Theater Critic Helen Shaw: Monster in the Audience

Helen Shaw. Photo: Bobby Webster.

Debates about cultural criticism question its relevance, who is and is not a critic, and the audience for critical writing. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from these debates. In our occasional series, Critical I, critics tell their own stories and offer their personal views of criticism. Performance critic Helen Shaw, our latest interview in this series, writes for a range of outlets including The Village VoiceTime Out New YorkAmerican Theatre and her own site Divers Alarums.

Please provide a personal professional statement of +/-150 words.

I’m a theater — and occasionally dance — critic who has been covering NYC for about 14 years.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I live in Brooklyn; I grew up in Lawrence, KS. I don’t have a favorite place, but I do miss some places like hell. The café that used to be next to HERE Arts Center, the sweet old Ohio Theater on Wooster Street, the Collapsable Hole when it was on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn. I also miss my grubby old experimental theater from college, where I used to paint and repaint the floor in my set-designing days. I bet I can still do a decent parquet — yep, that’s my favorite place — the Ex at 11:59 on a December night in 1996.

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Do you consider yourself a theater journalist or critic or a bit of both?

I’m mainly a critic these days, though I’ve written both.

What is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

This question used to be easier to answer. After college, I would have said Ibsen and Brecht and those fellows, because I studied under dear Robert Brustein, who would have a tattoo of Pirandello if he could. After my MFA, I would have said ancient drama, puppetry and Chekhov. Then, after moving to NYC, I would have said “I know a lot about downtown theater” or “hybrid performance” or suchlike — just because I love it so, and I’ve watched a metric ton of it. But I turned 40 recently, and the whole idea of “expertise” has kind of…evaporated. To (possibly mis-) quote Emily Dickinson: “Who knows this or that?” We prepare and experience and think and respond, but know? I don’t know anything.

In what year was your first professional piece of writing published? What was the publication and what was the piece?

Jeremy McCarter, may roses be heaped before him, asked me to cover a Fringe show at the (now defunct) New York Sun in 2003. I think it was on MacDougal Street where a pipe burst mid-show and the piece continued with frantic mopping, but that happened so frequently at the Fringe, I might be wrong.

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Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

Look, I have the hangdog sadness of all my kind, but I just want to keep writing about theater. Strike that. I would also like to write about action films, because I would just list all the awesome parts. Scratch me, and you find a sincere Vin Diesel fan.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

Of course. Everybody should write all the time about everything.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Peter Schjeldahl for poetic insight, Jennifer Krasinski for elegance, C. Carr for literally every word, David Cote for furious advocacy, Adam Feldman for alexandrine precision, Jason Zinoman for clarity of thought, James Hannaham for the phrase “gets up my nose” (which I’ll be stealing soon), Coco Fusco for rigor, Alex Ross for breadth, Sarah Schulman for calling things by their right names, Gia Kourlas for bite and brio, Margo Jefferson for making me want to do this job, Siobhan Burke for having a kind eye — Lord, there’s a lot. Hang on: Robert Avila for passionate interest, Lyn Gardner for caring so damn much, Clive James for intellectual ravishment, Maggie Nelson for reinventing what might be criticism, Scott Brown for a level of barnstorming virtuosity so ridiculous that I used to go into a shame spiral after reading him, Jesse Green for the way his paragraphs move. I’m leaving out people! Argh. Miriam Felton-Dansky wrote a piece when she was still a student at Yale that I think about weekly. There’s a trio of women at the Times — Alexis Soloski, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Laura Collins-Hughes — that I love to read. Then there’s David Barbour and Terry Teachout and Jose Solis and Nicole Serratore, who all go to more shows than I do, and I thought I was literally going to as many shows as a human could go to. That appetite and vigor is inspiring.

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Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Jill Johnston, the wild-and-woolly writer at the Voice — I’m still sounding the depths. She’s the true gonzo critic. Also, Walter Kerr, Kenneth Tynan, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, Brooks Atkinson, Stanley Kauffman. But above them all is Mary McCarthy. She’s just not … having … any nonsense. After reading her reviews, you feel like a dog who someone has just very roughly brushed.

Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

Martha! How can you ask me that? There’s a review I wrote (my stomach sinks to think about it) in which I make a claim that’s just bogus. I was all snotty and “I’ll think you’ll find” about a Greek tragedy and one of its characters, and nope, I was wrong. I’m not going to tell you, because my parents will find out, and they’re both classicists.

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

Right and wrong? Who’s to say? I’ve certainly adored shows more than other people. I think there’s something about Sibyl Kempson‘s work that’s just pitched directly at my heart, for instance. Oh, hang on: everyone who said anything nice about War Horse was wrong. Nice puppet, I grant you. But what about the appalling anti-human politics and garbage characterization? Whew, good to have that off my chest.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

Ha ha. If there was actually something else my soul would let me do, wouldn’t I be doing it? Do we think it’s the riches piled in my lap that are holding me down? If I could tear this crazy compulsion out of me, root and branch, I’d be working for a nonprofit on environmental issues, I like to think. Or running a theater where I would give lengthy curtain speeches.

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What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

No union.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

It’s trying to course-correct away from centuries of narrowness, even as its impoverishment increases. That’s so…beautiful. The assault on arts criticism by the metrics revolution (a magazine or paper can now see how few people really read our articles) means that fewer and fewer people are being hired to do it. And yet, people keep streaming in! And the people who have been there for a few years are examining their writing and attitudes, examining the scuzzy bits of their inmost minds in public! That’s brave.

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.

I was once called a “monster in the audience” in a very angry bit of hate mail; I’m afraid that cuts to the heart of it.

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.

Theater’s whole point is that it thinks the “long thought”; brevity ain’t in it. Plus, I lost a job once for my lack of Twitter presence, so