When even a storied theatre town like Chicago starts dropping its theatre critics, who is safe?
That’s one thought provoked by the decision of Time Out Chicago to lay off Kris Vire, who’s been covering theatre in the Windy City since the magazine’s very first issue, in March 2005. He was a freelance critic then, but he was brought on full time in 2007 and became the theatre editor there in 2009. He’s hung on through several changes, including Time Out Chicago’s decision to go online-only in 2013, then return to print with a quarterly edition in 2015.
But this week was his last at the desk from which he’s viewed and commented on one of the nation’s most influential theatre scenes. Yesterday I caught up with Kris, a frequent contributor to this magazine, to talk about his city, his job, and the changing media landscape.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: How’s it going?
KRIS VIRE: Well, you know, there have been better weeks.
I’m really sorry to hear about the job.
Oh, thank you.
I think the last time we had a coffee in Chicago, you were already talking about how Time Out had seriously downsized.
Yeah, I’ve rolled with a lot of punches over the years.
You started writing from the beginning of Time Out Chicago in 2005, and I know you’re from Arkansas (which is why we had you write this lovely profile of TheatreSquared). What were you doing before then?
I had been in Chicago for about four years at that point, and I moved here to do theatre myself—I’m a lapsed actor—so I’d been kind of trying to make my way into the theatre community, and really fell into criticism sort of through the back door, I guess.
Well, I had started doing some writing online, initially just kind of personal blogging. But then, together with some other folks here in Chicago who were sort of like-minded and internet-savvy, I helped launch a web publication here, Gapers Block, in 2003, where we sort of aggregated news and did some original writing about arts and culture, food, music, that sort of thing. I started writing about theatre—not reviewing, necessarily, not as a critic, but just kind of covering theatre news, because it was the world I was in. That site helped me get a little bit of name recognition, a few bylines, and started me thinking about writing as an actual career for the first time since high school, or when I went into college and decided to major in theatre instead of journalism.
So those were always the two interests for you.
Yeah, I was that kid in high school who was performing in plays and editing the school newspaper.
That was me too. We’re a very distinct type, aren’t we? Tell me about your transition to writing reviews. Did it come naturally, or did you find you had to put on a totally different hat to write criticism?
It was a little bit of an acquired skill, I think. I grew up in Arkansas doing theatre in high school and college, and I really only read the occasional New York reviews, a lot of Frank Rich in the early ’90s. I always felt that was separate from the sort of practice of making theatre—it doesn’t feel quite so separate now. But the opportunity to start writing as a critic came with the launch of Time Out. I happened to know my predecessor, Christopher Piatt, the original theatre editor there—he had actually reviewed a show I’d been in as a freelancer for the Sun-Times, and wrote the only good review of that show. I happened to meet him at a party and was like, “Oh, you’re the guy who liked our show!” So when word got around that he’d been hired by Time Out, I kind of wormed my way in and just was like, “I would be interested in this, if you would be interested in letting me try out.”
The thing that I figured out pretty quickly is that my background as a person who’d been involved in making theatre was really useful to me in figuring out how to write as a critic. Having been a theatre major in school, having had classes in theatre history, having had to take design classes in a B.A. program, and having worked backstage, having run light boards, having been involved in all aspects of theatre, at the academic level at least and a little bit at the storefront Chicago theatre level, gave me the language to be able to talk about what I saw onstage.
It wasn’t quick—I mean, I go back and read some of the stuff I wrote in 2006, and I cringe, you know, at the way I characterized things. I definitely learned a lot on the job.
As someone who’d worked in the scene you were now criticizing, did you feel like you were stepping onto the other side of the fence? Have you had to recuse yourself from reviewing in some cases?
There were always some case-by-case instances where I did have to step back from reviewing something that was written by somebody I considered a friend. It’s been a little harder to avoid writing about a show where I might be friendly with an actor in the cast. That’s almost impossible to avoid in a scene as tight-knit as Chicago. Doing this work, you get to know people eventually. Apart from the guys at the New York Times, most of us have to be able to be critics and reporters, right? So you write some profiles, you sit down for some interviews, you get to be a little bit friendly with people—and then you hope to set that aside when necessary. I feel like I’ve done a decent job at that.
I think the idea of a total firewall beween reporting and criticism is a bit of a myth, though I understand the reasoning. We all have affinities and favorites, whether or not we’re personally friendly with the artists.
Yeah, and even in just making decisions for myself and the others who worked for me about which shows I or they particularly wanted to see—that all comes into play. None of us really claim to be objective, right? It’s a subjective field.
And deciding what to cover is as much a part of the critic’s and theatre editor’s job—what you’re gonna give your attention to with your limited space can be as or more important than what you thought of the show.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And not just deciding what gets covered, but putting some judgment into who you send to each show—because you think their sensibilities are a good match, or sometimes because you think they might be the right person to be brutally honest about something. Finding and developing new writers has been one of my favorite things about the job. I’ve been able to give opportunities to at least a couple dozen writers who had interest in writing about theatre over those years, some of whom have gone into making theatre, some who have gone onto lots of different things. We never paid well enough for freelancers to keep on forever.
How would you compare the space you’ve had in Time Out to cover theatre in recent years, as opposed to prior years?
There was a time—the golden age, I guess from 2005 to 2013—when we could print up to 13, 14 reviews in a single issue. They were kind of on the small side—our a standard there was like 250 words in those days. But still, being able to cover that much…
And weekly? That’s amazing.
For the first two years, we had two full-time staffers devoted to theatre, plus a healthy freelance budget, which is really the ideal way to be able to cover the full depth and breath of theatre in this city. That has shrunk pretty precipitously over the last five years since we ended the weekly magazine.
