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Interview with Frank Rich

Griffin Godsick, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Calliope Arts Journal, interviews former New York Times Chief Drama Critic and current New York Magazine Writer-At-Large Frank Rich. Mr. Rich shared with us his thoughts on his time as a critic, the current state of the arts in a Covid world, how the Black Lives Matter protests have changed the arts, and advice for aspiring arts journalists.


Image(s): Wikipedia

G: Mr. Rich, thank you for agreeing to be our first ever interviewee in our inaugural issue!

F: Thank you for having me, I’m very honored to be the first!

G: Here at Calliope, we want to use these interviews as a platform to keep the arts present in everyone’s minds during this troubling time, and we feel there is no better way to do that than to hear the perspective of a few of the foremost members of the global arts community!

So Mr. Rich, during your tenure at the Times, you earned the nickname “The Butcher of Broadway”. You were regarded by many as the most powerful and influential critic in the theatre world, with the ability to guarantee a hit or condemn a show to an early shutter. How does the role of the critic serve to promote a beloved art form, even while remaining an objective observer?

F: Keep in mind that in the 1980s, when I was a drama critic, there was a much different media world. There was no internet and no social media, so the Times’ influence reflected that it was the only game in town. It was the newspaper that covered the theatre the most, not just in terms of reviewing it, but in features and essays about both the theatre and the arts in general. That phenomenon couldn’t exist today; no publication could ever have that kind of influence again. To get to your bigger question, which remains eternal, you do have to remain objective as a critic. And you must remember that to gain readers’ trust, a critic must be honest about his views and not censor himself. Readers don’t want to be patronized and told, ‘Oh you should see this because it’s something you should see, it’s a play about an important subject’. They don’t want to be bored and they don’t want to waste their time and money. Conversely, if you’ve earned their trust, readers will take it seriously when you are enthusiastic about a play. That doesn’t mean they have to agree with you. My hope as a critic was that if people read me over time, they would know where I was coming from and where my taste did and didn’t overlap with theirs. I also felt that part of my responsibility was not just to have an opinion. Opinions are cheap. I believed it was my duty to convey my passion for a play not only with adjectives but by explaining in detail just why I felt the way I did. This is particularly important when a theatrical work is breaking new ground. In some cases, I wrote repeatedly about a given play or production I was excited about because I kept discovering new things within it that I wanted to convey to readers. A classic example is the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George, which opened on Broadway to basically mediocre, if not outright hostile reviews, from most other critics. Indeed, the night I saw it at a press performance, there were lots of walkouts from the audience. It’s now a classic, but at the time, many people found it weird or off-putting. After my initial favorable review, I kept writing about it to make my case for its excellence. In the same vein, there were certain then-new playwrights I championed that I thought needed a continuing commentary to make sure that readership would pay attention to them, such as August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, David Henry Hwang, and many others. That’s an exciting part of the job, championing new work, often by new artists, that you care about.

G: Since your everyday job as a critic was constantly attending and writing about the arts, was your adoration for theatre affected by your close proximity to it? Did knowing the inner workings, the people involved, and the drama unfolding behind the scenes influence your perspective?

F: Let me answer the second part of your question first. When I was a critic, I didn’t know anyone in the theatre. The two or three people whom I knew before I became a critic, I never reviewed them. That would have been a journalistic conflict-of-interest, so I assigned them to another critic at the paper. A critic, to my mind, is never supposed to hang around theatre people. I never went to opening nights, I went to press previews. To this day, I’ve never been to the Tony Awards. So close proximity to the subjects of my reviews was not an issue, in the same way that a White House correspondent is not going to be hanging out with the President and his family. As for the other aspect of your question, I grew up a total theatre nut. My parents indulged me and took me to the theatre. I also became a ticket-taker for a Broadway tryout house in Washington D.C., my hometown, so I could watch shows for free night after night, which was an incredibly exciting learning experience. But I would say, as a critic, there came a point as time went by when I realized I had had enough. You have to go to a play as a critic hoping it will be great, expecting it will be great and be ready for everything. And the truth is that most things you see aren’t great. They are also not terrible, but they are somewhere in that gray middle, and if you go to a new play every night, you have to have a tolerance for mediocrity. In my early years as a critic, I found it fun to see things that didn’t work or were out and out terrible, as well as the plays that were terrific, just as I always had as a young theatergoer. That mix was part of the romance and excitement of the theatre. I’d say after a decade, I started to lose patience with the routine stuff. That was when I told the Times that I wanted out. After roughly 13 years in the job, I switched to being an op-ed columnist.

G: Currently, with the pandemic, New York City is fairly dead in the water creatively. Having written for the New York Post, New York Times, and New York Magazine, you have had your finger on the pulse of the world’s epicenter of arts and culture for over 40 years. How do you see New York City rebounding and returning to its status as a mecca of artistic innovation?

