Q&A: Howard Shapiro on New Gig as Newsworks Theater Critic

The Inquirer's loss is WHYY's gain.

Back in October, the Philadelphia theater community was horrified when the Inquirer reassigned longtime theater critic Howard “Howie” Shapiro to the South Jersey bureau. Instead of making the trek over the Ben Franklin from his home in Wyncote, Shapiro took a buyout. Now, word comes of his new gig: theater contributor for WHYY’s Newsworks.org and 90.9 FM. I called Shapiro to get the details.

Congratulations, Howie. Tell me about your new job.
I’m going to be reviewing theater on the air and on the Newsworks website, and I’m really excited about it. I have been the Broadway critic for a bunch of NPR stations in New Jersey. I started that when the Inquirer decided they didn’t want Broadway coverage anymore. That wonderful gig allowed me to learn the ins and outs of radio.

Did you pitch this to Newsworks, or did they come after you?
I called them, and they were really receptive. I told them that I was leaving the Inquirer and that I’d really like to do some theater criticism for Newsworks, which is a growing organization. On Thursday, it became official.

Have you missed writing?
After all this time–I’ve been going to the theater all of my life–and I don’t really like to go without a pen in my hand. It just doesn’t seem right. This will be a lot of fun for me, and I hope fun for listeners. It brings another critical voice to another journalism organization in the city. Theater has really bloomed here, and it needs to be covered. It needs to be reviewed. You actually caught me sitting here looking at my list of upcoming opening nights.

Which ones are you most excited about?
The Wilma’s Under the Whaleback, because I’m a big fan of the playwright, Richard Bean, whose One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway was very smartly constructed. And the Arden, they’re doing Raisin In the Sun, which hasn’t been done in a long time, and last year, they did Clybourne Park, which is, of course a followup to Raisin. Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful is opening at People’s Light, and it’s also opening on Broadway, where it is being produced by Stephen Byrd, who grew up in Overbrook and who is the only really visible African American producer on Broadway, in terms of putting a lot of money into things. So it will be interesting to see People’s Light’s take and then his. I hate to admit this, but I’ve never seen Pirates of Penzance, and that’s at Bristol Riverside. Seminar at Philadelphia Theatre Company. And one of the really good musicals set in Philadelphia, Sister Act is coming to the Kimmel. Such a wide range.

Will you have restrictions on what types of theater you can review? I know that the Inquirer has certain requirements based on Equity actors being in productions.
I can’t cover amateur or community theater, because all of those people who participate in that do it for love, and who am I to say whether that’s a good or bad thing? I do want to stick to professional theaters, which is everything from Pig Iron to the Walnut. And I don’t mean to neglect newer or smaller companies, which attract a long of young people and which tend to be edgy. That’s where you really want to be at.

Can we expect arts features, or will you just be reviewing?
Well, I’m not sure. [WHYY arts reporter] Peter Crimmins does a great job with his arts coverage. But I like to write about stagecraft, I like behind the scenes stories. What about sword fighting on stage? What are the rules for that? How often do you have to do safety exercises for that? The answer is before each show. People are fascinated by how the magic happens. OK, so Mary Poppins seemed to come down from the Academy of Music ceiling and onto the stage. How did she do that? It’s no longer enough for people to just go to the theater. They want to feel a part of it. They don’t want to read a news report necessarily. They want to be in it.