Chicago on the Aisle: Lauren Emily Whalen
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders.
Critics aren’t just critics anymore. In an industry with full-time jobs being few and far between, theater critics are often hustling between jobs and showtimes. For Lauren Emily Whalen that journey began in 2011.
On top of being a performer, author (her latest book Satellite is available now) and seeming writer of all trades, Whalen is balancing her work as a theater critic. Her bylines have been found in Windy City Times, Chicago Theater Beat and TDF Stages (the Theater Development Fund). Her writing has also been found in publications like Self, Bust, Playboy and Bellesa.
A lifelong love of theater and live performance compounded by an early fondness of criticism by Roger Ebert ignited a passion of analyzing theater as an art form.
“I was reading Roger Ebert's reviews when I was 7 ,” Whalen says. I wanted to be Roger Ebert. I mean, I still do. I actually reviewed a film once, near the end of his life, and he and Chaz were in the row in front of me. It felt almost like a religious experience. I didn't say anything to him, but I was sending “thank you” vibes to him. Because, from when I was a little kid he taught me how to think and how to see something in front of me.”
When did you start writing theatre criticism?
When the Chicago Tribune did neighborhood blogs. I was one of the bloggers they hired and I wrote about film and theater. Then a friend of mine, who also wrote for Chicago Theater Beat, introduced me to their editor. Then I wrote for Windy City Times since early 2018. I'm also a 2018 alum[na] of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center.
The 14 of us still have an ongoing group chat and we have gotten together twice. We all really bonded. It was a really great group of women, people of color and queer people. It was amazing to hear all the different perspectives and I became an infinitely better critic, writer and (I think) human being after spending two weeks with them.
So, in the time that you've been a critic in Chicago, is there anything that you (as a theatre practitioner or a person who loves theatre) learned about the craft of theatre?
I have learned a lot actually. It's funny because two years ago I got back into acting. I'm actually currently in a production of Love's & Labour's opening at Otherworld Theatre Company on June 7.
I grew up doing theater and I majored in it in college. And in sitting in the audience, I really got an appreciation [for] the art form as a whole, because while I was getting my degree I mostly concentrated on acting. And just really sitting in the audience and seeing how it came together was so illuminating.
As a critic it's our job to see how everything comes together and how everything contributes to the story as a whole. I saw that there were so many different ways of telling the story. You can do it with a million dollar budget or with no budget and you can succeed or fail in so many degrees both ways. You know, I've seen some of the most beautiful theater of my life in church basements and I've seen it at equity houses, and I've seen the most terrible theater my life at both extremes.
Between my theater education and my upbringing in community theater, it all just jumped for me once I became a critic. I have a law degree as well. So, my analytical skills really came in handy when I started.
[I think to myself] “okay, well, how does the set design contribute to the story? How did the performances contribute? Are there eight different performances in one production? Or is everyone in the director's vision united in presenting the story?” It's really deepened my appreciation for theater as an art form. I even wrote a piece for TDF (the Theater Development Fund) about how being a theater critic made me a better actor.
I think it's just made me better on every level.
So, being a theater critic has made you a better actor, but has being an actor made you a better theater critic?
Oh, yeah. [When I was] getting into [criticism] my background as an actor is what I relied on. I, quite frankly, had no idea what I was doing.
None of us really do.
I'm very lucky in that my undergraduate degree in theater is from Loyola.
It wasn't a BFA, it was a BA. So we also studied directing and dramatic literature, we had two or three different classes, and we had to take theater history. It had been a while since I got my degree, but I drew on all of that once I started reviewing theater. I had to really think back to what my professors taught us about looking at the material and where it came from, and looking at it in the context of how that company sees it and why it was chosen. I think that's one of the driving forces for me when I review anything is ‘why this play and why now?’
I try to go in with an open mind [and] sometimes that's easier than others. I never want to go in [thinking] I don't like this...I do want to go in to have an experience. I want you to give me that experience, because I think that's what's unique about live theater.
