From the publisher...

A.S. Waterman

April 2008


Reflections on the Spotlight —
TheatreLouisville Interviews LEO’s Sherry Deatrick

Outspoken, honest and forthright — these are words one might use to describe LEO's Sherry Deatrick. A freelance theatre reviewer affiliated with The Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO), the city's widely circulated alternative newspaper, Sherry never leaves her readers in doubt as to how she feels about a production, although they may marvel at her cleverness of expression. Whether she pans or praises, and whether her review leaves you smiling or screaming, it always leaves you with the sense of having read something worthwhile and beautifully crafted, as well as entertaining in its own right.

To find out more about the woman who commands this gift, TheatreLouisville's A.S. Waterman and Niles Welch sat down with Sherry over lunch at the Bristol Cafe in Prospect. We learned some surprising things.

Sherry Deatrick (left) chats with TheatreLouisville's A.S. Waterman over a Saturday lunch. Photo by Niles Welch.

"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 recalls.

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 feel cheated."

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 and byline.

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 theatre," she 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 as possible."

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 it alone."

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 says.


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 playwright," which 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 laughs. "Oh, 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

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Copyright © 2008 A.S. Waterman. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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