My Pain Transformed Into Art (and Vice Versa)


When I write anything, I generally spend a fair amount of time noodling it around in my head before I begin the actual craft of stringing words together. Sometimes the noodling takes only a couple of hours, sometimes it last weeks, months, even years. With the help of writing workshops and play writing groups, I’ve been able to spend a little time outside of my comfort zone and try a more extemporaneous writing style. For the most part, however, I need to think the piece through a bit. This particular blog post was conceived at the end of May, on opening night of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the musical I recently directed at The Ridgefield Theater Barn, and it required the entire run plus a few weeks of noodling to get to today.

I will first begin with a little background about the show. It is an emo rock musical that is based on the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. When I first saw the show at The Public Theater in New York I, like most, knew very little about Andrew Jackson, with the exception of the fact that he was on the twenty dollar bill and that he was largely responsible for what is commonly known as “The Trail of Tears.” The musical cleverly utilizes emo rock and youthful angst as a mechanism for conveying the growing pains our Nation and a renegade political leader were experiencing in the early 1800s. It’s snarky, it’s littered with foul language and the humor is offensive. So, naturally, I love it!

Following our first performance, I overheard a friend expressing his opinions to another friend about his distaste for the piece and the casting choices that were made. Coming from someone who is usually very complimentary of the shows that I direct, it stung a bit. When nary a word was mentioned of the show on his Facebook the next day, something he commonly does when he likes a show, it felt like salt being rubbed in the wound. Within a day or two, I was able to shake it off. I get that this show isn’t for everyone.

But week after week the hits kept on coming. People blatantly didn’t clap during the curtain call, expressions of disgust were witnessed over the monitor and friends tried to be positive with phrases like “You’re brave!” or “What a monumental task that must’ve been!” Perhaps the most biting moment of them all was when I crossed paths with a patron as she was leaving the theater and she loudly proclaimed, “That was the most awful thing I have ever seen!”

My poor husband, who was also in the show, had to listen to me dissect and rationalize every comment and reaction. Over and over. Every time we had the conversation, it would end with some variation of “You either love it or you hate it.” And some people did love it. In fact, our worst audience reaction was followed the next day by our best, a performance where some people gave us a standing ovation and others gushed about how hard they laughed. Honestly, I’ve never been at the helm of a more polarizing show and, wow, what an experience that was.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found myself so affected by peoples’ reactions was because I had poured so much of myself into this show. Obviously, there was the hard work and time that went into putting a show together but it was more than that. There was a lot of emotional stuff happening during rehearsals for this show and any time I was angry or upset, I would channel that energy into the show. So when people didn’t care for it, maybe I took it a little more personally that I usually would. Like the lyric from the show says, “It represents how I feel. My pain transformed into art.”

I also realized that this is the first show that I have directed in a long time that didn’t have a string of awards, solid buzz or a fairly universal acceptance as “good theater.” While it extended its run at The Public, the Broadway transfer of the show only ran for 94 performances. Regardless, I was thrilled that the theater chose me to direct the production. I think it its a safe assumption to say that I am a director that is expected to choose productions that are risky, challenging, dark and different. I think it is also safe to say, at the risk of injury whilst patting myself on the back, that I do a good job when I tackle those projects. Some audience members who shared their opinion directly with me said that, while it wasn’t their cup of tea they felt that the direction, the performances, the band and the overall production were solid.

So, why does the criticism of this show hit harder than past less-than-effusive reviews? I think some of it stems from my own need for validation. “Do you like me? Do you really like me?” Every artist who puts their work out there yearns to be praised, to strike a chord somewhere and with someone. If they say they don’t, they are lying. I am constantly saying that we as a community need to explore new territory and take risks on original pieces by new writers. I took that risk and I was invested in it, so why is it that there exists this strange void? Why is it that my art has transformed into, if you pardon the metaphor, pain?

I think, then, of the trailblazers. Stephen Sondheim opened a musical about a vengeful blood-thirsty barber and it grew to become one of the most revered pieces of musical theater of our time. There are always haters. You have to risk being hated in order to find the one or two who love it. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t.

I have been told that one shouldn’t respond to critics. That we should believe in what we do, despite what they say. I am still perfecting that skill, always working at it. Do what you love, right? Well, I loved working on this project and the response to it, despite my pondering, has not deterred me in the least.

If I feel hurt, angered or confused by the feedback from the audience or if a patron felt appalled or elated by the production, at least collectively we felt something every time the actors, musicians and audience came together to experience the show. And that, really, is what good art does.

Good art makes you feel something. And feel something we did.

From Director to Critic


I was recently asked to join the OnStage Critics Circle as a contributing columnist. The invitation really couldn’t have come at a better time. I was about to wrap up directing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I had made a solemn vow to myself that when that show was done and dusted I would devote time every day to writing or, at the very least, do something that would further the development of one of my writing projects. Since we struck the show on Sunday, I have definitely lived up to the promise in some way or another.

It is an interesting segue, to say the least. I have directed at or been involved with all of the Connecticut theaters within a 20 mile radius of my home and, in some instances, beyond that radius. Through my active involvement in our theater community, I have have developed a fairly broad familiarity of the theaters, the people who run them and the artisans that bring their seasons to life. As such, I was a little hesitant to step out of the director’s chair and pick up the pen of the critic.

I have put some thought into the last 20 years in our community and how the presence of the theater critic has faded. When I first started working in the area, there were a lot of journalists, then of the ink and newsprint ilk, who attended our productions. We would wait with bated breath for their words of praise or damnation and it was, despite our contribution, a part of the process of bringing our art to life. As a result of the digital age, the circulation of printed news is dwindling and so are budgets. Not surprisingly, the arts are the first to go and in this case, published theater reviews in our neck of the woods have become few and far between.

I hesitated to take on the role of critic because of the personal relationships that I have with the theaters and the people that run them. Chances are that every show I will see will feature an actor or two I’ve worked with in the past, a director with whom I am familiar and will be at a theater that is known to me. I have concerns about where to draw that “conflict of interest” line.

After much thought, though, I have come to this conclusion: theatrical criticism is a dying art. Even the likes of Ben Brantley and Michael Riedel are losing their previous luster and sought after praise, so I truly feel there is a need in our community for opinion. While I am certainly nowhere near as accomplished the critics associated with New York theater, I am certainly a person who has both opinions and a pretty comprehensive understanding of the art. And I’m not a bad writer either. Bottom line, I feel I am qualified.

As for the personal relationships, I have seen local critics share their thoughts while they remain involved in the theater as actors or directors. So, as far as reviews that I will contribute to OnStage Critics Circle, I will follow these guidelines: (1) I will not review a show at a theater during a season in which I am slated to direct, (2) I will not review a show at a theater where I am serving as a member of the Board or on a Committee and (3) I will not review a show featuring my husband or another family member in the cast. I also promise to be as honest and fair in my reviews as possible, I will not review a show that I haven’t seen from beginning to end and I will accept invitations to review any show, regardless of my personal theatrical preferences. I believe those guidelines will serve to be a fair and reasonable foundation upon which I will place this next building block in my theatrical career.

So, with that, I will fold up my director’s chair and take a seat in the house, eager to see what the days ahead will bring. Break a leg, my friends, and I’ll see you at the show!