Don Rubin*

Abstract: After forty-eight years of teaching—and some 8,000 or so nights in the theatre—Don Rubin, now a professor Emeritus, recalls how he became an actor, a critic and, then, accidentally stumbled into a most satisfying career in academe.

Keywords: Hofstra University, Register newspaper, Toronto Star, York University, theatre criticism, Canadian Theatre Review, World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, LIEDR Paradigm

My own beginnings in theatre, like so many others, started with a desire to perform.

My first role as an actor was playing a Cold Germ in an elementary school play called Piffle, It’s Only a Sniffle. The play, I’m sure, had many deeply moving moments for audiences. So deep was the experience for me that I actually remember my opening line, a profound example of expository verse that I spoke directly to the audience. Looking as menacing as possible, I said, “Hooray, hip-hip, I’m a post-nasal drip.” Then, adding dramatically, “I am mighty and bold, I can give you a cold.”

Unlike many would-be thespians, however, I really did wind up as a professional actor for a time. I attended New York City’s High School of Performing Arts—the first arts high school in North America (later celebrated in the film Fame)where, from the ages of 14 to 18,  I received heavyweight Stanislavski-training from artists connected to the early Group Theatre, who were themselves trained by some of Stanislavki’s own people. These early teachers of mine were also maintaining their own careers in New York as actors, directors and stage managers. 

One of my favorite memories from this unique high school hothouse was the weekly recitals. Every Friday—and this went on for four years—one of the school’s departments (theatre, dance or music) would host a one hour show (sometimes by the students, sometimes by invited companies). These ranged widely—scenes from a recent or classical play to a ballet/modern dance concert or music concert (classical or jazz). As I look back on that extraordinary training, I reckon that, by the time I left high school, I had seen more than 150 plays, dance and music concerts. Which is to say that, by the age of 18, I had already had a lifetime of performance experiences.

Don Rubin as an 18-year old actor in New York City

Summers in high school were devoted to apprenticing with professional weekly stock companies in the New York area, doing everything, from painting sets to helping actors learn lines to ushering (where I had the opportunity to see the same production at least eight times a week, a fabulous way to learn one’s art). I wound up actually auditioning for one of these companies while an apprentice, getting the role and, later, being cast in the same role for the post-Broadway tour of The Diary of Anne Frank (starring 1940s film star Francis Lederer), in which I played Anne’s boyfriend Peter.

It was also while at Performing Arts that I started my career as a theatre critic, the subject I would wind up teaching in university for more than 40 years. On the same street as the high school was the weekly trade newspaper Show Business, which provided casting news for the acting profession. Rather precociously, I thought that, if I worked there, I might be able to pick up casting news ahead of other young actors. I was soon hired to be the paper’s after school office boy and part-time switchboard operator. I met lots of tough New York show biz types at Show Biz, including the Damon Runyan-esque publisher of the paper, Leo Shull, a delightful con man who, for some reason, took me under his wing.

It was Leo Shull who actually encouraged me to see as much theatre as possible while working there. He said I shouldn’t come in to work on Wednesday afternoons—Broadway’s major matinee day.  He told me to go see the matinees. When I pointed out that I couldn’t afford the shows, he said that he wasn’t expecting me to buy tickets. I should simply show up at any Broadway show I wanted to see about an hour after the matinee began. “When the show breaks for first intermission, just hang out in the lobby area and then walk back in with the audience. There’s always an empty seat or two at the back of the theatre.”

I took his crazy advice and happily wound up seeing the second halfs of more than a hundred Broadway shows while in high school. Of course, I never knew how most of those plays started, but I could sure tell you how all of them ended.

Off-Broadway was also a growing concept back then, and invitations to review came in daily to Show Biz. Most of the invites were simply hung on a staff bulletin board with a note saying anyone could use them, but a 500 word review had to be turned in. I would often take the free tickets and head off to some obscure Greenwich Village theatre with my girlfriend to see a new play. And, then, write about it. Suddenly, I was a published theatre reviewer. No one had any idea who I was or would believe that I was only 16. And when I wrote something positive about some barely-budgeted show desperate for publicity, my review could be found quoted in the major dailies including, on occasion, in the New York Times.

By the time I headed off to university, I found myself trying to decide between a career as an actor and a career as a theatre critic (at that time, still a viable option). I received an acting scholarship to Hofstra University, a major university theatre department in the New York area.

