Why am I a theatre critic? Good question. I am a theatre aficionado who has been going to see stage plays and musicals all my life. My grandmother and uncle took me to see Mary Martin in when I was 11 years old. I’ve been ‘hooked’ ever since. I truly believe that ‘I’ll never Grow Up.’
Each year during my youth, Uncle Dave would take me to New York to see the Broadway shows. We would see 7 or 8 shows from Wednesday through Sunday. It was a glorious annual event. I still do a ‘Mecca’ to the Big Apple occasionally. I have had the pleasure of seeing many theatre icons perform such as Rex Harrison, ( ), Ethel Merman (Annie Get Your Gun) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). I could make a long list of the ‘greats’ I have witnessed. Thanks Uncle Dave!
Over the years, I have exposed my friends to the joys of the stage and became a ‘theatre advisor’ to my blue collar Northwest Side Chicago friends. They were never quite sure which play or musical to see, so they’d call me. I would tell them which show to see and why they should go. When we were in the dating age, I explained that a way to a girl’s heart was through a romantic Rodgers & Hammerstein or show. I got many “Thank you Tom, that show really worked” messages!
I have written some theatre and I have produced and directed a couple of revues in South Florida. (I even was an actor performing in two very forgettable shows). These experiences gave me respect for the efforts of all involved in the performing arts. That’s why I go to a show looking for the good. I empathize and I secretly cheer for the actors and the playwright. My respect for those who dare to expose themselves live on stage is enormous. My regard for the written word leaves me to like almost any show that is written with care and craft.
I advise people to be extremely open-minded and just let a show into their hearts and minds. If they do that, most theatrical works will entertain and enlighten them. It works. Try it.
So when I had the opportunity to become a published professional theatre critic, I jumped at the chance to have my opinions read. Wow! How cool! I want to thank Tony Prieto, the owner and publisher of theVoice for having the faith in me to entrust theatre reviews to a beginner.
I am indebted to Jonathan Abarbanel for letting me attend the American Theatre Critics Annual Conference last June in Chicago where I got to meet many of the most respected critics in America. I learned more about theatre and how to analyze it during that week than a lifetime of study would have revealed. Thanks to all.
The lights turned on for me after seeing a lousy play when a critic asked me what I thought. When my analysis was finished, another well-known New York critic joined us and was asked the same question. Amazingly, the NYC critic used almost the exact words I used to pan the terrible show we all witnessed.
That’s when I realized that I’m not too far off with my opinions. I also knew that my knowledge of theatre was adequate if I continued to learn the craft of the theatre critic. I guess I learned what the elements of theatre should be by seeing the great shows performed by the great actors of our time. An argument for high standards. Those hundreds of shows did teach me some things. Reading the classic plays, listening to soundtracks from musicals and viewing the tapes of the MGMof the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s helped round out my theatrical references. Today, so much theatre is recorded on tape that one only has to drop in a cassette to learn about theatre.
Although the above helps, there is no substitute for the dynamics of a live show. I believe it is the ultimate storytelling form. The power and intimacy of the stage can never be duplicated on film or TV. The connection an actor makes with an audience is unique and transfixing. The power of subtly and nuance carries more weight in a live performance. I cherish being part of a fine performance and I strongly desire to share my experience with everyone I come into contact with. Now I have a platform to ‘preach’ theatre to a large audience.
It is one of my goals as a critic to get people to experience the joys of the stage. I want to get young people to get into the habit of seeing theatre. There are too many white hairs in today’s theatre audiences. Knowledge is power if you reach the proper audience. If I can help someone choose a play to see this week, then I’ve done my job.
My role is to help those new to the theatre sift through the maze of plays being offered in Chicago so that they can find one that has a chance to entertain them. I want them to go and I give them a reason. I’ll always tell you in personal concrete terms why I think a play has or hasn’t enough merits to warrant your time and money. You’ll always know my personal biases in order to understand how I arrive at my conclusions.
