As Blanche DuBois put it, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”
In one sense, the hiring of Helen Shaw as the theatre critic for New York magazine and its Vulture website didn’t happen suddenly at all—she’s been at this ink-stained trade for around 15 years, by her estimate, and has been more than worthy of such a top spot for a good while now. But in another sense the news that one of the best theatre journalists around (we’ve been fortunate to publish her, as have Time Out, Village Voice, and 4Columns.org) has earned one of the few remaining major platforms for this beleaguered art is a welcome blast of hope, not only for criticism and for theatre but for the endangered notion that sometimes the right thing really does happen to the right person at the right time.
Her hiring is especially heartening in that she follows the meteoric blaze of an out-of-nowhere natural critical talent, Sara Holdren. When this director and theatremaker was hired to succeed Jesse Green at New York during the summer of 2017, essentially on the basis of a single Culturebot review (which later also won her the George Jean Nathan award), she was entirely unknown in journalism circles and scarcely better known in the theatre trade. But what looked like a risky gamble paid off big-time, as Holdren proved with her often vivid, penetrating, bracingly cogitative reviews that she was the indispensable voice the theatre didn’t know it needed.
Just about the only news that could make up for the loss of Holdren’s perspective, as she moves on to pursue her directing career, is a hire of Shaw’s caliber. I’ve made no secret that Helen is my favorite theatre critic currently working; if you want to see why, browse through the links in the first paragraph above, take a look at this, this, and this, and listen to this.
Indeed, as New York editor-in-chief David Haskell put it in the press release announcing Shaw’s hiring, “When we began looking for a critic, an extraordinary number of people immediately told us, ‘You should hire Helen Shaw,’ and I’m very happy that we did.” Not that it made a difference, but I was among that chorus.
Shortly after hearing the good news yesterday I spoke to Shaw, and what she told me made me, if possible, even more excited about her hiring. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: When I first called to congratulate you a minute ago, you said you’d sprained your ankle. Was it a theatre-related injury?
HELEN SHAW: No, it was a walking-backward-at-the gym-related accident. It’s my little memento mori, which was very useful. I was offered the job last Saturday, and everything was seeming a bit like a dream. And now I’m on crutches. I’ll be easy to spot at the theatre.
Did you apply for this job when it came up a few years ago?
Yes, I applied then and this time as well. I guess second time’s a charm? I am both very rueful that we’re losing Sara, and also hideously, hideously grateful.
Your writing first came to my attention in Time Out, where you’ve written mostly short, sharp capsule reviews. You’ll be writing longer, and more often, at New York. Apart from the pieces we’ve had you write all too infrequently for American Theatre, and that you’ve been doing at 4Columns, have you had the chance to do a lot of longer-form criticism before?
Well, my first job was for the New York Sun, when Jeremy McCarter was the critic. I don’t know if anyone remembers this, but the Sun had really extensive arts coverage, and they encouraged us to write quite long. I would usually cover two pieces at once in about 800 words, which was delicious, putting two shows in conversation—nobody gets the chance to do that anymore. Because Jeremy was the one to bring me on, he was my informal editor, and I learned a lot from him. He was very good at thinking long thoughts in print. So that was the first time I was writing essay-length stuff, while also writing shorter pieces for Time Out, and those jobs overlapped for a while, but then the Sun…
The Sun set.
You know, I just walked by their building with the clock that read, “The Sun, It Shines for All,” and the clock is gone. It’s just the frame, and I thought: That is a bitter, bitter metaphor.
Then you wrote mostly in short from for quite a while after that, is that right?
Yes, Time Out is known for those capsules, and that was an education, learning how to condense my somewhat windy prose. But back in the day the opener reviews were often 800 words. And once we moved online, if you wanted to take more space, we sometimes had the chance to say more, and David Cote and Adam Feldman were very encouraging in saying, if a piece has got to be grappled with, take the space. And then I also wrote longer pieces at the Voice.
And there’s 4Columns.
That’s a critic’s paradise over there.
Not only have you had the chance to write long there, I was also struck that you’ve been covering more Broadway shows in that space, after a critical career that has largely focused on downtown and experimental theatre.
Well, the criteria for 4Columns are that the shows have to still be open, which isn’t often the case with short runs Off-Off-Broadway, and they have to be of some interest to people outside New York. So that’s when I started writing about Broadway. But you know, the world is so topsy-turvy. Pinter is weird, and the fact that he’s on Broadway doesn’t stop him from being weird.