I found among my fellow students there some extraordinary people—future film star Madeleine Kahn and future Theatre of the Ridiculous founder Charles Ludlam. I realized, at that point, that there were many better actors than I was. It was at that moment—after my first year of university—that I decided to focus on a career in criticism.

IATC President Roman Szydlowski and Rubin debate the role of criticism at a 1976 conference in Montreal as part of the cultural program leading to the opening of the Olympics

I switched my major to English Literature (with a concentration in Dramatic Literature) and applied to become the student newspaper’s theatre critic. Within a year, I also became the paper’s Arts Editor and, in my last year, Editor-in-Chief. It was a fabulous experience for a would-be theatre critic. And, each summer, I would work as an intern for the New Haven Register, a medium-sized daily in a well-known pre-Broadway tryout town just 90 minutes from Manhattan. When I graduated from university, I was offered a full-time journalism job at the Register writing news, general features and, on my own time, reviewing shows and doing theatre interviews.

My intellectual interest by that time was focused less on Broadway than on the growing regional theatre movement emerging across North America. More artistically focused on bringing theatre to the people, the regional theatre movement included many public debates and roundtables with many critics (including me), from many parts of the continent. Because of my theatre reviewing, I was offered an opportunity by my critical idol Robert Brustein to attend the Yale Drama School (also in New Haven), where he was Dean. I did attend some classes. The fact was, I loved the time I spent in and around the Drama School, but I simply couldn’t afford financially to give up full-time writing. The experience, nevertheless, did inspire me to continue my academic career part-time, and I wound up getting my Masters degree at the University of Bridgeport’s Shakespeare Institute, where I worked with its director, left-wing theatre critic Allen Lewis and with actors like Morris Carnovsky, who was performing at the Stratford (Connecticut) Shakespeare Festival.

Eventually, my journalistic career took me to the prestigious Toronto Star, the paper where Ernest Hemingway once worked.A much larger newspaper than the Register, the Star hired me as back-up theatre critic and theatre feature writer. After just a few months in Toronto, CBC Radio offered me a chance to be their morning theatre critic as well. I would often wind-up reviewing the same show for both CBC and the Star overnight. Working at the Star’s office from the moment a show ended until about 6 a.m., I would then have an early breakfast and head over to CBC’s studios, where I would read what had been the first draft of my Star review at exactly 7:57 a.m. The published newspaper review and the “read” first draft were different enough that neither outlet minded. Because of my actor training, I was also pretty good at making the first draft sound unscripted. And, perhaps most important, I got paid twice to see the same show.

That was when my criticism career took an odd turn. A new Theatre Department was about to launch at Toronto’s York University. The Department wanted to include a course or two in Theatre Criticism and approached the Star’s major critic, the celebrated Nathan Cohen, to do it. Cohen, however, was something of a media superstar (including television and radio) and was not interested in teaching, but he said that, if York would hire me, he would do some occasional lectures in the class. And so began my academic career; a course in how to write Criticism.

Don Rubin in 2012 lecturing at York University. Photo: Don Rubin

Not so sure myself how to teach criticism, I asked Cohen for advice. He urged me to have the students write a lot and read a lot. He urged me to include lots of theatre theory—Aristotle, Horace, Lessing, and even my old friend Stanislavski. I had never actually read any Stanislavski to that time. My own education had come first as Stanislavski practice. Looking back, I realize that it’s not a bad way to learn—first practice, then theory.

At the end of that first year of teaching part-time, York offered me a full-time contract, this time to teach not just theatre criticism, but also theatre history and script analysis. My acting training and graduate lit degrees were suddenly coming in handy. I took the York offer and found I actually loved doing the preparation and the reading for the courses. I also found that I loved teaching and talking about what I was doing professionally: going to the theatre and writing about it. I had begun to see theatre criticism even then as simply a form of sharing knowledge, as a way to explain to anyone who would listen what I had seen in a performance. Teaching, I came to understand, was the greatest of learning experiences.

When I signed that first contract, I still wasn’t totally committed to higher education, however, and I told myself that I would only stay in the academy for a few years, five at most. Forty-eight years—and some 8,000 or so nights in the theatre—later, I finally retired as a Full Professor from York with the honorific title of Professor Emeritus.

