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They Know Your Face

Russ Bickerstaff | Hannah Nolan

It seems almost hostile. It seems kind of militant. They want to make you feel special. It’s almost…passive-aggressive in its approach, but I don’t think that much is intended. And I don’t know why. It does make you wonder. I think they’re operating on some kind of stereotype about a critic’s ego or something. Any serious critic will tell you that they’re just there to see the show like anybody else. I don’t need a special folder or anything like that. What am I going to do with a folder full of information that’s already available to me and everyone else online? Really any special treatment at all is kind of a distraction. Don’t get me wrong I’m not crazy about it or anything. I don’t pay for my tickets the way some do. I don’t make enough money for that. I’d be losing money if I had to pay for all my own tickets. Go any further than that, though and things start to get weird.

The weirdest thing about it is the general level of paranoia you accumulate over the course of a given week on the job. You’re writing reviews. As a critic your job is to give feedback. Consequently you get none. No one ever says anything to you about anything you write. None of the actors. None of the directors. None of the editors or readers or anything. You’re writing into a vacuum. I’m okay with that. It would be a lot easier if there was something more than a verbal contract, though. Verbally we have agreed that I’m going to do reviews. Verbally they’ve agreed to pay me. I email reviews. They send me checks. We never speck. (Never.) So who is to say maybe you send something in … it doesn’t get published and then maybe you’re no longer working for them. It could happen at any time. They’ve assured me otherwise many times over the course of the last decade or more, but the fact remains: no contract. Nothing written. Nothing legally binding beyond a few words.

So it’s easy to feel a little restless. Then you’ve got the theatre companies telling you just how special you are by giving you special folders with your name on it…I’m not rude about it. I don’t mind or anything. I take my folder and my tickets. There’s a pile of those folders in my office, but I take them all nonetheless. But you want to seem social. Theatre is inherently social. The least social job in all of theatre? Theatre critic. We don’t talk to the people we work for. We don’t talk to the people we work with. It’s like locking yourself in a closet with a whole bunch of other people and then getting a paycheck. It’s awkward. The smaller companies make small talk when they give you your tickets. You try not to seem deranged like these are some of the only words you’ve shared with an adult since last week, but you try your best. That’s all I’m saying.

It’s that point of contact, though: you get the ticket and make the one connection that feels real with the people who are crazy enough to put on a show and you try to seem gracious. It’s one of the more vital moments in your life. Things get weird, though. It’s like when you go to some big, bullshit traveling Broadway show at the biggest venue in town. I’ll never forget the first time that I went to one of those shows.

There’s a kind of magic in going to a table and picking up your tickets with no money changing hands. Anyone can get this by ordering tickets in advance. It’s a beautiful thing. You’re there to experience something. Let’s not sully it with the exchange of any vulgar monetary discharge. Let’s just say hello. You’ll hand me the tickets and I’ll go and sit down. Simple, right? It’s all been handled in advance.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to a bullshit overpriced touring Broadway show at one of the biggest venues in town. They don’t let you pick your date. There’s a special press day they want you to go to. Get there in the lobby and they’ve got a table set out for press. Walk up to the table, they hand you the ticket and a sheet of paper with relevant information. Walk over into the theatre, they scan your ticket on the way in, but there’s something weird about it, isn’t there? Check your ticket envelope there’s your name on it. It’s a name you haven’t spoken since you walked into the joint. They handed you your tickets, but you didn’t give them your name. You glance back at the table. You don’t recognize the person sitting there.

See understand that this was over ten years ago. This was somewhere back in the early part of this millennium. I didn’t have an account on Facebook. I didn’t have an account on MySpace. My face hadn’t really been published anywhere. At that stage there’s something of a strange mixture of paranoia and sadness. It was someone’s job at some point to track down my face online. Find a picture and memorize my face. Like it was important or something. Because they felt that I needed to feel special or something. And not creeped out. And not paranoid. And not looking around at everyone like they all knew who I was and were all really, really desperate to make sure that I was having a good time or something.

And you can’t take a sip of anything and you can’t use the bathroom and you’re constantly conscious of how you’re sitting and what you’re doing because there’s something weird about the whole thing. And they know your face. So you have to be careful where you walk and how you talk amidst the red velvet and all those strangers who have paid way too much for the tickets you got for free.

About Russ Bickerstaff

Russ Bickerstaff is a professional theatre critic and aspiring author living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife and two daughters. His short fictions have appeared in over 30 different publications.

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