"In my 'real' life, I'm an attorney," Sherry tells us for
the first surprise. Rather than practicing law,
however, she's currently employed as a project
manager at the accounting firm Tichenor & Associates. "I
had my own practice in Richmond, Kentucky, for
a couple of years, then I moved back here. I
was general counsel for Workforce Development,
then I worked for a health care company that
did consulting work for Medicaid departments
to investigate fraud and abuse," she explains. "But
that's how I spend my days: auditing people who
file for bankruptcy."
She spends evenings writing cutting-edge theatre reviews. She began
with At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka,
part of the Humana Festival in 2004. LEO had
needed a reviewer in a pinch, and Liz Kramer (LEO's
arts editor at the time) recommended Sherry.
Sherry accepted the challenge and found that
it was a lot of fun. "Then I moved
away, so I really didn't review regularly until
'06, in May," she
Coming from such a different background, she has worked hard at mastering
the craft quickly. In 2007, she was one of a
select group of 25 who were invited to participate in a National Endowment
for the Arts Fellowship, which offered an intensive, 10-day workshop
in theatre criticism. "We
saw at least one play every day we were there.
Sometimes two. It was pretty amazing," she tells us. She especially
credits the workshop's main speaker, John Lahr, senior drama critic
at The New Yorker. "One
thing he impressed upon us was that theatre should
take you somewhere," she
says. "So if I don't get that — if I'm not taken somewhere — I
The Fellowship encouraged reviewers to look for the moment when they
sit forward in their chair. That's when the play
engages the audience. However, Sherry admits, "Sometimes that
just doesn't happen." And
that's disappointing. The workshop also taught,
perhaps surprisingly, that most people don't
want to read about the story line of a play.
Sherry says that too many reviewers get bogged
down in the plot, when it's the theme of a play that's really
important. Moreover, she recommends that reviewers
narrow their focus, picking out a single aspect,
such as the acting or even the set design, that
really stands out. This is especially true when
writing for limited space. LEO reviews are often
limited to 300 words, including the introduction
The Wednesday Factor
What about the challenges involved in reviewing for a weekly publication? "That
does kind of make it hard to scoop anybody," she says with a laugh.
However, she tries not to read other reviews until
she has turned hers in. "I don't want to be influenced by other
people's opinions of what I see. So I always read
them, but I'll wait until I've sent that email." The Wednesday
distribution date can also mean that some shows get missed,
such as when a play only runs for one weekend. LEO doesn't publish a review if the show can't
be seen the following weekend.
On the plus side, LEO writers may have more latitude than others in
what they can say in print. "We're encouraged to be honest," she
explains, "and if we don't like something, to say so, but be able
to back it up." Specifics are essential. "Don't just say,
'This sucks,'" she muses. "You've got to say why." She
says that it's the reviewer's responsibility not to whitewash. "I
think it does the community a service to tell them when there's something
that's not good," she says. People deserve some assurance that
their money will be well spent.
LEO also allows her to focus on Louisville's smaller, independent productions,
spotlighting some important works that The
Courier-Journal doesn't cover. "When I first started writing for LEO, I wanted to pay more attention to the independent
tells us. "Because,
you know, Actors [Theatre of Louisville] is great,
but I think they get enough attention, and enough
support from the community, that they don't need
extra help from LEO ... It's the little guys that
need the attention — so I try to do that as much
Occasionally, she finds that readers confuse her with fellow LEO reviewer
Rebecca Haithcoat, or erroneously state that LEO (rather than
a specific reviewer) liked or disliked a production.
Sherry says that Rebecca tends to examine the acting
more in her reviews, while she herself approaches
them more from a playwright perspective. "I
think we balance each other out pretty well," Sherry says.
Analyzing the Process
Although she enters a theatre optimistically,
she has been known to walk out of a performance
on occasion. "It was outdated, it was dull," she
recalls of one such production. "In fact,
we left at intermission." The play was a repeat
of one that the same theatre had presented quite
recently. She then declined to write the review, "because
I can't review it if I can't see the whole thing.
And I couldn't sit through it." However, the
audience seemed to like it. "You know, maybe
I'm just too picky," she says, having seen
plays she thought were awful but the audience
gave them a standing ovation. "I think they
revere it too much, thinking that anybody who gets
up there on stage is doing a great job. They don't
know the nuances, or they're too easily impressed." She
says she is glad that the standing ovation is becoming
less frequent, and more often reserved for performances
that truly deserve it.
