Critics explain art of their craft at Eagle Conversation Series

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STOCKBRIDGE — As soon as three months after "Hamilton" premiered on Broadway, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley would meet 10-year-olds who already knew every lyric from the show.

While some were able to land tickets to see the production live, others would stream its soundtrack in their cars or homes.

"With 'Hamilton,' can you believe how fast it happened?" Brantley, co-chief theater critic for The Times, said Friday night. "When was the last time a musical got in the water supply like 'Hamilton?' " 

Brantley joined his Berkshire Eagle counterpart, Jeffrey Borak, at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage for a conversation about theater.

About 225 people attended "An Evening with the Critics," one of The Berkshire Eagle's Conversation Series events. When asked who in the audience had seen "Hamilton," most hands went up. Some of them raised their hands again, indicating they've seen the show multiple times.

Borak, The Eagle's entertainment editor and theater critic, saw "Hamilton" for the first time this month in Schenectady, N.Y.

While Borak normally doesn't discuss a production until his review runs in the paper — it will run this weekend — he recalled several moments of "greatness" from the musical.

"What I would say is, I understand what all the discussion is about," Borak said. "It is a show that is still hitting me in waves."

The critics, both of them having reviewed theater professionally for decades, chatted about how their roles have evolved over time.

In an era of social media, when everyone's a critic, it's a professional's role to keep that conversation going on a deeper level, said Brantley, who has been on staff at The Times since 1996 and files reviews from London, New York and the Berkshires.

"The critic is bringing the discussion to a temperate zone," he said. "Basically, criticism would perhaps be a fuller experience."

Borak, who started at the Eagle in 1986, said that today he has developed relationships with regular readers through email, something that hadn't been part of his job early on.

While those who see a show, especially those who disagree with Borak's reviews, always have written letters to the editor, today they reach out directly to him through email.

"The conversation I have in email is really very different," Borak said.

Brantley responds to some emails, too.

Stage versus page

Experiencing a show as a critic is different than as an artist or regular guest.

In fact, no two people experience productions through the same lens, Brantley said.

Both men said that when they walk into a show for the first time, they want to do so knowing as little as possible about what to expect.

For Borak, who often has to write advance stories about the opening of a production, that can be difficult.

"What happens onstage is very different than what you see on a page," Borak said.

When possible, though, both critics prefer to refrain from reading the script until after they see a show for the first time, only using it as a reference to fact-check names, quotes and other details.

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"If I'd read 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' before seeing it, I'd be sorry, I think," Brantley said. "To get the full impact, [I like] knowing very, very little about who's going to be in it even ... so when that twist happens, I'm still choked by it."

While theater isn't able to catch up with the national narrative quite as quickly as television or movies, today's stages are seeing an influx of productions related to social justice and politics.

" 'What the Constitution Means to Me' was sold out on Broadway," Brantley said, referring to a 2017 play by Heidi Schreck. "It shows such a hunger for that kind of theater."

In the Berkshires, especially this summer, there has been a barrage about plays related to racial and social tensions.

One of several examples is Robert O'Hara's interpretation of "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun'' premiered on Broadway in 1959.

Borak said he remembers seeing the show for the first time in New York, looking for fire but not finding what he expected. O'Hara's revival, though, succeeded at making the audience "deliberately uncomfortable."

"It's a beautiful, exquisite play ... but it had a family vibe," Borak said of the original show. "Robert O'Hara decided, `No, no more of that.' "

"That performance took me places that I haven't been before," said Brantley.

When it's done well, Borak enjoys seeing political and social justice themes playing out on the stage. But, when you're seeing as many shows as he is, the serious nature can take its toll, he said.

"There's a point where I'm thinking, 'Can we have one night were I can sit and laugh?' " Borak said. "And not have to write a review that is so profound?"

It is important that theater recognize these difficult topics and start conversations. At anxious times, though, laughter and comedy can bring relief, the critics said.

"Mama Mia," for example, opened on Broadway just over a month after 9/11.

"I began saying, it's like this giant Hostess CupCake has arrived," Brantley recalled from his review. "Going into that show was just pure laughter. And brilliant laughter, as well. It was just so cathartic."

For both men, their love of theater came early.

Brantley, who grew up in North Carolina, started acting in a local theater as a kid. His grandfather, an English professor, exposed him to Shakespeare.

For Borak, who grew up in Manhattan, it was his parents who exposed him to Broadway.

"The first Broadway show I ever saw was 'Oklahoma,' " he recalled. "Of all of the things my parents did for me, that is probably what I'm most grateful for."

Berkshire Eagle Executive Editor Kevin Moran, who moderated the event, asked the critics whether they think schools are doing enough to introduce students to the craft.

In Berkshire County, there is an active theater life for students through the many organizations in the region, Borak said.

On a national level, there might be room for improvement, but Brantley believes that schools are moving in the right direction. Even mainstream movie stars are beginning to want to perform on Broadway, he said.

"Theater's cool in a way that it hasn't been in so many years," Brantley said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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