad but I got to cover a few interesting things. Lips Together, Teeth Apart in LA in its first incarnation. So I started small but when I started writing for Daily Variety I got more attention and then I started coming to New York much more often and then they moved me here.

Ken: When you started writing reviews did you think “Someday I want to be a critic for the New York Times,”? Was that a desire or a dream at that point?

Charles: You know, it never really occurred to me until people started saying to me “Oh, you would be great at the New York Times.” Not that people were stalking me on the street or anything, but a couple of people, when I first moved to New York and started writing for Variety, said “Hey, you’re a very good critic and the Times would be lucky to have you,” but I don’t know if they feel that way at this point.

Ken: And what was it like getting that call, eventually, and thinking you were going to write for the theatrical paper of record?

Charles: Well, I mean obviously it was terribly exciting. At the same time, I had been called by the Los Angeles Times to move back there and be their chief critic. That’s always how it works – until you’re desirable to someone else, you’re not that desirable to this one. So of course it was exciting.

Ken: Was that a tough choice, to go between the two?

Charles: No, not really. I love New York. As I said, I feel like I’m a born New Yorker who just took a long time to get here. LA, as much as I love the city now when I visit, it just was not the right fit for me so I didn’t want to go back.

Ken: Tell me a bit about your process for writing a review – do you take notes during the shows, do you like to see them early or middle, do you go home and write the review right away? If you were going to see a show tonight, after it was done, or even during, what would be your process?

Charles: Well, I take notes, of course. They’re illegible but it really serves as more of a memory device, like when you’re writing on a particular moment or line of dialogue or image, it sticks in your memory more so you don’t even look at the notes, necessarily, you still remember because you’ve taken a note because it struck you. So I’ll take notes but I don’t write the second I get home – that’s when I have a drink.

Ken: So the notes – let me just ask about the notes – do you only note good or do you note bad as well?

Charles: Oh, I note everything. Anything that strikes me. I wouldn’t want to have my notes transcribed and put in an anthology anywhere. They’d be inane, of course, but also condemnatory in some ways.

Ken: Like Hilary Clinton emails.

Charles: Yeah, I know, let’s not go there.

Ken: No politics.

Charles: I’m not allowed to express opinions. But, no, I write the next morning, and of course, as you know, in the theatre we usually have two or three previews before the show opens so you’re not under that crazy pressure that they are in London where literally you have to write your review in an hour.

Ken: Were you ever writing reviews at a time where you had to do that or have you always had the cushion of a couple of days?

Charles: Well not in Los Angeles – they didn’t have press previews so you’d go to the opening and you’d have to write by 10am the next morning, and then the crazy thing is – I can’t believe I did this – I was still working as a copy editor so I’d write a review in the morning, then go work an eight hour shift as a copy editor and then go to another show, possibly, that night and write the next morning.

Ken: There was a lighting designer, Ken Billington, who was on this very podcast and he said he missed the days when reviewers had to go to opening night and write the review that night because he felt there was a “live or die” energy in the room that made it more exciting for people.

Charles: For people on stage?

Ken: For everybody. That even the people sitting in the house, we all knew that “Oh, the reviewers are there. This is it. This is the performance that everyone’s going to see.” His concern, I guess, has been that what if a reviewer goes to see a matinee where it’s a dead house on a Saturday afternoon or something. Do you think we could ever go back to that?

Charles: No, that’s not happening, for any number of reasons.

Ken: I never knew you were so funny, Charles!

Charles: I’m quite funny when I’m sour. But no, that’s not going to go back. We’re not going back to that. From my perspective, I think the criticism is actually much more acute and well written and perceptive when you have time to process the play which, you know, you have to do overnight sometimes, and also the truth is the performance on opening night with the critics there is not going to reflect what’s going to happen two days later or three days later. In a weird way I think when there are four previews the critics can go to maybe you’re getting a more accurate picture of what is going on stage every night.

Ken: How long does it take you to write a review? Do you start the next morning?

Charles: Yeah, I mean it depends. If you’re in a passionate fury to say something good or bad it will take as little as 90 minutes. Of course you go back and refine and adjust. Sometimes you want to take it slower and do one paragraph here, one paragraph there, but usually I do them all in, I would say, an average of three hours.