Checkout my feature article, The Rules For Enjoying www.chicagocritic.com ) is my attempt to offer guidance and information so you can pick the plays that suit your taste. I appreciate your opinions and feedback. Send me an email or give me a call to let me know if I have been any value to you in your search for shows to see. From time to time, I take people with me to see a show. Send me an email and sign up for my newsletter and let me know what kind of shows you’d like to see and your availability. I do invite subscribers to see shows with me. Let me know…and…see a play this week!to gain some insight on my philosophy of theatre. This website (
Play Time: A Night At The Theatre
Give the TV a break this holiday season and take the family to a show…
By Bryan Schatz
Posted December 29, 2011
Now is the time to discover the joy of theatre, as great holiday shows are playing in cities all throughout the nation. It’s a unique and communal affair, getting you out of the house—and off the couch—when the weather turns sour.
“I don’t think there is any other media that has electricity between the audience and the actors like theatre,” says Tom Williams, an eleven-year veteran of theatre criticism at Chicago Critic. “Between the acting and the lighting and the sound, it creates something that can only be done live. You can’t get that on film.”
Enjoying an evening at the theatre is easy, but Williams knows how to augment the experience. “Read about the shows,” he says. “If you expect something different and you’re disappointed, that can taint you even if what you saw was a great production.”
It can be fun to read the script beforehand too. “Have a read of the play to tune into the language so that your ear can catch it, and then you can really enjoy it.”
The theatre is also a place to observe common courtesy. Make sure you arrive on time with your cell phone off. It’s not a place to snack, says Williams. Food wrappers and eating can be distracting to those around you, not least the performers. In that same light, do your best to avoid getting up except during scheduled intermissions.
“When you do all that you’re going to really like the experience,” says Williams. “I think theatre and entertainment and storytelling are human needs just like the need for water, food and sleep. Sharing the communal experience—that’s what living is about, and I think theatre is a part of that.”
Spotlight on Tom Williams, Theatre Critic
Posted by Dorothy Jagonase, Friday, July 11 2008
One day soon, Tom Williams will have his way and every Chicagoan will see a play weekly.
“Go See A Play This Week!” his website, http://www.chicagocritic.com/, commands. “Go See A Play This Week!,” the signature on his e-mail urges me as he graciously accepted my request for a phone interview. With the help of his theatre reviews, people will have no trouble following his directive.
Williams sees approximately 300 shows each year. Since May, 2002, he has published 1,579 reviews on his website, which has become one of the most well-respected sources of theatre reviews in Chicago. He writes each one with the clear purpose of helping people determine what shows they would enjoy, which ones are worth their time and money. “I am a theatre lover who’s a consumer advocate,” he describes himself.
The consumer advocacy is clear in his reviews; he examines all aspects of the show that a theatre goer might need to decide whether or not to see it. “I try to mention the actors, the set design, the costumes, the lighting. Then I describe what the play is about and how well they do it,” he said.
Some theatre critics build their careers and reputations skewering actors and playwrights. Not Williams. As a former actor himself, he appreciates the work and the effort that goes into theatre performances. “I am pro-theatre. I go to plays expecting them to be good,” he explains. Which is contrary to other critics’ practices, “I can tell you the reviews of some critics before the they even see a show. The shows didn’t even get a chance. Would you pay $50 for a ticket knowing that it’s going to be bad?”
Not all reviews are glowing praises, however. Williams will write his opinion of the show without any sugarcoating. “You have to be honest,” he advises.
Williams also insist in revealing his personal biases to his readers from the get-go. Williams, who does not like rock musicals (“The music is too loud. The actors have to shout at each other.”), takes into account the audience’s reactions and makes sure to include that in his review. Despite his own dislike for rock musicals, he will let you know how the rest of the crowd likes it.
Williams’ critical eye comes from a life-long love of theatre. He was “hooked” after he saw Mary Martin in Peter Pan when he was 11 years old. After years of watching shows thereafter, he started advising his friends on what shows they should and should not see. His chance to become a formal theatre critic came at an opportune moment when Tony Prieto, the owner and publisher of The Wicker Park Voice, asked if he knew anyone who wanted to be a theatre reviewer. Within a month, Williams wrote his first review.
