Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: What I do

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The question from the student made me think fast.

I’d been asked to speak to the class “The Art of Criticism” at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In a Q & A at the end, a student asked me what show had most impressed me.

This was another way of asking, “What is your favorite show?”

Because of what I do, the question is tricky because the vista is vast.

Last year in this area, I saw 164 performances for review.

I was paid to do so. I am an employee of WFRV-TV.

Those 164 do not count six other plays I saw as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. In other years, I’ve attended the Stratford (Shakespeare) Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, and Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. Seeing top-flight pros helps me in assessing quality around here – where there are keen-edged pros, too.

What I do is drive to a performance, watch it from beginning to end and the next morning sit at my computer in my office at home and write a review.

Because my requirement is this is to be an enjoyable experience, I try to be entertaining. Performances are entertainment, after all. I have fun and let my mind go where it wants, humming and chuckling along the way – as at this moment. Present is my “chief assistant” – Curly, an 80-pound, black, standard poodle – asleep on a doggy pillow. The atmosphere is quite pleasant.

After completing the review, I print it out. “Are you ready?” I ask my wife, Kathleen. She says, “I’m ready.” We sit at our dining room table, and I read her the review from beginning to end – photo caption, main headline, secondary headline and full body of what I wrote.

Chances are, Kathleen has not attended the play with me. In listening, she is the public.

Mostly, a review is untouched during the read-through. But I do catch typos or phrases to clarify, and Kathleen catches words that need change here and there. We discuss grammar, singular/plural references and sentence structure. She is an English teacher, and I’ve edited all my working life, so we know which side is up with the English language. Kathleen also has deep background in theater, so some of our conversations are multiply fascinating.

Next, I head back to my office and do any brushing up of the review.

Now the review is ready for publishing. I access the publishing system of Nexstar Media Group, Inc., the large company that owns WFRV-TV. Following a few steps – inserting portions of text and a visual element such as a photo or play program cover – I “pour” everything into place and press a button that produces a preview look at the product. After double-checking how things look, I press “PUBLISH,” and out the piece goes on the Internet.

No one at the station has told me what play to see.

No one at the station edits my copy before I publish.

Everything goes out on a legit, mass-market media company’s web page that’s available for all to see – www, world wide web, indeed.

The company pays me, gives me a ticket allowance and covers my gasoline costs.

Translation: This is not a vanity blog.

Importantly, the company covers the cost of my tickets. There are no “freebies,” no chance to be beholden to anyone for having gotten in free. My concept is I represent a public that wants a fair assessment, not a performance entity that wants nice-nice. I also try not to be mean in what I do.

How did I get to do this?

In November 2012, I retired from the Green Bay Press-Gazette after 45 years. For 35 of those years, I was critic at large – my official title. Immediately after retiring, Captain Gary Schmidt and I started teaming on a book that would become “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain.” Five months into that project, which was sailing to completion, I attended a Green Bay Symphony Orchestra concert at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. This was not for review because I was retired. Symphonic music is something I like. Simple as that. Coming back to my seat at the end of intermission, a man in the center aisle introduces himself. He is Joe Denk, vice president and general manager of WFRV-TV, Channel 5. We have never met in person. We have spoken over the phone. While I was at the Press-Gazette, one of my beats was the media, so we had spoken about changes in the industry or plans at WFRV. Joe Denk asks if I would consider writing reviews for the station. My first thought is something short, like a paragraph, a kind of blurb. “No, full blown,” Joe Denk says.

In June 2013, I started what I call this half-time full-time job. Translation: It’s a part-time job, but I’m really into it.

For this website, I create something new every day of the year. Much, much is going on in the arts within the 75-mile radius of the station. Along with reviews, I preview performances, give a weekly overview of what’s coming and write varied feature stories.

For the air, I have a weekly appearance at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. I write a script about a production or a trending topic, find 20 or so photographs to go with the text, and pre-record the segment. The process is an extension of what I did as a writing editor at the Press-Gazette, with the on-air part being new – and involving teamwork assistance in skill positions in master control, in editing, in anchoring and in overall coordination.

For my year-end piece on air last year, anchor Chelly Boutott said in a lead-in “tease” for my segment that I saw more performances in a year than most people see in a lifetime. Those 164 performances suddenly felt like a large weight. Think of how many hundreds of people performed in those performances. Think of how many thousands of people saw those performances. What, indeed, is “The Art of Criticism”?

Speaking to the “The Art of Criticism” class was beyond rewarding.

“Dear Mr. Gerds,” the emailed invitation started.

