For fifteen years, I spent practically every night and weekend at a Chicago dance or theater, improv or comedy performance. One night in 2003 as I walked up Belmont Avenue, a press kit tucked under my arm, I stopped in my tracks and said to myself, “I can’t do this anymore.” The weary proclamation had nothing to do with the show I had just seen, nor did it mean that I suddenly hated live performance. I was tired. I had my own stories to tell. I stopped reviewing theater.
        I first became enamored with the idea of being a critic around the age of twelve, a few years after I began studying dance. It went back to a movie (as do many of my inspirations). The Red Shoes made me want to be a ballerina (an odd choice considering the leading lady, Moira Shearer as the driven Victoria Page, ultimately jumps in front of a train), and Arsenic and Old Lace may have been my catalyst to become “a dramatic critic” like Cary Grant’s suave Mortimer Brewster. No one came to our school and shared advice on how to pursue this elusive profession practiced by a small but influential cadre—Edwin Denby, Kenneth Tynan, Claudia Cassidy, Clive Barnes and Anna Kisselgoff, to cite some members. So I took matters into my own hands. I started a scrapbook of dance reviews from newspapers and magazines. I arranged them according to themes or genres, and constructed inspirational narratives around them. It was an unwieldy gray-blue cloth binder with a soft pin in the shape of red pointe shoes clipped to the cover. It grew thick with commentary on London’s Royal Ballet, the defection of Alexander Godunov, Natalia Makarova’s new La Bayadère for American Ballet Theatre, and anything pertaining to my favorite dancer of all time: Fernando Bujones.
        I officially began my career as a Chicago dance and theater critic in 1988, but it took almost a decade to get the assignment that made me feel like I had arrived: my first overnight review. It was the late 1990s. My editor at the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me a mixed-rep performance of the Joffrey Ballet at Ravinia’s Pavilion. At that time, most newspapers relied on a soon-to-be antiquated modem dial-up system, and cell phones, let alone Blackberries, had not yet taken hold. I packed up my cumbersome Windows 95 laptop and drove to Highland Park, Illinois, with a sense of excitement and trepidation. I would have less than one hour to write an honest and balanced critique, which would then be edited and fact-checked by an assembly of copy editors before appearing in print the next day: a weighty, but empowering, responsibility. I pulled into the “press section” of Ravinia’s parking lot, where a designated space for the Chicago Sun-Times awaited. I can’t pretend I didn’t feel like a big shot. Then I seemed to float to my aisle seat and open a little notebook.
        But my moment of arrival had not yet come—regardless of the serious on-stage observations swirling through my head or patrons at intermission fervently asking me for which publication I was reviewing. No, that epic moment came the second the curtain went down and the audience began to applaud as I gathered my things and bolted up the aisle with my notebook in hand to a small press room. The adrenaline flowed; my heart pounded. And despite the stress, I was thrilled that my opinion would be among the first assessments of this performance. I wrote like a fiend, with brisk fingers doing their own dance across the keyboard. I hooked up my laptop to a fax line and transmitted my review (which included elaborate codes in order for the newspaper’s system to read my copy). I felt like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. All I needed was a smoky newsroom and clattering typewriters. I didn’t just feel like a critic, I felt like a journalist.
        Since that night, I’ve written scores of overnight reviews. No matter the theater—Auditorium, Harris, Goodman—the rush of racing up that aisle as the performers took their curtain call was always exhilarating, as was the thrill of speeding to my home computer in a cab as I scribbled notes on my press kit. It’s a bold, almost triumphant, sensation unique to a performing arts critic. I suppose I reveled in being among a select contingent of opinion makers. Yet I never cared for the idea of a critic lording over everyone. A healthy sense of confidence, paired with sensitivity to the artists and audiences, drove my approach. And my love for the artists and their commitment made me feel like I was part of the creative process and that somehow my comments could, and should, bring out ideas relevant to life in general.
