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Interview: Reina Hardy

By Chris Karr in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 17, 2006 5:19PM

Reina Hardy is a freelance theatre critic who has written for Red Streak and Centerstage. When she's not writing for these publications, she maintains Way Off Loop - a blog that focuses on the shows she reviews weekly. In late 2004, Hardy - a playwright - decided that she spent too much time behind the scenes of plays instead of being an audience member and watching them. She set a goal for herself to rectify this problem by attempting to see a show in every off-Loop venue in 2005 and recording her experiences in her blog. In addition to being a local theatre Critic, Hardy also founded the viola project with Ellie Kaufman. The Viola Project is a non-profit working to empower young girls through the works of Shakespeare.

Earlier this month, Reina sat down with us to talk theatre.

Chicagoist: How did you become a theatre critic?

Reina Hardy: Last year in January, I was visiting some friends in London and trying to see a lot of theatre in weird little places there. I read Richard Christanson's book - he's the Chicago Tribune critic - and I found that very interesting and inspiring. I decided that I don't see any Chicago theatre and I'm a playwright. I don't know who any of the companies are or what the venues are, and if I wanted to produce a show - I wouldn't know where to start.

I'm lucky in being a playwright because I've had a lot of experience
behind the scenes, acting and doing tech stuff. But I didn't have a lot of experience as an audience member. Something one should have. So I thought, "I gotta get into this. I got to set some stupid goal - some impossible overarching goal - that will result in me seeing a lot of theatre and getting a lot of coverage." If someone wanted to put on a play, I could say with some authority about which venues were awesome and which venues have pounding noises coming through the wall continually. Or have evil profiteers or smell strange. It's important to find out these little things when you're out and touring.

(More below the fold.)

So, I started doing this and blogging about it at the same time. After the first two weeks, after I was dropping thirty to forty bucks every weekend - fifteen per show is typical for the types of shows I'm seeing - it was adding up. So I called Inside Newspapers, for whom I'd written a few articles in the past, and said, "Hey - how about you guys have a theatre critic?" and they said "Ok - but we can't pay you." So they sometime run the reviews that I write on their paper version, but most often, they run them on the website. After doing that for a while, I had enough clips to contact Centerstage, who pays me once in a while.

I wouldn't say that I'm a real theatre critic, but I can get comped just about anywhere I need to go and I'm slightly less terrified of expressing my opinion. And it's the end of the year and I haven't completed my mission, but I've gone from having zero experience in reviewing - zero credits - to being able to get paid for it and knowing that when I hear of a venue or a company - I'll know who they are or that they haven't done anything before.

Chicagoist: How many shows did you see this last year?

Reina Hardy: I saw an average of two a week. I saw a lot. I probably saw shows in forty to fifty venues. I'm bad at numbers so that's an estimate. Most weeks I would see one show. Some weeks, I saw a lot more. And some weeks, I didn't see any.

Chicagoist: What were some of the highlights from last year?

Reina Hardy: I was introduced to the House last year. That was really awesome. Some of the first shows that I saw that really made an impression were "The Game of Love and Chance" - that was really funny. I loved "The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen". Those were the first two plays that made me think that it was going to be a great year. I really loved "The Talisman Ring" by the Lifeline Theatre - that was super, but it was really hot. It had men in breeches - highly recommended.

Chicagoist: On the flip side, what are the venues to avoid?

Reina Hardy: I have this weird feeling where I love venues that kind of suck. If it was impossible to get to or there were dogs barking on the way or there was a homeless guy that smelled funny, I feel right at home. But there are some that don't seem to be like a real setup. The one on Milwaukee - Chicago Actor's Studio theatre - it bites. The show I saw there was terrible, but also the venue had terrible sound leak and it smelled odd. It seemed dangerous. The thing that gets to me as an audience member is the sound and uncomfortable chairs. One of the studios in the Athaneum had no leg room at all. I'm a small person and I saw the Hypocrites' "Glass Menagerie" there - which was really good - but sitting back in my seat touching my knees is odd. It's never happened to me before. The Steep Theatre has a nice little venue, but it has sound issues because of the bar next door.

Chicagoist: Can you tell us a bit about the viola project?

Reina Hardy: It was started two years ago with a friend I met doing a play and we got drunk at an all-girls sleepover and I started telling Ellie about how when I was a kid, I was in this awesome thing called The Young Shakespeare players. When I was eight, I was Hamlet and Horatio. When I was thirteen, I played Iago in "Othello". They did crosscasting because they had so many more girls than boys. It was the only program I did when I was younger that didn't take gender, age, height or appearance into account in casting people. In the real world, you have to take those things into account when casting shows, but I don't know why people make such a big deal about it when they're putting on something that should be for the benefit of the kids. This was to let us expand our world and play and fall in love with theatre.

So after telling Ellie that, she was like, "We should do all-girls Shakespeare." And after a couple of months, we had done it. We incorporated that year in March and a couple months later, we had our summer session. Which was crazy. It was not enough time. But we did it. We had seven kids that year and it was amazing - we learned so much. They were adorable, smart, ferocious, talented girls. After that, we started working with the schools and we had another summer session in 2005. We're on our third year and coming up on our third summer session. This has really been a year where we've gotten things together, which is great.

It's fantastic. I love doing it and I love those kids. They're so cool.

Chicagoist: Have any of your graduates gone on to do more theatre?

Reina Hardy: One of our graduates - she's sixteen now - has been in two plays. She played Lisa in "David and Lisa" and Jo in an adaptation of "Little Women". She's going to keep doing theatre into college and maybe afterward. She came into it with experience and a lot of dedication. We have several students in "The Nutcracker". Practically, everyone does the school play - they just might not tell us about it.

We had two do the opening of "The Taming of the Shrew". If you've never seen two eleven year-old girls doing all-out stage combat with slaps and hip checks and punches and hair pulling - I don't think you've been entertained. We called that "Taming of the Shrew: Mean Girls".

Chicagoist: Any parting thoughts for our readers?

Reina Hardy: Go see theatre. Go see it. It's really cheap! It's really great and you don't have to be crazy like I am. If you make a tiny bit of effort to entertain yourself, you'll have a great night out. It'll take you to neighborhoods and places that you haven't gone to before. If you do it right and visit small local theatres, it should only cost you around fifteen dollars and you'll engage with your neighborhood and community. You'll be going into the places where you live - instead of being insulated from them.

And if you're having problems, e-mail me. Sometimes on my blog, I give away tickets. You'll get to see a play with me for free.


Chicagoist has been a fan of Reina's work since discovering her blog a few months ago. We don't read it as religiously as we probably should, but we're never disappointed to see Reina talking about another show in some out of the way place that we wouldn't have know about otherwise. For a good idea of all the good stuff you missed this year, check out her Best of 2005 post at Way Off Loop.