Who has the coolest job in town? Why, it would most certainly be Jay Handelman, the arts editor and theatre critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune , his employer since 1984. Jay joins the club to talk about his career at the paper, the many changes he has witnessed in the arts scene on the Suncoast, and how to walk that tightrope when a performance doesn't quite hit the mark for him.
All that and more on this episode of the Suncoast Culture Club Podcast. Come along and join the club!
• Jay Handelman Facebook & Instagram & Twitter
• Sarasota Herald-Tribune Website & Facebook & Instagram & Twitter
• The Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota Website & Facebook & Instagram
• The Players Centre for the Performing Arts Website & Facebook & Instagram & YouTube
• Sarasota Orchestra Website & Facebook & Instagram & Twitter & YouTube
• Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Website & Facebook & Instagram & YouTube
• Asolo Repertory Theatre Website & Facebook & Instagram & YouTube
• Sarasota Opera Website & Facebook & Instagram
Robyn Bell: Jay Handelman. Need I say anything more? Is there anyone in the arts community more connected than this guy? If you don't know his name, you must be living under a mangrove. He has been an editor and a reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune since 1984. Has served as a theater critic since 1986 and has recently been handed the additional duties of covering the performing arts as well. Busy guy in this amazing little arts town of ours. I am so pleased to have him on the podcast. Jay Handelman, welcome to the Club.
Jay Handelman: Oh, thank you, Robyn. It's great to be here.
Robyn Bell: Jay, you don't know this, but in addition to being a musician, I am a huge sports fan, and when I was a little kid, I dreamed of being a sports writer for a newspaper. This is what I wanna do. I have no idea why. It never dawned on me that the arts has that same type of person and position. So tell us, how did you come into this line of work 30 years ago? .
Jay Handelman: Well, it was something that I wanted to do from when I was a child. I grew up in New Jersey, right outside New York, and anybody who's heard me speak has probably heard this story a thousand times. But, when I was 11 or 12, I can't remember exactly what year it was, my parents took me to see the musical. 1776 on Broadway, the original Broadway production. I fell in love with it. I just loved the history of the story, of the creation of the Declaration of Independence and having all these actors right in front of me talking and singing and all that. And each Christmas week for the next few years, my parents took me and my older brothers, to a different show and. I can't remember what show it was, but at one point my oldest brother asked my parents what the critic said about whatever show it was that year, and I said, What's a critic? This is a story my parents told me many years later. I did not recall this, and I found out that there was a job where you got paid to go to the theater and write what you think about it. And I thought, well, that sounds pretty good. And when I was in high school, I worked in my school newspaper. I wrote some reviews, then I worked my college paper at American University. My first job was reviewing theater, and I did it all through college. Even as I became the arts editor or the features editor, and then the editor in chief, I still reviewed. And so when I started my career, I went into news originally I worked for United Press International, I was working in Washington, DC where I got to college and I got to write features about actors who were performing at the Kennedy Center or the National Theater, like the Washington Post would interview the big stars and I would get to interview the people that maybe needed a little bit more introduction, like faces that you would recognize, but didn't know their names. And, uh, when I came here, In 84, I was hired as an assistant city editor, and a few months after I was hired, I was asked by my boss what my goals were. And I sort of hesitated to say that I wanted to be a theater critic because sometimes if you're pursuing a hard news career that could seem to be derailing you. But this is what I wanted to do. And so I mentioned that I wanted to be a theater critic at some point. And. 26 or 27 at that point. And, I didn't know that they had been talking about creating a full-time position. I didn't know that there was a freelance writer who had sort of been promised by a different boss. And, uh, I got to do some reviews on my nights off for my editing job. And the new features editor, who had just been hired a month or two before me, I guess, saw something in what I was doing that he liked. And about a year and a half after I started, they created a full-time position and hired me. And I have been doing it ever since, Plus. Various other assignments along the way.
Robyn Bell: Sure. Now, you said you went to college in those particular towns,
Jay Handelman: I went to American University. . In Washington. And I studied, I was a communications major, been specializing in print journalism.
Robyn Bell: Okay. And then you graduate from there and where do you go next?
