I became a critic in 2000 and I don't know how many shows I have seen in the past 17 years, but we have seen between 40 and 70 shows a year, more now that I am reviewing for two newspapers. Does this mean I am a theater expert? Heck now. I've always called myself a faux critic because I have no "credentials." I am a life-long theater fan who can write a bit, who stumbled into this job, who gets free tickets to everything, and get paid to write about them.
People often ask me how I got the job. It was definitely nothing I interviewed for. I am fortunate to live in a small town where everybody knows everybody. Years ago I was asked if I wanted to be the critic but at the time good friends of ours were often in local productions and were not very good and I didn't want to be in a position where I would have to give honest opinions about their performance. To save our friendship, I turned down the job.
While I had no formal training in anything that would qualify me for this job, I did grow up around theater. I can't remember the first live theater I saw, but during my senior year in high school, I was dating an actor wannabe and we saw several shows together, going to the stage door after the show to get autographs from the performers (anybody want to buy a Florence Henderson autograph from 1959?)
When I started going to UC Berkeley, I found out about ushering tickets. A sweet deal where you got to see the show for free if you ushered people to their seats before hand. Walt and I started doing that and I think we saw every show that came to town including some shows by a little group called The Lamplighters.
After we married, we continued seeing shows, and became season subscribers to The Lamplighters and then I volunteered to help write a history of the company, to be published to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
That book project changed my life, as I became an active member of the company, volunteered in the office once a week (Walt pointed out that I waited until we moved 80 miles away before volunteering in San Francisco), made some of my best friends, helped start a newsletter that is still going today, and was part of a group that wrote the annual fund raising gala each year.
At the same time, I was also involved with theater here in Davis. I think at one time or another I was the public relations person for every theater group in town (maybe four or five of them? I can't remember now) and after a production of Sound of Music where our neighbors children were involved, I offered the director of the show my assistance if she ever wanted to start a children's theater (since so many kids had turned out to audition for the von Trapp family children she had to double cast it to give as many kids as possible an opportunity to be in the show).
Out of that chance meeting in a supermarket grew the Sunshine Children's Theater, which our kids belonged to for maybe four years, until the director left town. I did publicity, of course, and helped wherever I could. The kids learned to do everything, from performing to hanging lights, to making costumes, to how to keep the theater clean.
Walt became involved, too, in helping the kids build sets, which led to his becoming a set builder for a couple of theater groups in town and the kids got involved performing with other groups outside of SCT.
We had become a real theater family and a kid who was also doing theater locally grew up to become the entertainment editor for the local paper. There were two theater critics at the time and when one of them decided to leave and become a teacher, he called me to ask if I would like the job.
I was terrified, because of my lack of formal training, but also intrigued Could I do it? I don't remember what my first review was, but one of the very early reviews I did was for a touring Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast, which was held at the big 2,400 seat Community Center. We had "critic seats" in the middle of the fifth row and realizing that these were seats we never could have afforded, I decided that being a critic wasn't such a bad gig! They give you great seats to shows for free and then you get paid to write about them.
Sometimes it seems like a scam and I still never feel comfortable writing about some shows. I never studied Shakespeare or Ibsen or Chekhov or any "serious" playwright. My background was being in the audience for musicals. But over the years I have learned a few things and I can fake expertise more confidently than I did at the beginning.
Of course Walt is sick of hearing me say that the good thing is you get to see everything and the good thing is that you have to see everything. We've seen some absolutely wonderful things and made fantastic discoveries (including Grounded, a one-woman show about a female fighter pilot that, if you ever see it coming you must see. It is a tour de force I never would have thought about seeing were it not that I had to review it).
I remember seeing Lion King sitting on the aisle so that I could have petted the animals as they paraded to the stage, if I wanted. We now see every production of Music Circus, the summer musical festival which does all the familiar musicals, which we had never attended because of the cost.
And we've discovered wonderful little theaters in Sacramento like Capital Stage, which used to perform in a riverboat in Old Sacramento and now has its own theater. If and when I give up this gig, it is the one company that I will consider buying tickets for because I just love their productions.
Of course there are the clunkers. The University often does experimental theater and perhaps the weirdest of those was one year when we saw a one woman show. It was held in a big empty warehouse type building and they brought in anything sort of thing you could sit in for the audience--office chairs, folding chairs, beanbag chairs, etc. There was also a literal vat of popcorn for us. And the actress stood on stage in various positions for about an hour and a half No dialog, no interaction with the audience, just standing there. Try to write 700 words about that!
But then if I were not a critic, I would never in my wildest dreams have purchased tickets for a show called Puppetry of the Penis, which was, I kid you not, "The ancient art of genital origami." I had great fun writing that review, using every possible double entendre in the book. It remains perhaps my favorite review.
And now I write for two newspapers, the second a free newspaper in Sacramento. I got the second job the way I got the first--they needed a fourth critic and a guy I commute with the shows suggested me.
I know I will give up this job eventually. I think about it every year when I have to do the fourth or fifth review of a show that I am sick of seeing, but there is always the possibility of seeing one of the big Broadway shows when they tour through here. I'm not sure when Hamilton will be here, but I know it's only a matter of time. I stuck around to see Billy Elliot, and then Lion King and then Book of Mormon, so now I wait for Hamilton and then see what else might be coming up that will keep me doing this job. While tickets may sell for as much as $100 (I think that might have been the top price for Book of Mormon tickets) I enjoy my critic seats for free and continue to "fake it." What is the saying? "Fake it until you make it." I'm not sure I've "made it" yet, or if I will ever feel I have made it, but it does tickle me when people tell me they read my reviews and go to see shows based on what I think.