Not all the news about theatre criticism is bad. While the field has undoubtedly been decimated in many markets, including in the great theatre city of Chicago, from that same burgh recently came the heartening news that longtime Windy City scribbler Kerry Reid had landed the plum job of theatre and dance editor at the Chicago Reader, the city’s scrappy alt-weekly. That indicates a commitment on the part of the Reader to continue and even enhance its coverage of one of Chicago’s most distinctive local scenes, and that in itself is good news.
The elevation of Reid is also good news on a more personal note: I first got to know her criticism and reporting in the mid-1990s when she was a Bay Area correspondent for, and I was editor of, Back Stage West. She moved back home to Illinois in 2001 and didn’t skip a beat, writing about theatre for nearly every publication in Chicago, including the Tribune, as well as for American Theatre (look for a big piece by her in our November issue).
I spoke with Reid last month, not long after she started her new job, about the state of criticism, the need for hybridized coverage, and some persistent misconceptions about the City of Broad Shoulders.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congrats on the new gig. It’s not just new to you, it’s a new position for the Reader too, isn’t it?
KERRY REID: I’m officially the theatre and dance editor, and I don’t think they’ve had this precise job before. It was being handled by the culture editor, Aimee Levitt, and Catey Sullivan, one of our critics, had also been filling in freelance doing the assigning. They just sort of decided to fold it all into one job.
Give me a sense of how big their coverage commitment is.
I have about 13, 14 critics right now. The budget is what it is, but we’re going to try to build that and really get as much covered as possible. I think that’s always one of the great strengths of the Reader—that we’ve had, I would say, more freelance critics than any other major weekly I know of, and probably more than most dailies are writing out for now, as well.
That’s a lot. Is the coverage fairly comprehensive, then?
We don’t get out to see everything. It used to be, way back in the day, when I first started reading the Reader back in the ’80s, almost everything got reviewed, and they were fairly long reviews that ran in the front section, back when it was a three-section paper. Now it’s all in one. So we have capsule reviews that tend to be about 250 words. Longer reviews are anywhere from 750 to 450. And there are features. We have a fall theatre and dance preview issue, out on Sept. 12. So we’ll be looking for a lot of interesting pitches from the writers on that.
You’ve worked for the Reader before, is that right?
I worked here back in the early aughts as well, and I was doing a lot more of the listings for them. As you are probably aware, listings have kind of become an endangered species. But we’re also hoping to start creating more of that content; for both readers and for theatre companies it’d be a boon. And I’ll still be writing, at least one review a week myself, as well as features and other kinds of things.
How did you first become a theatre critic/reporter?
I had always thought I’d be more on the journalism side of things. I started out studying journalism at the University of Missouri, and spent a semester studying in London, where I saw a lot of shows. One night I went to see a play by a German author I vaguely knew of, starring a woman I’d never heard of. It was Mother Courage with Judi Dench. So that was kind of an eye opener. And from there I thought, this is something I really want to spent more time with.
So I went back, and it was my senior year at Mizzou; I knew transferring into the theatre department at that point would just be sort of ridiculous. But Columbia College of Chicago at that time had a weave-your-own-major sort of thing. They’re not quite that way now—I think they do require that you actually declare a major. But I ended up finishing my degree there, mostly taking theatre classes, studying directing with Randy Arney and Sheldon Patinkin, the late, great head of the theatre department, who died a few years ago.
From there I sort of worked in small, Off-Off-Loop, fringe theatres, and didn’t really start getting into writing about theatre until probably my late 20s. A friend of mine was the executive director of Streetwise, a paper about unhoused in Chicago. I was not homeless, but they wanted to have a lot of features in there that were not just about how awful it is to be homeless, I think—with the assumption that anyone buying the paper would already be aware of those issues and maybe would like to know other things that were going on. Because I knew a lot of people in the Off-Loop theatre scene, I started writing features there.
Then I moved to San Francisco, and not long after that I started writing for various publications in the Bay Area. I think you came across my name, and that’s really where I started doing most of my reviewing, for Back Stage West. I eventually moved to East Bay Express, then moved back to Chicago and started in 2001 reviewing for the Reader. In 2002, when Richard Christiansen was retiring as the full-time theatre critic at the Tribune, they brought in Chris Jones full-time and Michael Phillips, who’s now their film critic. For a while they had both of them full-time and they wanted to get a couple freelancers to fill in, so Nina Metz and myself ended up doing that. Nina has since moved on to a full-time position at the Trib; she does a lot of television and film coverage, but I ended up sticking around and being their freelance second stringer for about 17 years.
Did you grow up reading Richard Christiansen at the Tribune?
