In 2009, Kris Vire became only the second Theater Editor of Time Out Chicago when inaugural editor Christopher Piatt decided to step down. Since its debut in 2005, TOC has become a major source of reviews and news for Chicago's theatre community, quickly earning a reputation on par with much more established publications for its breadth of coverage.Much of the credit for leading that charge can be attributed to Piatt and Vire, who seek to balance a deep knowledge of the city's stages (particular its myriad, mercurial storefront scene) with the pressures of producing content that appeals to the magazine's largely non-theatre-going readership. I talked with Kris about his history, his job, and how he sees his contributions as editor and writer in the context of Chicago theatre as a whole. —CAR Theater Resesarcher Dan Granata
How did you get interested in in theatre? I assume, like most folks, you did your time on the performance or production side?
Indeed. I got started in theater as a very shy high school sophomore in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when a couple of friends somehow persuaded me to audition for the school production of Arsenic and Old Lace. I got cast in the tiny role of Officer Klein and fell in love. Given a script and a stage, I found confidence I lacked in real life. I attended the University of Arkansas as a drama major, concentrating on acting but studying and working on just about every aspect of production. I find [this] incredibly helpful in terms of writing about theater now. I moved to Chicago in 2001 with the intent of being an actor, though I only performed in a handful of shows here.
How did you get started writing about theatre, and why?
I started a personal blog the same year I moved here, way back when most folks still didn’t know what a “blog” was. I wrote a fair amount about theater there, as I was getting to know the Chicago scene, and because the blogging community was still so small, I met a lot of folks through that. In the spring of 2003, my friends Andrew Huff and Naz Hamid invited me to become one of the founding writers for Gapers Block, a collaborative project they were putting together that would be a sort of groupblog of Chicago news and events. I think I ended up taking lead on the theater beat kind of by default.
Now, my other great love in high school was journalism. All the while I was taking drama classes and doing plays, I was also on staff—and for two years, editor—at my high school newspaper, with shorter stints on yearbook and the literary magazine. If I hadn’t majored in theater in college, journalism would have been my second choice. It never, ever occurred to me that there was a way to combine the two; “theater critic” or “theater reporter” isn’t a job that was visible in Arkansas in the pre-Internet early ’90s. So having this outlet at Gapers Block to write about theater, even in short bursts and among all the other things I wrote about there, was sort of revelatory.
In the late summer or early fall of 2004, I met Christopher Piatt at a Gapers Block party at Danny’s in Wicker Park, and in the course of the conversation I figured out that he’d written the Sun-Times review of a show I was in with Defiant Theatre earlier that year. It had been our one positive notice. Some months later I got word that Christopher had been hired as the theater editor for the soon-to-launched Time Out Chicago. I reached out to him, and luckily for me he knew my writing at Gapers Block and my personal blog and was looking for some new names to review for Time Out. He brought me on as a freelancer, and my first review ran in TOC’s first issue (of Marriott’s Swing!). I continued writing reviews and eventually started reporting stories, and lo and behold, it felt like what I really wanted to do. I had another stroke of luck a couple of years later when TOC had a staffing reshuffle and offered me a full-time gig. Then, when Christopher decided to step down last year, I moved up to theater editor.
What is a typical week like for you?
I’m always surprised by how much other people are surprised that I spend a full work week at the office. Given how many nights and weekends I spend on the job, I’m given a lot of leeway about non-deadline mornings—like a lot of theater people, I’m not a morning person—but I spend a lot of late nights at work, too. I think I spend more of my office hours on the administration side of editing the section than I do on writing. Scheduling reviews and reviewers is like weekly sudoku: These three shows are all opening on this night, and my reviewers are available here and here, and when can we get this into the magazine, and how many pages do we have available this week? And I have to process press releases, keep up on check requests to make sure my freelancers get paid, make sure our webpage is current, blog about breaking news, monitor other news outlets and my Twitter feed, report stories for print, etc., etc. A lot of my reviews get written in my so-called “off hours” at home, especially since weekend openings have to be processed very early and very quickly on Monday morning to get into that week’s magazine.