The first issue of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review co-founded by Rubin at York University in 1974 and edited by him through 1982

After so many years in the classroom and after seeing theatre around the world, I had even evolved advanced teaching specializations in areas like Canadian Theatre and Drama, African Theatre and Drama, Critical Theory and Theatre History. I had also helped to create the department’s MA and PhD programs in Theatre Studies and had even started a national quarterly journal called the Canadian Theatre Review (still publishing some 50 years later), along with a theatre book company called CTR Publications, which specialized in scholarly theatre publishing.

Looking back over that extended teaching career in theatre, I can still say that what most held my interest were the courses I established in Applied Theatre Criticism and, what I called early on, Theatre Aesthetics (Theatre Theory by any other name). I offered these applied courses for some 40 years at the third- and fourth-year undergraduate levels and at the graduate level.

The Africa volume of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre series edited by Rubin and published between 1994 and 2000

The third-year course simply offered opportunities to read theory, to study current examples of outstanding journalistic and scholarly criticism, and to offer students, each semester, an opportunity to write six to 12 pieces of criticism, some short, some long. The fourth-year version of the course gave students the chance to edit and publish their own 24- to 48-page journal, paid for by the department. The students were, then, able to market it any way they wanted and some issues reached across the country. The best of these young criticism students often wound up as editorial assistants on the journal CTR. The one year grad course offered these same opportunities but with more theory, and, of course, writing expectations at a higher level.

Throughout my own teaching of theatre criticism, I insisted on maintaining that strong balance between theory and practice; between reading the ideas of theatre-makers and critics, and trying to put those ideas into actual practice. One week, the students would read a piece of theatre theory (theatre theory as opposed to literary, linguistic, political or social theory) and, the next week, they would go to see a show of their choice and, then, write about it. I never pushed the actual links between what they had just read and their writing, but they were certainly there.

I would often start them off as would-be theatre critics by asking them to go to an art gallery and choose two or three paintings to write about. They all thought they had a lot to say about plays. By asking them to write about Visual Art, I was trying to force them to break away from their strengths and preconceptions, trying to make them describe. As American critic Eric Bentley once said, criticism is discussion before it is anything else. To discuss, one needs to first describe at some level the thing being looked at. Describing something is trickier than most young writers believe.

Don Rubin, ed. Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2004

I often gave an assignment early in a semester to write a short piece (200 words) about tasting something. Most were rather quick to go to an immediate judgement. The thing they were tasting was good or bad; the experience positive or negative. But few would actually describe the experience of actually tasting something; would express what the thing itself was like. Over and over, I would tell them that I really didn’t care whether they liked, say, vanilla ice cream. What I wanted to know was what vanilla-ness was. Forcing young writers to describe, to discuss, was always the major challenge. Insisting that judgements were the least important aspect of critical writing was a wake-up call to many.

As was all the reading they were doing. Over the decades, my reading lists for young critics grew and changed, but I did stay with some of the original ideas of my colleague Nathan Cohen. I had them read Aristotle’s Poetics, so they could understand that Aristotle—coming from a science background—was, first, a describer of what he saw and not a judge. The judgments, the rules—so often attributed to Aristotle—were connected to French neo-classicism of the seventeenth century. They also learned that saying a play was not Aristotelian, that it did not have a beginning, a middle and an end, for example, said very little about what a particular play actually was. Even Absurdist plays, I would point out, had beginnings, middles and ends, just not necessarily in that order.

Guardian critic Michael Billington and Rubin at a Canadian seminar sponsored by the Shaw Festival

Another classical reading that I found useful for students was the Ars Poetica of the Roman satirist Horace. Discussions usually focused on his ideas about the ultimate function of any work of art and his notion of “docere” and “delicare,” to teach and to delight. Horace argued that works of art could do either of those useful things but that a great work managed to do both: could make us understand things more deeply as it entertained.

Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesie brought in the neo-classic thinkers and the beginnings of journalistic criticism with the rise of the coffee house culture, in seventeenth-century England. Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy introduced students to the concept of the dangers of the in-house critic, the “imbedded critic,” in more contemporary critical parlance.As the first “imbedded” critic (working with the Hamburg National Theatre), Lessing set out to write a twice-a-week journal looking at that theatre’s new productions and its artistic vision. So unpopular were Lessing’s comments on these shows, however, that he quickly stopped writing about what he was actually seeing, and he began to write instead about what could be on their stage. He also said much about the responsibilities of the critic, especially one working in a developing theatre.

