Donna Kelly Writes

Author, Speaker, Theater Critic

Month: October 2015

The Punny Spirit of Dr. Paul Bearer II: He’s Still Lurking for You!

Tombstone Photo

He’s back!

Well, sort of.

For nearly 25 years, radio executive Dick Bennick, Sr. delighted fans as Dr. Paul Bearer, host of WTOG’s Saturday afternoon horror fest Creature Feature. Growing up, young Richard Eric Koon was one of the thousands of fans in the Tampa Bay area who tuned in to watch the frightfully punny host introduce and provide commentary on “horrible old” B movies.

The show ended after Bennick’s death in 1995, but like many fans, Koon never forgot the good-hearted, humorous host who filled his youthful Saturday afternoons. Years later, after marrying and starting a family, Koon began donning a Dr. Paul Bearer costume – complete with the creepy but hilarious makeup and slicked-back, center-parted hair – on Halloween. After numerous requests from friends and family, he purchased an old tux and a 1994 Lincoln Hearse, and began appearing in local community events in 2008. By 2010, he was a favorite in parades.

With respect to Bennick and blessed with well-wishes from his widow, Patty Bennick, Koon adopted the moniker Dr. Paul Bearer II.

He also built a set based on Bennick’s old TV digs and filmed short videos the garage of his Winter Haven home.

They were a hit on YouTube.

A year ago, Koon realized his dream of following Bennick’s footsteps and began hosting his own quarterly horror show, Tombstone Tales at WTOG, now known as CW44 Tampa Bay.

I wrote my first newspaper story about Koon and his Dr. Paul Bearer II persona in 2010. I’ve been keeping track of him ever since. In honor of the Halloween season, I sat down with him this week to chat about life as a TV horror host. When he’s not touring around in his alter ego’s hearse, Koon is taking care of business at Richline Appliance Parts in Eagle Lake. He regaled me with tales of the friendly undertaker in between serving customers in the busy shop.

D.K. – What made you decide to bring back the Dr. Paul Bearer character? What was it about him that grabbed you?

R.E.K. – What made me even consider it was back in the day of Creature Feature, my sister Beth (Koon) used to run downstairs, turn on the TV, and sit there religiously watching Dr. Paul Bearer. And I used to say, “What is this guy? He’s kind of dumb,” because I didn’t understand the puns. He was quirky, kooky.

Later, Dr. Paul (Bearer) had done a couple of segments and I caught one and actually laughed. There was something about the character itself that was creepy but cool. He had “The Look.”

You see all these characters out there, and yeah, there are some good ones – Freddy and Jason. Elvira. They have the kooky horror look. But there’s something about Dr. Paul, it’s not just the look – he was really cool. Dr. Paul’s a good guy. He’s not out there to cut your throat.

D.K. – What do you enjoy most about Tombstone Tales?

R.E.K. – When we get in there, there’s something about when the set is assembled and the lighting is on, I transform more into the character than when I’m out and about dressed in costume.

I think it’s fantastic that it’s not just a “me thing.” We have a whole team. We will write it, they will direct it and I will act it. The amazing thing is when they put it together I’ll see what I’m doing… I do what the director tells me and then it’s funny. It’s hilarious.

Last night I watched yesterday’s show with my family and busted a gut open. I was cracking up so hard. I know I found the niche. I now know what it is I want to do in front of the camera. It’s basically this: Dr. Paul had this saying, “Be peculiar because to be normal takes a lot more effort.”

To watch Dr. Paul Bearer as himself, as nonchalant as he is with all of this hoopla going on around the Tenement Castle, it’s normal to him. It doesn’t faze him.

D.K. – Do you still have the set in your garage?

R.E.K. – That’s it. (He points to a photo on the computer screen.) I carted it over to the station to show the station manager and Greg Blackburn, who worked on the original creature feature. I set it up and when they came in and saw it, everybody’s jaw dropped. They were like, “Wow!”

D.K. – That’s cool.

R.E.K. – Yeah. We took the old set and mixed it with the new set. I really feel “in tomb” when I’m on the set. I’m sorry, I don’t mean this. (Referring to the pun)

D.K. – Yes, you do!

