Chicago Critics: We're Part of the Ecology

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Conversations with Chicago theater critics, past and present: Linda Winer, Richard Christiansen, Sid Smith, Chris Jones, Albert Williams, Anthony Adler and Ada Gray.



Richard Christiansen, 2016. Photo: Sarah Elizabeth Larson


Chicago’s Theater Critics

(In order of appearance)



Linda Winer

Chicago Tribune theater and dance critic, 1969-1980


“We grew up in public together.”


I just happened to be getting into newspapers at a time [1969] when it was becoming kind of terrific to be young and female. Neither of those things hurt me in the early 70's in Chicago. There was a tremendous amount of energy and idealism. I started at the Tribune as an assistant classical music critic. That had been my background and my training.


At that time, all these people in my neighborhood who were my age, started doing plays and the Tribune wasn't covering them. Some editor said, "Anybody want to do this?" And I said, "Well, I will." The first new play I reviewed for the Tribune was David Mamet's Duck Variations, which was his first play in Chicago, 1972. That's how it started for me.


I found that I really enjoyed writing about theater a lot more than I enjoyed writing about classical music, because even though my academic background was in music, I was actually a better theater critic. Classical music is so hard to write about. I love it. I adore it, but I think I was made for narrative. So more and more I started covering the local plays.


There was no such thing as the Chicago theater movement or the off-Loop theater movement at that time. There was no name for it. It was just this sort of crazy stuff happening on Lincoln Avenue.

We all grew up in public together. There they were, the whole Chicago theater movement, having its growing pains, and learning things, and being out there being watched. And there I was as a baby critic, also being out there being watched. I was learning with them, and growing up with them, and there was no place to hide.


Here is a lesson that I learned while I was growing up in public with this community: I learned what it meant to have emotional conflicts of interest. I learned the danger of being able to see the face of the person I was writing about above the keyboard as I was writing. I found that if it was somebody that I knew and liked, that I, in order to prove to myself that I wasn't favoring them, started asking myself if I was being tougher on them just to prove to myself that I wasn't favoring them. Then I had to ask myself, "Well, is it fair that I'm being tougher just because I happen to know them?" You see the layers of that?


So I ended up basically becoming a critic through my life who has no friends in the field. I have the drawbridge up over the moat. I learned that it was a defense mechanism, defensive move, out of instinct, when I began to care too much. I found myself caring about the effects of my words on people that I liked. That's what happens. I see their little faces above the keyboard, and that's when I know I'm in trouble. Then I'm writing to them, as opposed to writing as a member of the audience, and I feel really strongly that I am a member of the audience, and not, not a member of the theater. I'm part of the process of the theater, and I learned that on the job in Chicago, because these were all my people, and yet they weren't.


Remembering Claudia Cassidy


Claudia Cassidy was a very good friend of mine––more and more so through the years. She used to tell me stories of how her husband, Bill, would come back to the paper with her after a show while she wrote, and then they'd go dancing.


Her hair was always up in a bun and she wore little white gloves to the theater. But when I got to know her, and I would come over to first her house, and later when she had a place at the Drake Hotel, we would have our tea and gossip for hours. By this time, her hair was all the way down her back. It was very red hair, originally, and the rumor was that she had been the model for Brenda Starr.


Her column was called “Down the Aisle.” She did music and theater and dance. She went to everything. She would seek out things in the little theaters, too. Richard Christiansen would usually drive her in his Volkswagen bug. She seemed really, really proper, and she was really, really wicked. I loved her. Of all the people who could have patronized me when I started at the Tribune at twenty-one, or whatever I was, she was the one that always said, "Oh, call me Claudia."


The thing that I still hold as an ideal, but won't presume to have been able to absorb, was the poetry of her language. The specificity of her language. Often tough, sometimes purple, but, as someone who knew her well in the old days, used to say, "She's an Irish poet," and she was. But nothing with stale lilacs. Just really a powerhouse.


The other thing Claudia said was that “mediocrity is always at its best.” She really had a sense in her being of something transcendent that she wanted, and she was very, very impatient, and intolerant of mediocrity. I don't think I have any of those qualities, but those were the qualities she possessed.

When I left Chicago and went to New York, she said it was like losing a little sister which was so much better than saying it was like losing a daughter. You know? “A little sister.”


