2009-01-07 / Arts & Entertainment News

America's drama critic: Terry Teachout

ARTS COMMENTARY

A few years ago, The Wall Street

Journal began an experiment.

Because it's a national newspaper, the editors asked drama critic Terry Teachout if he'd do some reviewing on the road.

"At that point, I really didn't know anything about regional theater in America, but I'd give it a go," he says. "And it mushroomed."

He now follows the annual schedules of approximately 250 professional American theaters, visiting new theaters each year.

In 2008, he reviewed 114 plays; half of them were in New York, half spread around the country in 14 different states and Washington, D.C.

"My purpose is to try to cover a very wide swath of American theater; not just the well-known regional companies, but smaller ones," he explains, "and to cover all parts of the United States."

Which is how the critic now finds himself in South Florida for a week, first on the east coast, then here. He's reviewing Eugene Ionesco's "The Chairs" at Palm Beach Dramaworks and, at GableStage (in Coral Gables), the first regional production of "Adding Machine," a musical he reviewed off-Broadway last season.

Terry Teachout Terry Teachout And then he's reviewing the Florida Repertory Theatre's production of Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa."

"Florida Rep has always been on my list," Teachout says. "It was clearly a company of real quality. I'd been tipped off about it, so I'm coming.

"It's obviously a company of real substance. And they've been on my scope for quite a while. This is how it fell together for me, to see these three companies."

Plus, he says, he loves Brian Friel's work, and considers him possibly our greatest living playwright.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" is regarded as "one of his best two or three plays," he says.

He laughs when asked how many times he's seen it, because Friel's one playwright whose work he seeks out whenever he covers regional theater.

"And he's done with some regularity in the New York area," he says. "I think I saw three Friel plays last season!"

After Florida, he's flying to San Diego and San Francisco, then Kansas City, Chicago, and Lennox, Mass. In the middle of all that, he's flying back to New York City to review the opening of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then the opening of Richard Greenberg's play, "The American Plan," which will premiere on Broadway.

His itinerary for the entire month is 10 single-spaced pages long.

"It takes a lot of planning for me to do this," he says, "but I love doing it. I really see covering regional theater in America as a cause. I believe in it very passionately, because it is so good.

"When I started doing this, I didn't

know that. It was just something The

Journal wanted me to try, to see what was out there. And within a matter of months, I realized, and felt totally stupid for not having known it, that the best theater outside New York is exactly comparable in quality to the best theater in New York.

"And what I am trying to do, in my

drama column, is let the readers of The

Wall Street Journal know that you don't have to go to New York to see destination theater, that you can find it where you live, or near where you live, or in cities that it wouldn't occur to you to go to, to make a theater trip. Like Chicago. In my opinion, people ought to go to Chicago to see theater in exactly the same way that they go to New York to see theater. Or Los Angeles. Or Washington D.C., a major theater center.

"I've taken it as a personal cause to try to spread the word about regional theater and get people to go everywhere. That everywhere you might go, consider the possibility that no matter where you are, there is theater of the highest possible quality that you would want to see."

The Journal's commitment to cover regional theater is astounding, especially nowadays, when newspapers, with their slash-and-burn mentality, generally cut arts coverage first. (And if they do replace it at all, they run celebrity-based wire copy.)

"It's not appallingly expensive to do this," Teachout says, explaining that he travels in the most cost-effective way possible, clustering together a number of shows to attend when he flies to an area.

For example, in addition to attending three plays, Teachout plans to go to the Norton Museum, the Milton Avery exhibit at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and the Naples Museum of Art. He's also planning on seeing the Miami City Ballet.

"If you're publishing a national newspaper and you take the arts seriously —and Mr. (Rupert) Murdoch said at the very outset of his purchase of The Journal that he intended to increase the paper's arts coverage — then this is something that you would want to do. Of course, we were doing it before Murdoch came aboard."

In addition to his weekly reviews in

The Wall Street Journal , he also writes a general arts column every other week for them called "Sightings." He writes a monthly essay for Commentary magazine; he's been their music critic, but beginning next month, he'll be their critic-atlarge, broadening his arts coverage for the magazine.

He also blogs daily at About Last Night, at www.terryteachout.com. He's written books, including a biography of H.L. Mencken ("The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken") and George Balanchine ("All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine"). He's just finished a book about jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. "Pops: The Life of Louis Armstrong" will be released by Harcourt in fall of 2009.

In his memoir, "City Limits," he recalls the first time he saw Armstrong perform; it was on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and his mom called him in to watch it. "He's a man whom, the more you know of him, the more you like him, which is not always the case with famous artists," he says. He says it's the first primary-source biography of Armstrong that's ever been written by someone with musical training. (Teachout was a jazz musician before he turned to writing.)

"There are no bad film clips of Louis Armstrong, nor any bad photographs of him," he says. "He was the most amazingly photogenic man imaginable. You can see in any of his TV appearances or in the Hollywood movies, your eye just goes to him because he's so full of life and excitement and joy. He's essentially an optimistic artist, a joyful artist."

Teachout's also written a libretto for an opera, "The Letter," which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera. It debuts there in July. It's based on a W. Somerset Maugham play, which was based on his short story. Two movies versions were made; the better-known one is the 1940 version with Bette Davis.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravek is the opera's composer, and British theater and opera director Jonathan Kent will direct. Hildegard Bechtler, who has two shows on Broadway this season, is designing. And fashion designer Tom Ford makes his stage debut as costume designer. Soprano Patricia Racette, whom Teachout considers "the great operatic stage actress of our time," plays the lead.

"It is a very operatic, very melodramatic story," he says. "We've changed it a fair amount from the movie…We have changed the ending."

Composer Paul Moravek calls it "an opera noir."

How does Teachout find the time to do everything? Like every good journalist, he's deadline-oriented and disciplined. He's learned how to write in hotel rooms and airport lounges, and on trains.

Over the decades, he's seen many changes in arts coverage.

"The newspaper business is in a convulsion," he says. "National magazines, general circulation magazines now, don't cover the arts very seriously. I wrote for Time magazine. I was its classical music and dance critic at its last moment, when it was still serious about the arts. And I've seen it withdraw from that level of seriousness."

When asked about the biting tone that appears in some current reviewing, he says flatly, "I just don't like snarkiness. It's a cultural trend, I think, driven by the Web, where snarkiness is considered a virtue. It's legitimate to be funny in a review, but there's a certain kind of nastiness that I don't like. Sneering about the serious efforts of a serious artist is not, in my opinion, an appropriate way to respond to things."

One of his 10 Commandments of Reviewing is, be respectful to artists, because usually they can do something you can't.

"If you can't have some proper respect, you ought to consider getting into another line of work," he says.

The work is exhausting at times, but Teachout is passionate about it. He even attends plays on his nights off.

"It's just pleasure for me," he says. "It is hard work, and it does involve a lot of travel, but I wouldn't put this kind of energy into it if it wasn't fun. I love going to plays."

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