It’s been speculated about for several weeks…ever since news leaked that the Seattle Times needed to balance their budget and cut some stuff by offering early retirements. Theater and media insiders wondering if longtime theater critic and arts writer Misha Berson might take such a package if offered had those suspicions confirmed this weekend as Berson announced on her Facebook page that she was indeed retiring from full-time employment at the Times.
Via her Facebook page:
I came to the Emerald City to work for the Seattle Times in 1991. 25 years and several thousand shows, reviews and stories later, I’ve decided to take a buy-out the Times is offering its employees. I’ll still be on the job through February 5, 2016, and then a new chapter begins.
I am not being laid off. This was my own decision based on several factors; about a dozen newsroom staffers are also moving on.
It was a very tough decision for me, and it’s very bittersweet. This has been my dream job. I have loved observing and chronicling and critiquing the Seattle theater scene as it’s evolved into one of the most vibrant in the country.
I don’t know if a fulltime theater critic/writer will replace me. No job has been posted, and no resumes solicited. But I’ve been strongly assured theater will continue to be a major Times arts beat.
Berson went on to say she hoped to contribute contributing to the Times as a freelancer in addition to other writing work she hopes to pursue. She is the author of the book, “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination” and frequently contributes to American Theater magazine.
While Berson mentions she’s not aware if she’s being replaced at the Times, the unofficial rumor from insiders who wish to remain off the record, is that she will not be replaced by a full time writer/critic and it’s more than likely the Times will rely on freelancers for most of their theater criticism.
With Berson leaving full time work at the Seattle Times, that leaves Seattle essentially without a full-time, fully salaried, permanent theater writer and critic. The Stranger still has writers on staff who continue to write theater reviews, but since their primary arts editor Brendan Kiley quit The Stranger and moved to a role as the Assistant Features Editor for Entertainment at the Seattle Times, no one person seems to have stepped into his role at the alternative weekly. Editor in Chief Christopher Frizzelle and new staff writer Rich Smith now appear to be covering the bulk of theater writing for The Stranger. Of the other primary media outlets in Seattle, both the Seattle Weekly and the Seattle P-I rely on freelance theater contributors for the most part.
There has been some talk about Kiley taking over the primary critic’s role at the Times, but most insiders insist that theater reviewing will essentially be mostly done by freelance writers.
Misha Berson’s Facebook announcement has received numerous congratulatory comments on her post but not everyone is sad at her departure. She’s been criticized by some for playing “favorites” when it comes to her reviewing (though to be fair, this a common complaint directed towards all critics). Berson also earned some ire from the gay community in January of 2012 for referring to a performance by Jerick Hoffer in the musical Spring Awakening as “overly flamboyant”, a coded phrase that was read as homophobic by many in the LGBTQ community. Berson was called out for the comment by this writer, and The Stranger’s Dan Savage and later apologized and retracted her comment. Hoffer, of course, is also known as drag star Jinkx Monsoon who later won the televised drag competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Hoffer/Monsoon later won local theater awards and rave reviews for his role in Hedwig & the Angry Inch” in 2013.
On a personal note, I’m not a particular fan of Ms Berson or her writing style but I did appreciate her championing of smaller, off-beat theater productions and companies. And, her departure from the Times is significant and potentially troubling for arts writing and criticism in the Seattle community. Hopefully, the Times will continue to support and report on the local arts scene and specifically theater related events. Arts coverage is equally important as Seahawks coverage. Both are vital components of a healthy community.