Supporting creative work by women
In Works by Women’s continuing coverage of reviewers, I spoke with Karen Tortora-Lee, the fabulous founder and editor of The Happiest Medium, a recently redesigned must read site that features coverage of the arts, ranging from books, TV, movies and theatre. Its tagline is “Everyone’s got a favorite.”
Karen weighed in about her theatrical beginnings, the performers who inspire her and the challenges she faces (and overcomes on a regular basis) in running a review site. I tried to get Karen to spill the beans about which medium is her favorite. You will need to read on to find out what her fascinating answer is.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Why theater? How did you become interested in it?
KAREN TORTORA-LEE: I was born in New York City – the daughter of a man who was also born in New York City. Unlike almost everyone else I know, that makes me a second generation New Yorker who grew up going to Broadway shows because that’s how my dad grew up. Broadway is where he took his dates; musical theatre was the music that played in his home when he was a teen. That, and opera. My father is Italian, and his widowed mother spoke limited English. When English is a second language you look to the common language of music and anything dramatic to help you deal and process. You may not always understand the words but if the actions are big enough you can connect with the emotions. I think that’s why Broadway musicals meant so much to my father and his family. It bridged two worlds and it spoke to some of the family tragedies that they endured together.
That love of musicals just naturally got passed down to me. Of course, musical theatre is like the gateway drug of all theatre. You start with that and then you move on to the hard stuff that happens in dark basements.
Like my father, I’m an only child … so that leads to a lot of solo theatre that you write about yourself which is nothing more than the over exaggeration of every emotion, magnification of every meaning because there’s nothing to distract you from the intensity of your own issues. Siblings might have given me a few more reality checks, but I was a very dramatic child. I did theatre for a while, wrote plays, wrote a lot. Everything is theatre, really … even reviews – when done well – are going to give you that theatrical experience.
As far as how I became a reviewer, I fell into it backwards in 2008 and found out that I was good at it after I began doing it for a few months. I would hope that my need to accentuate every nuance of a theatre experience and my desire to convey that to a reader is what makes my reviews pop and resonate. I would hope that my holistic approach is what sets my reviews and my site apart and gives The Happiest Medium that extra little zing that makes us exciting.
WBW: What type of theatrical work do you respond to? Love?
KTL: I absolutely come alive when I see something that takes a chance – that is innovative and bold and breaks the rules. I love the artists who create their own genre and their own style and then make it their hallmark. Austin McCormick’s Company XIV are the most talented group of dancers helmed by a visionary. XIV takes classic dance and then whips it up with all things you think would break the rules … but don’t. His productions literally take my breath away. I feel the same way about Killy Dwyer and Kill The Band. There’s that same excitement of watching something that appears chaotic and experimental but that could only be achieved by an exact science of pure brilliance. Kill The Band is part really gifted musicians, part performance art, part funny, part bitingly truthful. It’s so meta that it winds up watching itself in a mirror. Wasabassco Burlesque is amazing because Doc Wasabassco has gathered the most astonishingly innovative performers I’ve ever seen. At his 7th Anniversary party Kobayashi Maru did an act that involved sparks and power tools that had the crowd roaring. Sure, it’s the whole “gotta getta gimmick” that burlesque thrives on … but watching her created this absolutely unparalleled performance that people will never forget – that’s watching a master. Don’t get me wrong, bells and whistles aren’t the only things that grip me — presentation can be subtle, quiet … and still have you leaning forward. I was just as dazzled by Stephen Tobolowsky standing on a bare stage telling stories of his life for 60 minutes because he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Slashtipher Coleman did the same thing in last year’s Big Plastic Heroes during the Frigid Festival. There’s really no way to explain how that magic happens. But when it does, I lean forward and feel plugged in. And I may see hundreds of shows a year, but I walk away knowing that those are the ones I’ll remember.
WBW: Your terrific site ‘The Happiest Medium’ also reviews books, TV, film and such. What is your favorite medium and why?
KTL: I don’t have a favorite – despite the fact that my tag line is “Everyone has a favorite”. But I’ll go one further and say that I don’t have a favorite because I’m probably exposed to more than the average person in a year. My favorite is the last thing I saw … and the next thing I’m going to. My Happiest Medium is entertainment. Heh. How’s that for finding the loophole? I will say this – for the same reason that I don’t have a favorite – seeing so much stuff – I don’t have a least favorite either. Several years ago I would have easily and without thought said “I absolutely CAN’T STAND …” but in the last years I’ve seen things from my least-favorite genre that have surprised and delighted me. And good on them! I’m proud that I wasn’t able to cling to a “meh”. I love that my pool of “dislike” has dwindled to a vapor.
WBW: Theater artists always talk about the challenges of being an artist. What are the challenges (and rewards) of reviewing/profiling theater and the other mediums?
KTL: Writing a worthy review is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I suffer over each one. Each review needs to serve the production, but also serve the audience. There’s a sweet spot that has to be hit each time – be honest, be objective, recount the plot, but not too much, discuss the acting, include pull quotes — but don’t just write a long paragraph of headlines. Be truly thoughtful … what worked? What didn’t? But remember that if you went to a show that’s not your preference you’re writing for the audience who DOES want to see what you just saw, so if something isn’t your bag you have to leave your own opinions at the door and write from the universal opinion. And yet if you’re an established reviewer people are reading specifically to hear what YOU have to say … so don’t leave your own voice out. So … that’s just writing the review. Now add the fact that I personally am not just reviewing but I’m running a website.