Lack of funding eventually reduced the amount of space The Wicker Park Voice could give to theatre reviews, and Williams’ readers noticed and began asking for more. Williams complied by creating www.chicagocritic.com. “I wanted to write reviews on a more timely basis and build up a readership,” he explained.
And he did. A rough estimate on quantcast.com, a new media measurement service, states that approximately 6,763 people visit his site each month. His reviews are so timely that I have had to change the number of reviews published three times during the course of writing this article. In addition to his website, Williams’ also hosts podcast for Talk Theatre In Chicago, where he interviews various members of Chicago’s theatre community.
Williams has seen Chicago theatre evolve throughout the years,”More and more kids are migrating to Chicago to start companies. It has become an incubator for new talent and theatre groups.” With more and more shows to see in Chicago, and with Tom Williams’ reviews, everyone should easily be able to see a play this week.
Lifelong Theater Fan Spreads Magic Onstage
By Max A. Herman
(Article published in Chicago Arts and Entertainment Newspaper 1/2/03)
“I’m going to help (you) sift through the 50 shows that are showing on any given day,” said theater critic Tom Williams. Going to plays nearly every night gives Williams the chance to call each production just how he sees it, yet objectively.
“I try to go in there like a naive, golly-gee-whiz hick with a piece of corn stuck in my teeth,” said the matter-of-fact Williams. “Really, just go there and absorb it. If people do that, they’ll find that most theater will entertain them.” Williams isn’t going to lie. He has his biases, just like everyone else. He may not be able to stand rock music in a production, but what sets Williams apart from the crowd is that he’ll let you know his biases from the get-go. “Some critics say that you should just talk technically and let the people make up their mind – I say no,” Williams said. “I take it real personal. If people read my site, they’ll get to know my biases.”
The site he’s referring to is his independent enterprise www.chicagocritic.com, which receives nearly 805 visitors per day. Here, he provides comprehensive and upfront reviews of nearly every show this city has to offer. Williams isn’t quite making a living off of the site yet, but he has so many deals in the works that this could very well become a reality.
With his online platform, Williams aims to be more than informative – he wants to be an adviser.
“People want to be led,” Williams said. “Sometimes people go, ‘You didn’t like the show, but guess what? You were wrong.’ You know how I am to that? I tell them ‘Thank you. You went to see the show.’ That’s my goal.” Even before he became an official critic, Williams let his blue-collar Northwest Side friends know what shows were worth heading downtown for.
Today, Williams takes along a variety of acquaintances to every production he attends. In fact, Williams spoke of how he once took a 21-year-old rock musician, new to theater, to a production and he flat-out loved it. This is one of Williams’ many success stories. He wants to convert you, too.
Since experiencing his first play, Peter Pan, at age 11, Williams has been entranced by the magic that can be formulated on stage. And thanks to the editor of the Wicker Park Voice, this grown-up theater enthusiast was given a chance to put his opinion on paper. When Williams was able to talk the editor into flying him to a theater critic’s association convention in New York, he was reassured that he knew what he was talking about when it came to theater
After seeing a bomb of a production, Williams and his fellow critics were waiting for the bus when post-show conversation was ignited. In the crowd were critics from.publications such as The New York Times who didn’t realize Williams was a rookie. So Williams proceeded to give a five-minute shtick about why this show didn’t work. As it turned out, they all agreed with him.
“They went, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ The New York Times critic and one from the New Yorker, I believe, came and joined us on the bus,” recalled Williams. “And the guy asked the New York critic what he thought. He said almost word for word what I said. And this was a guy who’s been doing it for, like, 25 years. It was pretty obvious this show was bad, but he had the exact little comments that I had. He had no way of hearing what we said ’cause he was outside.”
Williams said that during the conference he realized that he could blend in with the best of them. What I had learned from years of going to shows was that I wasn’t too far off,” said Williams. How’s that for a self-trained critic? Williams now plans to do a radio show which would include interviews and contrary opinions – slightly similar to Siskel and Ebert, but without all of the arguing, said Williams. You may see Williams on TV and in print soon, as well. For now, make sure to log on at www.chicagocritic.com Remember, Williams is so insistent on you going and seeing a good show that he might even take you along.