Classic Conversations: Ben Brantley and John Doyle

The Classic Stage Company continues its series of free conversations between Artistic Director John Doyle and Theater creatives. Past conversations are archived and available.

John Doyle served as artistic director for regional theaters in the U.K. for more than 40 years. In 2005, he won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which transferred from The West End. Theater and opera projects in the U.S. followed. The director’s Williamstown production of The Visit and his Menier Chocolate Factory debut of The Color Purple, also moved to Broadway. The latter garnered two Tony Awards. Doyle has been artistic director of Classic Stage Company since 2016.

Writer/Critic Ben Brantley started his journalistic career at Women’s Wear Daily, went on to The New Yorker, broadly freelanced for magazines, and joined The New York Times in 1996. He received The George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 1996-1997 and is editor of The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century, a compilation of 125 reviews. On September 10, 2020, Brantley announced he would step down from his position as co-chief theater critic for the Times, effective October 15.

John Doyle introduces this evening by telling us it’s inspired by a BBC Radio Show called Desert Island Discs on which “guests share the soundtrack of their lives.” Both he and Brantley clearly love the theater. Conversation is infectiously enthusiastic and hopeful.

Raised in North Carolina, Brantley was exposed to the lively arts from childhood. North Carolina School of The Arts, he tells us, had a fine theater department. As his father taught at the school, he found himself in productions from the age of nine, then continued to act through college. He admits to no performing ambitions. “I come from a family of journalists; it was the path of least resistance.” Combining tradition with proclivity worked out.

Doyle notes that when he first arrived in this country, he’d lunch with theater journalists, fraternization that had been common abroad. Brantley declares himself stricter, “…along puritan lines…I was never comfortable writing critically about someone, then dining with them.” “Think about Kenneth Tynan almost literally going to bed with artists,” Doyle comments. Is the difference geography or history?

JD: “What do you feel about the internet devaluing theatrical criticism?” BB: “There’s nothing preventing anyone from writing a blog…It’s strange to be talking about theater now because there is no theater. I find it very frustrating not to have what I want to have to write about. I think when we come back, people will have to walk gently so as not to kill fledgling works.” Both artists feel it safe and wise not to read “the online stuff.”

JD: “I worked at the Liverpool Everyman (Theatre) years ago. In my first season, a local critic was personally abusive to me, even bringing up my private life. Staff wanted me to fight back and I said, no, just leave it alone. Once he calmed down, he came ‘round and became a fan.”
BB: “Meeting someone also diffuses things.”
JD: “There are two different systems (in the U.K. and the U.S.). Critics there go on opening night and would often be at the party. The only time you and I met was at British theater.”

At the time Doyle first read Brantley’s reviews, he apparently didn’t realize the status of The New York Times or the fear in which it was held. When Elaine Stritch was appearing in her own show, the director visited her dressing room to be met by “IS HE HERE?!” “Who?” Doyle innocently asked. “Ben Brantley.” She snapped. “He better be because I’m working my goddamn ass off!”

JD: “The power of a New York Times theater critic is unique, much more than British ones. How does it feel?”
BB: “You acknowledge the responsibility, but you don’t focus on it.”
Brantley says his first job as chief fashion critic at Women’s Wear Daily (without a jot of fashion experience!) was good training. “I was asked to pass judgment on something entirely new to me.” The journalist did research and kept his eye on purpose. He also learned not to be intimidated by fame.

BB: “I was 38 when I joined the Times. It was like I stepped into the most natural, perfectly fitted suit.” Though not awed, both men are highly affected by those they consider supremely talented.
JD: “I never dreamed I’d meet Stephen Sondheim, let alone imagined the body of work we’d do together. He took me to a Chinese restaurant before Sweeney Todd…” Doyle describes nervously dropping or spilling much of what was on the table. Excitement is palpable.

BB: “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to meet your idols. I was going to interview Sondheim for his 90th birthday, then he chose not to. I think that was a good thing. He’s as close to a living theater god as we have.”

Doyle brings up the U.S. vogue for headlining a theater production with a film actor. “He or she may be a very good film actor, but never had the training or body of work to be on the stage.” Both men were positively surprised with Daniel Craig’s Othello. Brantley wrote: “I am your own forever.” When these words are uttered in the electrifying new production of “Othello,” … you feel you’ve heard the most frightening vow ever spoken. It is delivered at the end of the first half of a performance that is drawn in lightning.