You’ll be writing a lot more about Broadway at New York, I’d imagine.
Yes. I wrote about Broadway a couple of times for Time Out and a few times for the Voice, but it’s really not been my area until the last couple years. And that’s been interesting. On one hand I can be skeptical of it, because a lot of my values align with poor theatre. On the other hand it means I’m really excited about it—I get thrilled by how big and shiny it is. I remember I came out of Mean Girls and I was just reeling in traffic, saying, “That was so loud.”
That sounds like a criticism.
No, it was a thrill! I thought, when was the last time I was in a space where someone had spent that much money on sound design? So it all feels very fresh and exciting to me. There’s a little quality of the unknown to it.
But will you still have the freedom to write about the weird stuff you love? Will your editors let you cover Clubbed Thumb and the Brick and whatever international piece comes to Montclair Peak Performances, etc.?
I don’t know. The editor I’ll be reporting to is Chris Bonanos, and he has very catholic taste. Also I don’t hide those interests—I’ve never put that light under a bushel. Certainly if I start to cram in shows that take place in actual working sewers that are Beckett plays spoken backwards, I won’t be surprised if my editors are leery. But in the conversations I’ve had with them so far, they sounded very excited by the idea that dance is a part of theatre, and performance art, and drag. The silos don’t need to stay closed. My impression from them is, you know, they cover New York, including the weirdest and glitziest and chintziest things. They have a Cheap Eats issue, and “cheap seats” is not that far from that.
It strikes me that you turning your attention to Broadway happens to come at a time when not just Pinter is on the Main Stem but also Jeremy O. Harris and Heidi Schreck.
And where did Heidi come from? Clubbed Thumb. If you’re thinking about the future of the form, the future comes really fast, and if you want to be guiding people through that you have to pay attention. Here’s my actual goal: to be the Anthony Bourdain of theatre in New York. I want to say to readers: You have no idea that you want to go to this weird corner and eat these spicy noodles, but trust me, you’ll love it. If I could do one millionth of that for theatre, I’d be happy.
Oh, so would I. That’s genuinely exciting. Of course, to extend the analogy, in this new post you’ll also be expected to write about the offerings at the big chain restaurants.
The thing is, I love the big chain restaurants too. There’s a chocolate lava cake at Applebee’s that is really quite spiritual. My parents still blush when they’re asked about it, but they will tell you that my first favorite show was The Phantom of the Opera. I sat in my room in Lawrence, Kans., with the two-cassette-tape set of that show, singing it full voice for maybe three full years. It’s all just different kinds of pleasure. You just keep trying to invite people to different kinds of pleasure.
That squares with reviews of yours that are truly rapturous. But then there’s the Helen Shaw pan…
I do get mad.
Just as you’ve got to be emotionally available to wonder and pleasure, you’re going to get pissed off or just bored sometimes. I don’t think I’ve ever felt you pulling punches.
You’ve got to tell people that’s how you feel. It’s awful that this is a Christopher Hitchens quote, but he once said, “There’s nothing more damaging than enthusiasm for mediocrity.” That quote has all the problems that most Hitchens quotes have, but I think it’s sort of true. I love theatre, but I am not a fan. I don’t feel like a fan. And I do get very, very angry at things. The nice thing about having many critics, and there should be more, is that you can get mad at something; so this one is mad, and this one is not, and there’s room for all of us. But I’ve never really wanted to slam the door on something—actually, that’s not true. There have been some things I wanted to slam the door on.
Right, but you never go in ready to take a show down. Some people seem to believe that critics think that way.
“Every critic has an agenda” is something I sometimes hear people say. That’s not true in my experience. But criticism is an aggressive art, and it makes people mad.
Not to throw your words back at you, but when you said you’re not a fan, I get what you mean, especially given what fan culture has become. But I also think of your enthusiasms, both hot and cold, as analogous to that of a fan, in the sense of “fanatic” for the art form. And sometimes in your pans there’s the sense that what makes you mad is that you love the art form so much, you hate to see work that’s unworthy of it.
