Talkin’ In The Green Room With Myself (And Patti Gardner Etc.)

Welcome to a regular, if intermittent feature: Irreverent, lighthearted question & answer sessions with some of South Florida’s best known professionals.

When actress Patti Gardner suggested a few months ago that it would only be fair if I was on the receiving end of a Green Room questionnaire, I took refuge in the journalist’s centuries-old rationalization to dodge that bullet: “Oh, it’s not about me. I just like to watch.”

But she persisted with a single-mindedness that would make Christiane Amanpour envious, to the point of collecting questions from folks across the profession. She kept assuring me it wasn’t egotistic, it was “meta.” So I agreed, so long as I could edit out questions about my obsession with Angora sweaters, those rumors about illegitimate children and any reference to those embarrassing videos involving Giant Pandas.

So here in the dog days of summer, reluctantly, really reluctantly, is the Patti Gardner interview with Bill Hirschman.

Hometown: New Rochelle, N.Y., down the block from Rob and Laura Petrie.

When did you stop travelling as a drug mule and settle down in South Florida?  February 1994.

What’s the first professional show you saw? (From Harriet Oser) The Music Man on my 8th birthday. I got to go backstage after the matinee and meet Robert Preston who I would have sworn was 7-foot-5 tall in his bathrobe and slippers,  whose dressing room door had a lucky horseshoe on it and whose had the smallest refrigerator I had ever seen. When my mom bragged that I already knew all the words to the score (although I didn’t know what many of them meant), Preston said extra loudly that perhaps I could play Winthrop since Eddie Hodges Jr.’s voice was changing – this because Hodges was walking by the door at the time.

What are your three favorite plays and why? It would be easier to name my favorite child – if I knew where they were. But the kneejerk answer is: Inherit The Wind, The Lion In Winter, the balcony scene in Cyrano in the Brian Hooker translation. Why? Because I dream at night of playing all of the lead roles myself.  Other than that: The Glass Menagerie; Hamlet; Floyd Collins; Sunday in the Park With George, Sweeney Todd, Company, well any Sondheim; Equus, Amadeus, well almost any Peter Shaffer; and one specific speech each from John Osborne’s The Entertainer, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window and Herb Gardner’s The Goodbye People.

Name the best of these, in your opinion: Actor, actress, director, theatre, writer, set designer, lighting designer. Go ahead…man up….I dare you! (Chris Demos-Brown) Not a chance. Okay, present company excepted, they are…. No, can’t even do that. Will you settle for folks I’m in awe of?

How do you handle interacting with your theater friends after you’ve given them a less than glowing review? (John Lariviere and Ryan Didato) It’s difficult and painful, especially since I don’t heal up as fast as I used to. But most people have been gracious and terribly professional which has to be tough when they’ve put their guts out there for everyone to see. Frankly, I think we sort of avoid each other for a couple of weeks and we rarely talk about it.

What’s up with the whole cheese thing? (Mary Damiano) As some people know, I hate cheese. I was dropped on a piece of a cheese when I was three years old and never recovered from the deep psychological trauma. I would not recommend someone expect a fair review of Roquefort The Musical.

How do you prioritize which shows to see and when? (Amy London and Richard Cameron) I try to first see the shows that I know the readers want to hear about whether it’s staged in a prominent house or someone’s backyard with umbrellas. I’m working for them, not me.  That often means high profile titles or world premieres. When there are too many shows to handle at one time, I sometimes delay reviewing the ones that have longer runs. I admit to giving an edge in scheduling sometimes to a show I haven’t seen 12 times before. I also tend to give a tiny edge to small theaters that need all the help they can get raising awareness that they’re out there.

How have your tastes and perceptions of the craft changed since you’ve been covering theater in South Florida? (Antonio Amadeo)  They’ve changed significantly and they always are evolving. My exposure was limited before I came here as far as more stylistically adventurous work and shows influenced by performance art. I’m much more open to such works; I even look forward to them. My experience was also limited as far as seeing new works that hadn’t come from New York already polished to a high gloss, those works that were still evolving in regional venues. One of the joys in this job has been discovering those works and learning how to open myself up to plays that are not “finished.” My personal taste doesn’t really matter since I’m reviewing for the readers, but those are the shows I’d spend my money on if I wasn’t working.

How many geese in a gaggle? (George Schiavone) 7. The answer is always 7. To every question.

What do you think of the need for or decision by some theatres/productions to use canned music of musicians? (Caryl Fantel) I always, always, always prefer a live band. It’s one of the glories of American musical theater. With this asterisk: Some shows from the Golden Age sound frustratingly short-changed with a three-piece combo unless the arrangement is phenomenal or the audience plugs in the full sound from their memory banks to augment the handful of people in the pit. It’s actually distracting when someone tries to do The Music Man on a solo piano. Economically, that means an entire swath of musical theater would be in danger of evaporating if not for canned music. An asterisk to the asterisk: It depends on the quality of the tracks. Broward Stage Door, the leading purveyor of canned music, has rented some truly miserable recordings such as the one long ago for 1776 that sounded like it was arranged by the guy who wrote “Tubular Bells” for The Exorcist, but usually they buy superbly-crafted tracks from former Floridian David Cohen.

