His first review for the Grey Lady was of Tim Miller’s Us, and his last will apparently be this dual review of Long Wharf’s Endgame and Yale Rep’s Imogen Says Nothing. After a dozen years and change, the era of Charles Isherwood as The New York Times‘s second full-time theatre critic is officially over, Times editors have confirmed. Though they’re mum about the details of his departure, as is Isherwood, the Times has also put to rest one fear about what this may mean for the Times‘s arts coverage: They do intend to fill the position, maintaining their current employment of two staff theatre critics to cover New York and regional theatre, along with a pool of freelancers. A full job description has just been posted (see below).
Isherwood, hired in August 2004 after serving as Variety‘s lead theatre critic for six years, had a stormy tenure at the Times. While he notably championed the work of such playwrights as Tracy Letts, Will Eno, and Sarah Ruhl, as well as such rock musicals as Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, and (ahem) Rock of Ages, he could be withering about work he disliked, and even at one point begged in print to be relieved of reviewing the work of playwright Adam Rapp. Even by the usual standards of hostility between critics and the field they cover, Isherwood has been an exceptionally divisive figure.
And while his colleague Ben Brantley makes regular forays to London, Isherwood’s out-of-town reviewing took him to America’s regional theatres, particularly in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of the Louisville and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The depressing impact of his negative reviews has been hotly debated, especially in the new-play sector, but there is no doubting the influence of his raves: His over-the-top encomiums for Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) famously propelled that show into unlikely hit status, while his out-of-town raves for August: Osage County and Sweat surely helped smooth their path to Broadway.
A native of Northern California, Isherwood started reviewing theatre in Los Angeles (full disclosure: I was one of his editors at Back Stage West, and he later helped me get my first Times bylines). As he recounts to Matt Windman in the book The Critics Say:
I started going to the theatre a lot when I was in Los Angeles. It was the late 1980s, when movies had started getting really bad. When the magazine I worked for folded, I ended up at Variety as an editor. At the same time, a friend of mine became editor of Back Stage West, and I volunteered to write reviews for five dollars each. A couple of years into that, Variety was very unhappy with its L.A. theatre critic, so I went to the editors and said, “I’ve been doing these reviews. Why don’t you let me do it?”
He also acquired a certain amount pop-culture cachet in his time, appearing in a cameo as himself on “Gossip Girl,” generating interest in his extracurricular writing, and confusing some readers with the seeming provenance of his surname (for the last time, he’s no relation to the author of The Berlin Stories). His notorious Rapp recusal, in which he joked that the prospect of seeing more plays by the author left him “contemplating abandoning my vocation to open a yogurt shop in Long Island City,” inspired a now-defunct Tumblr, Charles Isherwood’s Yogurt Shop, which juxtaposed quotes from his reviews against pictures of creamy froyo.
The full job description for Isherwood’s replacement is as follows:
The New York Times is seeking a critic to review and write about the vitally important world of theater. From Broadway to Off Off Broadway, Steppenwolf to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the West End, theater has never been so creative, so wide-reaching and so necessary.
We are seeking a critic with a deep appreciation for plays, musicals and theater history, but it is equally important that this person is able to connect the themes and issues on stage to those of the wider world. The writer must be gifted at assessing performances and stagecraft, but also eager to help readers understand the ideas that drive the work. While a background writing about theater is a plus, it is not a prerequisite.
Discovery, too, will be a crucial part of the job. The New York Times has a rich tradition of identifying, spotlighting, and championing young actors, writers, directors, and other theater artists. We are committed to that mission now more than ever and are looking for someone who will be curious, discerning, open-minded and energetic about seeking out the emerging voices and talents who are narrating and challenging life as we know it.
As The Times expands its audience around the the globe, the critic must be open to experimenting with new story forms, be willing to collaborate with a large staff of editors, reporters and fellow critics, and be open to engaging with readers when appropriate. Most important, this critic must be able to convey with wit and emotion what makes plays and musicals important, irreplaceable and often unmissable.
This is a Guild position open to internal and external candidates.
To apply, please send a one-page summary describing how you would approach the job, along with writing samples of published work to firstname.lastname@example.org.