One time, after I’d moved to New York, we were on the phone, and we were having a long talk. She said, "I fell in love with curtains about to go up." You know that sense? That's what keeps us going back, that sense of––even though there are no curtains anymore––that moment before, when it could be anything. Ten minutes later you might want to get out, but falling in love with that moment before the curtain goes up––that’s our addiction, isn't it?


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Richard Christiansen

Reporter, Chicago Daily News, 1957-1978

Chief Theater Reviewer, Chicago Tribune, 1978-2002



“As long as your heart was pure.”


LINDA WINER: When the Daily News folded in 1978, the Tribune hired Richard Christiansen. I was still the theater critic there, at that time, and he became a critic at large. After I left, he became sort of the voice of the Chicago Tribune, which is great, which he deserved. He was out there covering the movement as nobody else was. He was in his Volkswagen Beetle, trundling along the roads, going to everything and checking it out. He is, I think, as responsible as any non-artist for the rise and the heartiness and the self- confidence of Chicago theater.


BRIAN DENNEHY (actor): Richard Christiansen made enormous contributions to what happened to Chicago theater, which was that it became not only important in terms of Chicago, but important in terms of the United States and frankly, for the world. What he did for the Steppenwolf, alone, was extraordinary. Every time I see a “Wolfy,” I say, "Hey, have you called Richard Christiansen, lately?"


ANTHONY ADLER (theater critic, Chicago Reader): Richard and I used to have lunch at the Standard Club. He definitely felt like an elder and like a benign figure. I don’t think he ever really said, “Come over here, kid, I’m going to give you some pointers.” I do think I learned a lot from him. When I talk about establishing an ethic, how to comport yourself, how to go into a theater and how to think about theater, he was a good influence in that regard. A genuinely good person. Modest in the Midwestern sort of way. He did not see his role as aggrandizing himself. He does good by doing his job. And I think he had genuine affection for the community.


Richard was lucky to be there when the local scene developed. It’s true what people say about him, that he was a strong force early on. He was there at a great moment, and he knew what to do with it.


RICHARD CHRISTIANSEN: I think I always wanted to be a journalist, yes, when I look back on it. My parents were mystified by the fact that I wanted to go into journalism. It was an unknown world to them. My father was an electrical engineer with Western Electric Company.


I was at City News Bureau, first, before I started at the Daily News in 1957. That was in the days when newspapers were the outlet for criticism of the arts. There was none on television; very little on the radio. At that time, Claudia Cassidy wrote for the Chicago Tribune, which was the prime newspaper of Chicago. Claudia was very nice to me. If she liked you, it was like heaven’s gate opened its portals for you. And if she didn’t: too bad!


When I started, audiences were used to going downtown to the Shubert Theatre and the others to see a touring production, but they were not in the habit of going to see Chicago productions of national shows or original productions which was even more important, I think. Early on in the process, Glenna Syse got into recognizing the homegrown talent and would see it.


I was the one with a car. A Volkswagen Beetle. So I would drive the others to the theaters. One year, Claudia, Linda, and Glenna gave a special Jefferson Award to my car because it transported so many critics. It’s the only car in the world to get a Jeff Award.


When the Daily News folded in ’78, I went to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago theater beat, at the time I started there, was in the hands of Sydney J. Harris at the Daily News, and Sydney, along with Claudia Cassidy and others, would review the touring productions, mostly. I would go to see the smaller shows, which I gladly did.


It’s funny about Sydney. I remember when Second City was still in its early years, I reviewed it favorably and with particular attention to John Belushi who was very, very good. The next time I came to Second City, John came over to me and said, "Thanks for the review. I really appreciate it." Then he said, "Do you think you could get Syd Harris to come and see it?" Took me down a peg or two.


Well, but, I always love to tell a similar story of how, years later, if Chris Jones [who was then starting at the Tribune] showed up at a theater to review, they’d say, "Uh-oh. We're in trouble because Richard doesn't want to review it." [Laughs.]


It’s hard to be an actor. No matter how much you tell them your criticism is not about them personally, that it’s the role, it still is personal. It's very personal. It’s especially difficult if it’s someone you like and they did a bad job. That sometimes happens. But I always said, you could be wrong as long as your heart was pure. They would allow that. As long as you didn’t have an axe to grind, and you didn’t mix your opinion with the personal relationships—you know, whether you liked the director, the leading man or leading lady–– and remembered that the play was the thing.


