As we've come to annually expect, there was practically no end to the highlights from this past year in area theatre.
The Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse debuted a brand-new musical (Whodunit?) and two follow-ups to previous venue smashes (Church Basement Ladies 2 and Plaid Tidings), while the Playcrafters Barn Theatre produced an August Wilson drama (Fences) that, a mere five weeks earlier, won three Tony Awards for its Broadway staging.
The Harrison Hilltop Theatre offered works by Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), and Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George), and Quad City Music Guild delivered a revelatory Grease that found several of its high-schoolers - gasp! - actually being played by high-schoolers.
New Ground Theatre launched into its 10th season, delivering the long-awaited debut of a modern masterpiece (August: Osage Country). The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's edgy Nail LaBute comedy The Shape of Things marked the first time that the "F" bomb was dropped on the Geneseo stage - at least on purpose. The Curtainbox Theatre Company produced its first full season of performances, and added to its ensemble a former theatre critic from this very paper. (Second-to-last time I mention it here, I promise.)
And through it all - or rather, nearly all - was reviewer Thom White, who began his tenure with the River Cities' Reader in January, and offered his opinions on 54 area productions in 2010. (Not that Thom was any stranger to the area-theatre scene before this year: He appeared in Playcrafters' 2006 presentation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and three shows during Genesius Guild's 1995 season, and also served as the local-theatre reviewer and previewer for WQAD, for which he also blogged occasional reviews on the station's Web site.)
Over a long breakfast conversation, Thom shared with me his take on Area Theatre 2010, as well as such topics as reviewing debuting works, dealing with angry comments, and his tendency to drive his favorite performers out of the area. (Unintentionally, I'm sure.)
What type of theatre do you find yourself more drawn to: plays or musicals?
Well, it has always been musicals. I have a music-theory degree, I love music, and I just think musicals, in general, are more emotional and more happy - even with the sad stuff, you can still leave with a sense of joy. Unless it's Chess.
But I'm finding I like classic things when they're not done classically, or done with a little bit more of a modern edge. Like, I just saw [Harrison Hilltop's] Waiting for Godot. It's not necessarily classical, but it has more of a classic feel. I'm really liking that avant-garde, abstract, odd, amusing, entertaining stuff.
I really liked The Seagull at Augustana, and at first, I was fearful of it. I was like, "Theatre people love this stuff and I'm gonna hate it ... ." But it was so unique.
It was thrilling to see that show at Augie. You generally don't see any Chekhov in this area at all. It was about time, and it was really beautifully done.
It was beautiful, wasn't it?
With musicals, do you like the re-invention of standards? I imagine there are a lot of musicals that you must have seen bunches of times by now.
I am so tired of Joseph [& the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat].
(Laughs.) Yeah. Who isn't?
So let's say you're going to see West Side Story. Would you prefer to see a good, "classic" version of West Side Story, or do you want to see the show played around with a little?
My thing is: I don't mind a classical take on a show, but don't give me the movie. If I want to see the movie, I'll see the movie. Don't stage the movie. That's one of my pet peeves in theatre, I think. If you're going to keep the same costumes or whatever, fine, but at least make it your own somehow. I'm more excited about seeing something that's a completely different take than the same old thing.
Like when Harrison Hilltop did Rent, I was so excited. And unfortunately, they had that late change of directors - where they brought somebody in late in the process - and they kind of had to re-create a lot of the original [New York] staging. They added some of their own twists, which was nice, but I was really anticipating seeing Harrison do their take on it, which I knew they could've done had they not had that director issue.
So yeah, it's nice to see something done differently. Each theatre group has its own personality, and they can bring that personality to the stage, and that's what I like to see. Harrison doing Rent in a way that Music Guild wouldn't.
What do you find you're most inherently affected by in theatre? Story? Performances? Staging?
It used to be performances. But as I see more theatre, it's become the underlying emotion that's written into the script. And I never used to consider the script. After seeing so much, though, I think it just automatically happens - that you're looking beyond an actor or an actress. And I find that there are these messages in scripts that sometimes aren't even conveyed well on stage, but that still come through. I'm becoming affected just by hearing the playwright's voice, and that surprises me, because I never expected that.
Could you give me an example from this past year?
[New Ground's] 100 Saints You Should Know. In the play, there's a priest that likes the male form artistically, and perhaps a little more than artistically, but he still remains chaste, and there's this inner struggle. And I felt that the script did well in its balance of two forces fighting - being in the priesthood, but potentially being gay - without giving a sense of definite right or wrong. I just found that script very moving. It was very not-preachy, and very effective.
Do you write reviews, or parts of reviews, in your head as you watch shows?
Mm-hmm. I do.
Do you find that distracting?
No. What I do is, as I'm watching, I'll observe something and think, "Oh, I want to write about this," and then I'll think about how to write it in my head, and then move on. And I have struggled with reviews because I don't take notes in the theatre. At least I haven't yet. I don't want to be distracting to the audience, I don't want to be distracting to the actors, and I'm afraid that if I write as I go, I'll come across as pretentious, you know?
But I also don't have a very good memory for details, and I usually can't write about shows the day after seeing them. I really need to process and think them through. So now I write in my head during the show, and then during intermission and afterward, I pull out my notebook and jot down several things. Then I have those details specifically. It's been much easier for being descriptive in reviews.
