Third Act

A critic explains why he won’t be reviewing anymore.

by Cary M. Mazer

You’ve probably heard by now that I’ve quit my regular gig as a City Paper theater critic. At least that’s what people have been saying — that I’ve "quit." But for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, when people have been phoning and e-mailing to congratulate me (or to console me) about it, I’ve chafed at the word "quit." Perhaps it’s because being a theater critic has never been my day job: I’ve written theater criticism, but I’ve never felt like I was a theater critic. As it’s not been my job, or my identity, then what’s to "quit?" Let’s just say that I’m stopping doing it. Well, not really: My editor assures me that he’ll invite me back for an occasional feature and a review here or there.

So let’s just say instead that I’m shifting gears, reserving more of my energies for my day job as a scholar and teacher, and for my home life. Incessant theatergoing requires being out of the house at precisely the hours when most families have the chance to be together at home… and I’ll certainly want to be home more if my wife and I ever succeed in adding to our family as we intend. (Know any infants who need adopting? E-mail me!)

And there other reasons to shift gears from reviewing to other activities… but more about that soon.

It’s been a good ride. I first started reviewing for City Paper in 1986, on the invitation of a former student who was then editor. For that first year I reviewed only a handful of pieces: the second season of the American Music Theater Festival (now the Prince Music Theater), and the spring season of the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays (now deceased). After a year I started doing it regularly, first in tandem with Carol Burbank and then with Toby Zinman. So, if you’re counting, I’ve been on this beat for 13 years, 12 of them on a regular basis.

A lot has happened in Philadelphia theater over those 13 years. New companies have sprung up like weeds and others have withered away. But beyond the sheer statistics, what has really changed is the entire culture of theatergoing and theater-making. In nuclear physics parlance, the community has achieved "critical mass." There are just enough companies so that an artist can actually live here and make a living (well, something resembling a living); and, conversely, there are enough working artists here that companies (most of them, at least) can staff and cast their productions locally rather than out of New York. If you ever get tired of seeing the same faces on the stage and the same credits on the program, count your blessings that you live in a town that can create theater with, by and for its own community and sensibilities.

And there’s enough theater being produced that the local population — well, a significant proportion of it, at least — has come to regard live, homegrown theater as part of what the city has to offer, along with its orchestra and its museums and its parks and its restaurants. In very recent years, the Fringe Festival has been the capstone of this trend, creating a sense of urban liveliness about the performing arts, and spawning a new generation of small theater companies along with a new generation of theatergoers. Sure, companies will still fold, as the industry goes through its periodic contractions, and theaters will still struggle to expand their audiences. But the change has happened: Theater is in the urban consciousness.

I can’t take credit for any of this. But I enjoyed being the local theater’s chronicler during this exciting era. I’m proud to have alerted my readers to some astonishing theater pieces. And I don’t think I ever kept a production I didn’t personally enjoy from finding the audience it deserved.

It has been my goal all along to make it interesting to read about the theater, in the hope that readers would realize it might be equally interesting to go to it. Theater is fun, but it’s serious fun, and it’s even better if you go regularly, taking the bad with the good. Only then will you be ready for the truly extraordinary when it comes along — things that speak directly and eloquently to the community, like Tom Gibbons’ 6221 for InterAct; classic plays that find their voice with a whole cast of local actors, like the Arden’s Death of a Salesman; or productions that so capture the tone of the script that the performance sticks with you for years, like Brian Friel’s The Faith Healer at People’s Light & Theatre. (Check out some of my annual "Not the Carymores" picks archived on my Web site,, for highlights of more recent seasons.) There will, I’m sure, still be a lot of exciting theater to see in Philadelphia. And I’ll certainly still be seeing a lot of it, even if I don’t write about it in these pages.

Which brings me to the other reason why I’ve chosen to shift gears from reviewing.

A theater critic writes about the theater event that the audience sees, the event that theater artists have made for them. But most of my work as a scholar and teacher involves studying, and participating in, the process by which theater is made. It’s the making of the art that’s always interested me, much more than the thing made.

When I’ve researched historic theater processes, when I’ve sat in on rehearsals and run-throughs, when I’ve talked with local theater artists about the work they’ve been creating, when I’ve worked professionally as a dramaturg (as I have for People’s Light & Theatre three times in the last few years), when I’ve kibbitzed unofficially on productions-in-progress and when I’ve directed my own productions with my students at Penn, I’ve had experiences that rival, and often transcend, any experience I’ve had as a theatergoer looking at a finished product.

There’s simply nothing like watching an actor make a discovery about a character, watching a production concept click into place and start opening up a play’s mysteries or watching a seasoned director establish just the right conditions in a rehearsal room to harness the creative energies of a motley assortment of idiosyncratic theater artists. This can be a wondrous experience even if the theater event that ultimately gets created doesn’t quite reach its full potential with audiences by opening night.

I’ve had some fascinating conversations with local actors about their breakthroughs, and with local directors about things they’re struggling with in rehearsal. But then they remember that I might be writing about the production once it’s "finished," their marketing directors tug at their sleeves and they change the subject. Some of my buddies in the professional theater tell me that you can’t really be trusted to be involved in the process of making if you’re also one of the people writing in a public arena about the thing that gets made. I’m not sure I agree; but, notwithstanding, I just don’t have the time or the energy to do both. And if I had to make a choice (as I think I do), I’d rather be part of the making.

I have a few final words to the members of the Philadelphia theater community:

I won’t say no if you keep inviting me to see your productions. You know from experience that, if you ask me what I think of the theater you’ve made, I’ll tell you. And this time it’ll just be between us, and not shared with over 100,000 readers. Better yet, talk to me while you’re still in the process of making it. I’d love to talk, or to brainstorm or to watch.

And lastly, a word to my readers — to both the theater-makers and the theatergoers: Thanks for the ride.