Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cleveland Critics Circle

When the subject of Tom Hanks formative years at Great Lakes Theater (née Shakespeare Festival) comes up, inevitably someone mentions the fact that he won the Best Actor Award from the Cleveland Critics Circle for his performance as Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. But what was the Cleveland Critics Circle?

Before its demise in the late 1980s, the Circle was driven by Cleveland native and Sun Press critic Jackie Demaline (currently chief theater critic at the Cincinnati Enquirer) and its membership included Plain Dealer critic Joanna Connors and Northern Ohio Live's Marianne Evett before she assumed her position at the PD. Also on board were Chronicle Telegram critic Shannon Jewel, Art Thomas of WestLife and Roy Berko. Anyone who wrote criticism that was printed was welcome to become a member.

Their primary purpose as the Cleveland Critics Circle was to grant annual awards to area theater artists, meeting several times a year to debate the merits of all of the local theatrical productions, including productions that toured through Playhouse Square Center. These awards followed the traditional categories of Best Actor/Actress, Best Director, Best Musical, etc.

One interesting point I learned was that in order to have a voice in any given award, you must have seen all of that year's productions. If you hadn't seen every nominated performance in the Best Actress category, for example, you were not permitted to have a say in that category.

At the time of the Circle's disintegration, the Cleveland theater community itself was in the doldrums. With the demise of the Cleveland Press, there was only one daily paper with the facility to employ full-time, professional critics. Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater were the only Equity houses in town, and the grand old days of high-quality, big name, professional drama coming through Playhouse Square were done. Every theater that you think of as a second-tier Cleveland theater (Dobama, Ensemble, Karamu, Beck Center) were either little more than community theater with high pretensions or in a period of awkward transition into the more-respected houses they would become. None of those companies at that time employed professional actors nor paid any of their staff.

This was all before my generation came on the scene, of course. Just saying.

The Cleveland Critics Circle has recently been revived, announcing last week the premiere of a new website Cleveland Theater Reviews. Their mission, as stated, is to "raise awareness and increase visibility of Greater Cleveland's vibrant theater scene." The fact is, there are more Cleveland theater critics now than there ever have been. The difference is, most of their readership is online. Most who are even published in the old fashioned way are carried in community papers with ever-dwindling subscriptions. Providing this website gives those interested in reading theater criticism one-stop to check out what everyone is saying.

Well, not everyone. While papers like the Cleveland Jewish News, the Akron Beacon Journal and various neighborhood Sun papers are represented in their membership, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is not. It has been over nine months since the PD retired their last chief theater critic, and has yet to name a successor, relying instead on writers from other departments. Through posts I have made on this subject other area critics reassured the community that they would take responsibility for filling that gap in area theater coverage. The reemergence of the new Cleveland Critics Circle promises to be positive step in that direction.


  1. Regardless of how people learn about local theater offerings, the lack of substantial theatrical criticism makes Cleveland Theater look culturally unserious. It is embarrassing that the PD has not replaced Tony. Right now we have no critics, we have reviewers, and in the absence of true criticism, we are reduced to a morass of gut-reactions and thumbs-up/thumbs-down ratings masquerading as journalistic opinion. It is a little depressing.

    The writing on your blog, however, remains interesting and well-considered. That gives me some confidence that all is not yet lost. Keep writing!

  2. Thank you, "J Paul." It is sometimes easy to dismiss this issue as too inside-baseball, and by that I mean who really cares whether there is an appointed "beat" theater critic at the PD, apart from Cleveland theater people?

    Well, it would be unwise for me to name names, but I was in a meeting recently with someone, not a member of the theater community, but the representative of a significant regional community benefactor, of the kind that supports the work of diverse organizations for the public good. And *they* notice, as well. So the lack of attention to this matter on the part of the Plain Dealer is of some greater significance.

    Glad you like the blog, "J Paul"!