During my tenure as a theater critic for The Stranger, I've been called childish, mean-spirited, and a "big dumb bitch." One woman whose show I disliked alleged (after exchanging roughly two words with me) that I have "the social skills of a seventh-grader on a Ritalin-and-Pepsi OD." As a fundraising gambit, one local company sold chances to destroy a piñata made in my likeness. My friends stopped accepting free tickets to see bad theater with me about six months ago, and I gave up hope of planning dates for weekend evenings long before then. So perhaps it won't come as a surprise that I've accepted a lateral promotion to become The Stranger's film editor.
Public skewering aside, though, I've been thrilled with the opportunity to stir up the fading ashes of our complacent regional scene. Readers who impugned my level of social functioning were in the minority; most people simply thought of me as a hater. And I'm okay with that. (As I recently realized, hater is an anagram for heart—one is necessarily contained within the other.) In the last year and two weeks, I've written about 91 plays, musicals, sketch-comedy shows, and dance performances—or, to put it another way, I've spent at least 182 hours of the last year in darkened rooms. Out of those 91 performances, I truly deplored 39, gave mixed reviews to 30, and heaped praise on 22. Maybe these statistics confirm people's worst convictions about me, but I think the numbers are surprising. You could have seen 22 great shows in the past year—by any account, not a banner year for theater in Seattle (several small venues and at least one larger venue cut seasons short or ceased operations entirely). Two good plays per month—that's plenty for all but the wealthiest and most demented performance junkies.
There are other reasons the numbers aren't as depressing as they look. A regional theater critic is in an awkward position, because regional critics write almost exclusively about locally produced art, a portion of which is inevitably going to be worthless. Imagine how pathetic and impoverished the books section of this paper would look if it were given over entirely to novels published in the Seattle area. And, in contrast to visual-art writers, theater critics agree to write about every show they attend. Combine quantity with unbiased, close-to-comprehensive coverage, and the reviews won't be pretty.
I've seen fantastic theater at the big houses (The Secret in the Wings and The Chosen at the Rep, Three Sisters at Intiman) and the tiniest code-infracting back rooms (Vetala and Flo & Glo at the late JEM Arts Center). Mid-range companies like Capitol Hill Arts Center managed to accomplish great things (lefty propaganda has rarely had it better than in CHAC's productions of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Waiting for Lefty). But these were the glorious exceptions. Seattle theater gravitates toward bland subscription bait (Fiction at ACT, Our Town at Intiman) and other brands of market-ready pandering (the overbaked camp of The Mystery of Irma Vep at Intiman, the body-image contrivances in BodyBODY: You Can't Tell by Looking, the grunge fetishism of Diana Moves). Audiences are aging, and companies are chasing them with shows like Book-It's ill-conceived The Awakening and Seattle Shakespeare's mother-approved The Taming of the Shrew (both remounts of shows that should have been buried in scorn the first time around). There's an abundance of acting and design talent in this town, but the people who are running the show—the artistic directors, boards, directors, and donors—aren't developing challenging material. And they're not saying no to terrible ideas.
I refuse to believe that predominately negative press is bad for a regional theater scene. Being repeatedly misled by glowing reviews of pabulum can turn even the most determined ticket buyer into a theater-shunning hermit. Bad performances are painful, and it just isn't worth risking $15 to $50 per ticket to see a show of indeterminate worth. Film, music, and books compete with theater for our dollars and our time; and theater needs to become smarter and more sophisticated if it wants a part in contemporary culture. In the meantime, I'll be over in the film section. And don't think you're rid of me here, either—I've already got dibs on some upcoming plays.