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TBA Online: News & Features: March 2016

Robert Hurwitt to Retire from the San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, March 07, 2016   (0 Comments)
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by Lily Janiak


On April 1, Robert Hurwitt will retire from the San Francisco Chronicle, where he has served as theatre critic since 2000. He leaves behind a legacy of almost 40 years of Bay Area theatre criticism, having first started writing about the arts (and other subjects) for underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb in the late ‘70s, then moving to the East Bay Express in 1979, eventually becoming lead theatre critic at San Francisco Examiner in 1992.

Chad Jones, Karen D'Souza, Rob Hurwitt, Richard Dodds and Robert Avila at the 2004 Theatre Critics Association Conference. Photo: Courtesy of Chad Jones

His retirement marks the end of an era.

Rob has been a powerful, dedicated champion of Bay Area theatre throughout his career,” says TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley. “His attention to TheatreWorks in our early years was critical to the growth of the company. He has worked tirelessly to include the entire Bay Area in his criticism, and his commitment to supporting new work has been vital in the development of our region as one of the country’s great centers for the birth of new theatre. I consider him a hero of the theatre here in the Bay Area.”

If he’s a hero, that’s because he’s had formidable obstacles. “Rob Hurwitt has fought the good fight to keep theatre central to the San Francisco Chronicle’s arts pages,” says American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff. “As the theatre scene in the Bay Area has grown and expanded, it’s been increasingly difficult for everything to get covered. Rob has consistently tried to write about as many kinds and sizes of theatre as possible and to support work at many different stages of development and from many different genres. The Bay Area has more robust theatre criticism than many other American cities, and we owe a lot of that to the tenacity and passion of Rob Hurwitt.” 

Rob’s editor David Wiegand confirms that the Chronicle intends to keep the position full-time after Rob retires and that the search for a replacement is national in scope: “While I would like to have someone ready to just jump in when Rob retires, this job is too important for me to rush to fill it right away,” he writes.

What’ll be impossible to replace is the sense of history Hurwitt brings to the job, history not just known but often witnessed—and, in some cases, made.

Hurwitt grew up largely in and around New York City, with all kinds of arts at his fingertips. He got hooked on theatre after seeing an off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera while on a high-school date. He explains, “This was the ‘50s. This was the period of conformity and McCarthyism and all of the repression that went with McCarthyism—‘You can’t say that; you can’t say this.’ I sat there as a kid thinking, ‘I didn’t know you could say that—onstage! I didn’t know you could think that!’ I was blown away. My date was rigid in her seat and never spoke to me again. But somehow that didn’t matter because I had found much greater passion. The theatre was more than just fun; it involved your whole heart and mind at the same time. It could be just overwhelming and mind-bending.”

In addition to the arts, Hurwitt’s childhood was also steeped in far-left politics. During the McCarthy era, his mother was a member of the Communist Party, with many friends blacklisted. Hurwitt remembers an FBI agent coming to his home to ask questions; he had to be careful on the phone not to divulge whether his parents were in or out of the house, lest someone were eavesdropping.

As an adult, Hurwitt found his own brand of progressivism. He journeyed to Louisiana in the summer of 1964 as part of the Congress on Racial Equality and participated in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. Later, those politics would inflect his criticism—more prominently when he had more column inches, but they continue to do so today, particularly in what he chooses to cover, making sure that women, artists of color and small theatre companies get ink.

After graduating from NYU in ‘64, Hurwitt moved to the Bay Area, partly to pursue a Master’s in English at UC Berkeley, partly to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. He was just in time to witness the beginnings of great theatrical experimentation that would lead eventually to the founding of American Conservatory Theater, and, thereafter, the Magic Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Hurwitt emphasizes that, in the mid-’60s, there was very little theatre in San Francisco; mostly touring commercial productions, as well as the Actors Workshop and San Francisco Mime Troupe, of which Hurwitt was briefly a part. He understudied The Minstrel Show or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, acted in and directed in-house shows and performed in one summer production, The Miser. 

Hurwitt, far right, in San Francisco Mime Troupe's The Miser, 1966. Photo from The San Francisco Mime Troupe: The First Ten Years by R.G. Davis. Shared with permission of San Francisco Mime Troupe.

His path from there to theatre criticism was erratic, with pit stops in dishwashing, carpentry, house-painting, bartending, teaching English, private investigating (!), theatre managing and publishing. That last profession took him partly on the road for seven years, meaning he missed key theatrical events in the Bay Area, such as the arrival of Sam Shepard. “I started off as a critic thinking I had an enormous amount of catching up to do, which means a lot of learning,” Hurwitt remembers. “I found it was very exciting to treat criticism as learning, as a constant education that I’m getting and that I’m sharing. I’m saying, ‘Hey, look what I found here!’”

