Berkshire Critic Peter Bergman

Covering Broadway at Fourteen

By: - Feb 06, 2012


This is the third in a series of dialogues with Berkshire theatre critics. Peter Bergman writes for the weekly Advocate and posts next day reviews on his site Berkshire Bright Focus. The other critics in this series have been Larry Murray of Berkshire on Stage and Gail Burns of Gail Sez.

Charles Giuliano During the season when we interact during intermission I am always astonished at the background and depth that you and your partner Bob convey about theatre. For both of you it is a lifelong passion. Can we discuss how you began and how your lives and careers converged. When was that? What were you both doing at the time? Often when I talk with Bob about a show we note that his insights and opinion might be quite different from yours. On the drive home from a show Astrid often expresses her responses to a show which may or may not be like mine.

Last summer, for example, we disagreed about Ten Cents a Dance at Williamstown Theatre Festival.  She enjoyed it but I did not. While I listen to her opinion, which more often than not is similar to mine, of course I take full responsibility for my review. But it is interesting that critics have critics. It is one thing to have feedback from readers and quite another matter to discuss artistic differences from our partners. Of course there are enormous benefits to sharing a dynamic life in the arts. There is a lot embedded in that notion of “two on the aisle.” Going to theatre by myself, and not having anyone to share the experience with, would seem difficult.

J. Peter Bergman My critical years started, for real and for money, in 1960 when I was 14-years-old. I was living in Bayside, Queens and on a Saturday afternoon attended a performance of Shelagh Delaney's play "A Taste of Honey" at the Lyceum Theater starring Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and a very young Billy Dee Williams. It had been running for just a few weeks and I was very moved by it and thought I should write about it. I did and on a whim sent the review into a local newspaper, The Nine Times - they served nine small communities in Queens. A week later they sent me a check for $8 and published the review.

That was my debut. Two weeks later I went to the St. James Theater and saw Jean Anouillh's play "Becket" with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. I followed again with a review and again was paid $8. I was loving this.

I had grown up as a professional child, performing from the age of four and modeling from the age of three months. I've always worked, you see, and almost always in the Arts somehow.

The third show I wrote about for the local paper was Arthur Laurents' "Invitation To a March" with just about everybody you'd want to see back then, Celeste Holm, Jane Fonda, Eileen Heckart, Madeleine Sherwood, James MacArthur. After I sent in the review - all of this by regular mail back then - I went in to meet the Editor. He was shocked to see how young I was, but he paid me and made me the paper's critic and assistant arts editor. It was a great season.

After I reviewed "Critic's Choice" I secured a backstage, dressing room interview with its star, Henry Fonda. He had my review of Jane's play and he thanked me for it. That's something I'll never forget. I saw and reviewed 27 shows that season, each for the same $8. I was making a fortune for a kid of 14. Oddly when I started reviewing here in the Berkshires in the 1990s (thirty years later) I was getting paid $10 a review by The Independent. My fortune was gone, clearly.

I met my partner 15 years later in 1975. At the time I was working at Lincoln Center for the Research Libraries of the Performing Arts and moonlighting as a writer. A friend, a producer, had commissioned a script from me for a musical he was intending to pitch to Doris Day. He suggested one day that we take in a performance of a new revue of Rodgers & Hart songs; it had a fabulous cast of young performers including Tovah Feldshuh and Virginia Sandifur, David-James Carroll and Laurence Guittard and others. He invited another friend, a working stage manager who, my producer thought, would be an asset during the critical stages of creation for our show. That was Bob. He was picking up the tickets and I, as usual, was early. My producer showed up next and we waited until just about three minutes to curtain time for Bob who showed up at the point where I was boiling over. I really was not happy to meet him. By intermission, however, we were friends - we both hated the show completely. We were both fans of Rodgers and Hart and we thought the show was weak and pale and used a stupid running gag for Guittard, I think, that gave him a Rodgers and Hammerstein song to break into during every medley and transition. It was infuriating.

Bob had been working in the theater since his early days in college, doing summer stock each year. He had worked as an electrician, a music director, a tech director, lighting designer, off-Broadway house manager, rehearsal pianist, and stage manager. He had worked with some of the best directors and most famous actors in the business by then. When we showed Bob the musical script I was writing he instantly told us it wouldn't work, that it was a lame idea and that no one would get it, or like it. I hated him again. And here we are, 30-something years later, still not always agreeing on what we see and hear, but getting along famously.