        Audience members today text massive social networks from their theater seats, so an overnight review seems like ancient history. But I have no intention of penning a hand-wringing lament on the demise of print criticism and the dangers of the “everyone’s a critic” mentality. The technological wheels—from Smart Phones to iPads and QR Codes—have been set in motion, and there’s no turning back. I’m interested in how the speed and abundance of this newfangled technology will redirect the way we look at live performances and what the role of the critic will be. Quite frankly, I don’t have the answers, and maybe never will.
        But I do ponder this: we are familiar with how new technology took away the revenue that paid experienced critics like myself and gave laypeople a platform that rivaled ours; but we don’t think as much about how new technology fosters the theater equivalent of DVD extras—copious explanatory materials and video clips that theaters now post on their websites for patrons to see before they come to a show—which have the potential to frame or, to my mind, predetermine the experience and interpretation of a piece. Of course, a newspaper article can do the same. However, a journalist should be —by definition—a more objective observer. I can be personally disappointed my services are no longer affordable (papers have drastically reduced their writers’ budgets) or needed (the theater provides the long back story), but I would be professionally disappointed if the well-cultivated literary form of the review or arts story goes completely out of fashion or becomes no longer expected.
        Throughout my career, I’ve constantly reevaluated my role as a critic. More recently, however, I’ve had to reassess how the means of delivery have radically altered my profession and ways I could continue to share my passion for the arts outside the medium of a traditional review. I realize I’ve always been on a trajectory of reinvention, but within a continuum of experiences that have guided and shaped my life. Regardless of the means of delivery, I maintain my belief that well-crafted writing trumps any new technology that changes how we communicate.
        I do feel nostalgic for the more traditional world of arts criticism, but I’m reconciled to changing times. The new generation of critics will need to think in terms of “one-to-one” communication: establishing a following via social media in which they build an audience one carefully targeted reader at a time. The older “one-to-many” model (as in critic to mass public) simply cannot last forever, as publications continue to let their critics go. Many newspapers and magazines have folded altogether. The ones that still exist typically use their print issues to drive readers to their interactive websites, complete with blogs and videos. Moreover, it’s a rare occurrence to find a commuter wrestling with a broadsheet-style newspaper on the bus or el. Kindles and Smart Phones are the media of choice.
        At this critical juncture in history, I’ve felt the need to reexamine my career path and look to the future by recalling what drove me to pursue this profession in the first place. Moira Shearer and Cary Grant notwithstanding, criticism was a natural pairing between my love of writing and the arts. Certain circumstances (among them, a hip injury that prevented me from extending my leg to the stratosphere in arabesque) simply did not allow for me to become a professional dancer. Yet writing, in all its tumultuous ecstasy, remained. And while still a teenager, I set out to become an arts critic.
        I began my cloth binder scrapbook with the pointe shoes clipped to the cover. I was already a fanatical theatergoer but I began secretly writing reviews: Cats, shows at William Petersen’s edgy Remains Theatre, and a still-memorable production of Twelfth Night at Chicago’s long-closed Body Politic Theater during a high school field trip were among my first forays. After being named the editor of my high school newspaper, I went public. I inaugurated a section on arts reviews. However, Notre Dame High School’s annual production of Godspell or The Wizard of Oz was not what I had in mind. The shows had to be on the professional stage. So off I went (I appointed myself lead critic, too) to productions by Light Opera Works, the Goodman Theatre, and American Ballet Theatre.
        When I was in college at Loyola University Chicago, I studied abroad at Loyola’s Rome Center of Liberal Arts, today called the John Felice Rome Center. There I found perhaps my greatest inspiration: Italy. All the arts—painting, sculpture, architecture, design, music, movement, poetry—converged in a chaotic but harmonious swirl. It’s no wonder I remain an aficionado of all things Baroque, an innately theatrical epoch, and maintain a parallel career in writing, speaking and photography centered on Italy.