One person with whom Rob Hurwitt shared that constant education is his son and fellow theatre critic, Sam Hurwitt. “When I want to know if a particular play or playwright has been produced in the area before, and where, he’s the one I ask,” Sam says. “And sure, in some ways that’s simply a function of the decades that he’s spent seeing shows, but it’s more than that. For one thing it goes back farther than his years as a critic, back to all the theatre he saw growing up in New York, and the theatre he did during his time as an actor. But for another thing, he’s really studied this stuff, whether it was as a grad student in the English program at Cal or simply through all the research he does preparing to review a show. And it’s not just a question of knowledge either. It’s the decades he’s spent thinking about theatre, and thinking deeply about it, that gives a depth, nuance and evenhandedness to his writing that I can only aspire toward.”

In those decades thinking about theatre, Hurwitt has of course survived many sea changes—most for the worse—in journalism. He’s seen his word count shrink from, at the East Bay Express, “whatever it takes to say whatever needs to be said” (which averaged approximately 2,000 words), to, today, about a third of that. He’s also seen almost all of his fellow local critics’ jobs disappear. At present, Karen D’Souza at the San Jose Mercury News is the only other full-time theatre critic at a daily paper in the Bay Area, but she covers other subjects in addition to theatre.

One especially acute defeat for Hurwitt was when Berkeley Rep opened the then-newly constructed Roda Theatre with The Oresteia trilogy, helmed by two directors, in 2001. “I thought this was a story that needed a good 30 inches,” Hurwitt says. “I was given 14, which includes dealing with the fact that you’re covering a brand new theatre.” Today, Hurwitt looks back on that time as a moment when he “gave up” his campaign for more coverage.

Yet Hurwitt takes a positive and professional attitude toward these cuts. “I think I did a lot of my best writing then, because the somewhat tighter space made me hone what I was doing.” At the same time, he recognizes all that he’s had to leave out. “Whenever you’re writing a review, there’s always a great mass of stuff that you can’t get in. The smaller the space, the harder those choices become. You’ll also get directives like, ‘There are too many names in your piece, so you can no longer credit the lighting designer or the costume designer or the set designer.’ But sometimes the set is the most important thing you need to talk about!”

Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone likens Hurwitt’s cuts to “being handcuffed, literally. He’s got a big epic play in front of him, and he’s got a few hundred words. It’s not enough. At that point it’s paint-by-numbers.”

Taccone’s and Hurwitt’s careers have grown in tandem; Hurwitt started writing reviews at about the time Taccone left graduate school, and some of Hurwitt’s early pieces were pivotal for Taccone both professionally and intellectually. “He’d write these reviews that were essays,” Taccone says. “It was so clear that he was a student of the art form, a student of the field. His knowledge of the work gave a sense of history to his reviews. It was not just, ‘Did I like it, or did not I not like it?’ That was one of his least favorite things to talk about.” Taccone particularly remembers Hurwitt’s discussions of Eureka Theatre productions of plays by Athol Fugard, Caryl Churchill and Dario Fo. Hurwitt’s incisive dissections of those plays, Taccone says, “were legendary for me. He taught me how to look at the work in some ways.

“He championed work that was political and intellectual,” Taccone continues. “He was not afraid of ideas. Now, in so many ways, the culture is anti-intellectual. It’s become a rare thing when a critic dares to be a man of letters, which is what the job is supposed to be. And that’s what he did.”

If it’s difficult to be a man of letters when he barely has enough space in which to type them, Hurwitt has made creative use of scarce resources. Marin Theatre Company artistic director Jasson Minadakis praises how Hurwitt often mentions as many different local theatre companies as possible in a single feature about a particular artist. For Minadakis, that’s part of Hurwitt’s concern for the overall Bay Area theatre ecology—which means covering a wide variety of companies in terms of size and geography, and also grounding each review in his understanding of where the company is in the overall Bay Area theatre scene. Minadakis especially appreciates what Hurwitt’s coverage of certain actors has done for all of Bay Area theatre: “Julia Brothers, Arwen Anderson, Rod Gnapp, Carrie Paff, Charlie Robinson, Craig Marker, Nick Pelczar, Margo Hall—these are all artists who every theatre company in the Bay Area depends on. They are very seasoned actors Rob has paid particular attention to. No critic has the power to make an artist be able to live without having to do other sorts of things, but he never shied away from letting readers know which artists they need to follow.” That coverage, Minadakis says, “helped smaller companies leverage the work they were doing. Rob always made a comment that it was great to see an artist working with a small company, and that wasn’t something he had to do.