It's an experience like no other.
Going off of that idea that we don't go in hoping [the play is] going to suck. We don't want them to fail, right? It's no fun to sit through a terrible show. So, are there any misconceptions about being a critic that you want to pull apart?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is critics are [a-holes] who want everything to fail. With most of the critics I've ever met or read or studied, that's not true. We're viewing it through a lens that we want to share with the world. And we are writing for people who might want to see the show and give their time, money and their emotional energy.
We want to share that [experience] with people. Did [the performers] succeed? If so, to what measure? What can this production teach us?
I think a lot of people think that critics just walk in, sit down and glare at the actors the whole time [while] furiously scribbling notes. I think sometimes when we call out things that don't work, or things that are problematic, we're attacking the people who put it on, which we are absolutely not. But sometimes a little, or a lot of, tough love is necessary. And we're not necessarily writing for the makers, we're writing for the viewers. If the makers want to read it and get something out of it, great. I always tell people we're not there to be mean, we're not there to be your enemy and we take our jobs very, very seriously.
As a freelance writer, I live in so many different spheres, and being a critic is still probably the source of the majority of my anxiety.
It’s a really, really big responsibility and as critics, especially in the age of the internet, we get our fair share of criticism. Sometimes it's warranted—I need to look at how I embrace [a subject] or be more mindful of things like pronouns, which I have become way more mindful of in the past few years. But it sometimes feels like, as female critics, (I can't speak for critics of color, but they might feel this as well) sometimes our opinions are less valued.
Sometimes we are made more vulnerable because of our opinions, I have been confronted and was [even] harassed by an actor last year over Messenger, which resulted in a friend of mine letting the company know and the company ended up issuing a public apology.
A few years ago, I was confronted in a lobby because I had called a play misogynistic.
I'm probably a pain in a lot of people's asses, but I kind of have to be. It's really our job and we absolutely have to point those things out.
That doesn’t make it any easier.
No, I may have gone home and had a drink. You have to dust yourself off, go to the next show, and give that review your all.
So all of that said, with the baggage that comes with being a critic, the fact that journalism in general is so in flux right now and the fact that the full time jobs don't really exist anymore, why do you do this?
Honestly? And I hope this doesn't turn into a commercial for the National Critics Institute—although if it does, I'm not going to be mad about it.
Before I went last summer, I was questioning that. Why do I do this? Because I don't just review theater, I review film and books as well. And it was like, why do I run from show to show, and sit there and absorb all of this emotional energy for usually not a lot of money? It’s just a lot of effort because I have a day job too.
After those two weeks in Connecticut, which as you know, involved seeing a play every day, (sometimes two), writing a review, and then spending the day workshopping that review with 13 or 14 absolutely brilliant people. And often, in my case, feeling very out of my league.
I realized that there is nothing like live theater.
When I was about four years old, my mom took me to the ballet and I can still remember us sitting in the audience and hearing this slight tapping. It was the toe shoes.
The fact that that lives on in my memory, I think that imprinted on me that very few things have that kind of long lasting impact. So, while absorbing the emotional energy can get exhausting and often does, I can't live without it.
I have to have it in my life. Sometimes on both sides of the curtain. There is literally nothing like the experience of sitting there and hearing the rustling behind the curtain or the audience's collective breath as the lights go down. And I haven't had that replicated anywhere else.
Is there anything else you want folks to know about?
I'm seeing more of a range of voices in theater criticism than I did when I started. And I think that is a wonderful thing. We need as many different voices as we can.
In analyzing and absorbing the shows and giving perspective, especially in the very fraught world we're living in now, we all have to really listen to each other and give everyone a space to talk. Even if we don't agree with them and even if we don't understand.
What was really illuminating for me about the O'Neill was just going around the table and just hearing what everyone took from the same exact 90 minute-stage reading. It was fascinating. I think we just need as much of that as possible in theater criticism for it to move forward as a form.