The thing I value most about my years as a critic? Discovery. It was a wonderful time when we saw the possibilities that were opening up. You knew something was going on; something big was being hatched. No one ever asked me to leave Chicago for another job elsewhere, but I was never tempted to leave. The talent was here. It didn’t take much perception to tell that this was going to be good! But it was my great pleasure to carry a flashlight, shine it in the corners and say, “Look! Something’s going on over there. You should pay attention to it.” And they did.


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Lenny Kleinfeld (aka Bury St. Edmund)

Chicago Reader, 1975 – 1985

Co-author, Warp!


A Reliable Gossip


OK. The name Bury St. Edmund. In college, I had been writing a column for my college newspaper, and being about 18 or so when I started, I was into being funny and obnoxious. I was good at being obnoxious; probably better than I was at being funny. And after a couple of weeks, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to get anymore 3:00 a.m. angry calls at my dorm room because there was no such thing as an unlisted number at that point. So I decided I wanted a pen name for the column. I wanted something that was like an in-your-face, 1930s pulp mystery writer using a pen name. I happened to be taking a course in post-restoration comedy, and we were reading a play called Bury Fair, which took place in the British town of Bury St. Edmunds. And I thought, that sounds perfect. I just knocked the S off and made it Bury St. Edmund. I was not going to ever use it for anything except that newspaper column.


But then when we were into previews for Warp!, Stuart [Gordon] printed up a bunch of hand-drawn programs and had given me the writing credit of Bury St. Edmund without telling me. I hit the ceiling. I went ballistic. I was like, How the fuck could you presume to do that? He said, “Well, it’s what you always used.”


I figured, OK, well, the fucking show is likely never even going to get to episode two, and only 12 people will ever see it. But it was a hit, so I was stuck with the name throughout Warp! But at that point, being a much more mature 24-year-old, I decided I was going to shove that pen name down the world’s throat. That lasted just long enough for me to start reviewing in the Reader a couple years later. So that’s how that name happened. It’s all Stuart Gordon’s fault.


After Warp! had its Broadway crash and burn, I came back to Chicago and was completely broke. I got a job for a couple of years writing advertising copy at Leo Burnett. Just to stack the bank account. But I had to get out of Leo Burnett. That company and I were a terrible cultural match, so I started hustling freelance gigs.


I met Terry Curtis Fox who reviewed work for the Reader. He was hanging out with Organic then, so we became friends. Terry asked if I wanted to review some plays. I was a little bit leery because I didn't want to work my way backwards from being a playwright to being a reviewer. But I ended up reviewing everything for the Reader for the next 10 years. I was also doing freelancing pieces for Playboy and Oui.

I was one of a few reviewers in America who was corrupted with a working knowledge of how theater actually gets made. I can tell the difference between writing, directing, acting and design. I know you can make a scene comic or tragic depending on a lighting cue without changing anything else about the performance. That's what most audiences and reviewers in general don't understand. Most reviewers come to it from having studied theater and having a fairly strong literary approach.


I don't like using the word criticism or critics, though, because when you're doing newspaper reviews you're not a critic. A critic is someone who approaches a production by reading everything that playwright has ever written and analyzing it on a scholarly basis and writing about it at length with footnotes and references.


A reviewer is a reliable gossip, and that's what I did for the Reader. I was that reliable theater gossip.


____________________________________


Hedy Weiss

Theater, Dance, Classical Music, Museums and Opera Critic,

The Chicago Sun-Times

1984 – 2018

Get her changes


I’ve been here [in Chicago] a long time, but I grew up in New York. I was a dancer. I studied from the age of maybe five or six, at the old Metropolitan Opera House ballet school, and I can probably say I made my debut on the stage of the old Met, as a child. Kind of ruined me for life. It's like a drug. Anyone in the theater will tell you, you just get bitten, and that's it, you know. I wanted to be a dancer.


I came to Chicago because of a boyfriend and a job. The usual combination. It was the end of 1980. The job was non-tenure track at DePaul University in the theater school, which had just moved to DePaul from the Goodman. I taught movement for actors for four years.


My boyfriend at the time was an editor of a magazine, and he said, "You should just send in a request to review something, freelance something." The first person I talked to was Henry Keiser, who was the Sun-Times book editor at the time. I had read a book that I really loved, a new book, and I wrote about it and sent it to him. And he said, "OK." And from there on, I kept doing all kinds of freelance things for them. I covered a lot of fashion shows. I covered a lot of feature stories, did a series about life at O'Hare Airport.