R.E.K. – Hmm….go on.

D.K. – What is it about the Dr. Paul Bearer persona that makes him so endearing?

R.E.K. – During Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail, I could just sit there and wait for somebody to turn around and when they did, they got spooked. I just made eye contact, and the eyes open and with that black makeup, they look kind of cross. And then I’d go, “How are you doing?” (fast, low voice)
“Okay, I guess.” (wavering voice of a small child.) “How are you?”
“I’m doing terrible. Just the way I like it.” (fast, low voice)

And then they start loosening up a bit and I start bringing in a bit of conversation and throw in a couple of puns, and the next thing I know they are smiling. It’s fright and then smile, and then friendship forever.

D.K. – Describe Dr. Paul Bearer’s personality. In what way are you two alike?

R.E.K. – He really doesn’t like stress. He has a way of dealing with stress – he pays it no mind. He tries to find the humor in everything. When I’m in character, it’s pointed out to me that people wish they could be me because I could step into that character and leave Richard – and all the worries – behind and I’m just Dr. Paul Bearer. And she’s right – she being my wife – because when I’m on set, when I’m in persona, when I’m doing events, Richard is gone. Dr. Paul Bearer is there. I love it when people come up and smile. It’s an incredible feeling. It really is.

Patty Bennick (Dick Bennick’s widow) told me, “I want you to develop the character and I want you to put a little bit of Richard in there.”

And a little bit of Richard is in there. In fact, one of my customers says, “There’s the Richard I know” because I do love to cut up.

D.K. – People still watch movies based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To what do you attribute their continued popularity?

R.E.K. – A lot of people are wanting the black and white films. I tell you one thing, they get to the point. There are movies out there today and it takes forever to get to the point. And there are some movies today where you actually have to think. Those (old) movies, it’s like curl up on the couch, turn out the lights, and they have creepy, creepy music. (He imitates creepy music) Maybe we like it because it makes us feel young again because we saw it when we were young.

D.K. – Do you think people just like to be scared?

R.E.K. – Yeah, because after they’re scared, they laugh. That’s why I love to scare people on Halloween. I love it.

D.K. – What is your favorite horror or paranormal movie? Why?

R.E.K. – Ahhh, there are so many! I’ve always loved the Amityville Horror. Of course now that I’ve decided that it was not paranormal, it kinda ruined it. As far as the classics go, definitely Frankenstein.

D.K. – Why?

R.E.K. – You’ve got to think back to the 30s or 40s, you had Nosferatu, which was just creepy itself and you didn’t even need sound with that one. The technology, for them to come up with this – we didn’t have this type of (modern) technology. But man, did they make it happen! As long as you put common knowledge out of your head and go with what the movie is saying, it’s entertaining. I mean you can’t do a head transplant, but that didn’t even cross my mind when I was watching Frankenstein. (Koon becomes animated and shouts, “It’s alive. Alive!”)

Of course, I still love – it was one of the first ones I watched – the Attack of the Giant Leeches. It’s so hokey! They had these trash bags and the sound they made was creepy. (He makes more sound effects.)

D.K. – How do you come up with your puns – do you dream them?

R.E.K. – A lot of it is by the seat of my pants. I have always, even before doing Dr. Paul Bearer, had diminished hearing. I’ve never been able to understand words to a song. I hear different sounds from what a lot of people hear. So, I’ll start filling in my own words. We’re driving down the road and a song comes on. I’ll start singing it using my kids’ names and whatever the situation and they giggle and crack up. I guess the more you practice, the more it happens.

Last week at ZombieFest, people would come who had a ticket for getting their picture taken in the casket with Dr. Paul Bearer. As they were coming in, it just dawned on me and I’d say, “Come in, come in, you want to lie down? Heh, heh, heh, this is my sleep number bed.”

They’re like, “Sleep number bed?”

“Well, yes it is, most certainly, because when your number is up, this is the bed you get. Heh, heh, heh!”

That one just came to me.

D.K. – Do people laugh, or do they just go, “eh?”

R.E.K. – If they get it, they laugh. A lot of times I have to explain it and then they’re like “Ohhhhh.”