Jay Handelman: I stayed in Washington for, About four years I worked at United Press International. Mm-hmm. on the local news desk, and which was the editing center for all the, reporters who worked in Maryland and Virginia. And every day was an adventure because depending on what shift you had, you either were an editor. Handling all the stories or you were a reporter and when you were a reporter like that, We didn't have beats. I mean, some people may have specialized in some things, but one day I would come in and I would be editing. The next day I was writing radio copy, I mean, rip and read copy. So taking our. Full length print stories and turning them into little paragraphs. That a radio station anchor or news person could just rip off the wire and read. That was one of the most impactful things I ever had to do in my early career because it made my writing more conversational, I think. Cuz you have to. As you're talking, which I had no training in cause I had no broadcast journalism classes. And then other days I would be sent out to cover, the Metro Transportation Board or the mayor in city council in Washington. I was there the day the Air Florida plane crashed into the Potomac River.
Robyn Bell: Oh,
Jay Handelman: and about 30 minutes after that, a metro train derailed. It was a horrible snow storm in that day. And so the national desk in Washington took over the plane crash and I ended up spending 13 hours, I think, covering the fatal train crash and around 10 o'clock at night had to go tour the the train, which. Awful. One day I was sent to, one of the Smithsonian museums where they announced a, gift of some Mark Rothko paintings. And I did not know who Mark Rothko was, and we didn't have,
Robyn Bell: there's no Google .
Jay Handelman: There wasn't that, and we didn't have, I don't know if we had even a set up encyclopedias for me to, if he would've even, I'm sure he would've been in there. But, so it was great. I learned to be able to think on my feet and I, I don't compare myself to Larry King, but I mm-hmm. , you know, he didn't always prepare for his interviews, he just tried to talk to people, which I try to do just as you sort of do with, with this podcast.
Robyn Bell: Right.
Jay Handelman: And that's impacted my interviews. But I, I wanna be prepared, I wanna know things, but I'm able to handle. , whatever is thrown at me, I might be a little bit more nervous about writing about one subject over another cuz I know nothing about it. But I don't have any hesitation asking questions. I always tell journalism students or other people who are considering it, that curiosity has to be the. Key thing.
Robyn Bell: Yeah. The driving force. Yes. And with this podcast as well, I mean, we started this in the Pandemic. I have got to talk to so many amazing people that I would never have had that opportunity and just to take those deep dives with them. It's been really fun now. You come here to Sarasota, as you say, it wasn't to be the theater critic, but did you just see that job advertised or what, brought you here to the Suncoast?
Jay Handelman: I worked for u p and u p I was in financial trouble was the, The Avis to the Hertz of Associated Press, and when they cut our pay about 25%, I started looking for a different job and I applied to a number of places to individual papers and I, My father worked at the New York Times as a businessman, and he was about to retire at this time. And he said, Why don't you apply for something at one of, Cuz the Times owned the Herald Tribune in 35 other newspapers or so, daily newspapers in very small towns. I'm like, I've been living in Washington. I don't wanna go to a little place in Louisiana or something. But. I sent an application to their regional headquarters, which was in Atlanta, and they called me about this job in Sarasota. And actually the first job they talked to me about was to be the bureau chief or editor in Venice. And I, I didn't know there was a Venice, Florida, I'm, I don't want to go to Italy, which I should have wanted to do, but I didn't. So I was pretty stupid and, and I knew, I knew nothing about this area. I mean, I've heard of it, but, one of my colleagues, in Washington threw a farewell party and the invitation said, Handelman joins the circus. And I didn't realize
Robyn Bell: you didn't get the joke, .
Jay Handelman: I didn't, I didn't realize there, I found out, but I did not realize that. And now, you know, the joke is that I've been covering the circus for 30 years.
Robyn Bell: Joke on you.
Jay Handelman: Yeah. So,
Robyn Bell: I think we have this in common because I came to the State College of Florida in 2009 to take the job as the director of instrumental studies in the music program, and also had no idea. Of course it was Bradenton. That's where I interviewed, That's where I thought I was flying into. It was gonna be in Bradenton. It. And, uh, 2009 Bradenton and Sarasota, especially Bradenton, very different culturally than it is now. But like you, I had no idea. Now, in the interview, people were telling me, Oh, there's so many cultural things down here. I was like, Uh, Uhhuh. Uhhuh. And then I was just blown away. But that was 2009. You came here in 1984. Talk to us when you came here, how did it look? Culturally much different than it , is now.
