“That’s not writing, it’s typing” | Former Willamette Week critic Steffen Silvis flays Oregonian theater coverage during his time in Portland as “synopsis” and “stenography”

As they are wont to do, the guys at 5 Useless Degrees and A Bottle of Scotch have been busy hunting down all the Portland theatre content you want to hear about. And last week as part of their July interview series, they somehow located legendary former Willamette Week critic Steffen Silvis and brought him in to the studio to reflect back on his time covering the Portland theatre scene, now almost ten years in the rear view mirror.

If you’ve been around a bit, you may recall Silvis’s reign of terror as theater critic at Willamette Week from 1997-2005. Decidedly NOT a booster type, Silvis slammed, bammed, raved, and panned his way through a stream of shows back in the previous era of Portland theatre. His literary exploits led to, among other badges of honor, getting banned from three theaters, including PCS (bad reviews of PCS shows still get critics on a shit list).

In the interview, Silvis describes how a lot of the (often negative) heat in his reviews was explained by his frustration with the town’s newspaper of record, which was apparently unable to write an honest (negative) review. Silvis describes the Oregonian style of reviewing at the time as “stenography” – simply listing the things that happened in a show without providing any value-added interpretation or judgement. Of course, we’re talking about an age when at least the Oregonian DID theatre reviews.

Though Silvis was active in a different time, before the meltdown of newspapers and media budgets scaled back theater coverage, the issues of objectivity and boosterism are still very much alive.

He’s also got an interesting anecdote about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a scathing review in London, and how it helped his own playwriting career.

As with all the 5UD podcasts, it’s worth a listen.

Here’s a few snippets.

“Most of the criticism at the Oregonian was useless. It was mostly praise, for the most part, I think it was the Oregonian’s attempt to keep what advertising they had in the arts and culture section…. It was never truly honest.”

“In the days of Elizabeth Huddle (1994-2000), it (Portland Center Stage) really was the emperor’s new clothes…. The Oregonian could find no fault in what was going on at PCS. I went and was seeing a lot of expensive mediocre work, and was saying so to the point where first PCS pulled its advertising from Willamette Week and then it banned me from the theater, which is still a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned.”

“You have to be honest. You should be serving the theater audience, but to a certain extent you should be serving the wider readership out there. Is this worth the average punter’s $20 or $30? And I thought not. But the Oregonian would write these wonderful, empty reviews.”

“I’m a great fan of booing.”