        I began to hone my writing and my critical voice. I devoured massive amounts of dramatic literature. I studied playwright George Bernard Shaw and his work as a music and drama critic and grew more confident about my future career choice. Through Shaw, I forged my belief that the critique, like the essay or short story, is its own meticulously crafted form; and despite Shaw’s often cruel and remorseless assessments, I strove to avoid a smug, condescending tone and focus instead on the ideas emerging from a play or a dance performance, as well as their timeless relevance. I made dance, theater, opera, and classical music pilgrimages to New York, London, Italy. I felt most in my element in a theater or a rehearsal studio among passionate artists akin to those tireless hoofers of A Chorus Line, those who exposed their hearts and souls on stage for love and touched countless lives in the process. From my seat, with the house lights dimmed, I learned some of life’s most difficult and provocative lessons: from Shakespeare, that one form of tyranny is usually replaced by another; from Ibsen, that social mores can hold the impassioned spirit hostage; from Ionesco, that we are all fallible and mortal; from Shepard, that unchecked greed can do irreparable harm; from Williams, that misguided nostalgia can be a suffocating affliction. I began to question and reassess the entire scope of history and humanity at large.
        I suppose I felt safe in the theater, where I endlessly retreated and formed a personal connection to the actors and the words they were speaking. Plus, I had some help from my father, a great movie fan, who theorized that movies, along with books and, later, theater (which I relentlessly dragged him to), offered the secrets to navigating one’s life. I took this all to heart.
        Then I needed a job. I graduated from Loyola in 1986 with degrees in English and Communication, but I was hard-pressed to find any openings for dance critics. I worked mainly in publishing and public relations. Fortunately, the '80s provided plenty of job opportunities. While I employed my “Shavian” craft for Dog World magazine, Kraft Corporate Communications, and a golf and spa resort near Mexico City, I built a separate resume as a freelance dance and theater critic and arts writer. I vividly remember going to the library and looking up editors in a directory to find out where I could send my resume and writing clips.
        Pioneer Press Newspapers gave me my first position as a dance and theater critic and features writer. Copley Newspapers, the Daily Herald and other weeklies followed. By the mid-1990s, I was a full-time freelance arts writer and critic. My by-line appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and, later, in the Chicago Tribune. Other publications included New City, PerformINK, UR Chicago, In Theatre Magazine, Footlights, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Social, Playbill, DanceMagazine, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, Stage Directions, and more. Many more. This was full-time freelance—total immersion.
        Through it all, and to this day, I find myself most interested in the artistic process and development of new work and fresh voices. I abhor the notion of thumbs up/thumbs down, assigning stars, feeling like I am making or breaking a show or, worse, “discovering” the next great talent. Despite its earnest overtones, I believe that being a critic is more than a job. It’s a way of life, and critics should bring as much dedication, passion and integrity to their work as the artists they are critiquing. That goes hand in hand with providing an honest and balanced assessment and clearly stating why the performance was moving or provocative or why it fell short of its goal.
        At the turn of the twenty-first century, I noticed the creeping influence of the Internet…and the simultaneously burgeoning Green revolution that encouraged a paperless world. Perhaps I began to see the writing on the wall for the future of print journalism—my husband Joe, a marketing professional, predicted everything would rapidly move to cyberspace—or maybe I was so addicted to covering the arts, I had to create yet another outlet. I took Joe’s advice and founded the first local website devoted to theater reviews: chicagotheater.com.
        A few years later came 2003 and my tired walk up Belmont Avenue. I was burned out and desperately needed some perspective. When I stopped reviewing theater, I felt to some extent that I had stopped being a critic; but in fact, my work in criticism continued in different forms and became more focused. I devoted more attention to dance because I felt that dance—often a mystifying niche field—needed stalwart supporters, and I wanted to provide an accessible and enlightening forum for it.
        I began talking about dance and theater on WGN-Radio’s “The Dean Richards Show.” After submitting a series of personal slice-of-Chicago-life essays to WBEZ-Chicago Public Radio in 2004 and becoming a regular contributor, WBEZ encouraged me to bring dance to the airwaves. I presented dance as a series of conversations on the station’s Eight Forty-Eight program, then segued into more poetic-themed dance segments that merged audio from the actual performances with my reading my descriptions of them. Somehow, this simple combination brought the visual art form to aural life.
        In 2008 my career path came full circle: I was named an adjunct professor of dance history by my alma mater, Loyola, and I recently taught at Loyola’s John Felice Rome Center.
