Chicago on the Aisle: Josh Flanders
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders
Josh Flanders has always been a writer. He has journaled his innermost thoughts since he was young and his love of writing easily melded with his early love of the theater. The two go together as perfectly as Josh and his wife, and sometime writing/performing partner, Sheri.
Flanders got his start in theater criticism after he and Sheri wrote a musical together and were then invited to be contributors at chicagolandmusicaltheater.com. Fast forward to just shy of two years and Flanders now has bylines on that website as well as PerformInk and the Chicago Reader.
Looking back on his start at criticism Flanders, who has an English degree from UW-Madison and a masters in literature from Northwestern, sees the gig as the perfect fit for someone like himself whose exuberance for the craft is nothing short of palpable.
“Once I was asked to do [criticism] and was like ‘heck yeah,’” Flanders says. “It was a great opportunity to combine two things I love—theater/drama and writing.”
[What is your theater background?]
My dad and mom took me to a lot of plays and musicals as a kid. Annie, which my dad took me to in London when I was 10 or 11 and I saw Much Ado About Nothing there that changed my life.
If I’d go to London and was there a week I’d see 7 shows. I’d see a show a day and, if I could, a matinee. I’ve seen more plays on the West End of London than anywhere in Chicago.
For years that was the place I’d go for theater. I’ve been to Broadway for one or two shows, but my main experience seeing theater is in London, Chicago [and] APT (American Players Theatre) in Wisconsin.
What is different about theater in the West End versus theater here?
Definitely the accents.
It doesn’t really differ to me because I’m seeing good and bad stuff in both places. There was a production of Medea in London and the guy who was Medea’s husband [Jason] was terrible. And he would enunciate every word. “Medea I am doing this for your benefit” (overly enunciated) became a running gag.
Obviously seeing shows on the West End in these amazing theaters with some of the world’s great actors you see great stuff, but I also saw Richard Dreyfuss in a production of “The Prisoner of Second Ave” and it was a thrill to see Richard Dreyfuss, but he wasn’t great.
We saw Kenneth Branagh in Ivanhoe and it was incredible. He’s unbelievable.
I feel that the ratio is about the same to me. I’d say 3/4 or 4/5 of the shows I see in London or Chicago I think are good. Once in a while I think it’s the greatest show ever or it’s just “meh.” [But] The majority of the stuff I see has been solid.
Was it difficult to get started in the field or were you intimidated at all?
Not at all, no. I mean “intimidated” isn’t the word I’d use. When I started I was definitely very cognizant and conscious of what my role was and I’m the type of person who wants to do it right. There is no right way to be a critic.
[I came] into it really open and honest and speaking to my experience. I accepted the fact that I’m not an expert at everything. There have been a few times when I’ve had to do research. I did for The Ruse of Medusa [at Factory Theater] I had to study everything I could about this surrealist play without a cognizant plot.
[So] I definitely wasn’t hesitant or intimidated at all by it. I’m in my mid 40s. Putting my writing out there is something I’ve done a lot. To me it’s really just making sure that I understand what I’m seeing and understand the context of it and can speak to it and not speak to something I don’t know.
Where do you see criticism going in the future?
It’s the Wild West right now. We’re at the new frontier where nobody knows where it’s going. I think that clearly there are a lot of voices out there. [There are] people who are looking to say things or aggregate opinions and there has always been outlets to champion those messages, you know?
Without those outlets I hope that theater would rise some kind of respectable journalistic entity in cyberspace to channel these voices and for there to be value more to them than [just] a monetary one.
I would be supportive of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) supporting a nationwide effort. I’m a big supporter of the government supporting the arts. In other countries the arts are heavily subsidized [and] I think that can help to provide opportunities. I’d like to see those entities exist.
Whether it’s the government doing it or private foundations or other ways for those sites to exist. I’d like there to be dedicated sites or parts of sites that continue to put criticism as a priority and everyone support the teaching of criticism [in universities].
No one knew how big the printing press would be. When Gutenberg made a bible no one thought “this is it” or that it would change things. With the internet this is the next big technological revolution and people don’t know where it’ll go. What I don’t want to see is what’s been going on in the early stages which is everyone has a voice and no one gets paid.
There are careers that will be put out of business by technologies and jobs becoming safer or different. [But] a computer would not write a good theater review. We’ve got the demand for reviews and theater is in trouble in general. It’s threatened by other forms of other entertainment. But people need to see shows and be together and have a communal of dramatic experience. It’s happened since the dawn of time.
It would be a tragedy if our dramatic experiences were reduced to a handheld device or a tv at home. Now that the supply of tv shows and everything there is an increased demand for criticism. [Now] the biggest threat is that everyone can rate things online, but that’s not a review. It’s not a thoughtful criticism or even a comment.
Access to intelligent, well written stuff is important. Just like people say “the secret to a good tv show or movie is the writing,” it’s the writing. It’s everything.
Are there any myths/misconceptions about criticism you’d like to dispel?
I have an advantage in that I don’t come from a background of studying journalism. I was an english major. I was trained to write about literature and drama. In a way I’ve always been a critic. I’ve always had to analyze literature. I guess I haven’t grown accustomed to what the misconceptions are of critics.
I guess [I’d dispel] the misconception that a critic is the final arbiter of what is good.
It’s so subjective. I’m just a guy, a white, cisgendered dude, who has had the life experience that I’ve had. And so when I reviewed The Father, for example, after having a dad who died of dementia and nine years of dealing with that, I can’t help but bring my experience to bear. It’s different than if I didn’t ever experience that.
All you get from my reviews are my very specific perspective. And I’m okay with that.
Everyone brings their own take and I love that. I think that one thing about dispelling that idea that we are the arbiters of what is good and what isn’t good.
The other thing is that, of course, I love theater. [There is a misconception that critics do not love theater] I come to it from the perspective of someone who has performed.
The more information and experience people can bring to it the better. And so a critic who has, in my case, studied improv for 10 years, been through the Second City conservatory, [has taken], acting classes, has a wife who was a fashion designer, has put on events for various nonprofits—I have an appreciation for those things.
A person who reviews comic books, for example, has to love comic books. They have to know. them. They don’t have to have written a comic, but if I had written a comic, it would help inform me of structure and history and the way they are constructed.
My hope is that Chris Jones and all of the young cohorts of critics have the same love and joy at seeing theater and recognizing the huge amount of work that it takes to do that.