It was through Lessing that I tried to introduce the ideas of the German writer and thinker Goethe. In particular, I would speak of Goethe’s three principles of analysis; his so-called three questions that he felt should be asked about every work of art: what was the artist trying to do? how well did the artist do it? was it worth doing?

Instead of applying those questions to a work of art, I found it useful to use a more shocking example—Auschwitz and its death camps. If Auschwitz was an artistic creation, what was it trying to do? The simple answer: kill people.

Goethe’s second question: how well did it do it? As one of the greatest of the death camps in World War II, it killed people very well. By this marker, it was also a success. 

Don Rubin hosts a visiting Chinese theatre company at York University

And, then, we would discuss the third question, to me the most important question and one that set apart opinionated, report-oriented reviewers from genuine critics: was it worth doing. It is here that the writer is asked to put their own values on the line, to reveal who they are. That is: how dare anyone create an Auschwitz? It was important here to point out that this crucial positioning can only come after real description and real discussion.

More contemporary theatre theorists were brought in as well in this pedagogy—Stanislavski and his methodologies for reproducing a naturalistic reality on stage; Meyerhold and his challenges to Stanislavksi’s core ideas as he sought to bring about a heightened, circus-like reality; Edward Gordon Craig utilizing darkness and light, shadow, shape and sound in his visionary theatrical mix; and the French theorist Antonin Artaud taking the Craig-ian vision to darker ends with his Theatre of Cruelty, his theatre of “extreme” action arguing that every act has the potential to be extreme, to be cruel, to be part of a theatre using all that is found in war, in fear, from screams to actually breaking through the walls of the stage. Students responded viscerally to Artaud’s final statement here: “and if in the beginning a little real blood is necessary. . . .”

The second half of the twentieth century was represented in this pedagogy, for me, by the ideas of the Polish theorist Jerzy Grotowski, who took Stanislavskian honesty to extreme limits. I also used the sociological examinations of the Italian theorist Eugenio Barba and his ideas of theatre anthropology, the Brazilian Augusto Boal and his political action-rooted Theatre of the Oppressed, and the American critic and scholarly provocateur Richard Schechner and his ideas of Performance Studies; an idea rooted in the notion that everything we do every day can be connected to and evaluated as part of a performance continuum. From choosing our daily “costumes” to hair-styles, make-up, posture (playing life, being alive), all the way to examining the rituals we live by in performance terms—rites of passage, weddings, funerals.

And in between discussions of these theatre-rooted readings, the students would write about a performance they had seen. I would ask them for 750 words—two to three pages. They had a week to write. They would, then, read their pieces in class and discuss them.

One of the most satisfying things for me was replacing formula reviewing with what might be called a more thoughtful pedagogical template for serious theatre criticism. Since some have found that template useful over the years, I offer it up here to would-be theatre writers. Take it if it works for you. Ignore it if it doesn’t.

I call this template the LIEDR Paradigm, with LIEDR itself being simply a series of initials.

I begin it with the letter L for Lead, a journalistic term but a useful one for beginning any piece of writing. For even scholarly writing doesn’t have to be boring. The Lead is the opening sentence or two and is crucial to bring a reader in. Simple facts (names, dates, locations) are really quite boring in Leads. For me, a good Lead is often the most important thing one has to say about whatever is under discussion. The “facts” can be part of it or they can immediately follow the lead. But, if one wants to interest a reader, find something that is important to say in the lead.

Second in this writing paradigm is the letter “I” which stands for Idea. It often takes young or inexperienced writers a while to understand that works of art are, ultimately, about Ideas, and that the core Idea of any work of art is what needs to be identified and understood. And it needs to be discussed early on in a piece. In fact, the Idea may need to be in the Lead or, in fact, is the Lead. In my pedagogy, it is essential that the core Idea at work in any production and/or in any play (particularly if it is a new play) be dealt with as early in a piece of critical writing as possible.