Jay Handelman: It was pretty impressive. For a town this size, I mean, I remember the players now, the players center, um, was doing a production of Foleys, which was a Steven Sondheim musical that I had seen only once, and I was surprised that a community theater would be doing that. I got to go to the, what was then the Florida West Coast Symphony. I saw some things at the Van Wezel. I, this is all still as an editor. I got to go to the Sarasota Opera for the first time to see Beethoven's Fidelio. Mm-hmm. , and knew nothing about it and I loved it. Still something I. Don't just gravitate too naturally, but, uh, enjoy it when I go. I got to see some shows at the Asolo Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre and, the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre that was thriving back then. Initial reviews I did were mostly at the dinner theater or one of the community theaters, mostly the players. And so I. Impressed. And I was also reading stories that our feature staff mostly my colleague, Charlie Husking was writing about what was going on in the arts. But it exploded in some ways. Mm-hmm. , um, since then, I mean, there's so much more going on.
Robyn Bell: Could you pinpoint, like a transformational, maybe organization or something that you have seen that you feel like has really transformed our area in the arts?
Jay Handelman: Wow. Part of it is that it's been transformed because they've grown. I mean, like when I got here, Florida Studio Theatre was sort of considered the off Broadway theater if the Asolo was Broadway. And the quality of productions at Florida Studio Theatre has changed drastically. But so has the Asolos. I mean, there's much more elaborate than what was done in the past. We've had, the introduction of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which. Changed
Robyn Bell: huge.
Jay Handelman: A lot of things.
Robyn Bell: Mm-hmm. ,
Jay Handelman: I think giving opportunities to a lot of really talented performers who either would not have thought to pursue it or, been given an opportunity. And I think that's also changed. I mean that in a lot of. Things happening. Culturally around the world. Have broadened the scope of the, the kinds of programs that, are offered here. The opera has expanded, the orchestra has just grown. The ballet was introduced. I got to write about, Jean Widener now, Jean Widener Goldstein, who launched that program as a presenting. Uh, they were just bringing in some ballet companies through the, opera was, it was originally called Opera Presents Ballet, until the ballet was able to have its own 5 0 1 C three. And then they brought in Eddie Tusan from Montreal, brought his ballet company here, and he was the initial artistic director. And, now, they've grown in getting international attention. So it was already an arts community plus the Ringling. Um, Oh yeah, it was. Has had its ups and downs, I think, it's certainly broader scope now, I think, in, in terms of what they offer. So it's just an impressive place and I think anybody who comes to visit here expecting one thing is kind of surprised by how much is available. And you know, I expected to be here a couple of years and then I would go someplace bigger where there was more theater. Every time I've considered a job possibility, it's like, eh, I kind of like it here.
Robyn Bell: Right.
Jay Handelman: You know, I can afford to live here. I'm not living in a cramped apartment if I were in New York, which is what I would, be able to afford to do on the kind of salary journalist make. So, it grew to the point where, Well before the pandemic, I mean, I was out five or six nights a week, seeing things, I was reviewing, seeing things that I had a freelancer do for me because four shows would open the same night. And then also trying to go see. The other things that I don't review, but um, do write about so I know what they're doing.
Robyn Bell: And you talked about you were the theater critic and that's really what you wanted to be. And we have talked kind of offline how you now have taken on some additional responsibility. So talk to us about this expansion of your role at the Herald for the Arts.
Jay Handelman: Well, the job has changed. Several times over the years when I was initially the theater critic and I, so I wrote reviews and, and feature stories , but in the early days when we had a huge feature staff, , there was almost always somebody else to write a preview story. So I could focus on the reviews and not have to know. It's kind of nice to be separated from the people you're reviewing, so you don't know if you know, Oh, I really like you, so I'm gonna be more forgiving, or, I don't like you, so I'm going to, you know.
Robyn Bell: Yeah. Keeping that bias out, I'm sure is a big part of it. Yeah.
Jay Handelman: But in, smaller communities, smaller newspapers, that's almost an impossibility. Any place that has arts writers, they do both. And I've been doing a lot more of that. But for a long time I was the television reporter and editor as well. We had a freelance columnist who left and I follow tv, so I gave my editors some items from the wires that he could put together. And the next thing I know, I was the TV editor, . Um, I shouldn't have helped
Robyn Bell: anointed
Jay Handelman: and then, In 2016, my former editor, Susan Riefe, retired as arts editor and she was the books editor as well. And, they made me arts editor then, and I had , a staff of two, plus, a bunch of freelancers who were either critics or future writers. And over time, unfortunately, as the paper has shrunk, um, now a team of one, just me and some freelancers.
