Recently, as a new member of the Brunswick Rotary Club, I was asked to give what that organization calls a “classification talk.” This presentation, required of all new members, stemmed from an older tradition where the clubs tried to represent a cross-section of careers and businesses and to learn from their members what these professions entailed and how they impacted the community. Today, where membership is more open and less regulated in this way, the talk is more of a rite of passage – a self-portrait designed to get acquainted.
As I sat to write these remarks, I realized that my career paths had been remarkably fluid, beginning in one place and morphing through many changes – some brought about by personal circumstances and choices, others by the times and the serendipity of opportunities and events. The story I came to share was one of frequent reinvention, though ultimately, each new self represented another facet of my driving passions: communication and creativity.
I have been an arts journalist for almost thirty years, first in NYC and for the last decade in Maine (where I originally came to retire, but after a major sea change in my life, I decided to return to the work I had loved to find purpose.) So I am currently the Maine editor for Broadway World, a senior writer for Scene 4, and a regular columnist for the local newspaper, The Cryer. I also do some freelance projects for the professional regional theatre here in Brunswick, and I am a sometime novelist. Over the years I have written for a wide array of international publications about theatre, classical music, and I have also handled press from the artist’s side as well in a decade long stint working for operatic baritone, Thomas Hampson. I have an A.B. degree in liberal arts with a theatre concentration from Sarah Lawrence, an MA in English Literature and Journalism from Fairleigh
Dickinson, and I have taught and worked as an arts administrator, arts advocate, and as a writer.
So how did I get to where I am today? My late husband Greg used to say that I reinvented myself every 7-12 years. He was off on the numbers, but he was right about the re-imagining – though as I look back, I think there has been a definite cohesiveness and thread to the tapestry of the years. Shortly after college graduation, in the midst of the tumult of the 1960s, I took a job teaching English and Drama at Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood NJ. It had been my alma mater when it was the Dwight School, and it was a wonderful academic environment in which to cut my teeth in the classroom. I had never intended to become a teacher. I was going to be a set designer or a theatre director or go to Paris and take the art world by storm. And then, I met Greg and the insane events of that decade took over our young lives, and we needed jobs.
It turned out that I loved teaching, especially such motivated, creative students as I found there and later in Chicago where I became the Arts Department Head at Lake Forest Academy. That job not only allowed me to teach, but also to shape a very comprehensive arts curriculum in theatre, music, visual art, photography, and film. I, myself, taught AP English and Drama, Advanced Acting and Technical Theatre, and Art History, and I directed and designed three shows a year including the annual musical. Many of my former students went on to work in professional theatre or movies, and I still hear from them today. I also created and administered a series of community outreach programs that included a gallery, used for student and professional shows, a fine arts performance series held at the academy, and an annual arts festival. Moreover, I became an advocate for arts education, traveling throughout the country to
speak at conferences and gatherings.
As with all good things, however, it began to come to an end. There is an eternal battle in education about the place of the arts in high school curriculum, and I watched in dismay as slowly sports and budget cuts and other issues began to erode the work I had done. It became a question of losing faith and burning out and deciding to channel my experience and abilities toward something else where I could continue to make a difference.
And that something was writing. I have always been a writer, but until that point, what I wrote had been educational or academic in nature . I began to experiment with reviews and other arts-themed essays, and began sending them around with some success as a freelancer. In that period my husband and I moved back to the NYC metro area, and, after a few abortive and brief teaching stints in the city, with Greg’s support, I made the decision to give up the classroom altogether and try my luck as a fulltime freelance journalist. It was the late 1980s, and I had to my credit a large tome I had published - an academic study of Wagnerian tenors. It became my entre into classical music/opera writing gigs.
In the late 1980s and 1990s print magazines in the arts abounded. In opera alone there were six English language publications, and five or more foreign ones (in languages in which I could write) that were potential publishing markets. Within a very short time I was publishing numerous features, interviews, and reviews in magazines like Opera News, Op├ęra International, and Opernwelt I interviewed every major opera singer of the period including Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Ramey, Fleming…the list is endless!
And it was in the process of doing this that I did a long and especially candid conversation with the then heartthrob American baritone Thomas Hampson. He was exceptionally pleased with the piece, and when I had the occasion to interview him again a few months later, he was poised to make his Carnegie Hall debut. We got to talking about poets, Walt Whitman, and song literature. Before long I had agreed to help him program and research his debut recital. That project led to others and for the next ten years I worked as his “Personal Assistant” helping do research, liner notes, program notes, advance work for his concert tours, designing, writing, and producing radio and television projects such as his PBS Great Performances shows on American Song or Stephen Foster. It was the best education I could ever have received in how this business of the arts works on the highest
professional levels, and it was a chance to meet some of the movers and shakers in that world. I got to travel throughout the States and Europe; it was glamorous; it was thrilling, and after ten years it became exhausting.
It all came to an end when Hampson decided to do away with his American management team and to base himself more fully in Vienna. And as things sometimes happen serendipitously, that decision coincided with one my husband and I made about planning for a retirement to Maine a few years hence. In the interval while we built a house and prepared for the transition, I went back to freelance writing and a little teaching. In 2009 we moved to Brunswick with the intention of enjoying a quieter, more outdoorsy life. We got our first Newfoundland dog, and we had a ten-month idyll before my husband suffered a massive, fatal heart attack.