Since you come from a performing background, do you ever cast yourself in shows while watching them?
(Laughs.) Rarely. There's been a couple of times where I've thought, "Wow, I'd really like to play this role ... ." But I got into reviewing because I wanted to be part of the theatre community, but couldn't perform because of scheduling. So what happens now is there are some performances where I'll sit and I'll just start crying openly. And it doesn't have to be a sad show - it may be funny - but it's so well-done that I'm moved to tears that I can't be a part of it, or that I'm not a part of it. So it's not so much wishing I was cast in a specific role, but just wishing I could be cast in something great, you know?
So you don't sit there going, "Oh God, I would do this much better than this guy ... ."
No, I never do that. I do sometimes think, "I might have played this moment a little more this way ... ." But I don't think I've ever done it with a whole character.
But I do think - I hope - that I've learned quite a bit about acting from observing so much. If I ever do get a chance to be back on-stage, I think that I would at least be a little bit better than I was. Because of watching other people, and thinking, "Okay, I think I've overacted in the past," and understanding subtlety, and the use of eyes ... .
Well, it can't help but be a master's class in acting when you're watching 50 to 80 productions a year. You almost have to learn, because there are so many people to study.
Absolutely. And you know how so many actors will say, "Oh, I act, but I really want to direct"? I have never wanted to direct ... until this year. Now, instead of casting myself in roles, I sometimes think, "You know, if I were directing this ... !"
You know, as much as I want to go in and just be another audience member, and not view shows as a critic or with a mindset of "I'm gonna be writing about this" - as much as I just want to come in and be entertained and write my impression - you see so much that it just happens. You just fall into analyzing. You're still just another audience member, but one with maybe a little more understanding of theatre. That's not to say that most audiences don't have understanding, but I have more understanding of a show now than I would have had a year ago because of seeing so much.
Which bring us to your having seen 53 shows this year. [Thom saw his 54th, New Ground Theatre's The Gift of the Magi, the day after our conversation.] What are your immediate thoughts on the past year? Has it been exhilarating? Exhausting?
(Laughs.) It's been surprising, in that ... . Well, I just love theatre. I love theatre. But I was surprised to find that there were times this summer when I was like, "Ugh, I have to go to the theatre tonight. I really don't want to see a show." And I felt so bad about that. It never had anything to do with the particular show I was seeing; it was just, you know, "I saw four shows last week, I don't want to see another one ... !"
But what I found, as a side note, is that I most enjoyed the performances I saw on the days that I really didn't want to see theatre. It was weird. So I held to that later in the year. I thought, "Well, I don't want to see this, so I bet I'll have fun."
(Laughs.) So we both know this area is kind of lousy with talent, and places to see theatre. But do you think we're over-saturated with theatre? Is there too much?
You know, I absolutely do think that this area is over-saturated. But at the same time, that's not accurate, because all of it's supported. I mean, there are so many theatres; I think there are more theatres per capita than there should be. And yet, the Quad Cities supports all of them, and all of them have reason to continue, because they get enough audience. Which is amazing. And fantastic.
And they're all different. Every single venue, I think, has its own personality. Even ones that you'd think would be really similar - like the Richmond Hill and Playcrafters Barn theatres - don't feel at all similar when you're in them.
Yeah. They have distinct voices.
So let's talk about some individual voices. You saw every Playcrafters show this season. What are your overall thoughts on the year there?
Well, first, Playcrafters is one of my favorite spaces for theatre. I just like the rustic barn setting, and the rows of lights on the grids counter the old-barn feel - you get the modern and the rustic. I love that mix, and I like the thrust stage a lot ... . I just really like that space.
Is that feeling intensified from having performed there?
I think so. I mean, I don't play favorites, but I do have a special place in my heart for Genesius Guild and Playcrafters because I have experience with them. I don't think that I've favored them in any way in reviews, and hope not, but I know, personally, there's something just a little extra-special about those two groups because of that.
What [Playcrafters] shows were you particularly taken with this year?
More than anything, Fences. I thought it was really good, but I saw a preview, before they officially opened, and my one concern was that the lead [Fred Harris Jr.] was not intense enough. There was never this fear that he was actually going to strike his son - that he was abusive. But I heard from people who saw the show after it opened that he ramped it up and really brought it, and they did fear him. And I thought that was fantastic, because that was the one thing, for me, that would've taken the show into "phenomenal" territory.
With Moon Over Buffalo, I don't really like camp, but there was something about that show that got me. I think it was because the cast was playing actors, and so it was kind of self-deprecating - actors making fun of themselves by overplaying themselves. I thought the performances were really good in that one.
Well, you had Maggie Woolley, and Paul Workman, and James Bleecker, and Pat and Patti Flaherty ... .
And you had Diane Greenwood, who was perfect for that. That was the best role I've ever seen her in. I was just taken by her, and the male lead [Stephen Baldridge] was excellent. Yeah, that whole cast, I thought, really played that one well. So the camp was ... palatable. (Laughs.)
And I liked The O'Conner Girls. That was a good example of a nice ensemble cast. I got a sense that these women who were playing family had really good relationships off-stage, and brought it on-stage, and it really worked well for that show.
On that subject, tell me a little bit about having to review friends when they're in shows. Is that awkward for you? For instance, if they're good, do you find yourself inclined to over-praise, and if they're not, do you want to temper your disappointment?
