Chicago on the Aisle: Erin Shea Brady
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders
Editor’s note: Amanda and Erin are colleagues at NewCity and friends. They met in the Goodman Critics Bootcamp program in October 2017.
For almost three years Erin Shea Brady has been living as both an artist and a critic. Theater has been in her life since she was a child, but when she saw an opportunity to approach the art from a different perspective she took it.
Her adventure with theater journalism began with PerformInk in March 2016 and continued with NewCity about a year ago. Brady’s love of theater motivates her to approach the craft from as many viewpoints as she can.
As a director she finds criticism as a means to explore her love of writing and a way to be a more empathetic artist.
“I felt like (criticism) was a really great way to get free tickets to things and I thought it would help me be more empathetic to other artists. I had to meet them where they were rather than just comparing things to how I’d want them to be.
“But it wasn’t until the Goodman critics program that I started identifying as a critic in a way that was important to my artistic life.”
Obviously you have a background in theater...
I started in musical theater when I was an actor and [since] then I have done playwriting, directing, producing and casting. I’ve been in theater since I was a little kid.
Do you think your experience on stage and off makes you a better writer?
Yes. I think I can understand the process and it helps me to look at the intention of the artists and whether or not they are meeting the intentions versus just looking at something at face value.
I also think it makes me a kinder human.
One of the things I encountered when I started exploring theater journalism is that there is that idea from Mean Girls “those who can’t do, teach.” I’ve run into that misconception about critics with a performance background. Has anyone thought of you as a bitter (artist)?
I still direct, so no. (Criticism) is just one of many things that I do. (For example) I just wrote a play! No part of me slowing down in any other areas just because I write criticism. I love writing in various forms and this is just another form.
So no one has ever said that to me.
I’m glad! It’s really awkward when people do say it (or anything like it) to you.
Do you find it difficult at all to be both an active member of the community and a critic?
I do worry (about that) sometimes. I had to figure out where my boundaries were when reviewing things I know people in. If I can’t be unbiased or I want to just enjoy a friend in a thing, I won’t review it.
It’s important to support people and sometimes just see a friend in a thing.
Selfishly there are theaters I want to work with or direct for, so if I hate their work and openly write criticism about their work that’s complicated. So I choose wisely. I don’t see anything I don’t think I’ll like. If there is a company I want to work with, but the show isn’t for me I won’t review it.
I also stand by my opinions and I hope that a theater I want to work with would be willing to talk about what is or is not successful in their work.
I haven’t come up against anything like that yet, but it’s something I always think about.
Do you think that as arts journalism continues to get smaller and more freelancers come up in the industry with survival jobs that being an actor/director/producer/etc. as well as a critic will become a more common thing?
I hope so. I mean, I don’t know. I guess if there are more freelancers there are more voices informed about theater writing criticism. That’s really powerful (because) criticism is the link between the community and the audience. If we, as artists, look at criticism differently from within it’s a different way to reach the people we want to reach.
It’s a good thing.
Erin Shea Brady.
When it comes to the old guard or how criticism used to be, there was that imaginary curtain between artist and critic. As a young critic do you see that curtain going away?
I don’t know. I can’t predict, everything is so unpredictable right now. Criticism in our community is so influenced by where we are politically right now. As much as I want to know what’s going on with the government and I want to know what will happen in arts criticism too, but I don’t know.
There is validity in being objective. I get the perspective of being separate to be as unbiased as I can and report on the work. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to communicate what we are doing with our audience. That’s the priority–to get people to keep seeing theater.
Knowledge of the way theater works and the way that theater can be relevant is only going to help us communicate with audience members that think theater isn’t for them.
Are there any myths or misconceptions about being a critic that you want to dispel?
I don’t think it’s a critic’s job to tear a show apart. I think it’s our job to try to make the work better and there are a lot of ways to do that. I don’t want to walk into a place and be like “impress me.” People don’t do their best work when they want to impress people.
People do their best work when they feel heard and they feel there is room for them to fail and fail big. I would always rather see something messy, bold and different than something technically good. I champion those things.
I think we look at artists as either good or bad, or talented or not. We don’t give a lot of value to the process of growth. Our job as critics, in addition to communicating with the audience, is to help artists get better at what they do.
I never want to come in with an ego.
I’m a person too. I’m growing too. I want to be brought into the story you’re trying to tell. I want to tell you whether or not it’s successful and why. There is a real opportunity in not a good way for it to be about ego. The people I respect are not about that.
It’s not a power trip.
I find it interesting with older critic friends that they mention once in a while how cathartic it is to get together as a group of critics. Then it dawns on me that it’s not necessarily “normal” for them to get together for fun and hangout. There is something really beautiful about this new generation of critics where we are friends and commiserate, collaborate and get together. There is a championing of each other that can’t happen if you’re the singular voice in a field or outlet.
The Goodman critics program was life changing. I hadn’t considered criticism (as) an art form. I truly saw it as a way to get tickets and develop perspective. It was never about this larger conversation about arts journalism or holding theater to a higher standard. You get to talk about priorities.
Everyone goes in with a different lens and looking at things differently. We can’t be totally unbiased, it’s not a thing.
The collection of all those biases makes something–it creates something objective. At least in little our posse of critics we’ve created a well rounded voice. We are able to show multiple sides of an issue or a play. Everyone comes in with a way to reach people or with things about theater they want to advocate for.
One person cannot be all of those things. It’s cool to have a community where we can internally make each other better, hold each other to a higher standard, learn from each other and also represent people more widely.