I was just in the right place at the right time. My predecessor, Glenna Syse, who had a long, distinguished career, was ready to move out, and I was ready to move in.

Somebody I knew in New York had said before I left, "[When you get to Chicago], you have to go see Steppenwolf. You have to go see Steppenwolf." So, one of the first shows I saw was at Steppenwolf at the old Hull House on Broadway. Within a couple of months, I then saw Balm in Gilead, which took me back to my old drug-ridden, Upper West Side neighborhood. That made an impression, and then it all just sort of blossomed from there.


When I arrived, I would say there were maybe 20 companies operating at various levels. I can still remember the very first copies of the Reader that I would look at which had a couple of pages of mini reviews. But now, there is no way that you can cover it all. There is no way that one person can cover it all. It's impossible. There's only so much that you want to see.


I have to say that Richard Christianson at the Tribune set the pace before I even got here, which is that he went to everything, everything, everything. So I thought, "Well that's what you have to do. You go to everything." But even if you went seven days a week, you could not really see everything. Plus, I was eventually covering dance, and now I'm covering theater, dance, classical music, opera, museums. I’m the only one. This is the big disconnect, and I don't understand why this is the case. There's never been more cultural activity in this city than there is now, and less coverage. And I just don't understand that.

I really try to have no social connections on any level with anybody in the theater. Which is sad because they're really smart, interesting people, but I don't. You don't have a lunch interview. You just have an interview. There has to be a healthy distance. I really believe that.


Have you ever wished you hadn’t left New York?


No. I would never have owned a car. I would never have owned an apartment. I would never have this particular job at the New York Times. I would not. Not because I couldn't do it, but it just wouldn't happen. It's a different pipeline.

No, actually every day I get down on my knees, and I'm happy that I'm here.


____________________________________


TONY ADLER

Theater Critic, Chicago Reader

1980––2018


Photo: Kathy Richland

The first show I reviewed was directed by John Malkovich. What I remember most was my panic that night. I was panicking at intermission that I would have absolutely nothing to say. There was this guy named Richard Pollack, a Chicago theater critic. He had a disease that deteriorated his voice box. He was unable to talk, so he had this thing that he would use to type what he had to say, then it would come out on a paper roll. He and I got into an exchange in the lobby. I said, “I can’t imagine what I’m going to write!” He said, through the device, “Don’t worry, it’ll come.” And it did. It’s not that hard. [Laughs]. I think I figured out I was good at it, and that was helpful.


The Reader was the place for the theater community to read about the work they had done. Not just me, but everyone who was writing was serious about it. We really wanted to get at what we thought was going on.I think the Reader was oppositional. It was a place where a critic would say things no one else would say. We were going to be honest no matter what. That was a big deal for us. We didn’t have meetings about it, but the tone of the Reader was that you were going to get more thoughtfulness out of us, more honesty. We are not out to boost anything. We’re going to tell the truth as much as we can. That was the trademark of the Reader. And we were given the room to do that. The Reader was a place where a critic was allowed to think about something. It came out only once a week, so you had time to write something thoroughly. There was no hierarchy [of theaters] for us. We tried to go to all the theaters and be as comprehensive as possible.


A lot of what I was writing on at the time was about how these shows connected to my life. I would write about what was set off by something I saw on stage. There was more of a diary aspect to my writing. Making a connection that was biographical or about something the production reminded me of. I didn’t want to write about how the lights and sound worked or didn’t. I wanted it to range and resonate beyond that. The word resonance was big for me at that point, both in my reviews and my way of thinking about reviews. I wanted to show more about the thought process that was triggered by seeing a theater piece. I know there were people who considered me a fop. Like, “Come on, just tell us!” But my writing was very well received at the Reader. I felt like my contribution was appreciated.


I’m not friends with a lot of theater people. A lot of people younger than me are. That’s a line I don’t want cross, but that ironically works into the sense of community. We’re part of the ecology. We have to maintain our roles, though separately, in order to be part of the community, oddly.


I was lucky to be here when something extraordinary happened.


____________________________________


Albert (Bill) Williams

Theater critic, Chicago Reader, 1982-2007

Contributing writer, 2007 ––


“There was a lot of everything to review.”


In '86 the chief critic of the Reader was Lenny Kleinfeld, and he left Chicago [for L.A.]. His second in command was Tony Adler, and Tony became Lenny (chief critic), so Tony’s slot opened up for me to become Tony (the go-to second guy).