“How dare you disappoint me!” You know, Jeffrey Jones wrote a wonderful essay about a little scandal, or not a scandal but a little ripple in the pond that happened in our world. It was back when Will Eno’s Thom Pain first came out; it was such an experience, it was haunting and incredible. And Charles Isherwood wrote a very, very positive, very loving review that really confused the audience, because people came expecting something accessible. He never said it was accessible, he just said it was wonderful. But people were confused and angry. And Jeff Jones wrote that criticism should be like the wall text in a museum; it’s there to help you understand something, and to open as many doors as possible. Jeff and I became friends because of that essay, and it became very important to me. I keep it in mind, especially when I’m trying to write about something that I love that I know other people will think is weird.
I’ve neglected to ask how you got into this noble profession.
Way back in the way back, I had Robert Brustein as a professor. And I thought, he has the life: He is a founder of many theatres—imagine just being to able to say that, “founder of many theatres”—a director, a playwright, a professor, a public intellectual, a critic, a book writer, and he seemed to be doing it without any sense of scramble. Like, “Oh yeah, did I just name 15 things I’m doing? That’s what fills up a life.” Obviously that gave me absolutely the wrong idea of what life was going to be like. But I got my dramaturgy degree from the institute the last year Bob was there, and then I came to New York, and weirdly I wasn’t pursuing criticism jobs.
Did you seek work in the theatre business?
I did push out that boat with a ginger toe. I was an assistant director for a while, and quite a bad one.
Who did you assistant-direct for?
For Simon McBurney. What happened was, I was talking to someone and happened to mention that I had recently worked on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and had cut it, and he said: “I know someone who needs to cut that show, tonight.” So I got in a cab and went straight to Simon’s and we spent eight hours cutting that play. He then brought me on as a dramaturg, which just meant that I sat in rehearsals and goggled at people.
Wait, was this the one with Al Pacino?
Yes. This is also the one where I led a yoga session for the company, which was very ill-advised. Someone took me aside and said, “I think you’re injuring people.” Then I dramaturged and a.d.’ed for the wonderful Martha Clarke, which was an education, going from all words to no words. Mind you, assistant-directing wasn’t me working with actors, it was me taking the dogs out for a pee, and maybe some light dramaturgy. I knew this was not going to be my path. And that was when Jeremy McCarter called. He wanted to cover the NY Fringe at the Sun but wasn’t insane, he didn’t want to do it all himself. He was casting around for help and called me up. It literally dropped from the sky.
Have you ever been tempted since to go back to the other side?
I like dramaturgy, and I had been a set designer before that. These were jobs that I liked. I didn’t love them like I love criticism.
Apart from Brustein and William Goldman, who are some models and critical heroes?
I’m looking at my bookshelf behind me. That’s what I do whenever I get stuck: I read old criticism. I’ve got all of Walter Kerr, Pauline Kael. I’ve read a lot of Mary McCarthy. Much more recently I’ve been reading Jill Johnston, who is startling and exciting. I like to read critics from other worlds: Alex Ross, Peter Schjeldahl. What they have in common is that they think the work is really important. They think there’s a moral component to what they’re writing about. I have Brustein on my shelf, John Lahr. And the greatest book of all time, John Houseman’s Run Through. I find a lot of pleasure in that. I also read academic criticism. If you really want to know what’s going on you have to read Marc Robinson, Una Chaudhuri, George Steiner, Fred Moten, Bonnie Marranca, if you want to someone who’s lifting it up onion skin by onion skin and really looking at it.
As for models, I would also say the other critics writing now. We’re all so driven by the people who are around us, and are racing to keep up with others who are doing it. I think, “Why are you writing such dull sentences, Helen? This other person is writing sparklers.”
Yes, it’s good to know at least one writer whose work makes you think, Damn, I wish I’d written that, or I wish I could write like that.
A little teeth-gnashing private jealousy is useful. Scott Brown did that for me for a while. I would read his reviews and sometimes I would have to go lie down afterward. They felt like roller coasters. Those are the kinds of things where you go, well, if I work hard, maybe I can get there. Someone told me, you should always be trying to write better and write faster. I have failed on the writing faster part.
For myself I can say that occasionally I look back on things I wrote too quickly, on deadline, without great deliberation, and I think: That’s not bad. Of course, there are also plenty of things I look back on and cringe at.
I kind of professionally lose laptops, so I have trouble looking back at my stuff. I’m like “The Langoliers” over here, I’m constantly erasing my past. In fact one of the most useful things I have as a critic is a poor memory. People will say, “Are you going to review that show? You hated that person’s last play.” And I’ll say, “Nonsense, I didn’t see that show,” when of course I did. There are shortcomings to being a goldfish, but it does mean you’re always coming into the water fresh.