Robyn Bell: That is an awful lot of work for just one, or do you find yourself really buried in trying to get to everything? Or I should say all of the requests.
Jay Handelman: Yeah. I mean, everybody would love us to review everything and. That's impossible. Mm-hmm. . And, you know, I I, I used to really try to review every show that came around except for the things that would be at the Van Wezel for one night. But all the locally produced shows, because, you know, I might be missing the greatest. Thing or, you know, one of the joys of going to community theater was, or sometimes in the past, I used to review the shows here at SCF in olden days when John James was was here, you don't know who you're gonna see, and then here's a. Performer making their stage debut who blossoms over 10 years in multiple shows doing things you never thought they could do. And that's always exciting. And it's one reason I like going to the Asolo Conservatory because you watch them grow and then follow their careers as they develop. But Even while I was doing that, I would, you know, if you were in a big city, no paper could possibly cover mm-hmm. everything that's happening in New York or Chicago or Washington, DC or other places. And so now I've sort of taken that idea we're going to deal with the things that are going to either be most noteworthy because of their uniqueness or, the things that are going to attract the most people, which unfortunately leaves out some of the smaller organizations. You know, or crying for attention and could grow into something with more attention. But we can't be the source of everything they're doing. I, But then it also feeds on itself that they, start relying on social media and mm-hmm. and all that word of mouth, and then we become less. Important to their development. So I don't want that to happen either.
Robyn Bell: Yeah, that's a fine line. And I would imagine it's kind of all about that press release that comes to you, right? And you read these things, you go, Oh, that is something of interest. And you, have to be discerning about that yourself. Ooh, I wouldn't want that job.
Jay Handelman: And, over time, as the demands are greater and I have more things to deal with there are a lot of shows that. Really don't wanna see, I mean, I don't want to go see the 15th production of whatever musical or Neil Simon comedy, that I've seen. And, Unless there's. Some performer that I really like or a director I really respect. , and now I have that flexibility that I can pick and choose.
Robyn Bell: do you have any student interns that work with you?
Jay Handelman: We have in the past, in the summer.
Robyn Bell: Okay.
Jay Handelman: Unfortunately, when there's not,
Robyn Bell: Yeah. When there's nothing much going on ,
Jay Handelman: but, but in the summer there are a lot of things that can be done to help me. Prepare for the season. I've been inundated right now, writing about season announcements. I'm behind on them partly because it was out for three months after shoulder surgery.
Robyn Bell: It's good. You're not a conductor.
Jay Handelman: Yeah.
Robyn Bell: Yeah.
Jay Handelman: Well, my other arm, so.
Robyn Bell: Okay.
Jay Handelman: But I think, and also because of the pandemic, a lot of organizations announced later than they normally did. Mm-hmm. Because I think they wanted to wait and see how conditions were with Covid or what they'd be able to do or just set back their whole scheduling process. So, I mean, I've got a, I was, this morning before I came over here to talk to you, I was looking at my list and it's like, there's still six more including the pops orchestra. I interviewed five. People before that to want get them sort of in an order or before the season starts. So, you know, those kind of things an intern can do or there are features about people. One of our, companies goals is to build our digital readership, the people who are reading us online, because that's the future. I mean, newspapers are going to go away.
Robyn Bell: Right.
Jay Handelman: Which kills me. And a lot of. Patrons and arts readers are older people who
Robyn Bell: pick up a newspaper,
Jay Handelman: right?
Robyn Bell: Mm-hmm. .
Jay Handelman: And so there's, a struggle for me to find ways to attract people who don't read us online, knowing that people who read us in the newspaper are already gonna see it, and they don't need to go online, or they don't. And, so I just reviewed, Player Centers production of Side by Side by Sondheim, which was published online and, be in the paper. And I did it as top five Reasons to Go see the show. Cuz people love lists, so.
Robyn Bell: Right.
Jay Handelman: I couldn't do that for a lot of shows, but this, it was a musical review, so it
Robyn Bell: mm-hmm.
Jay Handelman: you know, I don't have to deal with a plot and all that. And we'll see how that does, you know, over the course of the run of the show and see how many people read it.
Robyn Bell: You know, you mentioned the Players Centre, you said earlier the Players, which is now the Players Centre. And so we know they've got some morphing going on. We know the Florida West Coast Symphony became the Sarasota Orchestra, and now they are also going through several different morphations. Morphations. Is that a word?