(He launches into a string of puns.)

“Why do you part your hair down the middle?” That’s where the bullet went.

When they ask me to do something I always say, let me take a stab at it.

(He pulls his pun folder from a desk drawer and reads one.) What’s the favorite health insurance for goblins, ghosts, and monsters? Mediscare. (He laughs.)

They (people) think I’m weird, but when they get it they’re like ‘that’s cool!’

D.K. – What are some of your frequently asked questions?

R.E.K. – Are you the original’s son? My reply is “only by character.”

Do you have his hearse? No, I wasn’t lucky enough for that. Busch Gardens has that in one of their scare houses. I have a newer edition. It’s a 94 Lincoln. I had to have air conditioning.

Are you ever going to do a show? Yes, we have been. Go check on Facebook for clips.

Do you do private parties or private events? I tell them selectively. I would have to get their information to my agent. I don’t do any private events in people’s homes. If it’s out and about, I’ll consider it.

Is that scar real? I tell them the same thing Dick did: “You like my scar? You can have one too; just go to the used scar lot.”

D.K. – Where can people find segments of Tombstone Tales?

R.E.K. – Facebook and Twitter. Facebook, that’s generally where I do a lot of my content. Check Facebook.com/Dr.PaulBearer2. I’m always posting the dates and times of shows, and usually the station will send me clips of what they’re airing – 5 second spots promoting the show. At the end of every show they show bloopers, I post those.

drpaulbearer@gmail.com, they can reach me there too.

D.K. – Would you like to add anything else?

R.E.K. – I’ll be lurking for you!

Musicians on the Move: The Truitts, Briana Tyson, and J.D. Wylkes Part 2

Truitts Tyson Wylkes

 

Photo: J.D. Wylkes, Brigetta Truitt, Brett Truitt, and Briana Tyson perform at the Ritz Theatre in Winter Haven, Florida, September 2015.

Following your passion often feels like taking an exhilarating leap off a cliff into a shimmering blue ocean, but the hang time brings a strange blend of joy and fear. The overriding emotion often depends upon what you find waiting in the water – hungry sharks or friendly dolphins. When siblings and singer-songwriters Brett and Brigetta Truitt moved to Nashville earlier this year, they were fortunate enough to find a mentor in award-winning songwriter Bobby Braddock, who grew up in the Truitt’s home town in Florida, and true friendship with artists Briana Tyson and J.D. Wylkes.

Together the four friends face the sharks in the music business while honing their craft, learning the ropes, and loving life.

During their Rounds on the Road Tour, they recently stopped in my hometown, just a few miles from where The Truitts grew up in Auburndale, Florida. We sat down to chat in the historic Ritz Theatre.

This is part two of a two-part interview.

D.K. – How has living and working in Nashville affected you?

Brigetta – Nashville has challenged us a lot, has really shaped us. We’ve become better song writers just going to those writer’s rounds and hearing the people’s stories and the mindset they have.

Brett – There are a lot of massively talented people. It’s like if you’re in school, there’s the kid who makes the best grades and that’s the person who motivates you to be better. You can go out every night and see 40 of those people. It’s a community of song writers and musicians and we’re all challenging each other to be better because we all want those few spots.

With music you can work for 10 years and not get anywhere, but we’re not going to compromise what we’re doing. This is what we’re doing and that’s what we’re going to stick with.

D.K. – What is your biggest accomplishment to date?

Brigetta – Writing with Bobby Braddock. He would play the piano, think of something, and write it down. He’d say, “I got it” and walk to a corner. He’d start humming things and saying things, and come back and have a part of a verse. It was incredible. That experience of being in his writing room with all of his awards – it was such a cool experience.

Brett – Music is a bunch of tiny accomplishments. I’m not sure I’ve reached my goals of accomplishments yet. Every time we write a great song, that’s a great win, that’s a great accomplishment. We have a lot of little accomplishments.

Briana – Putting a CD out for “Moonshine.”

J.D. – I’d probably say when I led the music in my school when we were in the arena and there were 12,000 students in front of you. It was one of those moments like this is not anything I’ve experienced before. Standing on that stage and looking out at the crowd and connecting with them through the music. You can’t really forget something like that, your first time in a big venue.