        Throughout my writing career, I’ve served on various arts panels and have spoken about the arts in schools and for organizations. But where before most of my arts criticism was written, now it is spoken. I have appeared in several dance documentaries and conduct numerous pre-show conversations and lectures in theaters across the country. I still write for print publications. As far as websites go, I am not necessarily anti-blog. I write about dance and Italy for Examiner.com. My concern? There is no model in place for monetizing the copy that writers submit. Since its inception, the Internet provided reams of information for free. Readers are so used to it, why would they suddenly pay for content? The classified ad (the bread and butter of most newspapers) has gone the way of buggy whips. TiVo and movie downloads are rendering traditional advertising obsolete (except during the Super Bowl).
        Nor are there many conscientious online editors mentoring writers. I was particularly distressed when I received a mass e-mail from a content manager for a website who listed sticky key words (like “free” and “top 10”) for writers to include in their copy. Bringing more “hits” to a site to get a higher Google ranking has become a greater priority than a well-researched and well-written article. Who could have predicted that many online publications would someday value text and headlines that appeal more to search engines than to connoisseurs of the well-turned phrase?
        Anyone can start a website. There’s essentially no barrier to entry. The vast amount of copy out there is mind-blowing, and trained and untrained writers, experienced scribes and hacks, jockey for readership amid the free-for-all expository clutter. That’s not to say that during the golden age of print media hack writers didn’t exist; but the World Wide Web makes it easier for anyone who scribbles a near-inarticulate comment on a website to claim he or she is a writer. On the flip side, it can be refreshing to read the unbridled remarks of a citizen critic catching a performance for the first time, someone who can offer honest and liberating thoughts. And that is why I also harbor such mixed feelings for the new media. It’s forcing us, no matter what our profession, to change how we relay and receive information.
        But I digress…well, sort of. My point is that the tentacles of technology have stretched beyond our wildest dreams—and, most startling, our wildest dreams of barely ten years ago. Even Facebook and Twitter begin to seem passé. When we ask what’s next, we have to realize that what’s next is usually a few weeks—not years or decades—away. With the increasing customization of our lives and how people see us (from music and movies on our iPods to marketers gathering and assessing information on our buying habits), perhaps the newest responsibility for an arts critic, and it’s a big one, is to cultivate painstakingly an online following for any multitude of gadgetry.
        Nevertheless, I am immovable when it comes to penning compelling prose—the kind that makes readers luxuriate in words as if they are soaking in a warm bubble bath. Which brings me back to one of the main reasons I stopped reviewing theater: I had my own stories to tell. I had decided to make a film. In order for me to embody the words, thoughts and actions of my new work’s complex characters, I had to detach myself from constantly listening to scripted dialogue on stage, as composers must refrain from being exposed to too much music lest the rhythms get in the way of their own personal creations.
        The worlds of making art and critiquing it have merged for me. Over time, through sheer observation and critical involvement, I’ve subconsciously absorbed the tenets of theatrical storytelling: I’m becoming a storyteller. Somewhat unexpectedly, I’m gradually taking my place opposite the critic—whether the vetted tastemaker delivering a traditional critique, or the proverbial man on the street having an impassioned conversation with someone thousands of miles away as his thumbs dance across the small buttons of his cell phone the same way my fingers once sailed across the keyboard of my old laptop as I wrote my first overnight review.
        A critic on criticism? From one of my literary heroines, Margaret Fuller: “There are two modes of criticism: One which crushes to earth without mercy all the humble buds of Phantasy, all the plants that, though green and fruitful, are also a prey to insects or have suffered by drought. It weeds well the garden, and cannot believe the weed in its native soil may be a pretty, graceful plant. There is another mode which enters into the natural history of everything that breathes and lives, which believes no impulse to be entirely in vain, which scrutinizes circumstances, motive and object before it condemns, and believes there is a beauty in natural form, if its law and purpose be understood.”

“A Critic on Criticism . . . and Its New (and Uncertain) Landscape” was published in the 2011 edition of The Labletter.

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