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Reminiscence from a reviled theater critic

'If there are still some bad feelings out there after all these years then, damn, you've got to learn to let go'



I became a theater critic for the Reader in 1987. I had come to Chicago from Atlanta, where I wrote for the weekly there, Creative Loafing. I was hated and feared in Atlanta theater circles. I was a scourge. One of my editors said that he didn't know if I was a gifted critic or just really good at insulting people. There were lots of irate letters to the editor. It was the heyday of the unvarnished polemic.

But our publisher wasn't as amused as the rest of us. After that, "The Loaf," as we called it, degenerated into something less freshly pinched. It was clogged with sleazy ads for phone sex and house-call massage. It was all scorched earth and time to move on.

There was a film critic on WXRT in Chicago, known only as "a regular guy." He was lowbrow and very funny, and his film reviews were so on point. There was also a, I don't know, radio artist named Joe Frank, out of Santa Monica, who did these surreal monologues. These were my role models. They were the ghost voices of Radio Free America. I needed an outlet like them. Finally, Michael Lenehan, the managing editor at the Reader, read my clips and I was back in business. Pretty soon the pissed-off letters to the editor started rolling in again.

It was a different time. People wrote letters, or they called you on the phone. The answering machine had been invented, but I'd spilled a drink on mine and it wouldn't answer anymore. And so long ago, when the phone kept ringing and ringing in the middle of the night, I had to get up to answer it. A voice said, "Asshole," and hung up. That was the most straightforward and articulate backhand I ever got, but it never made it into print until now. Whoever that was out there—good shot. You crack me up even now.

I don't get it. I never did. These actors and directors with their hurt feelings, so misunderstood. Was I supposed to lie, say that the earth moved beneath me? I was a critic, with a PhD in theater no less. Look at this way. You've been to one of those art shows at the mall. Wouldn't you say that 95 percent of that stuff was embarrassingly bad? Would you buy it? It's the same with theater, only you've already kissed $20 to $200 goodbye. In retrospect you probably could have used a heads-up on this turkey. So I'd tell people. I'm no artist. I don't make this shit up. I just call it as I see it.

Well, water under the bridge, right? Certainly all those people that I cut off at the knees have moved on to shorter jobs. If there are still some bad feelings out there after all these years then, damn, you've got to learn to let go. Forget about it. No one else remembers what a fool you made of yourself. Unless you were in that revival of Hair, or that AIDS paranoia play, Beirut. Incroyable! Nothing to be done about it now. Nevertheless, if I could move on, you can move on.


I'm a psychiatrist now. The transition was not seamless, or cheap. I surfed into Brown med school on the wave of diversity enrollment. I was the only old guy, but it was like I had to prove that I was mature, or historical. I had to bring something to the diversity mix, so in my personal statement on the application I quoted Andre Malraux from Man's Fate, "The theatre is not serious, the bullfight is serious." Pretty good, huh? It sounds profound, and it made me out like I was hanging up my dancing shoes and getting down to some real serious lifesaving business. But when I think of that quote now I just imagine a guy in dancing shoes elegantly torturing a cow to the delight of a crowd of rednecks.

What followed was four years of med school, four years of residency training in psychiatry, and 12 years in practice. I had to memorize a lot of things that I can no longer remember. And there are some times that I wish I could forget.

The few that remember me as the nasty critic for the Reader must wonder if I am now some sort of Hannibal Lecter. He did have a talent though, didn't he? The way he found out Clarisse's most disturbing and formative memory with only a few questions. He made a connection there, so that she would never have to bear the burden of that memory alone. And remember how he reassured her that she was safe from him, because the world was a better place with her in it? Dr. Lecter was a very impressive psychiatrist actually, although I grant that he made some grievous boundary violations. You cannot convince me that the theater is not serious.

I will tell you where the one road runs into the other. There is a theater in your head. There is a whole mythology of household gods and goddesses known only to you. There are symbols carved from your life experiences, and they can guide you or mislead you, without you even having a clue, to regrettable consequences. There are bad neighborhoods in your head, as the poet Mary Karr pointed out, where you do not want to go walking at night unarmed or alone. There are trapdoors and missed cues. There is no deus ex machina—that is delusional. There are, however, a few of us who are just blind enough to know our way around in the dark.

Tom Boeker, once the Reader's most reviled critic, now practices psychiatry in Wilmington, North Carolina. He has a celestial parrotlet named Sparky who doesn't sit in on sessions because he's "not a good listener."

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