The Reader always had this view that it's not about the bigger theater companies versus the smaller companies. The storefronts were the heart and soul of Chicago theater. We were very aware of that. At that time, the storefront scene had started to just explode. This is the time of Café Voltaire when they're doing 10 different productions a week. They’d send out these little calendars. And there's like 10 shows a week! And Next Theatre Company gets founded around this time, igLoo was founded around that time. Raven in '83. [also Lookingglass, American Blues, Chicago Shakespeare, Mary-Arrchie]. So here I am, the recently installed theater assignment editor and listings editor. I'm typing all the listings; I'm assigning them all. They all have to be reviewed, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.


This is also the period of Jane Nicholl Sahlins’s International Theater Festival of Chicago. So we're seeing The National Theater of Great Britain come to Chicago to perform. Ian McKellen wasn't the superstar he is now, but he was well known. It was very exciting to see him. Eleanor Bron. Kenneth Branagh. I was right in the middle of it, and I was just writing my heart out. The more I could see, the better. It was great. Free tickets! I had a lot of energy, went to every show, not just the shows I was reviewing. That was an incredible era.


My mission was that I felt that we should review everything. And there was a lot of everything to review. The [writing staff] started getting overwhelmed, and eventually that's what led the Reader to introduce the system that was there for a long time, which was that we cut back on the number of long reviews that we had, because every review had been a long review. Instead, you chose three or four important shows for extended reviews, and then the rest of them would be 250-word capsules. So if you look at the Reader’s from the mid 90s up through 2007, there’s just three or four feature reviews. And, of course, companies complain: "Why aren't we the feature review?" Or, "The Reader is losing its mission." And I'm thinking, no, we're reviewing everything.


I'll say this on the record, (it’ll make me a lot of friends, I’m sure): yes, I enjoyed my time as chief theater critic, theater editor of the Reader, but the one thing that I really hated was how wanty those theater companies were. "Review us, review us, review us, review us, review us." And very pushy. People saying, "Why wasn't my review one of the long reviews?” And, “Will you review this for us?" I would say, "No, but we'll review it for the Reader."


In 2007 the Reader started having to cut back financially. Everybody had always thought the Reader was this hugely successful paper, but the base of the Reader's income was classified advertising––personals, help wanted, apartments and stuff for rent. So once that started to shrivel with the advent of Craigslist, they started cutting back. They decided to make the theater assignment editor's job part of somebody else's job. That’s when I left in 2017. I still am a contributing writer.


But it was a time, yes. [Sings.] “Time it was and what a time it was.” And I was smack dab in the middle of it.

__________________________


Chris Jones

Chief Theater Critic, Chicago Tribune

2001


“You try to write for people who will never go to a show.”


I grew up in a city called Manchester in England, and I started going to the theater in my early teens. This would be in the late 70s, early 80s. I used to go to a couple of theaters, there. One was the Royal Exchange and the other was called Contact Theater, at the University of Manchester. I studied drama at University of Hull in England. And I developed this habit of being a critic. I’ve really been doing it most of my working life.


I didn’t come to the U.S. until ’84. My only awareness of Chicago theater prior to that time would have been Steppenwolf. I knew about Malkovich and Sinise like everybody else. In college, in the UK, I remember Steppenwolf came up in a class. But it wasn’t really until the mid-80s that I went to my first Steppenwolf show. I think it was And a Nightingale Sang with Joan Allen. I remember being very impressed with it. And I’ve seen, for the last 20 years, every [Steppenwolf] show. I don’t think I missed one.


I started as a freelancer. In the late 90s, I covered Chicago for Variety. Then I became Rich’s [Richard Christiansen’s] backup for a long time, and I then went fulltime to the Tribune at the end of 2001.

The core of my job, which is the hardest part of it, is to see and to cover a broad array of theater, which really means going out into the city. Christianson set in place the idea that the Tribune would cover sort of everything. Not “everything,” that’s overstating it, but much, much. You’ve got to go to the theater, and you’ve got to write about it, and if no one’s doing that, I think it would struggle, because most of the theater in this city doesn’t operate with Broadway marketing budgets, obviously.