Oh, and I have to keep a calendar in front of me at all times to remind myself what day it is. When I'm putting in check requests for last week's issue, adding this week's new reviews to the website, scheduling reviews for next weekend and working on a feature for the week after that (about a show that'll open even further into the future), it's easy to get lost.
What do you like about your job, and what drives you nuts?
For the most part, I love, love, love my job. I’m very lucky in that I’m one of an incredibly small number of people in this city who gets a full-time salary and benefits to draw attention to our fantastic theater community, and for the most part I get carte blanche in my section to highlight what I think is worthwhile, whether it be a nascent org like the Inconvenience or a visiting star who’s here with a Broadway in Chicago tour.
I do wish that I had more opportunities to put theater up front in the magazine, though I understand that it’s not as big a draw on the newsstand as Lollapalooza or a really juicy food feature. But occasionally I do get to put someone like Tanya Saracho on the cover, and that’s pretty satisfying.
What I hate is when theater artists set critics up as the enemy. Even when we give negative reviews, believe me, it’s coming from a place of wanting to make all ships rise. Speaking as a former freelancer and the assigning editor of my current crew, they’re not doing it for the money—and even as a fulltime staffer, I’m sometimes critiquing artists who make literally ten times what I do. We’re all doing it for the love of the form.
The "community spirit" of Chicago theatre seems like it would further muddy the already murky waters of the professional theatre critic. How do you see your role as critic, commentator, and reporter? Given your many personal relationships with artists, how do you find a balance? And, maybe more importantly, how do you define that "balance"?
This is something I wrestle with constantly. Yes, I have personal relationships—and fan relationships—with people in the artistic community that I cover, as do a lot of other section editors at TOC, and for the most part I think we count that as a virtue, an ear to the ground. But when does that virtue become an obstacle? That’s something I haven’t figured out yet. I think I know when to recuse myself viewing a certain company or show, but when do I say, I have too much insider info about this company to be able to report on them objectively? Or Am I too close to this group to be able to report on them without somebody, hypothetically, deciding I’m being a cheerleader? That I don’t know.
One thing that continually impresses me about your work (and that of Christopher Piatt before you) was how you manage to maintain so much theatre coverage—and write about such inside-baseball topics as costume design—in an explicitly general-interest, events-and-pop-culture based outlet. How has the way you think about theatre shifted as you have been called to see it through this lens? And (perhaps a trickier question), how do you see Time Out's coverage and contribution in particular vis-à-vis other outlets?
I’m very aware that Time Out’s coverage is closely followed by the theater community. The thing I have to keep reminding myself of is that we don’t write for that theater community—that’s what PerformInk is for. TOC is, as you say, a general-interest magazine. In the theater section, I get to make a lot of assumptions about the reader’s base knowledge of the scene, but it’s still got to be geared toward engaging readers who might not be regular theatergoers. Any time I can hook in to that via an upfront feature, like that piece with the costume designers in the “vintage” issue or the Inconvenience in the “underground” issue, is a chance to get that reader to also look at our theater reviews and listings and consider going to a show.
As far as comparing to other outlets, I know that Time Out’s readers are largely city dwellers who are actively looking for entertainment options that are accessible by public transportation. I can offer them things that won’t get highlighted in the Trib or Chicago magazine, and they’ll give them a shot. Look, our Theater section is one of the tentpoles of our cultural coverage; it's always going to be one of the largest sections in the print magazine, and online it has one of the largest and most loyal readerships on the site. My bosses are committed to the depth and breadth of our theater coverage, and there's no pressure on me to keep the advertisers happy, either. When I say, "I want us to review 14 shows this week, and I'm also profiling this young company you haven't heard of that's putting on their third show," my editors don't blink.
Kris Vire is the theater editor for Time Out Chicago, where he reviews and reports on the city's sprawling theater scene. He's also written about Chicago theater for the UK's Guardian newspaper and the Chicago trade paper Performink, and has been a finalist in the Arts Criticism and Reporting category of the Chicago Headline Club's Lisagor Awards. Vire was a founding staff member of the Chicago-centric web publication Gapers Block. He's a naturalized Chicagoan but a native of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he majored in drama at the University of Arkansas.