Jay Handelman: I don't have my dictionary with me. I don't know.
Robyn Bell: Well, I made it up.
Jay Handelman: I'll look it up later. .
Robyn Bell: If this were online, we could click it and it would tell us in Google. So we, we know these organizations that are, they have, they have been morphing how, how, let's say it like that, these two particular groups. And there's others. Like when I first came here, the Manatee Performing Arts Center, there was the Manatee Players built new building and moved. But, the Players in particular it's a little bit kind of like what's going on here. But what do you see from your seat as the person that has been really covering these organizations and seeing where they've come from and where they're going to, what are your thoughts on what is happening with the Player Centre and what is happening with the orchestra and their moves to find these new homes?
Jay Handelman: Well, two very different. Situations. I mean, they're both looking for, to have their own place to operate. The orchestra has been, you know, talking for years about building a music center where they could perform their concert to have control. , they've been renting the Van Wezel however many weeks a year. They do their concerts there. And the Van Wezel has been expanding its Broadway program and that takes up. Time away from the calendar. And I know they try to partner and collaborate, but you know, the orchestra it's not in charge of when they can use it. And so by building a music center, they can. Have that control. They had some missteps when they proposed moving to Payne Park, which caused quite an uproar right around the time that Selby Gardens was creating an uproar was, you know, all the con everything. Anybody proposed a new something, there was a group that opposed it. And now they found a piece of property on Frutiville Road near I 75. That. Sounds appealing, and they are working out designs and they are working out, , arrangements with a variety of other smaller organizations that might be able to use rehearsal halls or mm-hmm. some space there. I don't know how many buildings they might create. There's a lot of. Room out there. So,
Robyn Bell: and I think the big question too, from some of us going, is this gonna be a union hall? Because for the smaller organizations that's cost prohibitive,
Jay Handelman: right?
Robyn Bell: Yeah.
Jay Handelman: And I'm not sure what the answer is to,
Robyn Bell: They don't have it yet. Yeah.
Jay Handelman: And then the players, they were in a building on US 41 right across the municipal auditorium near the Van Wezel for 70 years or something, or more than that. And the building was falling apart and needed a lot of improvements and there was so much development around there that there wasn't enough parking anymore, so they created a plan to move to Lakewood Ranch to build a, originally a three theater complex. There was gonna be a cabaret space, a little black box, and then a main stage. And they were gonna have food available and all this wonderful stuff. And I'm sure that they got a sweetheart deal from Lakewood Ranch because that would be appealing to give another reason for people to come. And then patronize restaurants or other business. Around there in that Waterside development. And, they sold their building on 41 for nine and a half million dollars. And then nothing was happening. They were trying to raise money and the, the struggle they had, I think, the biggest obstacle was they were trying to sell. Something to an area of the community that has not shown broad interest in the performing arts. , I don't know what would've happened if the players had moved out to Lakewood Ranch. From what I hear from different organizations, they don't draw a lot of audience from that area. I think the Players' school would have done really well out there, because the, you know, families are
Robyn Bell: it's families. Yes. Yep.
Jay Handelman: So, they eventually had to move out of their building. They found temporary quarters in a old Banana Republic store at what's now called the Crossings at Siesta Key, where they've been now for over a year. And then earlier this year The plan to move to Lakewood Ranch collapsed. And, Lakewood Ranch I think basically said You're out. Though the Players made it sound like it was their decision, and I don't know all the details because I was off then and I didn't do all the investigating. And now the Players is trying to, work out a deal with the City of Sarasota to move into the Municipal Auditorium. And they have made a proposal, to spend. Millions of dollars to create a theater within. The auditorium, which is basically just this,
Robyn Bell: It's a shell. Yeah.
Jay Handelman: Yeah. with horrible acoustics. And it would all be able to fold up and move away so they could still have flower shows and car shows and, you know,
Robyn Bell: The Atomic Bizarre. Yes. That's a big, it's a big one
Jay Handelman: because those things would bring in money for the Players and they would take it over. And as I understand it, the city sort of. Some people in the city came to the Players as an option. And then the Bay Park Conservancy, which is developing the park that's gonna be going up in the parking lot of the Van Wezel, it's already started around the area, um, said, Well, you know, we have a management agreement.
Robyn Bell: Hmm.