Ken: And you mentioned adjusting and changing or rewriting, which of course is something all writers do – how much do editors influence what you do in terms of space or language or is it really your own review that gets published?

Charles: Which editor? I’ve had five now, I believe. Critics, I think, have more leeway than reporters to stand firm – “This is what I want to say, this is how I want to say it.” All of my editors have bene helpful in some ways and you do want that perspective. In general, I’m not heavily edited, I know I’m just not heavily edited, so pretty much what you see is what you get. We really are offering our fairly unvarnished opinions, or excessively varnished opinions, however you want to read it, of what we saw. The editors do not meddle too much.

Ken: How many shows a year do you see? Do you know the number, approximately?

Charles: I lie awake at night trying to figure out that number. I probably see, on average, four shows a week so that’s, what? Two hundred. I can’t do math, that’s why I’m in this business. At least four shows a week because I see the shows I’m reviewing, I see the shows that Ben is reviewing, you sometimes try to see things that are far off your beat, so I’m out almost every night but I’m a nocturnal person. This is an ideal job because you don’t have to get up early in the morning.

Ken: So you will see something that Ben is reviewing that he’s already chimed in on just for your own education.

Charles: Well, and of course at the end of the year we have to have our Tony predictions and picks and all this stuff so I have to see a lot of shows.

Ken: I often have this image of you and Ben at the office, going back and forth about a show. Do you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing more? Do you ever talk about this stuff?

Charles: We occasionally have conversations – not personal conversations but we do a piece for the paper where we talk about the season or whatever – but, no, we rarely see each other, I mean neither of us work from the office and I usually don’t see the shows he reviews until they’ve opened so I don’t read his review until after the show’s opened – I don’t want to be tainted – but of course I have to have my own opinion. Obviously he’s a very astute, smart critic and a very good writer so it’s not like I’m outraged every week at what Ben has written so it’s not really an issue.

Ken: Those articles, the conversations with you two about the season, are some of my favorite articles of the year in the arts and leisure section, by the way. So two hundred-something shows a year, now I’m a Tony voter and at the end of the year, as things start to pile up for me, with shows to see, I literally will get tired of seeing show after show and it starts to wear on me. Does the same thing happen for you? Is this a problem with our industry right now, in terms of the back loaded heavy season?

Charles: Well, every season is slightly more end loaded, shall we say, but yeah, April is, we typically say, the cruelest month for theatre critics but I don’t cover so much Broadway so I can take a little more time. I do find it baffling that this model continues to exist, that there are, what? 36, 37, 38 shows opening in a season on Broadway and 12 of them will open in one month or five weeks. It doesn’t do a great service for anybody but I don’t see how it’s going to change because there’s also proof that the closer you open to the Tony’s the more likely you are to get more attention and thus Tony awards and money.

Ken: Is there anything else that producers could do to make things easier for the critics in terms of schedule or timing or things that you wish “Oh, if they only…”? Like for example, and I’m not sure if you do this or not, but if you request a script now, we’ll send you a script beforehand so you can really look at things. Is there something else that you wish producers or writers would do to make your job easier?

Charles: No, I don’t think so. I think actually we have it pretty easy these days. I never read the scripts before I see a show, even if I got them, but it’s nice to be able to consult them. I think critics are treated very well, actually. It would be nice if there weren’t 12 shows opening in one week in April, or two weeks in April, but at the Times we – touch wood – still have two critics so neither of us is having to cover everything, so that helps.

Ken: Obviously you’re a theatre fan as well – this is my job but I’m also a theatre fan – so you’ll see me on the trades, Playbill or some of the other websites that just push promotional material out for the shows, “To catch the latest video in rehearsal of this song or this new musical.” Do you watch that stuff or do you try to block that out because, just like you don’t want to read the script, you don’t want to get a taste of what you may see?

Charles: I don’t watch them. I don’t read too much of that stuff just because you do want to have a clear mind, an open mind shall we say, and the gossip sites, I never look at those because they’re always saying horrible things about me, or in my dreams they’re saying horrible things about me – if only! But no, I try not to look at a lot of that stuff. I’d rather be reading a book – not about theatre.