The Times critic then recollects Julia Roberts’ performance in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain which, though not good, did nothing to diminish warm feelings about her as a cinema star. Brantley wrote: The only emotion that this production generates arises not from any interaction onstage, but from the relationship between Ms. Roberts and her fans.

JD: “Let’s look beyond the pandemic. Theaters have been battered in so many ways recently, finances, the pandemic and issues centering on Black Lives Matter. Where do you think things are going to go?”
BB: “Anyone who predicts that is a fool…A lot of issues about race have been explored in theater the last few years. Did you see Fairview? (by Jackie Sibblies Drury). It turned your perceptions inside out.”

“I thought you said race is a construct,” says a mocking, identifiably white male voice coming from the sound system at Soho Rep. “It is,” answers a female voice. “Just because it’s a construct doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.” (From the play.)

JD: “Why do you think the new play movement in New York is as strong as it is? London is much more rooted in revival.”
BB: “There are shifts. There were points when The Royal Court (Theatre) was cutting edge and a period when America had no topical theater.”

The Royal Court, widely known as the writers’ theatre, declared its mission to be “creating restless, alert, provocative theatre about now.” It was The Royal Court’s press representative who coined the phrase “Angry Young Men” referring to John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger which exemplified a school of writers who impatiently expressed disaffection with the established order of their country.

Doyle asks what Brantley will do after October. His subject doesn’t know. Having plowed again through Dickens, he’s reading Henry James’ “The Tragic Muse”- “…about an actress, it’s wonderful…”
JD: “Are you sad to go?”
BB: “At this point, my job hasn’t existed for five months. I want to have a non-corporate identity for awhile. I don’t feel sentimental about it. When I left Fairchild (WWD), it was impulsive, but you can’t do anything impulsive at the Times.”

Turning the table, Doyle inquires whether Brantley has any questions for him. The critic asks how Doyle came to direct The Color Purple.                    JD: “When I was first shown the script, I said, ‘You’re out of your mind, I’m British, male, white and probably too old.’ I looked at the text and music, wondered whether it was even my taste, and went back to the novel… I thought it would play six weeks in London. Then you wrote a great review and we transferred to Broadway.

Brantley wrote: Give thanks this morning…and throw in a hearty hallelujah. The Color Purple has been born again, and its conversion is a glory to behold. JD: I may perhaps be the last old, white director for this show.”
BB: “Rules are changing, but I think they’ll relax in awhile.”

JD: “Back to your desert island – you can take two theater moments that would stay with you forever.”
Brantley understandably hesitates. “The Shakespeare Globe’s Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance. Maybe Hamilton – those songs stay in my head…”
JD: “Your love of theater has not gone away.”
BB: “Not at all. I love working at a job that makes paying attention transcendent.” JD: “Sometimes I realize I don’t have to do this anymore.”
BB: “One of my interns said, You’re just going to walk out?!” It’s a wonderful feeling to think you don’t have to do anything.”

JD: “On that desert island, what would you write next?”
BB: “Stories I could listen to myself read aloud.”
JD “You’re allowed one luxury. What would it be?”
BB: “Probably a nice bed with luxurious bedding, protected from sand – a place you can dream.”

I doubt we’ve seen the last of the work of Ben Brantley. As to John Doyle, he looks forward to resuming production on Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins—as soon as theaters can reopen safely. When the production premieres, it will complete the trilogy of Sondheim/Weidman musicals Doyle has directed. (Pacific Overtures, at CSC in 2017, and Road Show, at The Public Theater in 2008 and London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011)

Classic Stage Company was founded in 1967 by director Christopher Martin. It’s first home was a 100-seat theater at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. Eventually, outgrowing the space, CSC moved to present premises on 13th Street, formerly an East Village carriage house. Over the last 50 years, it’s become a center for new and established artists intimately telling epic stories. Productions have garnered all major Off-Broadway theater awards.

Opening- Left: John Doyle – Photo Courtesy of Classic Stage Company Right: Ben Brantley – Photo Courtesy of Mr. Brantley

Archived Classic Conversations

COMING UP:

Tonya Pinkins (Actor, Caroline, or Change), on Sept. 24
Nataki Garrett (Artistic Director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)
on Oct. 1
Rufus Norris (Artistic Director, the National Theatre, London), on Oct. 8
Marianne Elliott (Director, Company, Angels in America), on Oct. 15
Timothy Douglas (Director, Frankenstein at CSC), on Oct. 22
John Weidman (Writer, Assassins), on Nov. 12
Hilton Als (Staff Writer and Former Theatre Critic, The New Yorker), on Nov. 19

About Alix Cohen (892 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.