Well, I'm fortunate that all of my theatre friends who I know outside of theatre are actually good. (Laughs.) What is awkward, though, is having made friends from reviewing people and running into them at the theatre, and then giving a bad review.
You know, no one's perfect. I've written bad reviews - by which I mean I've written reviews that aren't as well-written as others. Nobody's ever on their game all the time. So there are some times that an actor is going to have a performance that's a little off, and I sometimes worry about a bad review impacting a relationship. That an actor is gonna think that I don't like them anymore because of one bad review.
And so far, I don't think that's happened. At least not with anyone that matters. (Laughs.) And I'm not aware that I've allowed friendship to alter the way I've written about someone. Maybe it has, but I'm not aware of that, and I don't want to let it.
Do you ever find that if you devote, say, a paragraph to a performer in one show, you hold back on writing as much about that person in their next show? Like, "Oh, I just wrote a glowing review about her, so I can hold back this time."
Yes. I was actually chastised because I did not mention Pat Flaherty's performance in [New Ground's] August: Osage Country, even though he was fantastic, as usual. And my thinking was, every show I've seen him in, I've raved over him. I haven't seen him do any wrong yet.
He is marvelous. And so with August, I thought, "There are so many people that I could talk about, and I only have so many words ... . Maybe it would be okay not to mention Pat, because he's had so many good reviews, and these other roles are bigger, and I have more to say about them." And I got notes and an e-mail and stuff saying, "Why didn't you mention him?" Maybe it was wrong of me, but that was my reasoning.
The word count does need to be considered. Especially with a huge play like August: Osage, where you have 13 characters, you have almost as many plots ... . There's only so much, as a reviewer, that you can effectively do given less than 800 words.
Exactly. And with that one, some of that word count has to go to just explaining what the show is about. You have to include a synopsis, whereas with certain shows - like Romeo & Juliet - you don't really have to say too much. People know it.
Let's move on to Genesius Guild, another group that you've performed with. You saw their entire season, too.
[Andromache] was my first time seeing classical-Greek theatre. I was in a classical-Greek show with Genesius Guild, but I had never seen one. And I was really taken with it, and with the use of masks - I just loved it. I was actually worried, because I thought, "Oh, I really like to look at actors' faces." I like to see emotion, and I was worried that masks were going to negatively impact my experience. But the actors were so good about inflection and tone that they didn't.
It was also your first time seeing one of Don Wooten's wacky, end-of-summer comedies.
Oh yes, and I loved that one [Ecclesiazusae] far more than I expected. Again, I don't like camp, and because I knew that they made fun of local people and local events in those shows, I worried, "Will they get mean?" But they really didn't. They were self-deprecating, too, which helped take the edge off, and they were just so funny. And then that stupid, silly chase at the end - which isn't stupid at all, you know. It's just ridiculous. But that was crazy-fun. I was smiling so hard it hurt.
Genesius Guild is one place where you notice presence like crazy. I mean, actors are fighting with the elements, fighting with raccoons ... .
The cicadas this summer.
Oh God, the cicadas. So it takes a special talent to really stand out there.
Andrea Braddy, in particular, just blew me away this summer. She also played Sarah Palin in the comedy, and she was just above-and-beyond. I had wondered, before I started reviewing, about whether or not she kind of overplays things a little bit. Nope. Not at all. She's just fantastic.
Now I know you got some criticism on your Midsummer Night's Dream review.
In retrospect, what are your thoughts on that? Should you have written it differently, or do you think the criticism of your review was overblown?
Well, here's the thing ... . (Laughs.) That was my first time having to deal with negative comments, and so many negative comments. What happened was that review - in a summer of seeing four shows a week - was an attempt to start changing up the style of the reviews. So it didn't become a Mad Lib review for every show all summer. And I ended up playing up my own experience in the audience too much, at the expense of saying more things about the show. Which, in my mind, was ... . I was trying to say that I thought it was fantastic that the show was so well-attended, but I don't think it read that way.
Some of the comments were like, "It's not fair that we're getting a bad review because he had a bad seat." And my response to that was, it's not because I had a bad seat. While I should have written more about my thoughts of the performance, that wouldn't have made it a more positive review. I thought that the production was adequate. It was fine. There were a few notable performances in it, but overall, it was okay. And so I kind of took issue with those comments. If I hadn't written about my seat at all, it would have been the same bad review, and I probably would have gotten the same comments.
I don't mind difference of opinion. But those comments were flat-out mean, and many of them were intended to be hurtful, and that really bothered me. I don't ever want to be hurtful in a review. I don't ever want to tear anybody down; I don't want to write something that is mean but "funny." There may be some things that I've written that have come across as hurtful, but they weren't intended to be. Those comments were intended to be. And I agreed with a lot of their points, actually - there should have been more mentioned about the performance, and less about my seating arrangement. But I just did not agree with that meanness.
I do not have a thick skin, so I had trouble for a while. There were a couple of weeks where I really wanted to quit. I was like, "This isn't worth it." And what really threw me for a loop, too, was I've long thought that Genesius Guild was the classiest bunch in the Quad Cities, and these were the most classless responses that I've ever dealt with. And so it really shook my whole viewpoint of Genesius Guild. You know, the few bad apples did, for a while, rot the entire barrel for a theatre that has a special place in my heart.
