New York Times’ lead theatre critic, Benjamin Brantley

Stage

What’s your background and how did you become a theatre critic at The New York Times?
Theater was the first thing I fell in love with, I studied acting as a kid and appeared in plays at university. I also come from a family of journalists. I was an intern at the Village Voice, and my first job after I graduated was at Women’s Wear Daily and W, where – improbably – I was their chief fashion critic (with no background in it) and later, their Paris bureau chief. I then worked as a contract writer, first at Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker, and started doing film criticism for Elle around the same time. That was what caught the attention of the Times, and I was asked to audition for their second-string theater critic job, which to my great surprise I was offered. That was 1993. I became the chief theater critic in 1996.

Do you think a NY Times review can make or break a show and if so, how careful are you about what you write, knowing the weight your words might carry?
A New York Times review can certainly help an off-beat drama or a new, Off Broadway musical find its legs. But on Broadway, it doesn’t have the power it commanded four or five decades ago. Brand name recognition is the great factor there – be it via star casting or stage versions of well-known movies or television series – and if the name is familiar enough to out-of-town theatergoers, critics are irrelevant.

Who are some of your favourite directors and stage actors?
Michael Grandage and Nicholas Hytner are consistently strong and imaginative mainstream directors in London. Here, I find the most exciting directorial work tends to happen Off Broadway. In New York, Liev Schreiber is probably the best actor of his generation on stage. On your side of the the ocean, I love Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance and, enduringly, Vanessa Redgrave

Which plays have you most enjoyed?
Jon Robin Baitz’s new drama, “Other Desert Cities” is a beauty. I like Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park” a lot, and Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City.” Also “Gatz,” a superb and wholly surprising word-for-word presentation of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” by an experimental theater company called Elevator Repair Service. My favorite plays of all time include no-brainer choices like “Hamlet,” “As You Like It,” “The Seagull” and “Three Sisters,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Homecoming.” I always enjoy Tom Stoppard.

How do you feel about both New York and London stages being peppered with film stars?  Is it making it harder for stage actors to get work and changing what theatre is about or is it a good thing because it draws new audiences?
I’m ambivalent about big-name stars in the theater. The upside is that it brings in people who might not go the theater otherwise and it makes stage acting “cool,” something that most performers feel they need as a badge of status.  Sometimes, of course, you get big-name actors doing big parts they probably shouldn’t be doing (and that someone else could do much better).
Have you had any awkward moments where you’ve been in the company of someone you gave a poor review to, and if so how do you/they deal with that?
I pretty much avoid the company of people I might be reviewing. Once I was at a dinner party where Simon Russell Beale showed up. Someone there observed that it was probably all right for both of us to be there since I had written a couple of days before that Beale was “the best actor of his generation.” Beale quickly said, “No, he said ‘perhaps the best actor of his generation.’

Could you give reviewers some tips on how to write a good and fair review? How much of yourself should be in there?
I think there should never be too much of a critic in a review, at least not so much that it blocks a reader’s view of what’s being reviewed. What you strive for is to create the visceral experience of watching the theater as it happens.

What can be done make theatre accessible to people who can’t spend a lot of money on a ticket?
I wish I knew how to make theater less expensive. People who love the theater (and have limited budgets) are a determined and resourceful lot, and seem to find all sorts of ways of getting discounts and freebies.

Any advice for aspiring playwrights; what do you love and hate to see in a play?
Passion counts for a lot; heavy-handed irony often seems like too easy a choice among young playwrights, but I think there’s less of it than there used to be.

West End or Broadway?
London theater has a slight edge over New York in that it has subsidized theaters like the National and the Donmar, but there’s probably more vitality in the fringes in New York. There’s not much to choose between the West End and Broadway, which both seem to be increasingly dominated by theme-park musicals. Broadway, though, still feels a shade closer to Las Vegas in temperament than the West End does.

What’s the one big mistake student shows make and how can they overcome this?
I love going to student plays, and I think mistakes should be encouraged, that is if they come out of risk taking.