So how many reviews did you do online? Half a dozen a week?
Not even that. You know, I did my best for the first couple of years after the end of the weekly magazine to keep up the quantity and output with the budget and resources I had, but it wasn’t really sustainable. We had to pick and choose a lot more, as more non-theatre duties were piled on to my plate as staff shrunk, as freelance budget shrank. For the last couple of years, we’ve probably been reviewing five to 10 shows a month, tops.
Yeah, so a lot more times I’ve had to say no, which I never enjoyed.
You also did previews, interviews, features?
Yeah, since we relaunched the print magazine four times a year, I had a little bit of space in every one of those issues for a profile or an interview or sometimes a big feature. When Hamilton opened here I was able to get that as a cover story. Between those print issues, anything that I was trying to do in terms of interviews or previews was all enterprise—finding my own time to do it.
About the decision to let you go: Did you see it coming?
I didn’t see it coming when it came, but I can’t say I was totally taken aback by it.
What does it mean for Time Out Chicago’s future coverage of theatre? And what does it mean for you?
I can’t, unfortunately, say what this means for Time Out or what their plans are for covering theatre going forward, if they’re going to continue. That would just be speculation on my part. What it means for me is a pretty open question at this point. It’s been less than 24 hours so. I am open to seeing what comes next. I hope that I can continue covering theatre in some fashion for some outlet or outlets, but you know, the reality in the media landscape in Chicago is that we’re down now to one full-time theatre critic position, at the Tribune. The Sun-Times let Hedy Weiss go at the beginning of this year and has so far not chosen to replace her. The Reader, of course, has a long history of reviewing everything that moves, but their future is a little bit up in the air at this point—they are still without an editor-in-chief since January or February. So it’s hard to say who might let me write for them.
We hope you’ll write for us again. The only remaining questions I have are about the how you feel the scene in Chicago’s changed in the years you’ve been covering it, and whether you think the decline of media coverage has been felt in the scene.
I think those questions intertwine to some degree. The scene, as you know, has a long and rich history of being nurtured by local media, by the Chicago Reader, which for decades would review anybody that asked them for a review, and the Tribune under Richard Christiansen’s long tenure—he was famously adventurous in terms of going out to see shows in nightclubs and basements and all that. I have to say that a lot of the favorite things I’ve seen in those years of reviewing have been the kinds of shows that crop up in non-traditional theatre spaces and have played with immersive techniques or just been done with no evidence of a budget at all.
I’ve always felt a responsibility to try to see that kind of stuff, to see new theatre companies where I can champion stuff that doesn’t have huge a marketing budget of its own. I do think that the pressures that are being felt by all kinds of media as we move into more of a digital age are bound to affect what shows are able to get that kind of word out.
But you know, the last five years since we ended the weekly magazine, I’ve really had to start paying attention to what kind of traffic theatre reviews get online, and it’s not promising, you know.
Especially in the way the Chicago market works, almost everything here apart from your occasional Blue Man Group or Million Dollar Quartet is nonprofits on subscription seasons or low-budget theatres with limited runs—not great news for the media companies that are counting the clicks on the individual reviews. It used to be, when we were in print, and for those outlets that still are in print, that you can put up a bunch of reviews next to each other and people might read all of them if they’re interested in one—go to the next thing on the page. That’s just not the way that they work online. The other side of the coin may be that theatre companies, even the smallest and poorest of them, have a lot easier methods to reach audiences directly now.
But in terms of the landscape I’ve been seeing just very recently: I counted on my calendar that I had 49 shows opening in the month of April that were requesting reviews from us. The most that I could manage to actually review or get reviewed in Time Out was, like, five. So I hope that there are audiences for all of those shows and that those audiences are finding them. But it’s becoming a lot more difficult proposition for all those shows to get what we call earned media coverage.
Right, and I don’t know if direct marketing gets you new audiences—people who might notice a review on a page next to something else they’re interested in—any more than you get people literally walking by your theatre and thinking, “I should try that.”
And even then, we’re only really talking about filling the seats for this production here in Chicago for whatever few weeks they have to run. That’s not taking into consideration the other powers of reviews, as historical records or as tools to get the next production done somewhere else.
Let alone to create some sort of conversation around the work and giving feedback to the artist—all those other functions.
I reviewed a play a few years ago at the Pavement Group, Harry & the Thief, a world premiere by a playwright from California, Sigrid Gilmer, who had entrusted her premiere to this company in Chicago. I loved it, but I don’t think it was reviewed by the daily papers here; I had it on my best of the year list at the end of the year, which doesn’t do much for selling tickets for shows that have closed. But I was contacted maybe a year later by an artistic director of a theatre in another city who just wanted to let me know that it was seeing my review of that play in Chicago that got them to request the script and pick it up for its second production. That’s the kind of thing I try to remind myself of every once in a while when I’m getting too depressed about the direct traffic numbers on a review.
Well, we don’t know what’s next for Time Out Chicago, but I guess I don’t understand how you could have a publication covering Chicago culture that wouldn’t have a theatre writer. It’s one of the most important theatre scenes in the world, let alone the country.
I think that’s absolutely right. But as someone else said to me recently, these media companies are not charities. When we’re looking at hard numbers, it’s clear that people just aren’t reading this stuff, and theatres are spending most of their advertising, like everyone else, in the digital realm. It used to be that we had seven or eight pages in a weekly magazine to fill with theatre reviews because that was based on advertising from theatres wanting to advertise next to our reviews. That relationship has changed. I think absolutely, if you wanna be taken seriously as an arbiter of culture in this city, you have to have some kind of knowledgeable coverage of theatre. But I guess the question becomes, is it profitable to be a cultural arbiter? I’m not sure that it is.