When you have to give a bad review to a show by a particular group, what is that like going to their theatre the next time around? Do you feel pressured to really like the new one?
I wouldn't say pressured, but I would say that I do hope. I always make the effort to be honest in reviews, and not let them be shaped by what could happen afterward. Maybe they have been, unwittingly. But I remember going to Richard III - which was the next show I had to see at Genesius Guild after Midsummer - and praying, "Please let this be good, please let this be good. I want to give them a good review." Because if the show was bad, I would have said that it was bad. I was just hoping that I didn't have to.
And it ended up that nobody could go with me to Richard, so I just sat there hoping nobody would recognize me. And thank God the show was fantastic. I really, honestly loved it, and gave it a great review. But, ugh ... . That was a tough period.
Absolutely. What say we move on?
Quad City Music Guild. You only saw two of their shows this year - Grease and Curtains - but it seemed like you loved them both.
Grease, I thought, was just absolutely thrilling. And I don't like the stage version of Grease, so that's really saying something. I think the movie's actually an improvement on the stage version, because it makes the show much more linear, and just makes more sense. But Music Guild's version was just fantastic.
For sheer, good-time theatre, I thought it was maybe the show of the year. I just loved that production.
It was so entertaining.
And how smart to cast it almost completely with high-schoolers! I mean, considering it's Grease, where we're used to Stockard Channing playing Rizzo, that's downright novel. Their Sandy [Taylor Wiebers], I thought, had such a beautiful, distinct voice.
She was so sweet. And I actually work with the actress who played Rizzo [Angie Mitchum], which was a little awkward, because she got a good review but didn't get a really glowing review. I did wonder, "How is this work relationship gonna be now?" But it was fine.
Curtains I didn't love, but I did really like it. That was one of those shows, though, where I didn't take notes, and somebody wrote to me afterward saying, "I disagree with you about this and this and this." And after I read that, I thought, "You know what? I did think about those points, and forgot to write about them in the review." Like, there was an issue with the lead being a lot older than his love interest in the show. It was really uncomfortable to watch, and I think that should've been mentioned. I'd just forgotten about it.
But I think there were some great performances in Curtains. Even though the script - the book - and the music itself, you know, aren't perfect, and I think there could be improvements, I really liked the production.
How about the shows you saw in Geneseo, at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre? This year marked the first time you'd ever been out there, right?
I'd never been to Richmond Hill because I couldn't make it on my former schedule. Getting off at 7:15, I couldn't get to Geneseo by 7:30. But I really like their space, and I love the theatre-in-the-round. I said before that Playcrafters was one of my favorite spaces if not my favorite space, but now it's really between Playcrafters and Richmond Hill.
And they do a really great job on their shows. I mean, they do some stuff that's a little, you know ... typical. Like Christmas Belles. It's not a great script; it's more a crowd-pleaser for a community theatre - the kind of show I don't care so much for. But they did it well, and they also mixed in some great material in the season. Marvin's Room was fantastic, and The Shape of Things, I thought, was just stellar.
I loved that show, too. And I love that Richmond Hill does risky stuff like that - or like Rabbit Hole, or Proof. Bless 'em, they know that they're probably not gonna get big audiences with those titles, and they go for it anyway.
It's great that they're able to do a mix of crowd-pleasers and art. And The Shape of Things had such a great script, and really good performances ... . And can I just say something about Maggie Woolley? I've long been impressed with her, seeing her in Prenzie Players performances, and wished I could see her speaking in prose - speaking something that's not Shakespearean or classical, you know? I mean, I really like her in that style, but that's all I've seen her in.
But then she was in Moon Over Buffalo, and in The Shape of Things, she just really ... . I always thought she was a phenomenal actor, and this just blew my mind. I think she's one of the area's best. So diverse, and so amazing. And knowing her off-stage, too, she's not at all pretentious. There's no arrogance there.
Well, most of the area's really great actors, I've noticed, are incredibly humble off-stage. They appreciate praise, but it's not about that. They're like, "Thank you very much, but let's talk about something else now."
Yeah. And sometimes actors who I've given so-so reviews to have even written to me to say, "Thank you, I appreciate the comments, and I'm glad you saw the show." It's just so classy. It's really nice.
We mentioned Maggie Woolley and the Prenzie Players, and you saw that group's entire season this year, too.
Yeah. I don't know if it's valid to compare them, but you have Genesius Guild doing Shakespeare in the summer, and the Prenzie Players doing Shakespeare the rest of the year. And what I like about each of them is that Genesius Guild takes this respectful, proper approach to the shows - regal, I think, overall, and very high-toned - and then the Prenzies will take the approach of making Shakespeare more approachable, and more raw. That's not to say that one's better than the other, because I like the fact that there's an opportunity to see each style. And I think that's fitting for Shakespeare, because Shakespeare, of course, wrote theatre for the rich, but also for, you know, the peasants (laughs), so there was something for everyone.
I will freely admit: I know some Shakespeare, having studied him in college, and I've seen some of the movies. But it's not something that I'm well-versed in. (Laughs.) No pun intended. And when we saw Troilus & Cressida together, I had little clue what was going on specifically within the plot. You know, I know about the Trojan War, so I knew it overall, but I didn't know the details, and I still had a blast. It was so well-performed, so well-emoted ... .