Jay Handelman: That includes the auditorium. So the city asked the two sides to work together. To negotiate a shared usage. And I don't think that they've made any progress in that. So I, as I understand, at the beginning of October, the city Commission's going to sort of have to decide between the Players and. The Bays ideas and the Players are trying to work with other organizations that might use it, might rent the facility from them. So to bring in extra income, I don't know that this is the smartest use of millions of dollars. But I don't know where else they would go. They haven't been able to identify a building or a place that they could operate and they wanna be in the city. It's been part of the city forever, and I understand that the city's desire for. To continue. But the other problem is that because they're now in this smallish space, they can't do the kinds of shows that people. To know and love the Players for these big Broadway style musicals. And they've been doing more reviews and, you know, smaller shows which may be appealing to people, but they can only get, accommodate a smaller number of people. And then how do you raise the money you need to support something that. Newer people don't know you for
Robyn Bell: Yeah, it's a real round robin, No punted problem. And they've had some changes in executive directors sort of fairly quickly and it Yeah. Two very important organizations, The Sarasota Orchestra and the Players Centre and it's gonna be interesting to see in the next five years what happens with those. You mentioned the Crossings because I find this fascinating. What, what's happening down there at that little mall? Because you do have the Player Centre there. You do have Tree Fort Productions. Um, the
Jay Handelman: Rise Above Academy, I think, or above school. I'm not sure what they themselves,
Robyn Bell: that one and also, Arts Advocates. I was a guest speaker there. They were telling me about this. They took all of their art out of Van Wezel and now it's in this mm-hmm. Gallery there. And I've just been thinking more and more, how do you just turn that whole mall into an Arts Hub center and take those, you know, the big Dillards and turn it into a really nice performing arts theater. I guess it's just not financially feasible. I did Benderson buy that
Jay Handelman: and Benderson just bought it. And I would, knowing their track records, that they are very,
Robyn Bell: they're gonna turning into a rowing facility.
Jay Handelman: Well, no, but they're, I mean, they've, they took over the Landings and they've transformed that. They've brought in a lot of new, restaurants and shops, and I suspect that they have a plan to do that. And the Players has, I don't know what the deals are for the Rise Above or for Tree Fort. But the Players has a lease that covers them through the. 23-24 season.
Robyn Bell: Okay.
Jay Handelman: So they have this season and the next season. And I don't know if it could be extended. I think if there were more businesses in the mall it could be appealing. for the businesses but except it's mostly at night, bringing in people to be great for restaurants because you go, Oh, look at all the places we can go for dinner before we go to the play.
Robyn Bell: But not just performing venues, but you know, the, the Gap can be office space for arts organizations. I, I don't know, it makes a lot of sense to me. I don't have a pull. Nobody listens to anything I say, but I could see that as being a real cultural hub for the city. But then I found out when Benderson bought it, I was like, Hmm, there goes,
Jay Handelman: well, I don't think. No, these arts organizations don't have the money that, that a retailer would be required to spend to take over this space.
Robyn Bell: Now, Jay, the other day I read a review and it got me thinking. It's one of the things I wanted to ask you about when I got you here in the seat. But there was a performance that you particularly were not fond of, that you didn't enjoy and you didn't think either. The, product of it or the performers. So how do you go about, I mean, you know all these people in town and when you go to something and you're like, Ooh, that really hit the mark. What is the tact that you use to, to give those honest and open reviews that we so need? .
Jay Handelman: Well, just to be specific, probably are referring to my review of Smoke and Mirrors at Florida Studio Theater. Yes. I don't understand why they did the play. I don't know. They had done it 20 years ago, and I would must have, Away that summer when they did it. And one of the things I said in the reviews that with so many plays that are out there, and I know audiences love murder mysteries, but with so many plays out there, there has to have been something better, for people to see. And I talk to people who enjoyed it, but to more generally. I try to be fair. I mean, I think, well, I think I'm always fair. I'm writing from my experience and I mean my experience of having seen theater since I was 12, but also my experience in that theater, my personal experience, which is informed by all that past stuff. I can't write your thoughts. I can acknowledge if I hate something or really dislike something and everybody's cheering. I can acknowledge in my story that I feel like I was alone in this feeling. And I may say it specifically, you may enjoy it because it seemed like everybody else, they leap to their feet. Sometimes I think people leap to their feet to get out quick . But, um, but I, I go to the theater because I love it, and you have to love the art form that you're reviewing, I mean, I enjoy classical music, but I don't know enough about it, and I don't love sitting. listening to it enough to be able to be fair about it. And I don't know enough about it. I love the theater and I want it to be great. And so my job, I feel like is to point out why it's not or what's not working and to separate the performances from the script or the way it was directed. And not that I expect things to change. I don't expect them to change how they're performing it because of what I said, but maybe to. In the future, and I sort of feel like I'm a little bit of an ombudsman to hold theaters to a certain level a standard, that, you know, as I'm talking, I'm holding my hand up sort of at my chest level, that this is where you are and I wanna push you up higher. And if I see you sinking down, I wanna point out, you know, you've done better work. And I think it's important for audience. I mean, people go to the theater, I, this is my job, but I think if I wasn't doing this, I would be going to the theater anyway. I wouldn't be seeing as much as I do because I would be much pickier and I then think about the people who are being picky. But I don't know what your tastes are. you might only like the kinds of shows I don't like, and so my reviews and I, and I think over time people can learn to appreciate, well, I, he doesn't like this kind of show. I must maybe I'm gonna like it.
