500 Days of Reviewing

So this week marks my 500th day and 300th show as a reviewer. (Well, I’m at 298 Chicago reviews as I write this but within two days it will be 300, and I also have over forty USAOnStage reviews, about a dozen of which I wrote.) I’m a number person (meaning I like interesting numbers), so that bit of column trivia excites me. Then again, so does watching my odometer roll over to nice round numbers. So take it all with a grain of salt.

I’m still learning this gig, to be sure. Perhaps I always will be. But there are some things I have learned that I think might be worth mentioning. Or at least I think they are, but I’ve just told you: the grain of salt thing. 🙂

  • My taste in theatre is eclectic. I’m just as likely to enjoy a small 80-minute drama as a big blockbuster musical. It’s one of my favorite things about this profession: discovering the Little Show That Could. Sure, I enjoy Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen, but I find shows like Timeline’s 2018 Boy just as fascinating.
  • It’s really hard to keep things in balance. By that I mean that the same green light given to the above-mentioned musicals is also given to much smaller shows done in storefronts. Are they equal? Who’s to say. My assessment is that they are both worth seeing for very different reasons.
  • I was so right when I started all of this to create the caveat on my site that you should always read multiple critics. And read the reviews. Nothing underscores this more than a yellow light review. A recent example of that is Photograph 51 at Court Theatre. It was a truly well-done show with great tech and great acting but, like some other shows, it did not quite mesh with me. I try to explain that in my reviews: you might love these shows and nothing I or any reviewer can say should alter that.
  • Less than glowing reviews are hard. I want to like every play I go to see. I know that the cast and crew have worked their butts off to bring their creation to life, and I want to write something that will reward all of their hard work. Sometimes, though, it just isn’t possible. Despite all of their best efforts, it just didn’t work for me. Thus a yellow (or on rare occasions red) light. I think I go out of my way in less than glowing reviews to say even more about a show so that the readers can decide for themselves how to react. I think I should do this.
  • A lot of small theatres in Chicago are really uncomfortable. Cramped legroom, uncomfortable seats, etc. do more to kill my mood than they probably ought to, but I am only human. I know that companies need to be able to make every dollar they can, but honestly: add a few extra performances and spread out your seats more.
  • The best plays are not always at Goodman and Steppenwolf. Oh, these theatres are great and, more often than not, I enjoy their productions. But see a show at A Red Orchid or Windy City Playhouse or Theo Ubique or any of dozens of theatres I could name and the quality is just as good. They may have less of a budget, but they do great work.
  • There will never be a balance on my lists between green and other colored lights. The fact is that I assign all of these shows to myself based on dozens of invitations and openings each month. When I decide to see a show, it’s because something about it interested me. Chances are that I will like what interests me if it is done well. And the fact is that the vast majority of plays are done well. I’ve seen fewer than five clunkers in my 500 days; that either says something about me or about the state of Chicago Theatre. I choose to think it is the latter.
  • Some of the most interesting plays are the ones for which the reviews disagree with each other. Sure, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy something that almost all of the reviewers like, but (I can’t stress this enough) read the reviews, especially if they disagree. You might just discover something you’d consider a hidden gem.

It’s been a wonderful 500 days. I look forward to the next 500.

Karen Topham

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