Ken: So no chatrooms. What do you read books about?

Charles: Oh, you know, I read novels, I read Henry James. Very important books, Ken. Very important books.

Ken: So no chatrooms, no social media, none of this stuff.

Charles: Well, I’m on Facebook. I’m much more on Facebook at times when I’m encouraged to engage in social media as much as possible but I’m not on Twitter – yet – and I live in fear of the day I must be. I think Facebook is actually, well obviously it’s a very powerful tool that the Times is trying to optimize in its own way for all sorts of reasons.

Ken: So obviously you know that a review of yours can have a big effect on a show opening – a play, musical – whether it’s here in New York, Broadway or off-Broadway, or wherever it is around the country. Is that hard when you write? Is it a lot of pressure as you put fingers to the keyboard?

Charles: You know, I don’t think about it. I probably should more but if you start letting those kind of considerations enter your head then I think you’re going to compromise – this is going to sound fancy – compromise your critical integrity, because those things you should put aside when you go in as a critic. You respond to what you see on stage, now how your opinion will be perceived, even though of course on a conscious level I know there is some influence that I have. But of course it’s been proven many times that the Times’s vaunted power of making or breaking shows is semi-mythical. For certain shows, the more highbrow stuff, I think it’s certainly a case but Cats would have been a hit whatever anyone said about it.

Ken: Do you ever write something and then think “They’re going to quote that. They’re going to take that and slap that on a marquee somewhere.”?

Charles: Well you start to notice it and of course they’re getting much more, shall we say, fraudulent in selecting quotes and putting them together. So you’ll have an adjective in three different sentences and they’ll string them together in ways. Some of the publicists, the ad people, will run them by us and if they’re egregious of course we’ll say no. My policy is if the words are in the review and they are not mangled in a weird way, put together to misrepresent what I said, fine, it’s fair game. If I said at one point “Magnificent”, referring to the ottoman in one scene, they want to put “Magnificent” and that’s it, that’s their prerogative.

Ken: Do you ever get angry letters from writers, producers, feedback?

Charles: Mostly from readers who disagree with my opinion. Writers, I did get a very nasty email from Marsha Norman once. It wasn’t even about a play, it was about something else I’d written, but then we had a nice exchange. I often find that, if you get one of these horrible attack letters, if you respond in a not necessarily equally antagonistic way then they don’t back off but they say “Okay, well maybe you’re not the horrible human being I thought you were.” So I don’t always respond but I do respond when I feel it’s necessary or I’m really annoyed.

Ken: Do you ever get thank you letters or positive letters from artists?

Charles: I’ve gotten a few, yeah. I mean it’s probably about even. Actually I’ve probably gotten more thank yous or subtle thank yous from artists than complaints from artists because I think most artists know you’re not going to win complaining to a critic, although frankly it doesn’t really bother me either way.

Ken: Okay, in your entire life, your favorite theatre-going experience. The one that, if you had to watch it every single day for the rest of your life, you would watch it.

Charles: I don’t know that I can say that there is one. I will give you a couple. Before I moved to New York and before I was really involved in theatre – I was just starting to think about writing about it – I came and saw John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation and I stood in line and failed to see it – it was in the Mitzi Newhouse – and I made a trip back to see it at the Vivian Beaumont and that was one of the most transcendent evenings of my life because I thought “This is just an incredibly smart, funny, profound play in a perfect production,” and I just went out of that theatre walking on air, as they say. Well, walking on Lincoln Center Plaza in fact, but that’s one. Certainly the revival of Chicago that everyone went crazy for was also a very thrilling moment because the style of the production was obviously fairly radical for the time and it was from Encores! And I was in LA at the time and we didn’t have that. So those two I can really point to but also discovering writers like Annie Baker, her play The Aliens which I think is the second, possibly the third, that I’d seen of hers in this tiny theatre in the West Village. Sometimes you get a little depressed, you see a lot of bad plays – this one I came out thinking “This is why I’m doing this. This is a great artist and her work needs to be known about and I’ll shout from the rooftops if need be.” So those three are the first three that I think of.