As I recall, there was a Web-site comment on that review where the tone was, "I don't understand how you can like a show without understanding a show." And I totally think you can. You can delight, I think, in performances and atmosphere and implied meaning even if you don't necessarily get the plotting. You know, "I don't know what the hell was going on, but I had a blast." It's the way some of us like David Lynch movies.
Or Waiting for Godot.
Or Godot. Exactly.
I remember that comment, and I think that's higher praise, when you can say, "I was confused, but no less entertained."
I had a ball at the Prenzies' Pericles, by the way. It was just so stripped down. I mean, starting with the way it opened, with charades, it was like, "We're just here to play. Let's put on a costume, and dig in, and just have fun with this."
That one, I thought, got back into the roots of their rawness - getting together and being playful and just having a good time, rather than trying to create high art. And J.C. [Luxton] was stunning. I'd only seen him in kind of oddball roles before, roles that were a little bit off, and in this, he was just so straight-laced, and romantic ... . There was a sweetness to J.C. that I'd never seen from him before.
I was talking to someone who had seen it [Pericles] a week before it opened. They said it was just kind of a mess, but then, suddenly, [director] Andrew Koski had an inspiration with the staging, and with only a week to go, they pulled it together. And I think it's just fantastic that they can find inspiration like that so quickly.
Let's talk a bit about The Tragedy of Sarah Klein, which was staged by the Internet Players. Tell me a little bit about having to review a debuting work, because you actually had to do it several times this year, with Hard to Believe [at Playcrafters] and with Whodunit? [at Circa '21]. Is it easier to review an established piece, because you've got things to compare it to, or is it easier to deal with something that almost no one has seen before?
You know what? It's harder to review new works, because it takes much more thought to analyze a script than it does individual performances. But I prefer it, because often I want to write about a script or a score. You know, I did it with Rent [at Harrison Hilltop and the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre], because I've long wanted to ... well, I have some issues with that show, and I really wanted to mention them. I don't know that doing that is really so valid for a local production ... .
Right. It's not like they're not going to change the script of Rent.
So these were opportunities where I was like, "Oh, I actually get to really examine a script, and it's appropriate to examine it." It was a challenge, but I hope for more opportunities for that.
And on that note, I think it's interesting that Sarah Klein, Hard to Believe, and Whodunit?, I would say, were three of the year's bigger disappointments for you. Do you think that's tied to their being debuting works, or was that just coincidence?
I really don't know. It might be coincidence, because I thought Whodunit? had enough strengths that it could be shaped into something better than it was. Unfortunately, around here, there's not really a community of development for scripts. So with these local shows, like Sarah Klein, there isn't a think tank, a workshop, where there'll be input on the process. So the problem might be with our environment - while it's great for theatre, I don't know that it's great for playwrights. Whereas if you were in New York, you would have workshops, and you'd have plenty of input.
I saw Sarah Klein, too, and I think we both agree that it had incredibly strong visuals, and the first five minutes were kind of intensely thrilling. You know, the live music, and the weird lighting ... .
Yes, I loved the first five minutes. I was so excited about the rest of the show. I was thinking, "This is weird, and unique, and creative - I love it!" And then it just didn't ... .
And what you brought up before, about feeling like it's a requirement to give a positive review? I think, now that we bring up Sarah Klein, that I really did want to like it a lot. Because the playwright and the director [Nathan Porteshawver] ... I mean, he seems so likable. I really enjoyed him in 100 Saints You Should Know, and reading your interview with him ... .
Yeah, I liked him a lot.
So I really wanted to like his work. And so I was disappointed, but I couldn't give it a positive review. At the same time, I don't want to be a part of, you know, squelching his passions. (Laughs.) I also don't want to give myself too much credit - that I have any power to destroy someone's dreams. Because that's ridiculous. But while I was honest in what I wrote, I wouldn't want the review to be taken, at all, like he should think, "I have to get out of this business."
I think that was one of the best-directed shows I saw this year. And the directing was really impressive because of the material he was working with. I was just blown away by the direction - the music, and the set, and the use of lights ... .
The script just needed some shaping and cutting.
And deepening of the themes, I think.
One of the comments I got on Midsummer was that I wasn't supporting local theatre because I wasn't giving it a good review. And that's one thing I just absolutely disagree with. Because I think it would be less supportive to applaud mediocrity - and I'm not addressing Midsummer right now. I'm just saying that applauding mediocrity means that a theatre, potentially, will continue with mediocrity. But constructive criticism offers the opportunity for a theatre group to grow, and build, and become even better.
You know, Harrison Hilltop has grown in leaps and bounds since it started, and I remember giving it a lot of ... you know ... constructively critical reviews early on. (Laughs.) And they've just really improved. They've figured out their voice in the community, and their shows are generally fantastic ... so I think there's value to constructive criticism.
Another debuting work that you saw was Augustana's Wrestling with Angels & Demons, which you quite liked, as I recall.
Yes, although I cursed you under my breath through the entire performance.
A little bit, yeah.
Why was that?
Because I thought, "Oh my gosh, why am I reviewing this? This is not really a play!" It was more like a dramatized thesis presentation. Seriously, I kept whining to my theatre companion the next day, like, "I don't know how to write this review!" But yeah, I really liked it. I liked the message; I liked the performances. But it was not like anything else that I've reviewed. It was great, but it was a tough one to write about. It was so tough.