I was lucky enough to be reviewed kindly by you when I performed with UW Oshkosh in “Clybourne Park” and I believe, quite a few years back, when I starred in “The Art of Murder” with Oshkosh Community Players at UW Fox-Valley.  First and foremost, I would like to thank you for that. I am also reaching out to you because I am now teaching in the Radio-TV-Film Department at UW Oshkosh and was wondering if you would be interested in addressing to students in RTF 348: The Art of Criticism about your role as a theatre critic…

Sincerely,

Morgan Stewart

Master of Arts in Media Studies

Instructor, Radio-TV-Film Department

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Morgan Stewart also included a syllabus to illustrate the scope of the class, and I am impressed by all the heavy lumber in there.

At the end of my talk, one student asked how I write about different productions of the same play. Because audience members likely have not seen both and since I am not writing an academic paper in which such comparisons come into play, I focus on the production in front of me.

Another student asked if my writing of reviews is part of a continuum. My newspaper reviews were limited in space and time (deadline), and my writing now goes on until I feel comfortable with having covered the territory, length no matter.

And then there was the “favorite show” question. Having seen so many performances, it’s something I don’t consider. Wonderful shows and performances abound. But I felt obliged to give an answer, and my answer – amazingly – has kept on giving.

My answer: “The Music Man.”

It was the first show that came to mind. I rattled on about…

+ How I took pride in knowing how to spell the name of the author, Meredith Willson – two “ll’s” – which is commonly misspelled.

+ How Meredith Willson did the trifecta of writing the book music and lyrics.

+ How he had played in the John Philip Sousa band and the influence that probably had on his show that’s about a band

+ How I like how Meredith Willson included his mother by way of Marion the librarian.

+ How one of my grandsons has taken up playing trombone and now all he needs is 75 other kids to play the song “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

+ How a fellow from Meredith Willson’s Iowa hometown of Mason City (which Willson fictionalized as River City) would contact me regularly while I worked for the Press-Gazette about something I wrote and then fill me in on what was happening in town and how Mason City loves Meredith Willson.

+ How one of the other songs, “Wells Fargo Wagon,” connects with my daughter.

That last item is a recent addition. This summer, Music Theatre of St. Norbert College put on a massive overview of its 56 years under the artistic direction of Dudley Birder, and “Wells Fargo Wagon” was performed. In the story, the folks of River City, Iowa, excitedly await the arrival of the wagon for all the goodies it will bring. One fellow sings, “I hope I get my raisins from Fresno.” The song has taken on new meaning in my life. My daughter, Monica, lives and works in Fresno, Calif. Along the way, Monica and I had a conversation about the song and how it’s interesting that songs – or even a line from a song – can take on new meaning over time. We talked about how Fresno had been part of our consciousness, but we didn’t know when that started.

A few days following “The Art of Criticism” appearance, Monica and I spoke again, in part because of her interest because she is a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh graduate (microbiology) and in part because of “The Music Man” and Fresno. She mentions that later that day she is going to attend the Fresno County Fair. Perspective: Announcements in the Fresno airport proclaim Fresno is “the food capital of the world,” so this is no ordinary county fair. Later that day, I receive electronically from Monica three photos from the fair, notably this year’s award-winning raisins – undoubtedly some darn good raisins.

“The Music Man” came into my consciousness in fifth grade in Milwaukee. One of my classmates, Jerry, somehow had heard this great song about 76 trombones and went on excitedly about it. How Jerry knew of it I do not know, because this was before “The Music Man” made it to Broadway. Jerry was also memorable for this: “I stuck my tongue into a lightbulb socket – look.” Jerry stuck out his tongue. It had a large crevice down the middle. “Seventy-Six Trombones” and the image of a Grand Canyon of a tongue – see how rewarding musical theater can be?

For some reason, three times this year I’ve been asked about my favorite show. The most recent was Saturday, Nov. 18, at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where I attended a performance of “The Fantasticks.” There I bumped into John Koker, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, who I had reviewed in a UW-Oshkosh production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” in 2016. We had spoken since then, and I told him about my daughter being a grad. So… he asks me the question, and I say “The Music Man” and da-da-da my daughter and Fresno and raisins and –  da-da-da-ta-da – I show him my daughter’s raisin photos on my cellphone. Laugh? You bet.

And then there was Sunday, Nov. 19. I’m at an urgent care clinic getting treatment for what turns out to be bursitis of the knee (which really hurts), and at the end my wife gets into conversation with the nurse practitioner about Thanksgiving Day. The nurse practitioner says she would host feasts when she lived back home. “Where’s home?” my wife asks. “Iowa.” I ask, “Where in Iowa?” “Mason City.” I say, “The Music Man,” and she says “Meredith Willson.” And off we go trading mentions of this and that from the show. “I’m from River City,” she says proudly with a really big, happy grin.

So… what I do. What I do is filled with many, many special experiences. For that, I am thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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