She points out that ticket sales alone are not
an indicator of quality, and that some of Louisville's
more populist productions seem to have been selected
primarily to boost revenue. That makes the reviewer's
task difficult, or perhaps even cancels it out — i.e.,
if a show is going to sell tickets no matter what,
then "it doesn't
need a review," she says, "and especially
if I'm going to say I hated it. No, I just leave
When Sherry writes a review, she tries to offer the reader an enhanced
understanding of the play. "I do research," she explains, "and
I try to get a little information that the reader isn't necessarily
going to get from just going to the play." This involves trying
to provide insights into the playwright's intent, and exploring its
deeper meaning rather than just reiterating the plot. She also tries
to stimulate dialogue about the play. "I like to get people involved," she
says. "That's our job, to get people to not just sit there — think!
Think about what you saw. Talk about it."
She says that offering advice to the director is trickier
because a director's best work is transparent to
the audience. "If
the director's doing a good job, you're not going
to know," she
says. "But if they do a bad job, then you do notice it. So," she
says with a laugh, "I guess that a director can learn that if they're
not mentioned, that means they're doing a really
good job." She
sometimes attends rehearsals in order to get a
better idea of the process. "It's
so different, the final product, from what you
see during rehearsal," she
Reviewing the Review
Like most critics, she sometimes gets feedback from readers, not all
of it complimentary. "Most people don't take the time to write
a nice letter telling you you've done a good job
reviewing something," she
comments. When readers send a negative response,
they often do so by trying to assail her qualifications.
But she has learned not to let herself get drawn
into those arguments. "You
have a hate on for Actors Theatre," wrote
one angry reader, which she assures us is not the
case, as her positive reviews of Actors Theatre
outnumber unflattering ones by more than 2.5 to
one. She has also been accused of being a "frustrated
she finds amusing. She has indeed written plays,
although not recently.
"I try to be fair," she explains. "And I always try
to find something good to say, if I don't like something. But you can't
always do that."
Sherry is nonetheless vocal about her theatrical pet peeves. "What
I really detest is unnecessary expository dialogue," she says. "There
are other ways of getting across the back story
of your characters. And I especially hate it when
they do the monologue at the audience. It's lazy,
and it doesn't engage me." Then she
gosh, you've really opened up a can of worms now." She also bemoans
the preponderance of plays that seem compelled
to teach a lesson at any cost. "What's wrong with just going to
the theatre and being entertained?" she posits. She gives kudos
especially to the production style of Louisville's
Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble in that regard. "It
does teach you a lesson," she says of Le Petomane,
"but it's not hammered over the head, because you're
laughing the whole time."
The lack of variety and originality among local offerings is another
major annoyance. "You see a lot of the same shows over and over
again. Why is that?" She notes that, even with thousands of plays
listed on Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service,
rarely does a year go by without The Odd Couple, Nunsense, Oklahoma and Sylvia making the
rounds. And some theatres choose award-winning
plays that have long since outlived the reasons
for those awards, or that just don't adapt well
to today's Louisville stage. "People
think that because a play won a prize, it's good," she comments.
One irate reader emailed, "Are you aware that this play
was a finalist for the Pulitzer?" Well, yes, she
was. But the Pulitzer panel of judges wasn't sitting
in that local theatre, seeing what she saw.
Defining the Role of the Critic
Despite her ready sense of humor, Sherry is very serious about her
role as a reviewer and about the essential role
of the critic in the arts process. She is currently
developing an in-depth article on exactly that
subject. She notes that theatre differs from other art forms in that
it's a one-time event. "Every
show is different," she
points out. "You're never going to see the same show twice — so
our job is to be like a mirror, to reflect what
we've seen and how it made us feel on that particular night." Any
other night could be completely different, and she tries to point that
out in her reviews. She sees the critic as having a responsibility for
trying to raise the level of performances and the selection of plays.
She says she hopes to encourage theatre professionals to take more risks,
and to make choices that are a little more daring. She is proud that
many Louisville theatre groups are doing that.
"I hope we have some part in it," she says.
— A.S. Waterman
Copyright © 2008 A.S. Waterman. All rights reserved.
Artwork and text are copyright © 2006 and 2016 A.S. Waterman.
All rights reserved.