D.K. – Who is your biggest musical inspiration?

Brigetta – The Jackson 5 is the reason I got into music. (She launches into her version of the Jackson 5 hit, “ABC”)

Bobby Braddock. We were doing a pop sound. Bobby Braddock said to do a little more country. He said, “I love you guys. I love the way you perform. I love the sound, you just have to be a little bit more country.” So, then we mixed in the pop country, which is kind of where we land now. We’re a little bit more poppy, because country is kinda turning into that now.

Brett – Muse, Zeppelin. I’m pretty eclectic.

Bobby Braddock has been our biggest mentor in Nashville. We met him two years ago. He’s from Auburndale, our hometown. He took to us and has really helped us with our writing, our direction, and connecting us in Nashville. Bobby has really taught us about hard work. So many people come to Nashville and want the success, but they aren’t willing to put in the hours. All of us here, that’s what we thrive on: putting in the hours

Briana – I have several of them and oddly enough none of them are country. John Mayer is probably my favorite artist of all time. Celine Dion is one of my biggest influences. I’ve been listening to her ever since I was little. I’ve been obsessed with her music and I got to meet and sing with her.

J.D. – My dad’s been in a Beatles cover band since the 70s, so that’s what I grew up listening to my whole life. I still listen to the Beatles pretty much every day. Tom Petty is a big influence on my music. Clapton, love Clapton. I really don’t like any of the music today. I like those sounds from the 60s through the 80s. I want to bring back some of those rock or the pop sounds.

D.K. – How do you handle the Nashville challenges and music trends?

Brigetta – You look back but you don’t degrade a thing.

Brett – Nashville is a town of trend chasers. We want to be the trend setters.

Briana – Country music is not the way it used to be. It used to be about telling stories, almost a Christianity in songs. And it doesn’t any more. We want to bring back the respect and the story telling country music used to have. It’s going to come around to what we’re doing at some point, we just have to keep doing what we do and wait for that time to come.

D.K. – Tell me about Rounds on the Road (CD and tour)

Note: The Truitt’s, Briana Tyson, and J.D. Wylkes completed the first leg of the Rounds on the Road Tour in Florida. They will resume the tour in January 2016. They’re analyzing comments on social media to determine where they will perform, although Cleveland, Ohio is on the list.

During a songwriter round, songwriters sit casually on stage, play songs, and tell stories or discuss the lyrics between them.

Brett – It’s like bringing a little slice of Nashville to everyone else.

J.D. – We’ve got a lot of new songs for this new CD called Rounds on the Road. It’s a lot of songs we haven’t released. It has a few songs we’ve pitched to other artists. That’s kind of a hard thing about where we are as songwriters – we have to try to figure out if this is going to be my song that you finish or am I going to take this song and pitch it to other artists? Can we release it yet or do we have to hold back and see if anyone else is going to release it? We’re kind of in this very awkward moment.

But we’re kind of figuring it out song by song, which is really cool.

Musicians on the Move: The Truitts, Briana Tyson, and J.D. Wylkes Part 1

Rounds on the road ritz photo(1)

Photo: Brett Truitt, Briana Tyson, Brigetta Truitt, and J.D. Wylkes at the Ritz Theatre in Winter Haven, Florida, September 2015

When siblings and singer-songwriters Brett and Brigetta Truitt – known professionally as pop/country duo The Truitts – arrived in Nashville nine months ago to pursue a music career, they didn’t know what to expect.

In a town the size of Nashville – about 601,000 people – especially one brimming with egos and ambitions across the music industry, it’s not always easy to get your bearings, much less find a friend.

But within a week they met American Idol alum Briana Tyson, 22, at a writer’s round and she quickly introduced them to J.D. Wylkes, a 26-year-old pop/rock/country artist. Although Tyson and Wylkes are artists in their own right, the friendship between the Truitts, Tyson and Wylkes has blossomed into co-writing songs, producing recordings and a tour they dubbed, “Rounds on the Road.” In addition to a common love of music, they all have supportive parents and a faith in God that sustain them.