When I go to review a play or a show and he's with me the rule is we don't discuss it until after I've written the review. Then he reads it and tells me if I'm right or wrong and then I tell him I don't care if agrees with me or not; I'm right.

We each have our opinions and sometimes we are in total agreement. You mentioned "Ten Cents a Dance" earlier. We both disliked it even more than we disliked "A Celebration" - oddly they were both Rodgers and Hart shows and we adore their songs and their shows and their remarkable theatricality. In both cases I think we were looking forward too earnestly to those shows. So twice in 36 years we've been let down, nearly smashed down really, by shows that seemingly were uplifting and charming. Both times we were taken by surprise. Nothing cements a relationship like shared hateful experiences, I guess.

CG  Several points amaze me. First that you started as a prodigy of 14. Secondly that you were paid the handsome sum of $8 per review. That you covered 27 Broadway shows that first season. And that decades later you recall those shows in such remarkable detail. Our colleagues Gail Burns and Larry Murray also grew up in New York and from a very young age managed to see a lot of Broadway theatre.

Now in your 60s that's a remarkable legacy of decades of professional involvement. It is of course the repository of theatrical experience and insight that informs your reviews for the weekly Advocate and your on line site Berkshire Bright Focus. Although I have enjoyed theatre all of my life I have only come to writing regular reviews in the past several years. I started writing arts criticism as an undergraduate for The Justice at Brandeis University.  My editor was Arnie Riesman who later hired me to write art reviews when he was the editor of Boston After Dark which later bought out the Cambridge Phoenix and became The Boston Phoenix.

I have been writing professionally since college mostly about jazz, rock, blues and the fine arts. There was a stretch when I did movie reviews and got to attend fancy lunches with the stars at the Ritz. Now, in the Berkshires, we are flat out at high season covering the four major companies: Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company and Williamstown Theatre Festival.

From my years at the daily Boston Herald Traveler I sustain the discipline of writing quickly, one draft, and filing reviews asap. Back then I had a midnight deadline. Now I sleep in and post by noon. You go from the theatre directly home and write that night. By morning you have to be at your gig as director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. In that regard you literally moonlight as a theatre critic.

Once I have posted my review I look at yours. Larry Murray also posts quickly. Gail files after a couple of days and Jeffrey Borak in the Berkshire Eagle several days later. I find it amusing that on line writers beat the daily papers.

Allen Ginsberg evoked a Buddhist mantra to describe his writing "First thought best thought." There is, however, a difference between initial reaction, that fresh, impulsive response and more measured reflection. When you are walking down the aisle having seen a play there are thoughts tumbling around in your head. Because you state that you do not discuss the play with Bob until after you have posted we assume that you are forming the review during the ride home.

The plays we respond strongly to are the easiest to write about. The words of praise or criticism just tumble out. Plays that we have more mixed reactions to are more difficult. Often they don't read as clearly and are less punchy or entertaining. When I compare and contrast the reviews of so so shows I find that writers are looking at details, chewing on the scenery, describing the costumes, discussing the sets and lighting, going off on tangents, relating personal anecdotes. Everything but relating that the play itself was a muddle. We crave to get the big picture, the whole enchilada, was this play worth seeing or not?

A passionate theatre goer applies a litmus test to critics. Whether they agree or disagree will establish your credibility. Am I, the reader, in sync with you, the writer? Are you reliable? Can I trust your review? Consider that we get in free and the audience pays. Theatre is expensive. It's an investment that not everyone can afford. Particularly on Broadway.

If you really want to see theatre there are ways to find reduced price tickets.  At WTF I have become friends with some of the ushers. I often ask my friend Terri what she thinks. You can be influenced by the audience and its reactions.  

Take us through the process on a ride home from the theatre. You have told me that you don't like to eat before theatre because it makes you sleepy. You and Bob have a late meal or snack; then straight to the computer. It must be midnight. Just what are you thinking about? On many occasions you have seen the play in other productions. Or know the work historically. There is your encyclopedic databank to reference. How heavily does that weigh against what you have experienced that evening? Are you Socratic? In the sense that this is a chair which must be evaluated against the paradigm of chairness that resides deep within us? Can you separate yourself from all those historic  references and see a fresh interpretation?

A case in point last summer was Streetcar Named Desire at WTF. It was a very different production. The reviews were all over the map. The set design with its obstructed views was particularly problematic. You were seated on stage behind the set and wrote an enthusiastic review. We had seats in the last row making it difficult to see the actors. I wrote a mixed review. Then I interviewed Jessica Hecht (who played Blanche) which gave me  insights about what they were trying to achieve.

