Movie and theater critic Chris Hewitt previously worked at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, where he covered movies and then theater. A native of Racine, Wis., he grew up in a tiny town on the far northern edge of Illinois, moving to the Twin Cities in 1991 to do theater public relations, which he did badly for a couple years before joining the Pioneer Press. As an 11-year-old, his grandma turned him on to Agatha Christie’s mystery novels and, a few years ago, he decided to re-read all 78 of them in the order they were written. His blog, chrisandchristie.tumblr.com, includes mini-reviews of each book and a ranking of them, from first (“The ABC Murders”) to 78th (“Passenger to Frankfurt”). He's probably reading a good book right this minute.
You were a history major in college at Illinois Wesleyan University? How did you get into journalism and criticism?
It is a small liberal arts school, so there was no journalism degree program, but I had the opportunity to edit the paper and write reviews for it, not thinking at the time that it’s what I’d do for a living.
Your job has changed dramatically since COVID-19. How have you dealt with that?
Although there is something to be said for not working so many nights and weekends, I’m definitely mourning theater and kicking myself for taking for granted the time not too long ago when I saw live theater three times a week. Movies have found it easier to pivot to streaming (and are now coming back to theaters), so it feels like that part of my job has been pretty much the same, except I’m “screening” a lot of movies in my basement. Which, by the way, I am really sick of, like everyone else.
Where are you getting ideas for the Film School feature?
When [Assistant Managing Editor/Features] Sue Campbell (brilliantly) suggested the feature, while we were packing up to head out of the office in March, I remember saying, “Oh, yeah. I could do 100 of those, easy.” Some time within the next week, I started a list, which I’m still using, but I’ve also done several that were suggested by colleagues or readers. It may take a while to get around to them, but I love suggestions!
How will the Twin Cities theater community survive this? What do you foresee on the other side?
I am trying to stay optimistic, but I fear it’s going to be rough. I know of theater makers who are pivoting to some other work. For sure we are going to lose theater companies — a few small ones have already indicated they’re done, and I fear more, larger ones may be too. The thing that’s giving me hope is that some companies have found creative ways to keep at least a hint of their work alive — Park Square’s written-for-Zoom “Riddle Puzzle Plot” and Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” being two prominent ones.
In a healthy world, you are both our movie critic and one of our theater critics. Do you have a preference?
I like the balance of both. If I were forced to choose at gunpoint, I’d probably say that I’ve been writing about movies for much longer, so I find that a slightly easier fit.
Before the pandemic, what did a typical work week look like for you? And now?
Before: Movies are screened in advance, sometimes at evening screenings with invited audiences and sometimes in the daytime, with just a handful of people scattered around a theater where the heat or air conditioning is just ramping up for the day. For theater, we generally go on the opening night, which is often filled with friends of the production and donors — so, the theater has provided us seats and knows we’re there (at comedies, I sometimes wonder if they stick somebody who laughs really hard behind me, but that’s probably just me being paranoid). I see two or three plays a week and a movie or two. The rest of the time, I’m interviewing folks — on the phone or in person — about upcoming plays, reporting news from the theater community and trying to come up with new ways to approach the topic such as a story I did 18 months ago about “The Secret Life of Seats” that I recently received an email about (the president of the manufacturer that made the seats for the Ordway Concert Hall wanted to know how we found out so many secrets!)
Now: I get out once in a while, to interview folks, masked and from 6 feet away. Otherwise, I’m in my basement home office, chatting on the phone or Zoom with people, streaming movies and writing about whatever I get asked to write about. I’m just as busy as I was in the before-times, but my hours are a little more “regular.”
How do you approach a new show or movie? Do you do any background on it, read through what is sent from publicists?
It varies. If it’s a show or movie that is based on something that is popular, I feel like I should make sure I have read the source material, too. I usually know the personnel involved and, ambiently, have read things about both movies and plays even if I don’t study up on them. I go back and forth between recognizing the value of being super-informed about what I’m seeing and also knowing that many people go into shows or movies cold, so there’s value in honoring that experience, too. The short answer: I approach both like an audience member who is hoping to be thrilled by what I see.
What are the challenges of being a theater critic when you know all the players in the show? Have you felt repercussions from that? Have you ever just hated a show you’ve had to review?
That’s definitely a big difference between movies and theater. I’m sure I’ve written much harsher reviews of movies than of theater, but I hope that translates into an awareness that theater reviews are, in a way, not individual stories but part of a much bigger story that is always changing and (I hope) getting better. One thing that makes writing about theater easy is that you very rarely see a genuinely bad performance by an actor here because the level of training is so fine. Bad choices get made, bad plays get produced, bad directors are hired but you can almost always find something worthwhile in the performances. In the spring, I received an email from one of the creators of a Guthrie “Twelfth Night” production that I was critical of, wondering why I had not commented on a particular aspect of the show, and it turned into a really helpful back-and-forth that will inform how I look at one aspect of theater (movement) in the future.
There’s a consumer benefit to theater reviews so I wouldn’t want to “accentuate the positive” of a bad show so much that readers thought I was urging them to spend their money on it, but I do think it’s worthwhile to attempt to figure out what a play was trying to achieve and point out what it did well, even if it fell short, especially since theaters here produce on vastly different scales for vastly different audiences. 100%, I have hated shows and have written that I did – I hope with humility and compassion.
Top five movies of all time? Top five shows of all time?
I wrote a list of my 100 favorite movies of all time when I was at the Pioneer Press, so that’s easy: “Blow Out,” “Citizen Kane,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Shows: the original “A Chorus Line,” “Sweeney Todd” (with Angela Lansbury), “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (with Lily Tomlin), original cast of “Angels in America,” the local production of “How I Learned to Drive.”
In the good old days, your work was what most of us do for our entertainment, so what do you do for fun?
Follow the Gopher women’s volleyball team. And read!