During their Rounds on the Road Tour, they recently stopped in my hometown, just a few miles from where The Truitts grew up in Auburndale, Florida. We sat down to chat in the historic Ritz Theatre.

D.K. – What path did you take to Nashville?

Brigetta – I started music when I was a little girl, and I did plays and musicals at Theatre Winter Haven. Then we started singing at charity events. We put together a duo and some songs. We’re both passionate about music and we were doing the more pop route.  (Note: Brigetta is 16 years old and takes classes through a virtual high school. Brett is 22.)

Briana – I’ve been singing since I was a baby. It’s been one of those things like a chain reaction with things happening. It’s long process. I’ve been doing this professionally for almost 13 years.

I started coming back and forth to Nashville working with a manager when I was 13. I’d fly back and forth to California every few months. When I turned 16, my rep at BMI said, “If you want anything to happen, then it’s time to move to Nashville.” So, my whole family packed up and we all moved to Nashville within three months and I’ve just been working it ever since.

I’ve had some opportunities. I’ve opened for Vince Gill. I was on American Idol and made it to the Top 100 in the Scotty McCreery Season. (Season 10)

Trying to get things accomplished by a certain age has been difficult. It’s a process of writing and recording. Finally I’ve been signed with Emerge National.

It will be good to have a single out in the next couple of months. It’s called “Throw Back”.

J.D. – I’ve been singing since I was 13 years old. I wasn’t interested in music at all when I was younger; baseball was my thing.

One day my dad gave me for a Christmas present his old 1950 silver-tone guitar. My fingers literally started bleeding trying to learn how to play, but I loved it. I started playing at church later that year with him and I’ve done Christian music for about 10 years.

I was at a Christian school called Liberty University in Liberty, Virginia. I was leading the music for the university. I started listening to some of the secular artists I grew up with and started writing some of that again. That’s why I decided to move to Nashville.

I moved to Nashville about 2 ½ – 3 years ago. For the first year I didn’t do anything because I was scoping it out. I didn’t even know where to begin. I just played a lot of writer’s rounds and wrote a lot of songs.

D.K. – How is Nashville similar or different from what you expected?

Brigetta – Nashville is all about making connections – who you know, who you meet. It’s not necessarily about talent all of the time. We’re trying to show the best we can individually.

Brett – It’s a very overwhelming experience and it took a few months to settle in. You just have so much you have to do and so many people you need to meet. When you’re here (Auburndale) you go down to the Shake Shop and say “Hi” to your neighbors. There you go to an ice cream store and you go, “Hi, are you Gavin McGraw?”

Briana – You go to Nashville and you’re feeling I can do this and I like my songs better than this song on the radio, and you think it’s going to be easy. Then you realize it isn’t about what you think it’s about. Nashville can be very discouraging at times. There are people who are way better than you that never get to be successful and there are people who are nowhere as good as you that will have more success than you ever dreamed you could have. But music is one of those things where it chooses you. You don’t choose to do music. I don’t have a choice, it’s the only thing I can possibly do.

I have song that’s a story about an alcoholic father and a man come up to me after a show crying and saying, “My father was an alcoholic and thank you for sharing this story.” It’s those moments that make everything worth it. You forget about all of the things that happened, all the negative words, all the tears. All that matters is that you touched someone’s life. That’s what music is all about

D.K. – In what way had your friendship impacted your experience in Nashville?

Brigetta – We were kind of lost. Finding these guys was the best thing ever for us – not only did we find people who supported us as people, but they make us better people, better writers.

It’s humbling to know there are people out there who still stand their ground. To me it motivates me want to be the better person and not to fall into those kinds of temptations a lot of my kids might fall into. We want to be the Tim Tebow of Country Music and always be someone who glorifies God in all that you do.

We just want to make country music great. That’s a big goal, but with the right people, with God, with the support of family and friends, anything is possible.

Briana – I’ve been coming back and forth here for years and I’ve never found friends where it’s not like a competition. With all of us, if one of us gets brought up in a conversation, the other ones get brought up. We support each other because we care for each other.

Coming up in Part 2:

Brett, Brigetta, Briana, and J.D. discuss living and working in Nashville, their accomplishments and inspiration, and what’s up next for them.

