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Sometimes I Review Plays, Sometimes I'm In Plays

By: Sandy MacDonald
Date: Jan 29, 2016


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Why one theatre critic jumps at every opportunity to perform onstage


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a critic in possession of an ax to grind must be in want of a spotlight. Yes, I'm mangling Jane Austen, but you get the idea: The common perception is that a great many critics are performers manqués. Having failed to cut a swath in showbiz, we tend to vent our resentment on those who have managed to do so.

For some critics, there's a certain truth to this contention, even though the more conscientious among us try our best to quell any invidious proclivities. I speak from experience: In my late teens, I wanted nothing more than to act. I put in an intensive year at HB Studio only to discover that, come the acid test of actual auditioning, I choked. When my pre-call prep routine started to involve a 10am shot of bourbon, I realized that acting might not be the ideal career path for me. And once I decided to quit, I was so jealous of anyone actually getting to practice the art that for several years I couldn't even bear to watch.

Instead, I lucked into an editing job at the radical journal The Drama Review at NYU. When the university decided we were too radical (Charles Ludlam's Turds in Hell may have been the tipping point), we moved over to the Public Theater under Joe Papp. Theatre remained my first love -- only on the page.

Age (and perhaps a dash of Prozac) has a wondrous way of quelling self-consciousness. Many years later, hitting midlife, I segued into a blissful state of, "Who cares?" Any qualms I'd had about making a fool of myself somehow dissipated. I started singing with a choir on Nantucket and -- with the help of a hard-driving octogenarian voice teacher -- tackling ever-more challenging solos.

My growing confidence as a singer led to roles in semi-professional local musicals, and these gambits served to underscore my appreciation of the incredible courage it takes to perform. Regaining a feel for theatre from the stage, not the audience, is what emboldened me to put myself forward as a would-be reviewer for The Boston Globe and Amazingly, both took me on. I'd been writing about unrelated topics -- primarily travel -- for decades, but had steered clear of the one subject dearest to my heart. (Stage fright in another guise, perhaps?) Getting back onstage gave me back my voice.

So, like many of my colleagues, I arrived at the profession of critic somewhat sidelong. But unlike most, I still pursue every possible opportunity to perform. I regularly peruse and occasionally sign on as an extra or do a student movie. I even participated as an ad-hoc chorus member in two outstanding Off-Broadway productions this past year: The Events and The Christians. During the former, the assistant director sized me up before assigning me a rather demanding speech. "You're in the theatre, right?" she asked.

"Of, but not in," I was tempted to say. Instead I hedged, "Not really," but she took a chance on me anyway. Next time, should anyone ask, I'm determined to answer with an unequivocal, "Yes!" I'm happy to have found circuitous ways to be actually "in" -- to share the rush of pre-curtain excitement; to plumb the subtleties of a text turned over in the light night after night; to know the visceral thrill that a cast shares when the audience is totally rapt.

And I'm happy straddling the two worlds: One where I run the risk of being judged, and the other where I sit in judgment, more kindly and empathetically (I hope) as the result of my time onstage. I try to be a critic of the constructive ilk: a fellow aficionada. When an actor "goes up," for instance, I experience a pang of sympathy, recalling how, during the final performance of The Christians, I blanked on the well-known lyrics to "Amazing Grace." I'm more fully aware now of how every night is essentially a one-off proposition. Increasingly comfortable on both sides of the fourth wall, I feel better equipped to parse the author's intent, the director's vision, and the actors' efforts to deliver on both.


Sandy MacDonald writes about theatre for Time Out New York and, and is a Drama Desk Awards nominator.

Photo of Sandy MacDonald, far right, as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, courtesy of On the Isle theatre company on Nantucket.

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Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic and Drama Desk member currently contributing to New York Stage Review, among other outlets. Follow her at @sandymacdonald