Ken: How do you think Broadway is doing today versus when you started writing reviews?

Charles: Well I moved here in 1998 and it was already on an upswing, I think. That was the season of The Lion King, which obviously became a big blockbuster, and we had a lot of American blockbusters. Okay, granted it was based on a movie, but of course it was a very inventive production. I think Broadway has really gotten much more adventurous in the past five to ten years. Even Hamilton – ten or fifteen years ago that might have been produced off-Broadway, gotten great reviews but nobody would have thought of moving it to Broadway. A rap musical about Alexander Hamilton with a multi-racial cast? That might not have happened. Fun Home, I don’t think that would be a success on Broadway. So even though it’s still largely a commercial enterprise catering to tourists and offering up a jukebox musical every single season or two I think it actually has gotten a little more adventurous. The one weak area is new American plays, which don’t really appear very often at all.

Ken: And how has reviewing changed in the last twenty years for you? Do you find that your style has to be different now? Are you asked to write shorter reviews than you were when you started? what’s changed about that process for you?

Charles: Well, there are changes coming at the Times because, well, obviously, as you know, the publishing industry is not in robust help, the business model, so we are trying to discover new ways of covering theatre and this fall I think we are going to be introducing new features or changing the approach. So far we have not had any mandates – fewer reviews, fewer words – but, I don’t know, that may come. What’s most dispiriting is not what’s happened at the Times, which has generally just tried to adapt to a changing environment, what’s happened elsewhere, where theatre critics are being laid off or not being replaced, that’s the most unfortunate thing in criticism, arts criticism across the board really, but in theatre it’s more personal. There was a week over the summer where two theatre critics got laid off and then a month later another theatre critic got laid off, so… The more voices the better so that’s obviously not the cheeriest moment to be a theatre critic.

Ken: Where do you think we’ll be in twenty years in terms of theatrical criticism?

Charles: I really don’t know. The trends are not upward, shall we say. One always hopes there will be a reaction in the other direction, and of course now there are all sorts of blogs that cover theatre but I don’t really know that that is making up for the loss of professional theatre criticism. I think that if you’re someone who is doing this day in and day out and it’s your job and your passion you should be paid more attention to than some random 12-year-old who really loves the theatre – and I refer to no one. I’m sure there are random 12-year-olds who are blogging about theatre but I don’t want to read them.

Ken: What would you be doing if you weren’t reviewing?

Charles: Sleeping! What would I be doing? I don’t know, it’s one of these things where you can see various other paths I might have taken but at this point, if I had to switch careers, it would be difficult. I’m at an age where you just don’t say “Hey, I’m going to go back to law school and start becoming a public defender,” or even an extra on Law and Order. It’s too late, so I don’t know. What has happened has happened and of course if I lost my job I could possibly find work writing books or writing about other subjects but I hope that doesn’t happen.

Ken: What do you think about all the Hollywood stars that have come to Broadway in the last several years? Do some of them excite you? Is it just when you see a star-driven show you’re like “Oh, it’s just a purely commercial vehicle, it can’t have any real value.”?

Charles: Well stars do not become stars randomly – although some do – most of them are very good actors. Not necessarily great stage actors with a lot of experience but I think on the whole it’s been healthy for Broadway, obviously commercially. What is dispiriting, though, is the fact that because new plays, even revivals of course – particularly revivals – have to be lauded with all these star names that we will never – hopefully not never – it doesn’t allow stage actors to emerge and become breakout stars on the stage. You know, Cherry Jones, I wonder if she started her career twenty years later would it be the same? It might have been much harder for her to break through if more stars, in those days, were coming to Broadway. So it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Ken: Looking forward to anything this season?

Charles: God, this season, I haven’t thought about it that much.

Ken: You’re getting ready for the big fall preview in the New York Times.

Charles: Yeah, I know, we are. I’m going to have to have an idea.

Ken: I was going to say, you have to write an article about this!