As a critic, I only have power based on people acting on whatever it is that I recommend. And so if they feel they can’t trust you, they won’t act on it, and thus your power is diminished. My first responsibility, then, is to the readers. And secondly, to the art. And then thirdly to the artists themselves, which is always the most conflicted. I think the paradox is that when you’re a critic with artists, you find yourself, being a human being, craving their approval, because you want them to read your review and say, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. That was badly directed.” The thing that I care most about, though, is a dialog I have with my readers, and there are a few of them who I know trust me, and that’s what you most cherish. You try and write for people who will never go to a show, which is most people. I would argue that the theater in this city is, by far, the most important art form, rivaled only by chefs, I think. And it is an enormous part of what this city is and what makes it distinctive from any other Midwestern city or any other American city.


I think there is a perception or reality that theater in Chicago is taken seriously and that it is somewhat removed from the brutality of the marketplace in New York. I try not to be parochial because I just don’t think that’s fair or right. But I think there is a sense in Chicago that the audiences are serious, the work is serious, there’s not a great deal of upside for the theater artist in terms of suddenly getting famous, and so people are more apt to take risks.


There’s an idea here that we’re all about the art. The work here predicated on the notion that better work comes from people who know each other very well. The majority of the people who are working here know each other before they start on show, and in some cases very well. In some cases they’ve worked together for 30 years or more. And you don’t find that in a Broadway environment where you’ve got a Hollywood star and you’ve got two or three actors. So I think the ethos here is based on ensemble.

I think Chicago, in terms of stage acting, probably more than anywhere else in the world has figured out how to replicate family. In other words, these actors here feel like they have a community and a sense of home. That’s what Chicago has really done.


I think the Chicago theater community is, firstly, a community that sees itself very strongly as a community, which is number one. It defines itself as a community and the values of a community, meaning mutual help. It doesn’t see itself in terms of competitive environment like you see in New York. It’s very, very defined by community. That’s number one. Because people are not making that much money in most cases, the work itself takes on an outsized importance. You don’t see here many people doing the gig because they need the gig. Everything they do is a mission-based act.


That creates deeply committed work, but it can lead to insularity. I think if you were to talk to actors not from Chicago, many of them would say to you that it’s a very insular place, they have their own actors, they do their own thing. They don’t play by other people’s rules, they are what they are, they’re very closed off, stuff like that. So I think that’s probably the downside: insularity.


I think that Chicago is the only other theater city in America that New York takes seriously. New York takes London very seriously, more seriously than Chicago, and then it takes Chicago seriously and it respects it. And I absolutely think that. That does not mean that New York thinks Chicago is anything close to its equal, or that anything here matters. But it respects it. They see it as a purer sort of place. How true all that is, I don’t know. But that’s the ethos of it.


There is a defiant reverse snobbery, if you like, about popular attractions. And there is particularly antipathy towards downtown shows, so there’s always a perennial conflict here between the art of the neighborhoods and the funding of the neighborhoods and what’s going on downtown. In New York, many people in theater, I’d say most, are serving a perceived market for plays and musicals.


In Chicago, the vast majority of people in the theater are progressives who are really, really trying to change the world. And they don’t want to be part of anybody’s twenty million dollar musical, they really don’t. They want to do their own thing and they want to be able to change the world. And this is a very, very strong progressive identity for the most part. With rare exceptions.


____________________________________


Sid Smith

Theater, dance, movie reviews and features, Chicago Tribune

1980-2013


“This was our lives.”


In the middle of the 70s, I was hired by this Tribune suburban operation to cover local zoning meetings, city councils, etcetera, in the south suburbs. I covered Orland Park and Tinley Park and Oak Forest; eventually I did Calumet City and Blue Island. But all the time, I would say my dream job was to cover the arts. So eventually an opening came up, and I raised my hand for it. I was transferred, and I never really left it. The suburban operation covered restaurants and theater and all kind of performing in the suburbs, and it was through that that I came to the attention of Richard Christensen.


I was close to becoming the food critic, and Richard Christensen was promoted from theater critic to entertainment editor. He said he’d do it if they'd give him somebody full time to be his assistant. They said fine, who do you want? Well Richard–– I don't know if you know––loves to eat. It’s his second passion, so he had read my restaurant reviews.


He was a very measured, restrained critic. Even his raves or positive reviews had a scholarly maturity and reticence about them. And that was very much Richard. Richard felt most things are between a B and a D. Most are not A or F. Use your A's and your F's sparingly, and then when it is an A make it clear that they must see this.


As soon as I started working for him––because that was in a period of explosion in the local theater world––we were both run ragged covering everything that was going on. That was 1983. The touring thing in Chicago––shows that used to tour to Chicago––had actually almost dried up. The Schubert and the Blackstone weren't as busy and there certainly was nothing like Broadway in Chicago, then. I think that helped make the explosion possible.


