For the better part of the last 36 years, all the world’s been a stage for Chris Rohmann.
The Advocate’s longtime theater critic has had a front seat view to thousands of plays in the Valley. With that seat, he has penned his perspective on performances, previewed poignant productions, and highlighted the ups, downs and all-arounds with the opening and closing of countless curtains.
And just as all the men and women who serve as the players take their exits and entrances, Rohmann, who entered the scene of this publication in May of 1986, is bowing out of his writing duties and exiting stage left.
“Going to the theater in the Valley and in the region, I’ve covered the Berkshires for a long time and Hartford Stage and TheatreWorks in Hartford and up into Vermont Sandglass Theatre in Putney, and it’s been such a joy and a privilege to be able to see whatever I want and cover as much as I can,” said Rohmann, 80. “I think I’ve written about 2,000 pieces for the Advocate, and maybe seen half again, that many plays. … And, I think it’s time to stop.”
Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Rohmann was immersed in theater early on with a very active community theater and college theater program. Initially, he had dreams of gracing the stage as an actor, but scrapped that idea when he got to college and began spending time with a number of professional actors who were barely scraping by in the industry.
Instead, he went into music, becoming a singer-songwriter in the 1970s, spending time in England. And while the rhythms and harmonies of that industry led Rohmann to record a couple albums, in the end, his heart still beat loudest through the fourth wall of the theater.
When he arrived in the Valley, he recalled an especially robust scene for the theatrical arts.
“I pitched to the Advocate that I could write about theater for them, and the rest is history,” he said.
Words, words, words
When Rohmann first started his tenure at The Advocate, he’d write his pieces in longhand. In the beginning, he’d bring his pieces down to the then-Hatfield offices in a former mill building for then-editor Kitty Axelson.
Once there, he described entering his work into an early Macintosh computer and saving it onto a floppy disk, so that he could take it to the other end of the building to be “mowed down,” he said.
These days, an email with an attached file of his work to the editor is part of the typical procedure. Rohmann also mentioned that he and the current editor of The Advocate have never met in person.
“A lot has changed,” he said.
Despite the changing faces, places and modes of communication, the theater continues to hold much joy for Rohmann.
“I still get a little thrill of anticipation and expectation every time I walk into the theater and sit down preparing to see a show,” he said. “I’ve seen some stinkers, but I’m always hopeful. And I’ve seen a lot of just wonderful theater. The Valley especially is so full of people of experimental theater, people trying new things, people making due in unusual places, and making the places work for them.”
Both sides of the footlights
When it’s your job to weigh in on a world that’s being created, being a critic can be a lonely occupation.
“I’m sitting there alone, or with my partner, in the theater taking notes. Then I come home and open my laptop and write the review alone,” he said.
As for shows he enjoys, Rohmann said he gets very excited by plays that directly interact with the audience, like Shakespeare’s do. Rohmann particularly appreciates those that are able to convey an awareness that “we’re all in the same room together,” he said.
But as someone who has directed for theater companies, some of which he has provided reviews for in the past, he tries to be fair and tell the truth according to the way he perceives it. Above all, he makes a point not to be nasty.
“I don’’ like critics who score points off of a production in order to look smart or clever. I know how much blood, sweat, and literal tears goes into the staging of any theater production,” he said. “So I don’t want to just say, ‘Well, that was crap.’ If I do want to say that it was crap in a non-nasty way, and in a gentler way, I feel it’s my duty to explain why.”
He also uses a grading curve. For larger production companies with full-time professional actors, for example, if a performance ending doesn’t work, he tends to be more outright in his opinion than for a smaller production featuring performers who have full-time jobs and are doing the best they can with what little they have.
“I want to judge a theater on the basis of what it’s trying to accomplish and what resources it has for accomplishing that,” he said.
As you like it
Whether a performance received a thumbs up, thumbs down or something in between, the region’s theaters have understood that when they invite a critic, they’re inviting criticism. Though he hasn’t gone looking for praise, Rohmann said that he’s received a lot of complimentary feedback on his coverage.
Sheryl Stoodley of Serious Play Theatre Ensemble & Training said his articles were very helpful to their festival and venue hosts, and acquainted them with the production’s themes, soundscape, movement and stage design.
“Chris has always enthusiastically supported Valley theaters of all types (not just Serious Play’s devised, deconstructed and new play work), and with his personal interviews, rehearsal visits, then turned into Advocate articles, he enlarged audiences for each production he covered,” she said in a statement. “He invested in and knew personally many of our actors and watched many develop their own careers in theater and performance.”
Stephanie Carlson, an actor Rohmann has both directed and reviewed, said she’s always had a lot of respect for his reviews and described them as both “insightful and accessible.” With a focus on the positives, his critiques are well-considered, she said.
“Chris has done a tremendous amount to promote local theater, and attends nearly everything performed here in the Valley,” she said. “It is a pleasure to count him as a friend and I applaud his decadeslong dedication to the craft.”
Actress Jarice Hanson, who Rohmann also directed and reviewed, said his work brought a great deal of respect to The Advocate and to WFCR, where he was an on-air critic.
Hanson said she started reading Rohmann’s reviews in the early 1990s. In covering the area’s theater scene, Hanson eventually met Rohmann in person and he eventually asked her to perform in a production he was directing.
“I learned about his own unique vision as a director and his penchant for choosing challenging, but often, very funny plays,” she said. “So somehow, over the years and the Valley arts community, we’ve grown to be good friends. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about Chris – as a reviewer, he knew the people and the philosophies behind a number of theaters. He understood their audiences, and he went to every review with an open mind and a sense of fairness and objectivity,” she continued. “But at the same time, his honesty and integrity as a person always allowed him to do the work thoroughly and with the knowledge of the art and craft of performance that made him one of the best reviewers around.”
Linda McInerney, artistic director for Greenfield-based Eggtooth Productions, lauded Rohmann’s attention to the region’s vibrant theater scene.
McInerney, who met Rohmann 25 years ago when he came to review her work for Old Deerfield Productions, described The Advocate critic as both a theater outsider and insider. As both a performer and director himself, it allowed him to be able to stand within the art while observing it from the outside, an invaluable point of view, she said.
“He has generously given support to our community of theater makers by shedding light on the work and its context while at the same time he has been an important educator and promoter of that work, bringing in audiences who trust him,” she said. “There is no one else like him in the Valley and he is to be lauded and thanked for his important legacy.”
The be-all and the end-all
Rohmann may be putting down his pen for The Advocate, but he has no intention of leaving the world of theater. He has plans to take in more performances — just without a notebook on his knee.
In the past, he used to see up to 150 shows each year. Admittedly, he said had it not been for his work with The Advocate, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to see all of those performances.
“I’m looking forward to sitting in a theater not thinking about how I’m going to cover what I’m seeing or thinking about what I’m going to say as it goes along,” he said. “I love to sit down with the hopeful expectation of seeing something terrific.”
Rohmann, who has two published books to his name, hopes to add another book to his cadre. He’s also working on a music project and hopes to record some songs he’s written.
“I’m not putting my feet up just yet. I’m just putting my pen down,” he said. “I do hope that The Advocate will still have theater coverage because I hope that what I’ve done has made some difference and that will continue.”