Charles: I know. Well, we may do a dialogue. I’m looking forward to seeing the Lynn Nottage play Sweat again. I saw it in Oregon and it’s a really powerful play, I think maybe her best. I’m looking forward to seeing Dear Evan Hanson on Broadway, which is a lovely little musical that’s sort of a hard bet for Broadway but it’s more proof that Broadway is more open to off-the-beaten-track shows. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a lovely show and it will be fascinating to see how that does on Broadway, how they’re going to make a Broadway theatre mimic the semi-immersive experience will be interesting to see. So the fall season, I think, has a lot of interesting stuff but it’s hard to find an overriding theme. Some seasons are better than others, you don’t know until the end.

Ken: Okay, I’m going to say two things, I want you to pick one of them. Broadway or off-Broadway?

Charles: Off-Broadway.

Ken: Plays or musicals.

Charles: Plays.

Ken: New or revival.

Charles: New.

Ken: Good, you passed!

Charles: I mean that’s mainly my beat, so…

Ken: If you could get all the producers – on Broadway, off-Broadway – in a room and could tell them one thing about criticism, telling them to relax or whatever, what would you tell them about what you do that you don’t think they know or understand?

Charles: Well, not necessarily producers, I think it’s different for producers and artists. I mean I think for artists what I would tell them is, well, first of all, don’t read reviews.

Ken: Don’t?

Charles: Don’t read reviews.

Ken: You would tell writers not to read your own reviews?

Charles: Yes.

Ken: How come?

Charles: Because the fact is they are highly sensitive people. If they’ve made it this far they obviously have some talent and I know from experience that a bad review can make you feel really bad. In fact, an opera singer once said this – she didn’t read reviews – she said “I don’t read them because the bad ones make you feel worse than the good ones make you feel good,” and that always stuck with me because it’s true. Artists are sensitive people and you have to go by your own lights, ultimately. It’s not that I don’t think I have interesting things to say or constructive ones but ultimately I think artists have their own vision and voice and they should pursue it no matter what anyone says.

Ken: Are you friends with any writers? Any acquaintances in the theatre?

Charles: Not writers, no. Journalists, yes, but I don’t really know any playwrights.

Ken: Okay, my last question.

Charles: Is this going to be the hard one?

Ken: This is the hard one. It’s the James Lipton question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you. Did you review Aladdin?

Charles: I did, yes.

Ken: You did. I don’t remember if you liked it or not.

Charles: I did, much to my shock and horror. No, it’s quite a fun show.

Ken: Okay, so the genie comes to your office, your apartment, wherever you write.

Charles: My palatial mansion in East Hampton, I think that’s what you meant.

Ken: That’s exactly right. The castle of theatrical reviewing where you sit on the throne. The genie says “I want to thank you for your decades of service to the industry and your incredible critique of so many shows. I want to thank you and grant you one wish – and also thank you for the great review as well.” He wants to grant you one wish. What’s the one thing that you would change about Broadway? The one thing that gets you so angry, would have you banging on this desk, screaming out loud “If only they would just change this, Broadway would be better!” What’s the one thing you’d ask the genie to do?

Charles: Ticket prices. I think that is a huge barrier to expanding audiences on Broadway. I mean it’s outrageous that $160 is the average for a musical ticket, I think something like that. Hamilton is now, I think, $199. Back in the day you’d hear tales where “I sat in the back and saw Laurette Tayler for 25 cents,” or whatever. I think that really has become a huge problem. We’re not going to be able to develop huge new audiences without finding some way of making this crazy price point change to make it more accessible to more people. Shows do lotteries, there’s lots of ways of getting discounts, of course, but in general I think it makes it harder to put on shows, it makes it harder for audiences to see shows, but of course it’s a very complicated question involving union issues, as you well know, so I don’t know, I mean that’s my genie wish, I don’t expect it to happen.

Ken: Well thank you for that. Thank you for all the years you’ve put in to reviewing your shows – I’m a big fan of all of your writing, even the reviews of my shows that you haven’t liked. They’re always written well.

Charles: Oh, well, sorry about that. I’m sure I was wrong.

Ken: Thanks so much for doing this. Thanks to all of you for listening and we will see you next time!

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.