BY CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
Recently, Aisle Say Twin Cities lost the second of its two founding members as life pulled them in different directions. Sophie Kerman announced that she was moving on in her last post, a review of the Ivey Awards. Anna Rosensweig left us in 2012 to complete her Ph.D. and begin postdoctoral work at USC. In a poignant final paragraph in her Ivey review, Sophie said:
“My time at Aisle Say started in January of 2011 with my friend and (at the time) fellow grad student Anna Rosensweig. Since then, our little engine that could has gained a regular readership and earned its place among local arts criticism – and I am so grateful to all of the readers who have supported our work. I look forward to all the places it will go as Liz (Byron) leads it into its new era, and thank you all for reading, thinking, and caring about local theater!”
Since 2011, Aisle Say Twin Cities has increased it readership from a handful of mostly friends and colleagues to recent high of over a thousand views across the social media landscape, which includes Facebook and Twitter. The number of bloggers also grew to an additional seven regular and guest reviewers. My own journey with Aisle Say Twin Cities began as a guest of Anna’s to see Ten Thousand Things perform Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” The uniquely immediate theater experience and Anna’s spot-on review challenged me to accept her invitation to join the blog and to broaden my theater expertise. Here is a sample of Anna’s review:
“It’s often thought that instances of theater within theater function as commentaries on the power of theater itself to move, seduce, or convince. In other words, successful pretending within a play’s story also calls attention to the play’s ability to make us believe in its artifice. By so effectively staging how customs and identities are formed and tested through pretending, Ten Thousand Things proves once again that theater can be convincing, captivating, and highly amusing.”
As Sophie and Anna passed the torch to Liz Byron and the rest of us, we wanted to pause to pay tribute to these two remarkably talented and dedicated theater-lovers. Their reviews have inspired us with their intellectual breadth, insight, humor and passion. I asked Sophie and Anna a few general questions, mostly to learn a secret or two, and to leave a living, virtual legacy of their time with Aisle Say Twin Cities.
What led you to start the blog?
Sophie: Anna and I started the blog in 2011, after writing for Aisle Say for a few months. We realized that the main Aisle Say website, which is based in New York, didn’t have much a local readership, and our reviews were sometimes published after the shows had already closed in the Twin Cities. So to try to build a stronger connection with the local community, we decided to run Aisle Say Twin Cities directly from our own site and work harder to publicize our reviews on social media.
What have you enjoyed the most/least about the blog?
Sophie: I love the opportunity to see shows that I wouldn’t ordinarily see, and the fact that the press tickets are free means I’ve felt freer to take risks and see things I wasn’t sure were going to be any good.
Anna: Similarly, I feel like I wound up seeing productions that I wouldn’t normally have seen. More than anything, the blog allowed me to get exposure to a really broad range of plays and production styles. I’d never seen any puppetry before covering shows at Open Eye and In the Heart of the Beast, for example. I knew that Minneapolis and Saint Paul were great theater towns before writing for Aisle Say, but I had no idea just how much was going on and the great variety to be found.
Have you noticed any changes in the state of theater in the Cities from then now? Any changes in the theater criticism space?
Sophie: There is a lot of theater, and a lot of theater criticism – both by paid and unpaid reviewers and bloggers. I love that we celebrate the quantity of theater that gets produced here, but I also wish that more of our many reviewers would take a firmer stand on what kinds of theater they want to see. Criticism isn’t just for audiences looking for a good show; theater companies also read reviews for insight on how their work is being perceived. I continually wish for more critical dialogue.
Anna: I only wrote for a year or so (2011-12) so I didn’t notice too many big shifts during that time.
If you were given three wishes by the theater genie, what would they be (what would you change)?
Sophie: More funding and audience support for small theater companies trying to push artistically and create more challenging, high-quality theater. That’s just one wish, but it’s probably big enough to count for three.
Anna: Only three? Can I have Sophie’s remaining two? Hmm, I guess my three would be 1) More long-term residencies for playwrights and artists to develop new work. 2) More productions written, directed, and performed by women and people of color. 3) More cultivation of what I guess one would call “non-traditional” theater audiences. I love the “Radical Hospitality” program that Mixed Blood has developed. And Ten Thousand Things has long been taking its brilliant work to correctional facilities so that inmates can have access to excellent theater. It would be great to be able to develop and support more programs like those.
How do you personally choose plays to review?
Sophie: Anything that has the potential to surprise me: whether a new adaptation of an old play, or a world or regional premiere, or a production that is taking risks as far as their staging or subject matter. I want to be entertained by the theater I see, but also inspired or challenged.
Anna: I liked reviewing just about anything. I have a particular interest in tragedy, I suppose, so anything tragic was right up my alley. I also was really drawn to productions in unusual or unconventional venues. Mixed Precipitation does a fantastic picnic operetta in the summer, which tours around community gardens. Savage Umbrella did a production in the old Hollywood Theater a few years ago. And, I didn’t get a chance to attend, because I no longer live in Minneapolis, but I heard that there was recently a traveling production based around the Green Line. I would have really liked to see that.
How do you choose your reviewers?
Sophie: I am most interested in reading reviews with a clear point of view, who do more than just summarize the show. Any thought about the artistic or ideological success of a piece of art is a potentially valuable contribution to the conversation.
Any words of wisdom to potential bloggers/your successors?
Sophie: Don’t be afraid to be unpopular or write a negative review, as long as you have thoughtful standards and genuinely constructive feedback. I never get words of thanks for a positive review, but I have received some incredibly kind emails from directors whose shows I have given polite negative reviews to.
Anna: I think it’s important to be mindful of one’s own expectations and how they are necessarily shaping your experience of the work. I don’t think it’s possible — or even desirable — to remove these expectations, but it’s good to be aware of them.
In closing, I found these lyrics from “For Good” especially fitting as we wish Sophie and Anna a fond farewell — please don’t be strangers and we miss you already:
“I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led to those who help us most to grow
If we let them and we help them in return.”
― Stephen Schwartz, Wicked