Richard Christiansen: He Had a Storied Career of Writing About Theater in Chicago

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Richard Christiansen, Influential Chicago Theater Critic, Dies at 90”:

In 1970, as Americans were preparing to mark the first Earth Day, Richard Christiansen, still relatively early in what became a storied career of writing about theater in Chicago, seized the moment to argue that the arts deserved just as much attention as the environment but were unlikely to receive it.

“One can actually see the air becoming befouled through pollution,” he wrote in The Chicago News, his employer at the time, “but it is much more difficult to tell when the spirit is withering for lack of nourishment.”

Over the next three decades, at The News and then, from 1978 to 2002, at The Chicago Tribune, Mr. Christiansen nourished readers with his drama criticism. He helped make Chicago one of the most vibrant theater towns in the country, not only through his writing but also with the occasional behind-the-scenes nudge.

He championed early work by David Mamet and other playwrights, boosted the careers of directors like Robert Falls and highlighted performances by countless actors who would go on to become national names, among them Gary Sinise, Amy Morton and Brian Dennehy. He shined his spotlight on the innovative early efforts of now venerable companies like Steppenwolf and now departed ones like the Famous Door Theater.

He was so widely respected that when he retired in 2002, the League of Chicago Theaters Foundation turned its annual gala into “Showtime 2002! A Salute to Richard Christiansen” and filled the evening with scenes from some of his favorite plays….

Mr. Christiansen was not just a big-house critic; from the 1960s on, Chicago was home to theater staged in converted bowling alleys and storefronts and assorted other so-called off-Loop spaces, and Mr. Christiansen eagerly sampled seemingly all of it.

Last week, the producer Charles Grippo, in a letter to The Tribune, recalled the time in 1987 when he produced his first show, a revival of Mr. Mamet’s “The Woods,” in just such a space. Mr. Christiansen had called for a ticket, but on the appointed day a blizzard struck. Mr. Grippo decided to proceed with the performance anyway and was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Christiansen braved the storm and turned up at the theater. His enthusiastic review made the show a success.

“Christiansen was always honest with his readers,” Mr. Grippo wrote, “but he was never mean. He truly wanted those of us in the Chicago theater community to flourish.”

In a 2002 article in The Tribune reflecting on his career, Mr. Christiansen recalled some of those off-the-beaten-trail discoveries, including the night in 1987 when he made his way to “a ramshackle space underneath the L tracks” to see a production by a new company, Famous Door, which went on to considerable acclaim before folding in 2005.

“In Chicago, at least,” he wrote, “you never know where the lightning is going to strike, where the talent is going to show itself.”

Richard Dean Christiansen was born on Aug. 1, 1931, in Berwyn, Ill….He grew up in Oak Park, Ill. In his 2004 book, “A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago,” the dedication reads, “For my parents, who went to church and to the theater and took me with them.”

In a 2004 interview with The Tribune occasioned by publication of that book, he recalled that the first show he was permitted to attend was “Oklahoma!”

“Before I was allowed to go, my mother had to make sure there were no dirty words in it,” he said. “I was still able to see it even though it had one ‘damn.’”

He graduated from Carleton College in 1953 with an English degree and did a year of postgraduate work at Harvard, “learning that I lacked a true scholarly bent,” as he summed up that experience. Then came two years in the Army and a trainee position at Time magazine in New York before he returned to Chicago in 1956 and took a job at the City News Bureau, a cooperative news agency that fed the area’s papers.

Mr. Christiansen went to work for The News in 1957. He started on the night shift, but by the early 1960s he was writing more and more about the arts — books, television, music. And theater. He left The News in 1973 to edit a new magazine, The Chicagoan, but when it went out of business after 18 months he returned to The News. When that paper went under in 1978, he was picked up by The Tribune.

As a critic, Mr. Christiansen was no cheerleader; if he thought a production was bad, he wasn’t shy about saying so. His opening sentence in a 1985 review of a drama called “White Biting Dog” at Remains Theater said simply, “‘White Biting Dog’ shouldn’t happen to a dog.”

But if he liked a show, his words could help make the reputations of actors, directors and companies. An oft-cited case in point was his 1983 review of Jack Henry Abbott’s “In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison” at Wisdom Bridge Theater, a production directed by Mr. Falls and starring William L. Petersen, the actor now well known from the television series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Mr. Christiansen wrote of Mr. Petersen’s stage mannerisms and craftsmanship, then said this:

“These qualities are admirable in acting, and can be accounted for, but how do I account for the fact that minutes after leaving the theater Thursday night, I had to pull my car over to the side of the street so that I could clear the tears from my eyes?”

Afterward, the Chicago theater world was said to refer to a rave from Mr. Christiansen as “a pull over.”

Some critics keep a distance from actors, directors and others they write about, but Mr. Christiansen was known to talk shop with those in the theater world and offer career guidance. In an appreciation he wrote for the website American Theater last week, the playwright Jeffrey Sweet told the story of how Mr. Christiansen went to a showcase production of Shakespeare scenes staged by a young director and actress named Barbara Gaines, liked it, invited Ms. Gaines to lunch and encouraged her along the path that led her to found the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 1986.

Mr. Sweet also had his own experience with Mr. Christiansen’s guiding hand.

“Without telling me he was going to,” he said, “he phoned Northwestern University Press and told an editor there, ‘Sweet’s written enough good stuff it’s time for you to publish an anthology.’ And they did. And he wrote the introduction.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the New York Times Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

Also see the Chicago Tribune obit by Chris Jones headlined “Richard Christiansen has died at 90—a critic who sparked a glorious theatrical fire in a city he loved”

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