Lauren Yarger Reflects on Reflections in the Light

To inaugurate a new series profiling arts critics, we begin with Lauren Yarger, whose blog, Reflections in the Light, considers New York theatre from a Christian perspective. Here is Yarger’s bio:

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute’s Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at Reflections in the Light.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

And now, The CFR’s interview with Lauren Yarger:

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What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“What show was most worth making your 6-hour round trip into the city to see?” Answer: Wow, It’s so perceptive of you to understand that there is a lot of travel involved for me to do this! David Cromer’s Our Town at Barrow Street. Genius.

Reflections in the Light: Drama Desk member Lauren Yarger

Reflections in the Light: Drama Desk member and theatre critic Lauren Yarger

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Something along the lines of, “Gee, it isn’t very hard to be a critic, is it? Anyone can do it, right, so can you just introduce me to all the right people so I can be one too and get free tickets to all the shows?” Answer: No.

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
At a theatre gathering: “Can you please tell me about your Christian productions, but whisper? I don’t want anyone here to know I’m interested.”

Much of Broadway and Off-Broadway trades on questioning, flouting, challenging or even repudiating religion and faith. As a person of faith, can you fairly evaluate a work whose message runs counter to your beliefs?
Of course. All reviewers (those of us who are professionals, anyway, and members of organizations like the Drama Desk) should be able to report the facts and give any editorial opinion based on them, without being biased. When I review a show that has a faith theme, I am evaluating the show for its elements like any other — the score, the script, the acting and directing, the technical elements and how well they come together — not on whether or not I agree with the writer’s theology. As a reviewer who is writing for a faith-based audience, however, I do have an obligation to report issues that could be of concern to my niche audience. These content and language notes are bulleted under the “Christians might like to know” tab at the end of the review. And let me assure you, what is acceptable for one reader might not be for another. It’s not my job to decide for them. It’s my job to report what is in the show so they can make an informed choice. My review of The Book of Mormon, for example, praises the show for many things, including being an absolute riot (my sides hurt), but also mentions the things in it that could be offensive (the number “Nasa Diga Eebowai” crosses the line). It’s fair, I think.

It works the other way too. I review shows that contain positive Christian messages or characters, like last season’s Scandalous or Hands on a Hardbody, but they don’t get a pass because of their content. Neither one of those shows would get a rave from a professional reviewer, just like reviewers who happened to be Jewish didn’t love Soul Doctor.

Might I suggest that I might not be the one who needs to answer this question? Last year a number of critics refused to see, or expressed their great displeasure at having to see, Scandalous because they didn’t like the position the Foursquare Church (a producer on the musical which was about its founder, Aimee Semple McPherson) takes on same-sex marriage. How can readers know whether these critics panned the show because it deserved it or because they wanted to make a statement?

PICIn the last two years, can you name three to five productions that not only surprised you by their quality but, in fact, surprised you by their ability to reaffirm your faith and spiritual beliefs?

  • The Trip to Bountiful! Cicely Tyson’s Carrie delights in her faith. When she started singing “Blessed Assurance,” there was a low murmur as some in the audience felt compelled to join her and suddenly the whole house was singing. I joined in and knew that God was there with us and my spirit was touched (and my report of this phenomenon, which apparently continued at many performances, beat the New York Times’ article on it, by the way. One advantage of being a Christian critic, I guess.)
  • I was surprised by the boldness of the Christian message in Hands on a Hardbody. Keala Settle’s portrait of a strong Christian woman, without a bunch of stereotypes attached to it, was very welcome and her rousing gospel number of “Joy to Lord” was worshipful — not just a performance. The conversion scene acted by Hunter Foster was one of the most vivid I ever recall seeing onstage. I even enjoyed the number “God Answered My Prayers (he said no)” which led neatly into Settle’s character’s realizing that God might have different plans for her participation in the competition than she originally thought. That’s the stuff of a real walk of faith and I was very surprised and pleased to see it in a Broadway musical.
  • The revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Love that score, but it can be tricky any time Broadway tries to do a biblical story, especially when Jesus is a character. There’s only so far you can go to interpret him before you risk contradicting scripture and this revival had arrived in the midst of reports that it focused on the romantic triangle of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene, so I had my doubts. Thankfully, the hype was wrong and I was surprised and delighted with Director Des McAnuff’s vision and with Paul Nolan’s fresh and moving portrayal of Jesus. The crucifixion was hard to watch.
  • How the World Began, a delightful play by Catherine Trieschmann, which was presented by The Women’s Project. It centers on the science vs. religion debate, and I was surprised by likable characters who were fully developed beyond stereotype and a play whose agenda wasn’t to make a political statement but to tell the story compassionately from both sides. In today’s world where opposing opinions immediately are defined as “hate,” it was very reaffirming to see a story where people could debate with respect and genuine interest in trying to understand the other side’s point of view.

Bonus question:

What is the biggest misconception your readers have of you as both a person and a critic? On a similar note, what is the biggest misconception your fellow Drama Desk members have of you as both a person and a critic?
My more conservative readers probably think I share their very strict and traditional views on some issues and that I probably feel uncomfortable in the theater community, which, shall we say, doesn’t exactly embrace traditional Christian values. The more liberal of my readers probably think I share their “spiritual” rather than Christian leanings and don’t feel bound by the bible or traditional teachings of the church. Both would be wrong. I am a committed Christ follower, but as a former atheist, I totally get the whole “I-don’t-need-religion” thing. I feel quite comfortable with people in both camps.

As far as misconceptions my fellow Drama Desk members might have, those who don’t know me very well probably think I am:

  • a Republican
  • going to try to convert them
  • judging them
  • without a sense of humor

Those who know me better, however, understand that my faith is what defines my character and life. My passionate love for the theater — and all the wonderful people who are a part of making it happen — it is what shapes my purpose here on earth.

Hopefully no one will shut the door on a potential friendship just because we don’t share the same faith. What a tragedy that would be. Overwhelmingly my colleagues (and the theater community in general) have been very welcoming of “the Christian critic” and supportive even if they don’t agree with my personal perspective. They respect my journalistic credentials and know that beyond my faith, I’m a fellow theater lover with greasepaint in my DNA. Nothing makes me happier than putting some Christian butts in theater seats (and a lot of readers tell me they have headed to the box office in New York or for the tour coming to their city after reading my reviews). Amen!

Christians might like to know: The word butt is used in this article. (See, I do have a sense of humor.)

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