Was this your first time seeing shows in Augie's Potter Hall?
That show and The Seagull, yes. I love the space. It feels like a professional theatre but still has that college-art-scene feel to it. I just think it's the perfect space. It's comfortable, there's no bad seat in the house, and while the stage is lower than the seats - and I tend not to like that - it's not really noticeable.
You also saw your first shows at Scott Community College this fall [the one-acts To Burn a Witch and A Coupla Bimbos Sittin' Around Talkin'].
Weren't those delightful? I adored those shows.
That was one of the few times where I did go in with expectations. I thought, "This is not gonna be the best theatre with the best performances," you know, because these are community-college kids who are just getting together to do something that they enjoy doing. And so I went in just expecting to enjoy the shows for that.
But they were just so charming, and so adorable, because the cast just seemed to be having such fun on stage. Even during the Salem Witch Trials, where there was no fun on stage (laughs), you could tell they were having a good time.
In reviewing educational theatre, do you treat those works differently than you do community theatre or professional theatre?
With the Scott shows I did, because I knew there was no theatre department, no acting studies ... . It wouldn't be fair to compare their performance to, say, something at the Curtainbox, because it's just not going to compare, if you do that.
But with Augustana, knowing they do have a department, and the students do have experience - although the actors weren't all theatre majors - they were on par with anything else, to my mind. They're studying this, so they'd better be good. (Laughs.) We were talking about constructive criticism before, and they [students] are the ones who need to know, "How am I doing?" from a voice outside of the people they act with and their professors.
Switching gears completely, let's talk about Circa '21. Do you expect more from a Circa production than you do from other venues? Do you hold them to a higher standard?
I used to. When I started reviewing with WQAD, I was under the impression that they were the only professional theatre in the community, and by raising my expectations so high, I was often disappointed. Because I went in with unattainable expectations. I thought, you know, "This should be like Wicked on Broadway!" (Laughs.) And that's unlikely. So I had to temper those expectations, and approach them on more of an equal ground with other theatres.
What were your thoughts on this season then? I think you saw six of their 10 shows, including your first Circa children's show [Jack Frost Saves Christmas].
My first children's show since I was a child, even. And it was just the sweetest thing. Like I said in the review, I thought, you know, "I'll be amused, and I'll try to find joy through the kids' enjoyment." But I found joy myself, and I was surprised by that. It was so sweet and so adorable. Like if the show had cheeks, I would pinch them. I didn't put it in the review, but after we saw the show, we went home and decorated the Christmas tree - we were so in the spirit from it.
I also saw my first Bootlegger show [8-Track: The Songs of the '70s], which was really neat. It was nice to see them doing something with much more involved singing and choreography than their normal pre-shows. By necessity, those need to be simpler, but in this, they finally had the chance to really shine.
That group is really crazy with talent.
Absolutely. It was a lot of fun.
I liked several Circa shows this year, but what I missed, personally, was a Peter Pan, you know? Or a Full Monty. Something that really just takes your breath away.
What's unfortunate is that Peter Pan did not sell well, from what I hear, and it should have. It was wonderful. That was another one where I went thinking, "Oh, you know, it's a children's show, I might not enjoy it that much," and I was just floored by it. And I fear that too many people thought that same thing, and missed out. It was just so magical.
But what I've learned from Circa is that a theatre is also a business. Like, I'm not disappointed that I didn't have to see Church Basement Ladies 2. I saw the first one, and I liked some of the performances in it, and I loved the set. As far as the script and the music goes, though, I just think the show is not that good. But audiences ate it up. Wasn't it like their best-selling show?
Yeah. From what I understand, it sold better than Cats.
And that's great. I think it's fantastic that Circa found a show that audiences love. That's wonderful. You've got to bring in the crowds. I just have to remember that as much as I want to see, you know, Equus (laughs), it'll never be at Circa. So if I do go in with any grain of salt, it's that - there's a business aspect to it.
You saw Jack Frost with your girls. [Thom's partner, Matt, is the father to Hannah, age 11, and Madison, age seven.] And that leads us to Countryside Community Theatre, where you also got to see Annie with them. Was that your first trip to Countryside, by the way?
Yep. My first viewing at Countryside. I don't like Annie. I like some of the songs, but I don't like the show. But I enjoyed Countryside's production. I liked what the director [Christina Marie Myatt] did with it; there was some really creative use of the set, which was simple and yet had a grand impact. And there were some really nice performances.
Madison was six when we saw Annie, and you know, it's different going in and viewing a show with a child. Because if I'm sitting next to a six-year-old, I want to make sure she's comfortable. "I hope she's having a good time, because we're going to be here for two and a half more hours ... !" Even if I'm not going to include her in the review, I'm still not only there as a reviewer; I'm also there as a parent with a child.
I would imagine it would have to enhance your pleasure at times. Like Annie, for instance, is a show that you might not necessarily want to see again, but if you get to see it through the girls' eyes ... .
There's kind of an innocence that's brought into the experience, you know? I would love to take them to everything, actually. I thought, sometimes, about taking Hannah to stuff that she shouldn't go to - don't worry, I didn't. I didn't. She would not see Equus. (Laughs.) But I think she would like Sweeney Todd. Just for the experience. Even though that's not appropriate, either.