Robyn Bell: People do rely on your reviews of they decide what they're gonna go spend their time and money on. That's, kind of a heavy burden to shoulder there.
Jay Handelman: I try not to think about it. Mm-hmm. , I, I do appreciate that. All the time that I've been reviewing here because. Everything except for the Golden Apple Dinner Theater, which, closed a few years ago. Everything was a nonprofit organization. A show was scheduled to run from this date to that date. And so they may not extend it or they may not fill as many seats, but now I'm not putting people outta work. It's not like I was reviewing on Broadway where, a few bad reviews and a show can close after one performance and look at all the people who are losing. Their jobs.
Robyn Bell: Yeah, that's true.
Jay Handelman: I don't have to think about that. I wouldn't think about that. Mm-hmm. if I were writing in New York too. But it is, If I were to think about that, I think I would really be, Flummox, my fingers wouldn't work on the keyboard. I wouldn't know how to go ahead because I would be nervous about it. when I'm writing a negative review, and mostly even a mixed review when I'm trying to balance the good with the bad and why am I feeling this way? There are times I've started out writing one thing and it end. Being harsher or kinder. And then I go back and revise it because I, in the process of writing, I'm letting it out. But I'm trying to find the good stuff and then pointing out the things that could be better, and then determining through those comments, is this worth seeing? I mean it's something that's wonderful. I'm gonna say you should go see this. And as I did in that Smoke and Mirrors review, I think that's something that, I mean, I couldn't bear it.
Robyn Bell: Yeah. .
Jay Handelman: Um, and maybe you're gonna love it cuz I don't know everybody who's reading me and what their tastes are and you know, I know there are people who would go and, you know, they may go because they had a subscription and so they like as well use the tickets. Right. And I've heard of people who left at intermission and some people said they. Thought I was all wrong. So
Robyn Bell: now speaking of tickets, do you get free tickets to everything? Is it the bonus?
Jay Handelman: Well, I've always had free tickets
Robyn Bell: Okay.
Jay Handelman: For me.
Robyn Bell: Okay.
Jay Handelman: But until the last couple of years, we have always paid for our tickets. But in, an effort to, save some of what we're. Doing , so I can afford to pay freelancers and things. We are now accepting free tickets that the organizations, have long offered.
Robyn Bell: Yes.
Jay Handelman: What do they do with every other media outlet? And if anybody, who is gonna write about a show, they'll accommodate them. I have never personally had to pay for my tickets. That for things I. Years ago, my first features editor had pitched the idea that he should give me some extra money, so then I would pay for them myself and. Feel that weight, like is it worth , whatever. I paid for it. and then I thought, I'm gonna lose money in this somehow like we, we never did that. And I, frequently, when we've, I would buy subscriptions through the paper, so I was using my credit card and putting it on an expense report so I was aware of what I was spending and sometimes going, Whoa, these tickets have gotten expensive. I mean, that's one of the biggest changes. I mean, there were. Tickets for $12 or $15 at the community theaters, and now they're
Robyn Bell: 45 and 50.
Jay Handelman: Yeah.
Robyn Bell: Wow. Wow. Well, I could probably sit here with you for days and days and days and talk about every organization and everything that you've experienced, but I, I just have one last question because since you have been here for so long, is there one really big story that sets in your mind had some sort of effect on you. Kind of a permanent, I don't know, scar or permanent happiness.