I did. Initially I grew up reading Glenna Syse at the Sun-Times, because my parents were union schoolteachers and the Tribune was not seen as the appropriate newspaper. My parents started subscribing to the Tribune around the time Mike Royko went over there. I think they figured at that point, “Well, okay. If Royko’s there, we can read it.” Then once I moved into the city—I hadn’t really seen the Reader growing up in the suburbs where I grew up, and I was just floored by the amount of coverage that they gave to theatre. And I think I internalized that as: This is normal. This is what every alternative paper does.
Well, they used to!
But even in the Bay Area, the weeklies there had one or two critics who were, not always but often covering a lot of the same shows the dailies would cover. Whereas I do think the great strength of the Reader has been there’s always been—we certainly cover stuff from Steppenwolf and Goodman and Broadway in Chicago, but there’s really been a concerted effort over the years to try to find the smaller companies and get them some coverage before other people are necessarily aware of them. There’s also been a very nice sense that it’s not a hierarchy, that we are not necessarily going to give the long review or the private place review every week to a major company.
This all strikes me as very good news—not only that the Reader is continuing the coverage but also looking to improve it.
Yeah, we’re at least trying to. The commitment is there. The Reader itself—I lost track of who owned it, but I came in under the original owners who started it, and its 50th anniversary is 2021. In 2012, when I was freelancing for both the Reader and the Trib, the Reader was bought by the same parent company that owned the Sun-Times. It’s now under new ownership. The publisher now is Tracy Baim, who is a longtime owner of Windy City Times, an alt-weekly for the LGBTQ community. So we’re back to being locally owned; I can’t really speak to all the plans that are afoot, because I don’t know that I’m privy to all of them, but I do feel confident that with the people we have running things at the top now that there is that commitment to what has always made the Reader very strong: local commitment, that kind of two-pronged coverage, arts and culture particularly, that which is creative within Chicago, in the neighborhoods, by smaller companies and also a dedication to investigative reporting.
You could see those two commitments coming together in that devastating piece about abuse at Profiles Theatre in 2016.
Obviously you and I think criticism and arts coverage is worth doing and worth reading. And you get the feeling that your bosses do too, and they feel there’s a real readership for it?
Absolutely. And I think there’s still a lot of good will for the Reader. That’s one of the things I’m sensing, through the ups and downs and the cuts they’ve had to make—because like every other alt-weekly they were badly battered by the loss of classified revenue to Craigslist and all the other factors—there’s still the sense that there are some core values at the Reader. That it still represents homegrown talent, that it represents the breadth of coverage. Certainly, I’m hoping that we can bring in more coverage of things that are not as North Side-centric, because that’s always a big problem with Chicago theatre coverage in general. So hoping to do more to cover companies that are starting to come up outside of that.
Another thing I’m interested in that I’d like to try to see us do—the Reader has wonderful staff writers and freelancers who are really well versed in a variety of social issues, political issues, and I’d like to try to find some way to bring them into dialog with our theatre writers, if there’s a show that would lend itself to that. I remember an episode of This American Life from way back in the day, when a medieval scholar was sent to Medieval Times to talk about it. What I loved about that segment is that it wasn’t necessarily being snarky, it was sort of: What is this thing, and how does it fit within my area or knowledge? I think that if I can find a few shows that would be appropriate for some of our writers who are not necessarily theatre writers, but definitely know quite a lot about the topic under discussion, and put them in dialog with the theatre writers, that might be an interesting way to reach out to people who aren’t necessarily theatregoers, but would say, “Oh, okay. I see what this play is trying to do, and I’m interested in that subject, so I want to see how they handle that.”
You grew up going to Chicago theatre and covered it for decades. What trends have you seen develop over the years? And are there some misconceptions that you’d like to correct about Chicago?
I think the biggest one is that Chicago is very realism-steeped. It is, to an extent, but I think that’s American theatre in general; I don’t think Chicago is unique in that in any way. One of the things that I’ve noticed is the emphasis on devised work, on physical work, whether it’s people like Lookinggglass, who’ve been incorporating circus arts into their pieces for quite some time now, or work that is primarily using a physical vocabulary. So this town is not all about American realism.
In terms of infrastructure, I think we have the same problems we’ve always had. It’s a lot easier to do work than it is to make money doing work in Chicago. We have a very robust non- Equity scene. There are so many companies that have been around for decades and have been doing terrific work but aren’t necessarily looking to grow into the next Steppenwolf. I think that’s the other big misconception, and I think it’s mostly been going away: that companies form to be the next Steppenwolf. The ensemble model has its pluses and minuses. It can lead to a sort of insularity that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to diversity all the time, and I think people are more aware of that and are addressing it a lot more.
In terms of the critical community, I think it’s no secret that there’s been a lot of controversy with various critics over time here. But in the age of social media it’s a lot easier to talk back to people, rather than, “Here’s my sternly worded letter to the editor, which may or may not appear in print.” There’s an immediacy to the response. We’re all more conscious of that, and for the most part I think it’s a really good thing. I don’t think checking your own sensitivity and use of language is a bad thing at all if you’re a writer. And it’s still a small community. But I have sense that New York is probably smaller than people imagine when you get into the nitty gritty. All theatre communities in their own way tend to feel sort of small after a while, right?