It's so easy, though, to work them into the reviews! Like when Madison made that comment about the wig in Annie? ["I really don't like her hair!"] She said something innocently, and it was just a really funny point to bring out - and a good point - and it added some humor. You know, that whole "through the eyes of a child" thing ... !
This summer also marked your first trek to the Clinton Showboat. What were your thoughts about it?
Well, for one thing, it's not as far away as I thought. Matt and I would actually make plans to go ahead of time for dinner and then see the show. It is still a drive, but it's not that bad.
What I really like about Clinton is their use of the same actors throughout the summer, you know? It's nice to be able to see what an actor can do, and what range they have - it gives you a good impression of their abilities in a really short period of time.
I unfortunately didn't get to see any of their shows this year, but I thought it seemed like a pretty risky season for Clinton. Considering the small venue, they did a season of really huge shows, like Big River, and Show Boat, and Sunday in the Park with George ... .
Part of what's working against them, you know, is that they rehearse a show in two weeks. I think they have all day to rehearse - eight hours a day, or whatever - which is good. But Sunday ... it was just not polished. They needed more time, especially with that music. But otherwise, it was my favorite staging of that show I've seen. I thought that director Patrick Stinson borrowed ideas from other performances, but I think he made them his own, and I really liked how he put it together. And were it polished, it would be my favorite Sunday to date. It just needed a little more work.
And it was interesting because I knew that the guy who played George [Michael Detmer] could handle it. I knew he could handle it. But I could see that he knew that he wasn't quite there. He was so nervous - it was this constant deer-in-headlights thing - and I felt so bad, because he's the one, actually, who I really liked during the summer. And I just felt like saying to the poor guy, "You're not bad. You just needed more time, that's all. It's Sondheim."
Yeah, it's ballsy to try to pull off Sunday in two weeks, and in such an intimate space, no less.
But they made it work. I didn't feel like it was too big for the space. Show Boat felt cramped. In that one, the stage felt small; it was just too limiting. But I was really impressed with Big River, and I'd say that overall Clinton had a fantastic summer. Not a perfect summer, of course, but I really liked it. I was glad to finally be able to see a show there. And were I no longer reviewing, I'd still go up there to watch shows.
That brings us to Harrison Hilltop, which did two of the same productions as Clinton did this year - Sunday in the Park and Rent. What is that like to have to review two productions of the same show in such a short span of time?
It's hard not to compare them, you know? Although it may be appropriate in some ways, it's hard not to, and it really wouldn't be fair. And beyond the comparisons, there's this feeling of "I just saw this. Let me see something new!" So there's an unfairness to the group that does it second. It's not their fault.
So was it difficult to review those shows on your second go-around with them?
You know, I think it was actually a bit easier than reviewing them the first time. Since I'm sort of comparing them in my head, it's easier to find words for what I like or don't like about the second production, because there's a frame of reference.
What did you think of the Harrison Hilltop's season as a whole? Offhand, I can't think of anything that you didn't enjoy.
Yeah, it really was just consistently enjoyable. But there were also some really stellar standouts. I loved Virginia Woolf. I just thought that was fantastic. And [The 25th Annual Putnam County] Spelling Bee was so funny ... .
I think that people sometimes get the impression that critics want to be critical. You know, that idea of, "Oh, you're just in it because you want to be spiteful and you want to say bad things." To which I'd say, "You know what? We have to go to every single show. You think I want to go to seven bad shows in a row? No way."
Theatre reviewers want to love theatre as much, if not more, than anybody, I'd say. And when you get to share that joy of a really great production, that's the most fun part of the job. Like with Waiting for Godot, I'd imagine - a show that you really, really liked ... .
Yes! Absolutely! And because Godot was so odd and weird, I wanted, all the more, to make sure people knew, "Oh my gosh, this was so exciting!" Because I think people might be less likely to see it because it's so weird, and I think they shouldn't have that impression. It's like Peter Pan, you know? "If you enjoy theatre, you should see this!"
Let's talk a little bit about familiarity with scripts. You hadn't read Godot before you saw it, had you?
Do you find yourself wishing you knew more about, for instance, Godot or August: Osage County before seeing them, or do you prefer knowing as little about them as possible? I guess what I'm asking is: Do you like going in blind?
I do. There's the two schools. One would be researching fully and getting an understanding of the show before seeing it, and I have done that with some Prenzie and Genesius Guild stuff. Like, "I'm gonna be lost, so I have to know the plot, at least." And so I'll read a plot synopsis. But I don't read other reviews beforehand, or read other studies of a show's meaning, or its underlying messages, or whatnot.
But I prefer going in blind. You know, I think some readers assume that critics think they're authorities on something. But I just view it as, you know, I'm a theatre-goer sitting next to another theatre-goer. The only difference is I get to write up my thoughts and have them published. And I don't ever want to go into a theatre any other way. I like to take my impression of a show as an audience member, and my guess is most audience members don't research a show beforehand.
With Godot, though, I maybe should have. (Laughs.) I kinda felt badly - and I put this in the review - that this is considered to be the greatest play of the 20th Century, and I wasn't able to speak to its themes, or anything meaningful. I was just so entertained.
Well, at the end of the day, that's why we go to the theatre. It's lovely when we can learn about the human condition, too, but that's not why we're paying the money. We want to have some fun.
Since we mentioned August: Osage County, let's discuss New Ground Theatre a bit. We talked about 100 Saints, which you really liked. What about August?