Jay Handelman: I always hesitate to, answer questions like this without looking at all the things that I've written about, because they all go outta my head as soon as you start asking a question like that. But, I've had a couple of really interesting experiences with the Asolo Conservatory. Years ago, and this must be 25 years ago, maybe, John Ulmer was then the artistic director of the Asolo Theatre, and the conservatory was a two. Graduate acting program, It's now three years. And at the end of the first year, at that time, John would, spend five weeks working with the students, with an acting class. And it was summertime and one year I was invited to take part. Not just to sit, to watch, but to take part in this class. And I am sitting there with, I don't know, 15 or whatever students, who all had great experience. And you know, I did some shows in high school, but they were like reviews and Yeah. And I never had great acting experience. And it was mind blowing, um, of. What goes into a performance and we did, poems from the Spoon River Anthology and we would work on different characters and, and when he thought we had one, we had to then be interviewed by the other students. As our character and these are all dead characters who were speaking from their gravestones. And I was playing, I believe the lone Jewish guy who had been mistakenly cuz he was burned in a train crash or something, was mistakenly buried in this Christian cemetery and. There was one student who was also Jewish and asked me a lot of religious questions that this character would've definitely known, but I didn't because I did not have the same, religious education that she did. And I'm like, Wow, like how much do you need to know to play a part? And it really, it, it actually made it difficult for me to review, especially community theater, for a while because I could see through. The performances. I mean, not that I hadn't before, but I was seeing them through new eyes and, , I had an experience. I, I was in a, 10 minute play some years later, about 15 years ago. and somebody else was in a, one of the plays and she had been in a show at the Players and asked me what I thought, she really wanted to know. I said, Miss, seriously, do you want me to tell you what I thought? And I asked her a bunch of questions about where she was coming from when she came on stage and. She was giving me answers as an actor, like she was in a green room, which is the waiting area for the performers. And I said, No, you're character. You're the character the whole time. I shouldn't know this more than the people performing. So that was, a really, important. A piece of my development and understanding. It's like that means things I knew but didn't know so specifically. And I saw there were some really terrifically talented people who have gone on to some pretty good careers. One of them was, on couple of television shows. Mm-hmm. and. , a couple have performed at the, Asolo over the years and, so it's been great to catch up with them. And then the class of 2013, I got to follow them for three years.
Robyn Bell: Oh, wow. That's a new project.
Jay Handelman: Not as much as I would've liked to have. Cause I was too busy. But I, watched them in movement class and in a speech class or dialect class. Just how they talk and understand characters and, and a text analysis class where they really studied a script and understood it and just the basic approaches and, that was pretty mind opening to I think it was a great opportunity, for me to be better at what I do. And I think that one of the great things about my job is that I do the same thing every day, but. It's different because, well, the things I'm covering are different, but I'm learning from every single story I've written, every interview I've done in every piece of theater or other performance that I've seen makes me see the next one differently.
Robyn Bell: And you know, usually, You're in the audience looking at the end performance, and in these two examples you gave, this is you getting back behind to see really what the preparation and stuff did. Really fascinating stuff. It's like the rehearsal end. As I say, I take people into rehearsal room and I go, This is where the magic happens. You're gonna see it on stage, but this is where it's all happening. Well, Jay Handleman. There's your own applause.
Jay Handelman: Thank you.
Robyn Bell: Congratulations. You are now officially part of the club. Do you have handles that people wanna follow you Twitter, Facebook's kind of thing?
Jay Handelman: I've made it very simple on Jay Handleman on. Twitter and on Instagram and on Facebook. So,
Robyn Bell: And you're on all three platforms?
Jay Handelman: I am.
Robyn Bell: Excellent, excellent. Well, Jay, you are absolutely the envy of every journalism major who loves theater and musical theater. I hope you know how lucky you are to work in this amazing pocket of space doing what you do so well. I know things haven't always been easy in your line of work, what we always appreciate when you cover one of us or one of our events, I mean, who doesn't like to see their name in print, right? Either now,
Jay Handelman: most of the time.
Robyn Bell: Newspaper. Yeah. Right. There's. We value your time and input and opinion, and we know you're, you're gonna get it straight when it comes from you. We we're gonna know the truth and, we all appreciate that. So thank you for joining me on the podcast today and for being a dedicated listener to the podcast. I was, touched when you said that. I look forward to many more columns from you in many, hopefully years to come. Thank you, my friend.
Jay Handelman: Thanks, Robyn. It's been great.