Chicago on the Aisle: Alex Huntsberger
Photo Credit: Kathleen Enders
Editor’s note: Amanda is a freelance writer for Alex Huntsberger at the OppLoans blog Financial Sense
Alex Huntsberger got his start in criticism young. He reviewed movies and theater for his high school paper in Eugene, Oregon.
Huntsberger said his high school participated in a program that sent students to review drama performances at other high schools. Those reviews were then published in The Register-Guard, Eugene’s daily newspaper. He continued to review during his undergrad years before moving to Chicago.
Currently reviewing for Time Out Chicago as well as the Chicago Sun-Times, Huntsberger is a familiar face in the community. He’s also had local bylines in Newcity Stage, HyperAllergic, Art21 Magazine, ChicagoPride.com, and Centerstage Chicago.
So what got you into theatre criticism?
Well, I was a theater major in college—I did mostly acting and playwriting with some limited success. When I got here I missed reviewing and writing about theater. I wasn't really crazy about the acting life and playwriting was very lonely and kind of drove me insane. I realized that theater reviewing was something that I still really wanted to do.
In the first show I reviewed [in Chicago] an actor in that show was not off book for act II. So that was interesting for an introduction. Then pretty much the story of my reviewing is [that], generally, I review for one publication, then it starts to sag and then I get another one. New City is still going, but Centerstage Chicago died.
So, why? Why do you do it [writing about theater]?
Why do any of us do anything?
That’s a fair question.
I've always enjoyed taking things apart and figuring out why it works or doesn't.. I just explicated on that. Also sometimes I just get to make jokes about it, especially if it doesn't work. I really enjoy doing that. But the funny thing is, if you think that way like I do, you have a hard time writing about theater you love more than about the theater you don’t.
I remember the first show that I really liked was a revival of Death & Harry Houdini. And I just remember not having the faculties to write about something that I unequivocally love.
Because I come from an acting and a little bit of a playwriting background, I mostly just focused on acting and playwriting. It has been a very conscious effort of mine to be a lot more mindful of the other elements, which I do with varying success.
It’s so much easier to figure out why something doesn't work, why is that? Of course, the difficult thing too, is if you really like something it sounds like you're writing marketing copy. And that's what I do for my day job. So, sometimes I will really dislike reviews I've written of shows that I really liked, because it just sounds like I work for the show..
That’s actually been an interesting challenge. [With] working in marketing and continuing to write criticism I can feel the two trying to become a Venn Diagram. Occasionally they succeed and the circles cross. I try to keep them separate, but it's not always easy.
Do you miss acting?
I did a couple shows around town and then I did a show at the old Strawdog space. I did this show called The Hunting of the Snark, an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll poem. I was originally the dramaturg and I ended up understudying one of the roles.
And then we revived it and I [played] that character. Then we took it to Scotland for the Fringe Festival. It was such an amazing experience, we had so much fun during that show and I was very happy with my performance. And I realized that nothing I was ever going to do would make me feel as good as that show did. So, that's the last time I acted.
I do have a tendency, like a theater kid, to talk in accents a lot in my daily life. I feel sorry for everyone around me, especially my wife. I'll do it early in the morning before she's had her coffee. And let me tell you, she does not like when I do that.
Do you think that having been a theater kid, having been on stage, makes you a better theater critic?
Because you understand more about the actual craft of [theater]. It’s the idea of trying to explain why something works and why something doesn't. It helps to know the ways in which it is built.
The danger with that, and I've been guilty of this many times, is you essentially write for other artists. You are not focused on people who don't make theatre, but like to see theatre.
I think you can get a bit technically focused. I know that that is actually my biggest criticism of my own writing. It can be almost like I'm creating a blueprint rather than actually taking stock of the show as a whole experience.
Are there any myths or misconceptions about theatre criticism that you've encountered in your former life as an actor that you want to dispel?
That we have a personal vendetta against everyone.
We don't. Well, I don’t. Maybe other critics do. I have known some very petty critics and I have also known very petty artists. I definitely try to remove those assumptions. There have been times where I've reviewed someone who maybe I have not liked personally, but hot damn, they did an amazing job.