Confessions of a Theater Critic Part 2: The Lessons

theatre-426447_640

 

The new theater season is upon us, which means life is becoming even busier these days. Yet this annual return to the theater feeds my creative side and teaches me something new about the arts, the world and myself.

With my first review of the season under my belt, I take a deep breath and hang on to my pen and notepad! More productions will be on their way, which not only means a crazier schedule, but more opportunities to experience theater magic.

In honor of this magic, this week I share with you several thoughts generated from past theater experiences.

Lessons from the Footlights

  • An appreciation of farce. I’ve never been a fan of The Three Stooges, most Jim Carrey movies, or silly cartoons. Screams, slamming doors, and general silliness make me cringe. While it’s still not my favorite theater genre, I’ve experienced enough quality performances to develop respect for the razor sharp timing, on-stage chemistry between performers, and daring it takes to make farce work.
  • The show really must go on! Dedication, tenacity, sheer stubbornness – and a love of the stage, enable shows to continue despite a flu bug attacking a third of the cast, equipment failure, wardrobe malfunction, intense fatigue and personal crisis. Usually I hear about these after the fact. Yep, Prince Charming didn’t seem thrilled to kiss Cinderella because he had the flu and didn’t want to share the bug. But she raised her lips to his anyway! That’s commitment to the craft.
  • It’s natural to have favorite actors, but it’s also imperative – and possible – to be objective in a review. Yes, I smile when I see certain names among the cast list because I know they will add certain flair to the production, no matter the genre. But I still look at their performances with a critical eye. These are the actors who proved to me that it’s also possible to dislike the play but still be impressed by specific performances.
  • Don’t discount smaller theaters who manage to stage quality shows – albeit perhaps with less glitz and glamour – without a paid staff, fewer volunteers, and very little money. Often these theaters charge less for tickets, offering an unbeatable entertainment value.
  • Honesty is important. I wish I could give all performances a stellar review, but sometimes criticism is unavoidable. To give a great review to a mediocre performance not only undermines my credibility, but does a disservice to readers who look to reviews when determining where to spend their entertainment dollars.
  • Just as a reviewer won’t be enamored of every show, not all readers or actors will be thrilled with every review. I’ve seen snarky remarks on Facebook and not-so-kind letters to the editor in response to reviews. The silver lining is the thicker skin I’ve developed from reading them.

The “Shoe on the Other Foot” Thing

One particularly negative letter to the editor zinged me for, among other things, focusing only on the lead actors and not mentioning those in smaller roles. Although I did mention the designers in the review, the writer pointed out the importance of the stage manager and other technicians.

Point well taken.

My editor noticed an increase in the length of my reviews after she received that letter. I took a marked notice in smaller but well-played roles and highlighted the efforts of young actors. In musicals, I credited the music director and pit musicians.

Although I took awhile to admit it, I learned a lot from that letter.

It prepared me for life as an author in the Internet Age.

Just as I’m not wild about every performance I see, not everyone appreciates my books.

Negative book reviews can sting, but I don’t take them personally. The reviewer may not like my book, but he or she has no idea who I am as a person. I try to compare the book reviewer to my role as a theater critic: Just because I don’t appreciate an aspect of the play doesn’t invalidate the entire production.

I do, however, use negative book reviews as an opportunity to learn. While I don’t dwell on them, I DO consider negative comments and consider using them as tools to evaluate my writing and make it better.

Writing theater reviews has made me a stronger person, better writer and more appreciative theater patron, and for this I thank everyone who has been a part of a production I’ve reviewed.

Bravo!

 

Confessions of a Theater Critic: Part 1

empty theater

I didn’t set out to become a theater critic.

But thanks to a career-changing twist of fate, it’s become one of the most satisfying parts of my writing life.

In 1998, when I joined The Ledger, a daily newspaper based in Lakeland, Florida, I started as a part-time news clerk. My responsibilities included typing news briefs and producing daily crime maps for cities in our county. A few weeks later I was promoted to full-time news assistant. Eventually I made it to reporter.