“We all struggle to make it possible for actors to work at all these different theatres,” Minadakis adds—for instance, with one company bending its rehearsal schedule to accommodate another’s performance run, to make sure a coveted performer can get enough work to stay in the Bay Area. “Rob,” Minadakis says, “worked right into that as well.”

Playwright Christopher Chen says that Hurwitt’s work has helped him in similar ways, especially with Hurwitt’s laudatory review of The Hundred Flowers Project, at Crowded Fire Theater Company. “By championing an early work that was very ambitious, probably overly so, he implicitly signaled to me that there was room in the Bay Area for trying new things,” Chen says. “I think that emboldened me to do just that: I’ve pushed myself ever since, and have been grateful for a continuous dialogue with him as I’ve experimented with new genres and styles and explored deeper themes.

“Two sentences I really appreciate from his review,” Chen continues, “are: ‘Flowers’ revels in a mixed-media meta-theatricality that unfolds its unexpected twists with sharp clarity. As the live and onscreen action spins out of control, Chen and director Desdemona Chiang keep the themes and possible plots fully accessible.” Clarity and accessibility were in fact things that Desdemona and I—and everyone involved, in fact—worked hard on. Yet these nuts and bolts rarely get cited as virtues. The fact that he singled them out as important—in a very complicated and dense work—indicates he really understands and respects the craft and challenges that go into a play. I think it’s partly because of those two sentences that I’ve consciously elevated clarity and communication as top values in my writing ever since. They’ve been important guides that have allowed me to take on progressively more difficult material.”

Sam Shepard, Loretta Greco and Rob Hurwitt at Magic Theatre's An Evening With Sam. Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Today, at the Chronicle, in addition to being allotted fewer words, Hurwitt also has to cover work by many of the larger companies at the expense of the smaller ones who might be pioneering the same sorts of innovations that, decades ago, he would have been able to celebrate at length. Yet among leaders and artists at small companies there is broad recognition that Hurwitt did excellent work at an impossible job. Both Custom Made Theatre Company artistic director Brian Katz and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company founding artistic director (and veteran actor) Lily Tung Crystal appreciate how Hurwitt has helped their small companies get other kinds of coverage—even just a photo—when he can’t review their shows.
“For a company my size, this is everything, and it gives us a presence next to the bigger houses,” says Katz. Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda notes, “Rob has always shown up to review my works, no matter how small or out of the way the venues, or obscure the material might be or have been.” And for Exit Theatre artistic director Christina Augello, “Rob has always been very supportive of the Exit, the SF Fringe and the indie theatre community. I’m amazed at how much he has accomplished as a single reviewer with limited space and have always seen him as a dedicated partner in our work here in the Bay Area.”

Valiant as Hurwitt’s efforts have been, there’s no getting around the defining problem of his late career: that he is just one person doing the job of, as he estimates, at least two and a half people—a problem further complicated by his age, race and gender. For Lily Tung Crystal, the issue is not with Hurwitt as an individual critic but rather with the fact that so many Bay Area theatre writers (including freelancers and bloggers) are older white men.

“Theatre criticism is most vibrant when there are a multitude of voices,” she says. “There need to be more women critics, and there need to be more critics of color. We all come into theatre with our own culture, our background, our life experience, and when there’s only one type of critic, it doesn’t make for robust and fair coverage of theatre.”

For now, it seems unlikely that another media outlet will help diversify the profession by hiring another full-timer. As Rob Avila, theatre critic of the late San Francisco Bay Guardian, says, “The fact that there’s no living wage outside the Chron in theatre criticism means you can’t find serious criticism because you can’t find serious people to be theatre critics.

“Nobody wants to take responsibility for it,” he continues. “We haven’t figured it out, and somebody has to. You go to the usual suspects: Is it foundations? Government? Maybe the theatres themselves should pool money together? The fact is, the ball has been tossed, and nobody is picking it up.”

As for Hurwitt, Avila says, “he’s a longtime newspaperman. I’ve always admired the way he can go straight from an opening night back to his office and bang out 800 to 1000 words and have it be cogent and clear and ready to go out the next morning. He exudes that old-fashioned, romantic newspaper vibe. He always wore it well, and he wore it lightly. He was never pretentious about it. He was exactly where he was supposed to be.”

Lily Janiak is development manager at New Conservatory Theatre Center.