This is what's known as intermission

After decades of plays, The Sun's longtime theater critic takes a break and prepares for her second act

June 03, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Exactly 33 years ago today, I came to The Sun as a general assignment arts reporter, hired for six months to fill in for a staff writer on sabbatical. I often joke that it's been the longest six months of my life.

These three decades have also been productive, fulfilling and enriching beyond anything I could have expected when I first crossed the threshold on the corner of Calvert and Centre streets.

After a decade covering everything from rare books to dogs (I come from a canine-obsessed family), from art to movies, and lots of theater, I became The Sun's theater critic in 1984. It was a position I had yearned for ever since I got my first taste of reviewing for my hometown paper The Cleveland Press.

I have been more honored than I can say to bring theater reviews and news to The Sun's readers. But now, I have chosen to close my reporter's notebook.

I don't plan to stop writing. I'm leaving a few stories behind that'll run in the next few weeks, and my byline may crop up occasionally after that. But I also want to try a different type of writing -- to see what I can produce with the luxury of time and without the pressure of deadlines.

I read once that Jean Kerr, wife of the late New York Times critic Walter Kerr, claimed that her husband never saw an entire play because at some point he was always looking down to take notes. I'm sure I'll have trouble stifling that impulse. But I also look forward to simply being an ardent fan.

The joys of this job have been truly remarkable. I chronicled the creation of the megamusical Hairspray from the day producer Margo Lion suggested it to John Waters all the way through its Tony Award-winning triumph and on to the start of the national tour at the Mechanic Theatre.

After many years' correspondence, I interviewed composer Stephen Sondheim before the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration. Describing teaching as a "sacred profession," Sondheim spoke at length about the mentors who influenced him, including Oscar Hammerstein II and Milton Babbitt. Sondheim has done a good bit of mentoring himself over the years; his unquenchable love of learning and his determination to embrace the unknown and not to repeat himself continue to inspire me.

One of the great gifts of theater criticism is that almost every play is a crash course in something new. Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 hurled me into the midst of the riots that broke out after the first Rodney King trial. Michael Frayn's Copenhagen offered a rapid-fire tutorial in quantum mechanics. Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor allowed me to sit at the table with writers from the golden age of television comedy. And all 10 plays in August Wilson's monumental cycle introduced me to facets of African-American history rarely, if ever, represented on stage before.

Not only did I get to share these experiences with readers, but I've also shared what I've learned about reviewing with aspiring critics, both at the National Endowment for the Arts' Journalism Institute in Theater at University of Southern California and, for 17 summers, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. And I hope to keep teaching in the future.

By modest estimate, I have seen more than 3,000 productions during my years as theater critic. Among those have been at least one performance of every play by William Shakespeare -- from the Royal Shakespeare Company's lavish stagings to an adaptation of The Tempest performed by a single actor with a doll and a Bic lighter.

There have been extraordinary highs. I was one of the first critics wowed by Crazy for You (Ken Ludwig's reworking of the Gershwins' Girl Crazy) and by David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly (actually I was one of the only critics initially wowed by that one). Both went on to win Tony Awards.

And there have been lows. But I have rarely seen a production without some artistic merit.

Sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to go up, knowing that in the next moment anything could happen, still gives me a thrill. I plan to keep experiencing that thrill for a long time to come.

See you at the theater.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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