What followed for the next few years is, in many ways, a blur now. Suffice it to say it was a long and painful process – away from all my lifetime friends in NJ – to rebuild a solo life. But once again, it was writing which helped to rescue me. This time, I started with a burning desire to tell Greg’s and my story, and I wrote my first screenplay and subsequent novel Raising Rufus. The screenplay won the RI Film Festival but never actually made it to the screen – an experience that convinced me to stick to novels. Since then I have published a second novella and three collections of short stories and am working on a fourth.
As I was finding my voice again and my pleasure in writing fiction, I decided to return to the journalism that had been my career. While there is very little opera in Maine, there is a rich theatre scene (and visual arts one). Slowly, I made the contacts necessary to work actively as a freelancer again, beginning with the opportunity Scene 4 Magazine offered me to become a regular contributor.
Journalism today is very different from what it was when I got my degree in the late 1970s, so once again, I had to reinvent myself and the way I worked. Broadway World is an excellent example of those changes and, it also embodies, I believe, the best of what the digital age has done to communications and news. Even the remaining print publications – of necessity - maintain digital and social media platforms. Wisely done, written word, video, audio, and media can all be effectively integrated, and a seemingly elusive online presence like that of Broadway World can find tangible voices and partnerships within the communities it serves. For example, five years ago I was invited to moderate Maine State Music Theatre’s Peek Behind the Curtain Series – panel discussions with the casts and creative of their productions, and
that program has been a rich collaboration for the entire community.
Digital delivery of content, of course, has had a huge impact on not only news, but even on feature writing and reviewing. Deadlines have always been part of a journalist’s job, but online content means stories need to go up faster than ever - I sometimes stay up into the wee hours to deliver a review because I know our New York editor likes to be first out and also because the value of the piece for the theatre diminishes as time goes by. One needs to have more high quality visuals – not only stills, but preferably video clips, as well. The journalist has to be his own fact checker, as in most cases (or at least at my level), I have clearance to post directly, and he/she has to be computer savvy enough to navigate the various magazine posting softwares (which can sometimes leave you screaming at the computer.)
But perhaps more than these practical changes for the journalist, there are perceptual changes that color the writer’s job and mission. In this age of social media, where everyone can take to Facebook or Twitter to express opinions, a professional journalist has to offer something more than just opinion - likes and dislikes. He has to inform, to educate, to analyze, and where appropriate to shape intelligent discourse that promotes the arts, in general, and, if the work or the organization merits it, supports that work.
In the old days when I began as a reviewer, critics were largely seen as adversaries and interaction with theatres/producing groups was negligible. Of necessity all that has changed, and I believe for the better. Today the arts are perhaps more challenged than ever by economic and political realities. The battle to get out the word has increasingly become a collaborative one between artists, arts entities, and writers, who all see themselves in this together, all fighting to make sure the arts we believe in and love – not to mention our jobs – get a fighting chance to survive. And in this once unthinkable alliance, there can be some slippery slopes to navigate, but there also can be numerous rewards.
The subject of ethics and changing ethics in journalism is a whole other chapter. But I think a few rules hold for me as I cover the theatre scene here in Maine. I try to be as balanced and analytical as I can be in assessing a production; I always maintain civility of discourse, and I start from the premise that I am an ally not an adversary. That does not mean I abandon judgment, but I see criticism as a way of helping a theatre take a fresh look at what they are doing or reinforcing what they are doing right and giving them the tools to go on and do even more and better.
The theatre scene in Maine is amazingly rich. Coming from NYC as I do and having traveled extensively, I can say without hyperbole that the breadth and diversity of the state’s companies and the work they do is inspiring. We are fortunate to have two of the nation’s finest professional musical theatres – Maine State Music Theatre and Ogunquit Playhouse - and here in Brunswick, we are especially blessed to be enjoying the renaissance that MSMT has launched. This company holds a special place in my heart not only because of the unparalleled excellence of their work, but because of the theatre’s commitment to reaching out into the community, nurturing young artists, and throwing its entire heart and soul into building a better future for the arts throughout Maine and beyond.
And so when I get the opportunity to be part of that in some helpful way that utilizes my experience – as a writer or as a filmmaker or a panel moderator – I am thrilled to contribute that – both as a person (and volunteer) and as a professional.
Theatre and all the arts enrich the lives they touch They nurture the imagination, creative and critical thinking; they entertain and uplift, and they teach and challenge. The arts build community cohesiveness in intrapersonal and economic ways, and they make the quality of life better for everyone.
As a journalist covering the arts, I am honored to be able to share in an artist’s journey – albeit as an observer, but then, hopefully, also as a vehicle for communicating the artist’s message. I count myself lucky to be able to receive from performances and interviews insight into the creative process I value so much and to have artists share with me the inspirations that inform their work. When I can and when I believe deeply in an artist or organization, I want to use my gifts – in this case writing – to communicate the magic of what the artist does. I want to help build audiences and to get the message out that theatre – or music or visual art – is a great and transforming gift that makes everyone’s lives richer.