How long does it take you to write a piece like your one on the state of South Florida Theater? (Karen Stephens) With the interviews and the writing – all done while I was reviewing other shows and writing other pieces – it took about three months. But I could never have done it at all without the generous and courageous insights from the interviewees.  But those long pieces are the exception. Usually I only have a few days to write a feature story, and we try to turn around the reviews overnight, posting about 1 p.m.

When you review a theatrical piece, is it difficult to review just what you are seeing as opposed to judging from other productions of the same ilk? (Sally Bondi) It’s not hard to do, but I think that I owe the readers context, especially in how this production of Fiddler On The Roof is different than other ones — not in quality so much as interpretation. It’s common to do this when reviewing Shakespeare and I’m not sure why critics are reluctant to do it for contemporary works.

Aside from meeting your wife in a college theatre production, what is your most memorable theatrical experience? (Oline Cogdill) No way to winnow this down to one: Floyd Collins at Actors Playhouse, seeing Equus on Broadway then turning around and buying another ticket for the next night, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Les Liasions Dangereuse in London, the transcendent last 15 minutes of both acts in the original production of Sunday in The Park with George (loses 98 percent on video), hearing someone in the crowd on the re-opening night of Dustin Hoffman’s Death Of A Salesman shout at John Malkovich to speak up, my joy in singing the parody “Ol’ Knight Ridder’ in a scholarship fund performance in Wichita, Kansas.

How do you judge a director’s contribution to a production, as contrasted with the contributions of the actors? AND…if you identify his/her direction as “deft” or “tight” or “adroit”, etc., does that mean that something is wrong with it precisely because you noticed it? (John Felix) Actors know that some directors are no help and they have to direct themselves. But most of the time, as most folks know, the director’s guidance is crucial in shaping their performance like a writer’s editor. The difference in identifying between the two is difficult for me to spot except when the actors all seem to be performing stylistically in different plays. I look for a unifying tone and intentional pacing choices – just a sense of unity that no individual contributor to the piece is likely to have seen or imposed themselves. Many directors consciously choose to make their vision obvious, say Paul Tei at Mad Cat Theatre, whereas others strive to make themselves invisible, say David Arisco and Joe Adler. I have to respect whatever they choose.  But in either case, I’m looking for the director’s contribution whereas I think that most audiences members are not. So it doesn’t bother me when I see the spoor of a director’s trail even when they don’t want to be caught.  I do relish the little grace notes like Lyman yelling at Brooke’s manuscript rather than her in Actors’ Playhouse’s  Other Desert Cities, but no, I don’t know if the actor or Arisco came up with that, but in either case Arisco blessed it. I’m also very conscious in J. Barry Lewis’ work how his cast has so carefully and specifically identified the intent of every character in every beat of the play and attempted to communicate that intent, notably in any of his Albee plays at Palm Beach Dramaworks and in his Copenhagen which was more comprehensible than the one on Broadway.

Do you personally enjoy a specific kind of theatre more than another and do you find it difficult to objectively review the kind you don’t particularly enjoy (riveting drama, thought provoking, comedy, farce, musical, classical, historical) I have very broad tastes personally, but above all I want to feel something and be given something to think about. This can be joy at a sophomoric farce that’s really well done or some heavy intellectual work. I recently saw the premiere of a play called Modern Terrorism, a surreal political farce at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. I left it conflicted, confused, moved, angry and thought about it for days afterward. I was jazzed by Arts Garage’s Lungs and Naked Stage’s 4:48 Psychosis. But what I really love is to be surprised. That’s why when someone can bring freshness to an old warhorse, such as New Theatre’s The Glass Menagerie or the Maltz’s Hello Dolly, I’m in Nirvana. And, of course, I just love musicals. As far as it being hard to review theater I don’t like, that’s just the job. You have to respect what the theater and the performers are aiming for, whether it’s your cup of Oolong or not.

Do you have a ritual before seeing a show as a critic? (Margot Moreland) Besides throw up? I always have the writer’s version of stage fright. Every time. I try to clear my mind and present a blank slate for the artists to write on, even when it’s a classic I’ve seen before. This does not always work, but I try. And every time, no matter the piece, no matter the theater, I go in with absolute unadulterated hope.

Do you think a gal should kiss on the first date? and What do you think of the swarm of new works being produced in South Florida? (Paul Louis) If she’s a pretty ingénue and I’m the date, you bet she should. I truly adore the new work being done, and have such admiration for the courage and imagination that it reflects. That said, it has taken me a long time to understand that a world premiere means “a work in progress” in the 21st Century paradigm of new play development. I grew up seeing finished polished scripts. It has required a significant learning curve to appreciate how to evaluate a work that hasn’t had three weeks in New Haven, two weeks in Boston and a four-week shakedown preview in New York. So when I see a new work, I’m usually stimulated by it and usually frustrated that it still has a ways to go.

What’s up with the flannel, checkered shirts? (Jacquie Laggy) Hunh? I only wear those up north and in the Midwest.  Now the Hawaiian shirts, you can blame that on Hap Erstein when we did that Aisle Say Internet radio show.

