4 Questions: Lynn Slotkin
This article is next in our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
Lynn Slotkin (BA (hons) Drama Studies, History, Theory, and Criticism, 1973). My reviews and articles have been published in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Performance Magazine, American Theatre Magazine, Eye Weekly, How Theatre Educates, Orbit, Mystery Scene Magazine, The Canadian Jewish News, the London Free Press and The Hollywood Reporter. I’ve done theatre commentary for Studio Two on TV Ontario and CBC TV-Newsworld. I’ve been profiled in The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and on Bravo TV for the Arts and Minds Program. I have done theatre criticism workshops for Theatre Ontario. Since 2001 I’ve lead discussions on theatre trips to New York and London for Mirvish Productions, and lead discussions for theatre salons.
My theatre life exploded open when my mother took my sister and I to the theatre for the first time. It was the musical Oliver at the O’Keefe Centre, now the Sony Centre. I was twelve. I was transported. The set revolved. The music was divine. I was heartsick when it finished. How can I get this euphoric feeling back? I know! I can go again! And I did as often as I could. When I got accepted into York University, eventually into the Theatre Department my life blossomed. Deciding what area of theatre was a bit tricky. I have no acting talent so it couldn’t be performance. Many people have seen how I dress and my sense of decorating, so design was out of the question. I’m bookish so I picked the History, Theory and Criticism of Theatre stream. During my studies I wrote theatre reviews for Excalibur, the university newspaper. My first professional review was published when I was in my last year of university (Don Rubin, my Theatre Criticism Professor recommended me for the job). I also took it upon myself to interview visiting actors playing in the city about their opinions of critics and criticism. That was a terrific education. I met Jane Alexander, Julie Harris, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy that way. They became friends and supporters. When I graduated I got published occasionally but certainly not enough to support myself. I always worked full time in a completely different area to the theatre because I needed the money to go to the theatre and to travel to see theatre elsewhere. I have always worked in an educational setting, as an administrator, the last 21 years before I retired as the Administrator of the Graduate/Undergraduate programs of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. I know nothing about rocks. The difference between a rock and a hard place I learned at the theatre. In 1974 I was going to London to see theatre. Jane Alexander was playing Gertrude in New York and when I told her I was seeing Albert Finney in Hamlet in London, she said, “Let me know what you think.” I wrote her a hand written letter, 1 1/2 pages on 5″ paper what I thought. She loved the detail. That was my first “Slotkin Letter” and more followed. The letters grew from one or two sentences to paragraphs to pages and pages. It went from being hand-written, to being typed on a typewriter to being done on a computer. Pretty soon I was sending hard copy letters to 40 people. One week in London could cover 37 hard copy pages. People would pass them to people. I got a letter once from the Cronyns who said they were in the Bahamas with Sigourney Weaver and they read and passed the pages of my letter to each other while on the beach. Funny. Martha Henry got the theatre letters and was talking about them to Pat Quigley, then the Educational Director of the Stratford Festival. Pat wanted to be on the list of those who got the letters. Martha said it wasn’t possible until someone on the list dies. “I’ll pay” said Pat. What a concept. She was my first paying customer. Actors wanted to know what I thought of plays they heard about. Cherry Jones told me that Alexander H. Cohen (then the dean of New York Producers) wanted her to play in a Broadway production of The Herbal Bed. Cherry wanted to know what I thought of the play. I wrote her 1 ½ pages, of 8 ½ x 11” pages of what I thought of it and why she had to do the play. She decided not to, but she showed Alex Cohen my letter who said it was the best analysis of a play he’d ever read and I either had to be a theatre critic or have spent my life in the theatre and he hoped it was the latter. He wanted to meet me to take me to lunch if ever I was in New York. We made a date for lunch. At this time the theatre letters were in hard copy form and came out irregularly. Alex Cohen suggested I call it “The Slotkin Letter,” add graphics, make the letters shorter (perhaps covering five plays per issue over 20 pages), publish monthly and charge for them. He suggested $100 a year. So I did. He became a customer as did Lincoln Center Theater.When the Toronto Star was looking for a theatre critic I got a call from the Entertainment Editor (John Ferri) saying he saw my Slotkin Letter (William Littler, the Music and Dance critic showed him his copy) and did I want the job? I was interviewed and auditioned for the job. There was a short list of two. I was one and Richard Ouzounian was the other. John Ferri, the managing editor and the deputy managing editor wanted me. The publisher, John Hondrich wanted Richard Ouzounian, saying that nobody knew who I was and Richard had a public profile. Their argument was they would know who I was if I got the job. It took a week for them to decide. Richard Ouzounian got the gig. He was doing reviews for CBC radio, for Here and Now but had to stop when he got the Star job. He recommended me to replace him which I thought was classy because we didn’t know each other at the time. I auditioned and got that job and did weekly reviews on CBC Radio for Here and Now for 10 years once a week—I loved every single minute of it. I got paid a bit of money per review, but not enough to live on. Then in December 2010 CBC decided that they would not have any more performing arts reviews and that meant theatre reviews too as their demographic was changing. It was here that I decided to end the hard copy Slotkin Letters and put the Slotkin Letter on line as part of my blog and post almost every day of what I see in Toronto, environs, New York and London, etc. I have something to say and want to pass on my love and enthusiasm for theatre, and to make a better audience and needed an outlet to say it. I don’t charge. Blogging is the future as newspapers cover the arts less and less. A friend who does a jazz show for CIUT 89.5 fm suggested I approach them to do theatre reviews. I’ve been doing them since June 2011 for CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, on Fridays, 9 am to 10 am. I identify as a theatre critic because I go deeper into the analysis of the play and production. I love every single minute of it, even those shows that are ‘life-shortening.’
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
When I chose Drama Studies as my major I wasn’t sure what my future would be in theatre, but I knew it had to be something. One day we had an assignment. Write a character analysis and the description of the set from a play. I chose The Glass Menagerie and Amanda Wingfield as the character. The stuff poured out of me as I wrote furiously about her and where she lived and what her apartment looked like. My cheeks burned. (my cheeks are burning now just remembering it). I knew this woman. I can do this. Then and there it was clear, theatre criticism is where I belonged. That was my future. And that was my favourite moment at York.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
We had to submit a theatre review for our Theatre Criticism Course with Don Rubin. When I got the review back, over the first three paragraphs Don had written the word “drivel.” And it was true. The writing was self-indulgent, unfocused, smarmy and very unhelpful in a review. It was stinging criticism but true. I began to scrutinize my writing after that for any trace of ‘drivel’ in the writing. “Drivel” became one of my favourite words.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
I try to incorporate as much of my theatre training as I can in my ‘current work’, my theatre reviews, whether for my blog (The Slotkin Letter) or the reviews I do on radio for CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. I always question as I watch a play: What’s it about? What was the author’s intention? Was it worth doing? If not, why not? Who is telling the truth and who is not? Does the set, costumes and lighting serve the play? If not, why not? Does the director illuminate the play or is she/he showing off at the play’s expense. Does the acting serve the play and the characters? Always try to be clear and precise when telling the story of the play–but don’t give away the secrets. Don’t be dull when writing about it. Show your passion. Beware of writing drivel.