Don Rubin lecturing in India in 2010

The E in this paradigm stands for Evoke. Once the core Idea has been discussed, the writer needs to Evoke the production, give the reader a sense of what it looked and felt like. This should not be a catalogue of everything seen. That’s boring. But rather, it needs to be an Evocation of the whole. As an exercise, I would ask my students to “Evoke” the room they were sitting in. Not its size and shape but what it felt like, smelled like, its style, its essential being. Is it functional and cold or is it faded roses and dust.  One cries out here for good writing. One needs to give the reader a sense of what was seen on the stage through Evocation.

The D is double and actually stands for Direction and Design. Did the director have a particular concept in staging the piece, a particular approach? What was it? Describe it. How did it look and feel? The same for designs? Did the designer(s) have a particular concept or approach? Talk about that as well. Most of the time, this part of the discussion will be directly tied into the Idea.

R stands for Reveal. The last and most difficult element in the pedagogy. What I ask for here is that the writer Reveal something about themselves encountering this work of art. It is amazing how the reader or listener will suddenly tune in much more deeply, if the writer personally connects to the work as a living, breathing human being. Offended? Angered? Touched? Why? For instance, if the writer is a deeply religious person and the play is attacking religion, does the writer simply stand back and say “well done” or does the writer have some responsibility to take a more personal position on the issue? I suggest the latter. For me, this connects back to Goethe’s three questions about a work of art and whether it was worth doing.

Let’s say the play under discussion was intended simply to be silly and frivolous. According to Goethe, one must identify that, perhaps as its core Idea. Was it done well? That is, was it truly silly and frivolous? Perhaps it was. Check it off.

But, then, we come back to that all-important final question: was it worth doing? Perhaps it was for some. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps it was a waste of everyone’s time and energy, your time and energy.

At that point, one is Revealing oneself as a human being, speaking for oneself and no one else. That self is, therefore, on the line. And when readers sense that something personal is on the line in a piece writing, they will read all the more carefully and they will listen.

The fact is, I taught Theatre Criticism in this way for some 40 years. And I taught it fairly successfully I daresay, in that I turned out a number of genuine writers and thinkers over the decades; people who wound up writing for newspapers and journals, people who wound up running theatres, people who became theatre scholars themselves, and who all recognized that their writing had improved their abilities in whatever their ultimate field of endeavor.

But, another fact here, as we turned into the twenty-first century, I felt that I had to stop teaching Applied Theatre Criticism, because there were virtually no outlets for my students to use it in. For a time, I simply taught my course as Theatre Theory with a single writing assignment over a semester. And, over several weeks, we looked at the LIEDR paradigm as a way of improving writing generally. But the days of pretending that I was preparing theatre students for careers in theatre criticism—journalistic or otherwise—were all but over.

By 2010, in Canada, there were, perhaps, only a half-dozen jobs left for full-time theatre critics. By 2018, that number had dropped to perhaps three. Even my old haunt, the Toronto Star had stopped paying for full-time critics. Instead, it was paying free-lancers to offer coverage of theatre activity in the city. And there was a lot. Sadly, there were few complaints about the ultimate loss of career voices across the board. And, online, what I saw mostly was opinion masquerading as thought, opinion without discussion.

Which caused me to lose much of my own joy in sharing theatre experiences with others. I also stopped going to the theatre so much. I stopped writing about productions. And, last year, I retired entirely from teaching.

I do miss my students. I do miss the debate and the discussion both in the theatre and in the classroom. For me, I can say without hesitation that teaching theatre and, especially, teaching theatre criticism was a fabulous experience and, ultimately, the core of a terrific career. Writing about the theatre was a terrific experience. With criticism fading as a profession, I am more than a little saddened that so few others will have the opportunities I did.

Don Rubin and wife Patricia Keeney at a 2017 York University ceremony celebrating Rubin’s retirement from teaching and the naming of a Lounge and Library in his honor

And yet, somehow, I maintain a hold on it all by writing essays like this and through working with journals like this which keep an honorable tradition of rich theatre conversation going. Just maybe, it makes me think, it will all one day come back and that the best of what genuine theatre criticism can offer will find a new way to speak,  will truly reinvent itself for a new generation. 


*Don Rubin is the former Chair of the Department of Theatre at York University in Toronto. He is a past President of the Canadian Centre of the International Theatre Institute and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. The Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, he is Managing Editor of Critical Stages as well as its Book Review Editor.

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The Art of Criticism: Sharing the Theatre Experience
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