August: Osage was one of those shows where there was a lot of buzz beforehand, because the local theatre community - probably any theatre community - just reveres it as this amazing script. And so it was hard not to go into that one with expectations, because there was so much buzz and talk. And it does have this fantastic script, and I think the show was really well-done, but the reactions to that review ... . It was similar to the Midsummer comments I got.
Now to clarify, these weren't comments on the Reader Web site ... .
No, these were things on Facebook that weren't necessarily meant for my eyes - but things I saw because everything goes on your news feed - and personal conversations, and e-mails. You know, I'm still certain that I gave that show a really good review, while mentioning some things that I thought were okay but could have been better. I certainly didn't give it a negative review.
I think you said it got a standing ovation and deserved it.
And I hate standing ovations. (Laughs.) Because they're overused. But that one did deserve one, and then I found out from mutual friends that the director and others were telling people that I hated the show, which was absolutely not true. Often when I get a negative comment on a review, I go back and re-read the review to see, "Did I say something wrong?" And that was one where I went, "No, that got a really good review."
So that was tough to deal with. I mean, Midsummer did not get a great review. People disagreed, and they bitched about it, but I could see why there were hurt feelings, and that was fine. August got a great review and there was complaining?!
Well, that's the thing about being a critic. You really can't win sometimes.
No. And I still run into people who just don't understand that reviews are an individual's opinion. You can disagree, and there's no right or wrong, you know?
New Ground tends to use a lot of the same people over and over - Lora Adams, and the Flahertys, and Jason Platt - and the Curtainbox and the Hilltop and other theatre groups do, as well. Do you like seeing performers working with a company again and again, or would you prefer to see more variety in casting?
Well, like at the Showboat, I think it's nice to see the same actors in different roles in one setting. I know that some groups get flak for it, because a lot of their shows are pre-cast, and there are other actors who'd like the opportunity to get into one of their shows and can't. But I have no doubt that Curtainbox and Harrison and New Ground cast based on appropriateness to the role, and availability, and talent, and it's not favoritism.
And I can see how having the same actors to work with over and over is sometimes really helpful. You know, "I want to do August: Osage County, but I can't if I don't have somebody who can play Violet." So if you start with, "Okay, I have Patti Flaherty, I know she can play Violet," then you do August: Osage County. Looking at it from that end, sometimes it makes sense to pick specifically for certain actors.
Patti Flaherty in August. Jesus, that was a stunning performance.
Yeah. It really was.
And that bring us to the Curtainbox, which, since I'm a company member, is kind of awkward. (Laughs.) But that group is one of the main reasons I stopped reviewing theatre myself, because I wanted so badly to play with those people.
So it was similar to my experience! Did you ever sit in the audience and cry, like I did? (Laughs.)
No, but I did see Glengarry Glen Ross four times.
I think they can do no wrong. But I say that carefully, because I don't mean that I play favorites with them, or that I'm always going to give them good reviews. They just always seem to deserve them. I have given them reviews for shows that, I thought, were not as good as others, but that's only relative to what's in their body of work. You know, with Fool for Love, I didn't care for the script as much as I did the script for Wit, but Fool for Love wasn't bad by any means.
It's just nice to know that there's just such a high level of professionalism there, and a really highly concentrated level of talent. I just end up being amazed at them.
Well, in the ensemble, you've got Cory Johnson, you've got Michael Kennedy, you've got Eddie Staver ... .
Eddie Staver I remember first seeing in [the Prenzie Players'] Life's a Dream, and he quickly became my favorite Quad Cities actor. And then he left!
Yeah, he's performing in Virginia right now.
And then Jessica Flood, from Virginia Woolf and August: Osage, became my favorite local actress, and I hear she's leaving!
For Florida. Are you starting to take it personally?
(Laughs.) A little bit, yes!
Well, we still have plenty of good ones sticking around.
Oh yeah. There's quite a talent pool.
So who are some of your favorites? Who, in the Quad Cities, do you look really forward to seeing on-stage?
Definitely Eddie and Jessica. Pat Flaherty's consistently good. I've only seen Patti Flaherty in two shows - August, and the comedy at Genesius Guild. She showed great comedy delivery there, but it was very one-note, so I was concerned about how she was gonna be in August. But she was very nuanced, and showed great ability. I was so impressed. So I look forward to seeing her again.
I like David Turley. There's a quirkiness to his performances that I think is so amusing. And Matt Mercer, who I find funny no matter what. He always brings a slight humor to his roles, even if they don't call for it, and it still seems appropriate. You know, it still works. I adore Kimberly Furness. Stephanie Burrough - do you remember her in Troilus & Cressida?
She was this totally drunken, crazy street person ... . Oh, I loved her in that! I love her in general. Jeff De Leon, especially in comedy, is great. I could listen to Bryan Tank sing for hours. I really like Denise Yoder a lot - although, you know, she is a friend. I met her in Cuckoo's Nest. But there's something really approachable about her talent. It's kind of like her characters could live on your street, or be your neighbors, and something about that is really nice.
I also like people in smaller roles who can make a special impact. In Midsummer, I just adored Lisa Pilgrim. She got a sentence in my review, but I wish I would have given her a paragraph. She had this fiery spirit that really added nuance to her role. I just found her captivating.
Do more, Lisa!
Absolutely! Come on! Get out there and audition!