Right. It’s not a mass medium, even at a larger scale.
I think Erik Ehn—there was a thing called the RAT conference, I don’t know if you remember that.
One of the things he said was exactly that: You can take the most popular show ever, like, say, Cats, add up all the people that have seen that since its beginning, and it would not add up to the average number of people who are watching a rerun of “Roseanne” in syndication.
It’s a small, self-selecting audience. The trick is to make sure it’s not also elitist.
The companies that were really influential to me in my salad days or whatever were companies like Theater Oobleck, Curious Theatre Branch, Cardiff-Giant, which Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, who created Urinetown, came out of. Many of them ended up working with a non-directorial model, and they did a lot of free theatre, pay-what-you-can, and just doing very—I don’t want to say surreal, but original work that was not necessarily kitchen-sink drama. Some of it was very politically charged. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week, because one of the founding members of the Theater Oobleck, Danny Thompson, passed about a month or so ago, and we had memorials for him this past weekend and there was a series of performances at the Neo-Futurists, who would be in that mix as well.
That was the stuff that got me really excited, and it felt to me like these were shows that were being done, not necessarily for people who were already steeped in a sense of what theatre should be or how it has been; they were just very interested in seeing these sorts of mashups of found objects, puppetry, music, dance, film, and sort of leftist politics, not in any sort of agitprop way, but put through the funhouse mirror, so that you didn’t feel like you’re being preached to. That stuff was really important to me, and if I have a soft spot, those are the sorts of shows I tend to gravitate toward. It’s messy, but it’s kind of a glorious mess, right? Rather than something that’s very carefully polished and at the heart of it, I think, okay, but did I really learn anything or see anything that surprised me, you know?
I don’t want to get into click metrics or anything here—the Reader is also in print, so it has still has hard copy readers, presumably. Do you have a sense of its impact?
Here’s a story I’ve told a lot. Years ago, a friend of mine was a performance studies major at Columbia College, and she was doing a sort of a graduation performance at a gallery in the River North district. It was listed in the Reader, but you mostly only went to it if somebody had sent you a flyer or had told you about it. It was a mostly younger crowd, but there were these two older women sort of sitting off to the side, and I sort of assumed they were parents or aunts or somebody of somebody in the show. The next day I was talking to my friend on the phone and she asked if I had seen the two women. I said, yes—they were older, so they sort of stood out with that crowd. And she said that she walked out with them and they were asking her about the show and just being very complimentary. So she asked them if they knew somebody in the class and they said, “Oh, we didn’t even know this was a class. We were at the Hot Tix booth and we were trying to get tickets for Les Miz, and it was sold out. So there was this paper there, the Reader, near our hotel, and we said, that sounds interesting, why not?”
You always want to leave that open. Maybe that happens once every 10 years, I don’t know. I still like to think that our readers are people who already know about the big shows for the most part and have already decided whether or not they’re going to see them, so they are looking for something else—whether it’s a band, an independent film at Facets or the Gene Siskel Film Center, a new storytelling performance series in a coffeehouse on the West Side. I think that there are a lot of people betting on the fact that the Reader still has that sort of cachet, and we’re just trying to figure out ways to build on that and honor that, and frankly leverage new sources of funding.
Last question. You said you’re working on a fall preview. What are some things you’re looking forward to?
There’s a designer, Arnel Sancianco, who’s done a lot of sets. He did the set for Photograph 51 at Court Theater, and I’ve just been noticing that every time I see one of his sets, I think, oh, that’s looks pretty interesting. So I want to do a feature on him. And I know we have a feature coming up in a couple weeks on Collaboraction, which is doing something called Peacebook, a series short plays in parks throughout the South Side. They’ve changed the focus of their work somewhat to be more social justice-focused, and I think part of that was realizing that we need to be more in the neighborhoods that we’re writing about. So they’re going to be in Southside Community College auditorium.
When we talk about diversity, I think there’s aesthetic diversity, there’s regional diversity—it’s not just race, ethnicity, gender. All of that is very important, obviously, but when you start digging under, you’re like: There are artistic voices that have been underserved in a lot of different ways. I love Isaac Gomez, and I’m thrilled the way she spoke is in New York, and I really like Loy Webb’s The Light; Loy is now writing for a TV series and she’s coming back to do a show for 16th Street.
I think I would say that Chicago itself inspires loyalty in people. People do come back. The old story is the Steppenwolf people coming back. Michael Shannon comes back, it seems, at least once a year to do a show at A Red Orchid. It’s Equity and they do wonderful work, but it’s not big—this is a place you do the work because you love having that intimacy. You love having that kind of relationship with the material and with the audience.