I was a full-time writer, now, and I was a writer on the arts. Richard was a theater critic plus dance. I also could do theater plus dance, so we both did that. I was the second stringer in everything. Between theater and dance, it was this huge workload. I also did backup movie reviews because Gene Siskel was at the top of his game, and he didn't have time to do, you know, Porky's 3 or whatever.


But for years it was one of the few times in my life where I would just relish going into work because I knew we were going to laugh. In addition to everything else you could say favorably about Richard, he is one of the most delightful people to be around. And, of course, he was absolutely brilliant, so that was the other thing. He knew so much about art and art history and all that high falutin' stuff, and then he knew a million stories about show business. So this was our lives, you know?


Is there anything I miss about writing reviews, now? No, no. I did it so much. I did it 25 years. I did it a quarter of a century. Two, three, four, five reviews a week, right? Been there done that. I just got to a point where I didn’t have to do this again to get the thrill and pleasure.


I’m not like Midwesterners. I'm a southerner. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. The Midwest is the land of hard workers, and you see it everywhere. Richard retired at 70, not 65. Then he spent the next two or three years working on his book. I come from a world where a certain kind of aristocratic indolence is very much respected. I was to be quite comfortable sitting on a front porch with a hound dog watching the world go by…and criticizing it [Laughs].


____________________________________


Ada Grey

Actor; Blogger, “Ada Grey Reviews for You.”


At the time of this interview, Ada was 13 years-old. She started writing theater reviews when she was six, dictating to her mother. Since 2010, Jennifer has been receiving invitations and press kits for show openings. In 2015, alone, she reviewed 118 plays. Her reviews begin with the words, “Once upon a time I saw a show, and it was called…”


“I don’t want to be fake.”


I only had one day of school. First grade. And I was like "I hate it. I don't want to do it anymore." My mom had been homeschooled, so I did that, too. It's a lot of fun. We get to make our own curriculum, which is great. We actually make my theater reviewing and studying lines and all that stuff part of our everyday routine.


The way I started writing reviews was, I went to New York to go and see Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. That was my first Broadway show that I ever saw. I thought it was amazing as a six-year-old because I was a huge Spider-Man fan, still am. But looking back on it now, I see a lot more of the problems that there were with it. The show is basically famous for not having a very interesting script and going off Spider-Man's story and introducing a bunch of characters. They would say things that weren't true, and it was infuriating to my little, tiny, six-year-old nerd brain. It was a train wreck, basically. With my mom’s help, I wrote about it and put it on the internet.


A comic book website found me. They basically were like "Oh my gosh, look at the six-year-old! She wrote this review of this show. Isn't it amazing?" They posted it and people started following my reviews at that time.


The first show I actually got a press kit for was War Horse. That was at Broadway In Chicago. I think I was eight at the time. That was when everyone didn't treat me like a little kid anymore. Everyone treated me more like a sophisticated adult, which was really weird for an eight-year-old, but it's really amazing. It's something very different that a lot of kids don't get to experience, being treated not like a child.


Sometimes theaters quote me in their publicity, yeah. It's a lot of fun. Sometimes, though, I haven’t completely loved a show, and they put me in [their ad] and like "Oh my gosh! Ada loved it so much". I’m like "Whoa, what? No. No. That's not the full message I was trying to get across. But I'm glad that I didn't hurt your feelings."


It doesn't completely bother me all the time. It depends on how much I hated the show, though. If I had some very strong problems with it and they used my quote, I would feel confused, basically. Yeah.

I like to remain truthful about the problems I have with the show, but I still don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I still want to get my point across. It's sometimes really hard to do that, though. I do try and be nice, but also not seem sappy, if that's a good word for it. I don't like to fake boost anybody. I always like to remain truthful to my readers so they know what they're going to get into if they go and see this show. I want to remain truthful always. I don't want to be fake.


My dad is an actor, and sometimes I review some of his shows, but I try not to brag too much. There have been some shows that aren’t good for kids, though. My parents definitely do draw a line for me. I feel like if they hadn't drawn a line, I would be a very messed up human because there would've been some shows that just would've completely messed with my mind. There's a line that's been drawn.

But each time that I see one of those shows that almost crosses the line, it just makes the line further away, which means that I'm getting more mature as time goes on, but not more messed up, which is great.

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