This turned into a fulfilling and interesting 10-year career with the Ledger. I became a reporter with a focus on features and a love of the arts. Over the years I covered two municipalities, schools, churches, and my personal favorite: the arts. My love of the arts grew as did my reputation in the arts community.

Life was good.

At least it was until the economy tanked and the paper entered into several rounds of layoffs. I was axed in round two.

I was still reeling from my job loss when the paper’s theater critic resigned. Because of my experience writing about the arts community, I was asked to take over reviewing local community theater performances, something I couldn’t do as a staff writer who previewed theater shows.

I said yes. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Although I later returned to the Ledger Media Group for four more years, I was thrilled to be approached once again to review theater performances when I left the paper for good to write books. I’m blessed to continue serving the paper in this way.

Perks of Penning Reviews

I don’t do it for the money.

Yes, I get paid to review theater performances. But if you account for the time involved in traveling to a theater in a different city, watching the play, and writing the review, I barely clear minimum wage per piece. Add in gasoline costs and I probably make less than minimum wage.

But the intrinsic value is priceless.

Being a critic provides the means – admission with a press pass – and the motivation for me to experience theater I might not otherwise see. While I do take notes during performances, watching a play allows me to take a break from real life and go to another place and time for awhile – a sweet respite! We are blessed with four community theaters in Polk County and they’ve all made me laugh, cry, cringe, gasp, sing, dance up the aisle, and smile all the way home.

And I’ve met the most fascinating people. Theater folks may be quirky, but they’re anything but boring. If you need to find a different way of looking at the world, talk to anyone associated with the theater and you’ll receive some fascinating views. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and you’ll discover some of the coolest people on the planet.

A treasured memory: One producing director of a local theater emailed me after the publication of each review to thank me for my comments – whether the review was stellar or not. He always managed to pass along a bit of wisdom from his 44-year career. He retired at the end of last season. I’ll miss his emails. They had a huge impact on me as a reviewer, writer, and theater enthusiast.

Not Just Entertainment Fluff

When I signed on as a critic, I had no idea how seriously reviews were taken by the theater community. Had I realized this, the knowledge may have intimidated me out of the gig.

As they say, ignorance is euphoria – or something like that.

After recently chatting with a couple of local producing/managing theater directors and a number of patrons, I compiled a list of several ways theaters are impacted by reviews – good and bad. Reviews do the following:
• Give patrons an idea of whether or not they want to spend their precious time and money seeing the production
• Provide theaters marketing opportunities through posting reviews on websites and social media
• Offer well-deserved recognition for everyone who has spent long hours involved preparing, rehearsing, designing, and executing a production
• Affect audience turnout. A negative review may decrease the number of people in the audience while a positive review will most likely increase it.

Both patrons and thespians check newspapers for reviews in the days following opening night.

“To have our productions reviewed gives them the status and importance of all our endeavors and the immense value to our community’s overall cultural quality and quality of life we have come to expect here in Lakeland,” says Alan Reynolds, artistic and managing director for Lakeland Community Theatre.

Dan Chesnicka, an experienced actor who recently took the helm of Theatre Winter Haven as producing director, has experienced a shift in the way he sees reviews.

“I have a whole new view about what a reviewer is. It’s always had to do with ego as a performer,” he says. “Now it’s a tool I can share on social media. After a review, I write those thank you notes.”

Reviews, explains Chesnicka, hold the theater to a higher standard.

“It’s important to do good work and to have an honest evaluation. It has to be from an independent party,” he said. “The only way to get better is to know when you’re screwing up.”

Occasionally I’ll receive a note from actors thanking me for feedback. A memorable one was written by an actress who said she took my comments, i.e.: constructive criticism, to heart and was working on improving. While she couldn’t change the costuming issue, she did have the power to improve her stage presence. I saw huge growth in her acting the following season. Her email remains in my files.

I’ve been told my reviews have been included in grant applications resulting in funding. I’m pleased to know my work may in some small way help them continue providing quality theater experiences to our county.

The arts matter. I’m pleased to know my theater reviews do too.

Coming Soon in Part 2:

  • Lessons from the Footlights
  • The “Shoe on the Other Foot” Thing

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