When you bring knowledge to the theatre does it function as a useful resource or restrictive in comparing this production to all others you have experienced? Your reviews often reference other performances and actors. Of course when we are considering a new work there is a level playing field. You have told me that you do not opt to read the script in advance. But you often read or reread the classics.

PB  When you're in your teens things make much deeper impressions than they might in your 60s. I don't remember every show in great detail but those first three made an impact. The first dealt with prostitution and the daughter of a harlot who has to find her own way in life while still a teenager. The second opened with Anthony Quinn getting out of bed, center-stage, nude with a naked prostitute following him. The third was without a doubt the craziest quilt of humanity in romantic situations that are hard to explain, even now. All three were unforgettable. The big joke here is that my mother wouldn't allow me to even see the biggest musical hit of the day, "Irma La Douce" because it was about prostitutes in Paris. I did go, but didn't tell her I saw it; I also didn't review it.

When I first began working as a critic or reviewer here in the region I wrote about more than regional theater. I covered opera and other music events in the region for The Independent. I wrote about visual art exhibitions and covered museum events. I wrote features about travel and even about my search for my "Uncle" Jack the Ripper (I am related to a prime suspect). When I started my review website I continued to cover music, dance and art, and even restaurants, but as I got busier it was more and more difficult to keep up with so many different cultural aspects of the region, so it settled into a theater reviewing site, which then moved me back into print media with The Advocate, The Chatham Courier and occasional other outlets. I still maintain the reviews on Berkshire Bright Focus but I also contribute regional theater reviews to a national website, Edge (EdgeMediaNetwork) which puts my reviews of local and regional theater throughout the year to a national readership of about 340,000 readers each week.

My schedule is a bit crazy, but my New York training, especially at CBS Newsfeed (a national and international news site from CBS-TV headquarters in NYC), had me always writing up what I saw within hours. So when I see a show I do go home and have a small meal and then head for the computer to write the review or article. I usually write until 1 or 2 in the morning, set the review up on my website. Then, after 24 hours it goes up on the website of The Advocate and Edge and then gets printed by the two weekly papers as they can fit things in. In the summer months when I'm working 6 days a week at the Millay Society - we're open to the public from Memorial Day weekend until the middle of October usually - I see between 5 and 7 plays or shows and review them. Additionally in July and August I usually teach theater on Monday nights and Wednesday mornings for the Berkshire Community College Road Scholars program. It's what I would call a full schedule, wouldn't you?

Call me crazy, but having a long history with theater I have seen and read so much that our summer seasons often feel a bit redundant to me. I usually love it when directors and/or actors find new ways to reconstruct a classic or even just a well-worn play. Sometimes, however, I find they go way overboard. You mentioned last season's "Streetcar. . ." which I didn't like very much. It was so out of touch with Williams sense of reality and imagery that it reminded me of an interview with Joe Papp many years ago in which he stated that it was his "job" to see if Shakespeare could stand up to his own wild imagination as a director. For the most part Will S. managed to avoid being destroyed. Williams and Ibsen, also, had a much harder time of it in 2011.

With new shows, and I love new shows, I do not read them in advance or even read the publicity that the theaters put out or the interviews that other arts editors and critics write in advance. I just don't want more information than the average audience member has before seeing them. I like to join in the experience of discovery with the audience around me. I do resent the planted apprentices and interns who have been encouraged to cheer, applaud like the devil or over-react in an effort to guide the audience. This annoys me. I've been able, for the most part, to spot the claque and avoid it, but sometimes they are over-the-top about it. In most of our regional theaters usually the best dressed, over-dressed group so they are easily identified.

One last thing. The drive home is when I begin to write my review. I normally listen for a line that seems to sum up the basic concept or idea of the show and I like to use that, in quotes and italics, as the header to my personal review. Some editors use it also; some do not. I don't recall ever arriving at a theater with a preconception of the review itself, although sometimes I do expect a lot from the participants in the play. More often than not I am pleased, but now and then I definitely am not. Knowing the people involved may make it harder to be totally honest for some, but I try to be both realistic and still be kind to everyone involved. Sometimes it's just not possible to be all that. I was told this past summer that many of you had been calling me "the nice one" for my generally positive outlook and that after "Ten Cents a Dance" you all were saying, "well we can't call him that anymore." I didn't know about the first nickname. Now that I do, I'm sort of proud of that. I think all theater, and attendance at all theater - good or bad - should be encouraged. People need to know what awaits them, but people should go and make up their own minds, certainly.

Part Two