I need to work CONSTANTLY on my site, as hard as any production company does on a show. I’m not just a theatre reviewer, but the founder, the ringleader, the visionary, the producer, the designer, the editor, the business manager. I designed the format of the site, my husband is the programmer and developer. I wake up and the first thing I’m thinking about is – who I can interview, what kind of series I can do, what’s up next … is there a festival, do we have enough writers to cover everything? Is there something we’re missing? Every conversation I have with anyone at any time ever is entertainment related. Is someone coming out with an album? Let’s do an interview. Are you heading off to Edinburgh? Why don’t we do a series on that. Did you just write something great on your own blog about something I couldn’t attend? Great … how about I run a snippet and then throw to your site. I reviewed your show but now you’re coming out with a book? Wonderful … can you send me the first chapter? Oh, a show is closing next week but needs more press because no one’s reviewed it? Sure I’ll go. Am I involved in enough things? Am I stretching myself too thin and not coming through on my promises?
The challenges are that I’m a small operation, one person, with a team of passionate dedicated people who are doing this because they believe in my mission and my vision. But we’re not The New York Times. The challenge is to keep that spirit alive in a team of people – it takes a village.
Really, the rewards are that I love what I do, I love being electrified by artists, I love meeting someone who comes to me and says “I have a story for you”. I love someone who says “I love your site – can I write for you?” Yes – the answer is yes. Let’s chat. Here’s my card.
WBW: What is one thing you would change or enhance about theater in New York?
KTL: I wish I could get tourists to stop thinking New York Theatre takes place on Broadway. For that matter, I’d like to change the opinions of actual New Yorkers as well. Great theatre is going on in basements, gyms, converted garages … and now in site-specific venues. People are having their mind blown 30 at a time but buses are still being day-tripped in from Philly to go see Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys. Are those shows done well? Of course. And it caters to the masses – people don’t need to know the language, it transgresses every age group … and you can go home saying you did the New York thing. It goes back to the thing with my immigrant grandmother, so I really get it.
What I would change – what I’m trying to change – what my life’s work is … is to convince the casual theatre-goer, the educated New Yorker who’s already in town and has a night to kill to NOT blow 100 bucks on an overly produced overly staged show. Or NOT blow 15 bucks on a movie where you have to sit through 20 minutes of commercials and previews and then you wind up sitting next to rude people who talk on their cell phones and talk back to the screen.
Venture down under 14th Street. Come to Brooklyn. To Long Island City. To some show that takes place in an apartment, or bar, or graveyard. See what REAL theatre is happening in NYC. Stop taking your relatives to a big show when they come to town. Trust me – they’ll thank you. Or do both if you have to. But break the chain. Support your local artists. Occupy Theatre.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
KTL: Honestly, from where I’m sitting I see a lot of women kicking butt. Last year on the site for Women’s History month I did a series on women in all forms of entertainment and one of my questions was about how tough the business was for them as women. There was definitely a “Whaaaa?” kind of reaction from most of them. I know there may be women out there who feel they are facing challenges because they are women, but I invite them to re-think that. The theatrical media I deal with is experimental, innovative, and challenging. The women I encounter are strong, experimental and inquisitive. They’re performance artists, burlesque performers, musicians, in-your-face writers. They’re a combination of warriors and nurtures. I think each individual – artist or otherwise – faces a challenge of their own design. I think we all pull demons out of the recesses of our minds and insist those things are holding us back. I’m an Italian girl born and raised in Brooklyn. I don’t think it’s ever come up at all … where I’m from, or my heritage. But a woman I know insists the vowel at the end of her name and her Brooklyn roots have kept her back her whole life. She wants to blame a set of circumstances that I just can’t buy into because they never worked against me. So which one of us is right? Unfortunately, both of us are right – because everyone will approach a situation with their own set of facts gathered from their own experiences. Everyone will choose to see something as innocuous or intentional. Therefore I think the biggest challenge facing women in American Theatre is getting over their own roadblocks. I am constantly putting one particular thing in my own way. And that’s my issue. Other women will put a vowel in their way. Or an age bracket. Or their gender. Or their orientation. But really, if you refuse to make it an issue – or go one further … if you make it an asset … it ceases to become a challenge. Let it galvanize you.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
KTL: Everything gives me hope. The person writing amazing plays about things we didn’t talk about ten years ago gives me hope. The person combining art forms in ways that we’ve never seen before gives me hope. The person who survives and moves on from adversity gives me hope. But also the person who turns to the person behind them and gives a hand up. Who gives back. Who shares. The people who are kind and generous, and the people who don’t take themselves or their art too seriously. But who take the BUSINESS of CREATING their art VERY seriously. Everything being created in a black box theatre, in a gym, in a school basement, in a site-specific location … everything that gets parceled out to 30 people at a time … THAT gives me hope for women, and for ALL artists in theatre and in every medium.