Critical I: Misha Berson, Seattle Times

We live in a time when it is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. More and more, this debate involves dueling, inexact, contradictory versions of what criticism is; who is and is not a “critic”; who is or is not the audience for criticism; what is or is not proper critic(al) comportment.

We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from this debate.
So we ask for their stories — and their views.

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Our sixth Q&A in this interview series is with Misha Berson of the Seattle Times.
(Which critic would you like to see profiled? Email us and let us know.)


Misha border ftPlease provide a personal statement of +/-150 words starting as follows: Misha Berson is…
Misha Berson has been the staff theater critic for the Seattle Times since 1992. She’s also the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the former executive director of Theatre Bay Area, and the author of four books about theater: Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination; The San Francisco Stage, volumes I and II; and Between Worlds: Asian American Playwrights. She’s taught at Seattle University, University of Washington and San Francisco State University, and served on the juries of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Awards. She lives in Seattle with her husband, music writer Paul Schiavo, and after many years in this crazy biz still has a hearty appetite for theater as well as film, jazz, literature and travel. She’s not a nasty critic, though a truthful one.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?
I live in Seattle, Washington. I grew up a number of places — Michigan, Washington, DC, San Francisco. The favorite place question is throwing me. For theater: London. For adrenalin: New York City. For sheer transcendent joy: Maui, the Greek Islands, Orcas Island, special places in San Francisco. For endless fascination: Havana.

As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire that expertise?
I write for a daily newspaper, and so I must be a reporter-journalist as well as an evaluator-interpreter. One usually acquires skills through experience (30 years writing about theater, plus years writing poetry, fiction), but also from osmosis (my parents were both professional writers), observation (lifelong love of theater and film), study (reading, an English/creative writing degree) and mentors and influences (dozens of writers I’ve read, shows I loved as a kid, a couple of teachers, an editor or two, and great jazz artists).

In which year was your first professional review published? What was the venue for the review?
1980, in the weekly paper the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?
I’ve written about several art forms (literature, dance, music, movies). I just wish I could write more about those things, music and film especially.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?
No! Who wants to see 100-plus stage shows a year? Who wants to put out an opinion, and have to back it up? Who wants the inevitable scorn from artists, and from readers, when they disagree with you? It takes a special person (or masochist) to self-select this job, hopefully someone immersed in and passionate about what they write about and thirsty to always learn more. In the best of all possible universes, critics would be as Oscar Wilde (a member of the tribe) suggests (with a few pronoun changes):

The critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather, he will look upon Art as a goddess whose mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvelous in the eyes of men.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I don’t want to name individuals, but there are many critics — in the journalism and academic realms, in the U.S. and the U.K, who have enriched me and other writers.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
Harold Clurman was a renaissance theater man, and had an inviting writing style, a lot of knowledge and compelling insights in his critiques. Richard Gilman’s writing, on Chekhov in particular, was illuminating. For sheer verve and building a case, it’s hard to beat Pauline Kael’s film writing. It’s just great fun to read Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, part of the Algonquin gang. To reach back, there’s G.B. Shaw’s highly opinionated and brilliantly stated music and theater criticism, William Hazlitt, A.C. Bradley and Samuel Johnson on classic theater, and more I’m forgetting at the moment.

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In hindsight, name one review in which you were dead wrong.
Too many to name, I fear, after 30 years in the business!

In hindsight, name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.
I don’t keep score! I try to remember that Shaw was “wrong” a lot in relation to prevailing opinion, but he was still a fine read.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
Either a journalist covering something else (because newspapers and journalism are in my blood), a university or college professor (like my mother), or the director of a nonprofit arts organization (which I have been). Whatever I was doing, theater and/or cinema would have to be part of it because I’m obsessively interested in them.

What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?
The extreme short form demanded in many magazines, newspapers and sometimes online forces one to be very reductive, and often more concerned with showing off snarky wit or gush instead of probing and capturing the dramatic event. This is part of a general attention-deficit syndrome the whole culture is afflicted with. I also don’t see enough social/historical context in many reviews.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?
It is no longer an exclusive club. People with a literary gift, a genuine curiosity about and interest in theater, who something to say, can start a blog and do it.

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.
I write at least 150 reviews a year, and hope that at least 10 percent of them hold up a year later! I consider every theatrical work as part of the broader zeitgeist, and try to view it in a historical and cultural context. I strive to write in a lively, clear, illuminating fashion, and bring not only a knowledge of theater but also some psychological insight. into the mix. I also can miss the point, overlook important things, recycle familiar phrases (when nothing new comes to mind).

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.
I tend to write with clarity, insight and energy, and knowledge of my field, and consider theater in a historical-social as well as artistic context. On off days, I may miss key things, or not drill deep enough, but I always aim to give a vivid sense of the event, and interpret it beyond the obvious.

In a haiku, please review yourself as a critic.
My world is the stage
The stage is a world I hold a
Mirror up to and gaze

In five words, review the kind of person who’d ask you to review yourself in haiku.
Someone with plenty of chutzpah.

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