A few words about my grand experience as a theater reviewer—as a way to suggest something about all our futures.
My years of reviewing theater were glorious. They came from joining three great loves—writing, music, and theater, especially musical theater and opera. I learned first that theater was out. I didn’t have Richard Burton’s voice or Maggie Smith’s melody within the line. Music lasted longer for me but was a no-go. Writing? That’s the story here.
In 1967 I got an internship at the Times as back-up guy to the drama critic and the music critic. Next I was offered the job as entertainment editor at the Herald-Examiner. Grabbed that, happily, because it offered me a chance to cherry-pick the best of theater, music, and movies.
WHAT A FABULOUS TIME in local theater. The Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson were growing up. The New York City Opera was establishing an annual monthly season. New kinds of musical theater were emerging—Man of La Mancha, Hair, Cabaret, the Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. My favorite new development? The National Theatre of Great Britain performed in residence for two months each year. Amazing! That excitement was why we put together the collegial lunches that were the first baby breaths of what has become the LADCC.
Now add in some other benefits for a writer who loves the theater. These rewards were everywhere in those years, and I hope they still are:
Flights to San Francisco to watch William Ball’s American Conservatory Theater. An annual trip to New York to catch up with Broadway and Off-Broadway. An annual trip also to check out the London scene. And best of all, the theater people I got to spend time with. Playwrights like Robert Bolt and Dale Wasserman. Actors like James Earl Jones, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Julie Andrews, Lee Grant, and the marvelous Brits Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier. Enough names—I won’t mention the directors.
But those glories put me in a pickle: Like almost every American journalist, I wanted to write books. But I was scared to start. Surrounded by marvelous people who spent their days in the great current of creativity, I was just . . . observing.
That question got huge for me in the middle of 1970. I gave myself a time limit: I’ve had three years to learn this craft. I’ll take next year to say whatever I really want to say about today’s theater. Then one year to repeat it and maybe get my thoughts across. Then?
QUIT THE JOB AND WRITE A BOOK. Freelance, no salary, no expense account, no benefits, etc. Naked.
LOOK AGAIN, WIN. You’re sitting on the bank of a great river of creative energy. Your friends and heroes are out there playing in the water. WHO’S HAVING THE FUN HERE? So the middle of ’72 will be the end. I will quit.
Maybe the universe does have its ways. One month short of my quote-unquote deadline a stranger overheard me trading stories with Dale Wasserman at a party. I didn’t know the stranger was a publisher. The next day he offered me a modest advance to turn my stories into a book, without further guarantees.
Immediately I RESIGNED.
My family and friends went ape. Why throw your security away? Why launch across the Pacific Ocean in a rubber raft? My colleagues wondered if I was nuts. You’ve got a catbird seat on the world of theater (and movies). Why the hell throw it away? Want to be Mr. Nobody
No, I want to jump in the river and play games with my kind of people.
More than five decades and about fifty books (plus some screenplays) later, this fool stands in front of you grinning. I’VE HAD A LOT OF FUN. I’ve been up, I’ve been down, left, right, and all around the town. Been on the Times list and off all lists, been recognized and been wrecked. Every kick and kiss life offers. And I’ll sail off the planet thinking, I didn’t waste my life wishing and hiding—I did what I really wanted to do.
So: Are you one of the journalists who keeps thinking he has a book or a screenplay somewhere in that whirligig mind? Are you an actor who longs for juicier roles? A director who wants to take bigger chances? Then GO FOR IT. Step out of your comfort zone. Stretch your skin. As dozens of wise people have said, the only things you’ll regret in life are the risks you did not take.
In signing off here, I’ll anticipate what you’re probably asking yourselves: Does he have a wonderful wife who supports this decision? Answer: Wonderful, yes. She writes books for a living too.
Oh, financial chaos and creative freedom. Sing it!