In light of the tenuous condition theatre is in, both in South Florida and nationally, do you feel an obligation to the audience or the theatres/producers to be honest if you see something really bad, knowing full well that a bad review could substantially hurt business and the fate of the theatre? (Neal Gardner) I have to be as honest as I can. All I have is my credibility and if I sell that out even for the best of reasons, I’m useless to everyone. My style is to avoid being truly cruel unless I think some company is coasting and stealing the audience’s money. And I get sort of upset when I know a company is capable of much better. But frankly, I am always paranoid that, for whatever reason, I am pulling my punches. Last season was a very strong one and I was always second-guessing myself when I wrote positive review after positive review. But I don’t think I’m doing the artists or the audience any favors by not calling a flea-bitten cur what it is. I’ll go another step: The only way the arts here will improve is by recognizing and identifying the deficiencies as well as the strengths.

Why are critics in South Florida so unwilling to write negative reviews? (Andy Rogow) I’d argue that most of them are not unwilling to call it like they see it, although there a very few exceptions and they are doing it for the reason the last questioner referenced.  But I also know that theater insiders are very tough on each other’s work, in part, because they can see the joints and the sealing wax and missteps better than anyone. Although we critics recognize much of that and report on that (I’m always nitpicking in my reviews), often critics are writing about whether the overall piece works for an audience. There’s a show this season that’ll remain nameless but I thought was poorly executed all the way ‘round but the audiences loved it. My review noted both.

How come the Carbonell awards are not double-tiered (comparing Maltz musicals to Women’s Theatre Project)? (Jeffrey Bruce) Do you feel the disparity between small and large market theaters, particularly at awards time, should be addressed or are you okay with it? (Keith Garsson)
I’m not a Carbonell board member who makes policy, although I’m seeking to be one. But that’s a topic that has and will likely remain under discussion, obviously referencing the idea that resources make a huge difference in the final production. That’s how they do it at the Jeff Awards in Chicago and the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington D.C., but numerically those markets have far larger numbers of theaters competing against each other. Also used elsewhere is the idea of separate categories for theaters with small or large number of seats, Equity vs. non-Equity, etc. I contend, though, that some work by small companies need take a back seat to no one: many of Rafael De Acha’s productions at New Theatre, and Naked Stage’s 4:48 Psychosis and The Turn Of The Screw. While it has not been done here much, Chicago and London companies have mounted artistically competitive but scaled back musicals by focusing on the human element often lost under the production values such as My Fair Lady. Also, I know that I and some of my fellow Carbonell judges take resources into account when voting.

Who are your favorite fictional heroes and heroines and why? (Barbara Bradshaw)
Georges Seurat in Sunday In The Park, Henry Drummond in Inherit The Wind. My real heroes are the creative folks: Sondheim, songwriter Nanci Griffith, novelists Dennis Lehane, Ray Bradbury and William Goldman (read the novel of The Princess Bride).

What show would you like to see again in South Florida? Any Sondheim if it’s done well.

What theater has the most comfortable seats? Not sure, the Parker Playhouse maybe; Dramaworks’ are pretty darn good.

Who gives the best curtain speeches? Most entertaining are Joe Adler’s “I’m not going to say anything political…”  Most effective for its brevity but collegial generosity were Richard Jay Simon’s. We all know whose we want to avoid.

What advice do you have for all the young companies starting out? Believe in your vision, but watch your finances.

If you could be any animal what would it be? A sea otter or whatever rescue dog my wife has.

What’s your favorite Ken Clement role? (Ken Clement) Your performance as the agent in Inside Out’s Faith Healer was incomparable, as was your Satan describing a frigid desolate hell in Mosaic’s The Seafarer.  Cast Ken.

Who was the one person or monumental experience that drew you to theater and if you didn’t work in theater…what do you think you’d be doing? I think theater was always there in the DNA, thanks to my parents, especially my Mom. And I think seeing The Music Man cemented was what already there. Finally, the ego boost of applause while performing all throughout school and college was intoxicating. Question two, well, if newspapers were still a viable future, I’d still be doing semi-investigative reporting on government and crime – the other half of my life all these years. I still hope to be a published crime novelist someday. Maybe I’d like to be an arsonist; I’ve always liked fire. I used to think if I ever left criticism, I’d get back into acting/directing/playwriting, but after seeing what really good people here are capable of, I realize that while I had some talent, I don’t have the craft or discipline to be a professional.

Is it difficult to see the same performers in regional theater in many productions and come to their performance with fresh eyes? (Patti Gardner) Sort of. But part of the job is to clear your mind of the past. But actually, again because of context, I like to talk about what they have done before and how this performance fits into their professional arc. For instance, Laura Turnbull’s harridan mother in The Effect of Gamma Rays… was far different than the roles she’s been allowed to do before; it really showed her range. But also, I revel in what a talented performer can do within their range (or the range that directors are willing to cast them in.) I think of Gary Cooper. Gary Cooper always played “Gary Cooper” or some version of it, but he did it very, very well.

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