F: The economic plight of New York is awful right now. And if you have a situation where people are not returning to working in offices in Manhattan, where tourists are afraid to come here because they don’t want to get on an airplane or can’t afford it, you have a perilous situation for both the for-profit and nonprofit arts. This affects a small nonprofit Off-Broadway theatre and it affects Lincoln Center, and it obviously affects Broadway. In the case of Broadway, it’s a fact that two-thirds of the audience are not New Yorkers. So, if out-of-town theatergoers aren’t coming here, where will a sustaining audience come from? It’s going to be hard for all performing-arts venues on Broadway and beyond to stay alive financially. In theatre, you have a particularly grave problem. The whole nature of the theatrical experience is that people are close together. Plus, there’s the issue of backstage. Whether it’s a big Shubert musical house on West 44th or a small nonprofit company downtown, the backstage area is incredibly cramped. So are the pits where musicians play at most musicals. How will that work? No one knows, and while we are now seeing announcements about plays opening on dates later this year and in early 2021, it’s aspirational and speculative. Many believe that until there is a widely available vaccine, it’s not going to happen. A friend of mine who runs an important institutional theatre in New York recently met with his Board of Trustees, and the Trustees said that the solution to social distancing would be to sell only every other row and seat people six seats apart. And my friend said even if my theatre could afford that financially, which it can’t, that isn’t a theatrical experience. You can’t be in a 1000 seat theatrical house having actors perform to 1/6th capacity. But I have to hope it will rebound. I live in New York, I love New York, I came here because of my love of theatre. But for the first time, I’m shaken. And I think it’s going to be a long road back.

G: With this universal pause in theatrical production, do you think it is an optimal time for conversations about how the arts need to change with the cultural and social shifts occurring around us?

F: Yes, it is an optimal time to have those conversations, and the Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated them, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know a single person in the arts who isn’t talking about these shifts a lot and reaching out to find new voices, new points of view, new ways of doing the arts, and being more inclusive. The only problem is, you can’t actually execute anything yet, because nothing is up and running. It’s a great conversation, healthy, essential, and overdue; but it’s happening against the pandemic backdrop, when actors can’t act, playwrights can’t get plays on, and theatres can’t get audiences. Sure, there are some Zoom events and outdoor events, but that’s a very, very small quantity compared to the huge number of artists that are essentially out of work. So even as the theatre community wrestles with the big cultural and social shifts that are buffering it, it also must attend to the existential question of its survival in New York.

G: Let’s talk a bit about how your background led to your career. Your interactions with theatre icons started at a young age when you garnered acclaim and interest from Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince for a review of Follies that you wrote for The Harvard Crimson. For students writing for university publications, do you have any tips or wisdom to impart about how they can be recognized by industry professionals?

F: What happened to me was a fluke. It never occurred to me that anyone connected to a show I reviewed for a school paper would know I existed. Somehow my review made its way to its creators, which led to Sondheim asking to meet me. This is when I was a college senior. I never met Hal Prince, but I would later learn that Prince recommended me to the Times at some point later on. But that didn’t lead to my becoming a professional drama critic. I didn’t become a theatre critic at the Times until 10 years later. I first was a political writer and a film critic at other newspapers and magazines. My advice to any writer starting out in journalism is to do as much work as you can, the best work that you can, publish it anywhere you can, and see what happens. I do feel that if you write well, someone will notice it. It’s harder now because the whole journalism industry has suffered so badly in the digital age. But there are still many places that hire writers, so do the best that you can and write as much as you can.

G: Do you find that there are any particular traits that someone who is graduating from university and who wants to work in the arts or write about the arts needs to have?

F: Arts journalism is a tough gig to land. It's a great job to be paid to write about movies and plays and TV shows. At New York Magazine, a lot of the people who are being hired are being found at fairly obscure places, writing essays for off-beat, online publications. What is true now was true back when I was starting in the 1970s, if the writing is good, it really doesn’t matter where it came from. If outlets are looking for a new writer on subject X or Y, they are going to dig deep and ask around, ‘Who’s someone I haven’t heard about, writing somewhere I haven’t heard of?’ There is always a premium on new and fresh voices.

G: Finally, if students are looking to go into arts journalism, how important do you find the balance between pursuing this interest academically versus pursuing it as an extracurricular?

F: Of course, like everyone else, I feel that my own experience is the way to go. I only wrote about the arts in college extracurricularly. Not only that but during my time at Harvard, there were virtually no theatre courses. There were one or two English courses about theatrical literature, which I took, but I wouldn’t say that they affected me differently than some better courses I took in American History and Literature, which was my major. My biggest education in writing about both the theatre and film came from doing it constantly, doing it the best I could, every day I could, at the Crimson. That was my training. That and being a ticket taker when I was in high school. I think extracurricular writing is the way to go in college, though if possible, you can also try to place pieces beyond your campus. I’ve always been wary of journalism schools. Many people I know in journalism did not go to one, and I think particularly as an undergraduate, it’s a waste to take journalism as courses. You should get as wide a background as possible in the liberal arts, including literature, history, all the things that make for a classic well-rounded education. And simultaneously go to work for any college publication that looks like fun.


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