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Why a longtime critic hates to let any show pass her by
I have a habit of reviewing in bulk. I started out, back in the pre-digital era, as a restaurant critic. I'm happy to report that covering theatre is a lot less caloric. But I've retained a disconcerting tendency to go whole hog. Call it completism, if you will. I suffer from a certain perverse perfectionism: I just don't feel qualified to pass judgment on any particular enterprise until I've done my best to study the entire field -- even at the risk of overtaxing my appetite.
For several years, I served on a nominating committee charged with assessing some 300 shows per season. That's right: Pretty much a play a day, more if you subtract the summer (when openings are scarce) and winter holidays (even scarcer). Off-season, I tended to race around New England, a thespian Nancy Drew, following a trail of clues leading to worthy productions. While it's true that most of the really good stuff eventually finds its way to New York, I get a thrill from seeing shows first. Since travel expenses are rarely covered, I've surfed my share of couches, and I'm also not too proud to catch a post-show nap at a highway service plaza. When does dedication start to feel like obsession? Right around midnight on the Mass Pike.
I seem to have an insatiable curiosity when it comes to live performance. Every element fascinates: What impelled the writer or composer to develop this particular vision? How did the director, whether approaching new work or reconfiguring a revival, opt to make the word flesh? How have the designers managed to concretize a purely imagined world? Will the actors with proven track records somehow outdo themselves this time? And will there be fresh talents to marvel over? Virtually every night, I enter some theatre wondering, Will this be one of those shows which prove unforgettable?
I suppose my fascination ultimately comes down to FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Taking in a particular movie, book, or artwork is a pleasure which generally can be postponed, but once a production closes, that window of opportunity is shut. Much as I admire the growing practice of live-streaming, and appreciate those marvelous archival recordings stored at the Library for the Performing Arts, seeing a performance that's either at one remove or permanently "set" for posterity -- and in either case, impervious to real-time interactivity -- just isn't the same.
With live theatre, no two performances of a production are identical. I can think of no other arena subject to so many variables and ensuring, for good or ill, surprises. In an effort to avoid getting blasé, I make an effort to approach each outing with beginner's mind and a minimum of assumptions. Critics' practices may vary. Some study up in advance. I go out of my way to maintain a veil of ignorance, right up until the curtain rises. That means no reading of reviews or related articles beforehand. I won't even scan the cast list, once I'm in the theatre, lest a familiar name prompt expectations (positive or negative).
When I'm offered a pair of tickets, I'm delighted to have a chance to share the wealth -- and spread the risk. Grateful for the insights afforded by a second set of eyes, I maintain a lengthy e-mail list of "Favored Guests." I have long since exhausted the volunteerism of family members and close friends -- few could keep pace with my relentless pursuit. Hating to see a seat go to waste, I'll even, on occasion, dangle a plus-one on Facebook, with the result that a number of perfect strangers have since become regulars.
Not every production, as my frequent-flyer seatmates will attest, is a winner; some are outright awful. And habitual playgoing, like perpetual dining out, comes with its own potential irritants: the territorial armrest abutters, the candy-wrapper rustlers, and the incorrigible texters. But these annoyances are negligible, as is the requirement that I bestir myself from my comfortable, FIOS-fed lair night after night in search of my theatre fix. I've gotta be in the room where it happens.
I realize that I am privileged beyond belief to have access to complimentary seats. Should my supply ever dry up, I will surely become a fellow TDF bargain hunter in order to feed my addiction. Seeing eight plays a week isn't a choice; it's a calling.
Sandy MacDonald writes about theatre for Time Out New York and TheaterNewsOnline.com, and The Boston Globe.
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