Meet the Critics #1: Venus Zarris

Your Chicago theater exmaniner introduces a new series about people who write about Chicago theater: Meet The Critics.  Our first subject – Venus Zarris of Chicago Stage Review.

How did you get started in this part of the business?

I attended some plays with my dear friend Rick Reed, who was a theater critic for years at Windy City Times. Based on our post-show conversations he suggested that I should be reviewing theater and put me in contact with the editor of Gay Chicago Magazine. I sent a bio and some writing samples and was assigned to shows right away. That was in 2002 and within a short amount of time I was reviewing the lion’s share of plays for Gay Chicago, as well as writing theater and non-theater related features.

Do you have formal theater or criticism training?

I have extensive theater and forensic (speech and debate NOT criminal investigation) training. I was a state champion in high school and then went on to be a national champion in college in several performance events. I directed a state winning high school group interpretation production while in college and I’ve served as a judge at speech and theater competitions.

My high school theater director recently informed me that I have something in common with Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Frank Galati. We were both nominated to the IHSA All-State cast for Group Interp, Frank in the 1960s and me about 20 years later. I don’t know about Frank, but I was unanimously nominated to All-Conference, All-District, All-Sectional and finally All-State… But then he trumped me a few years later with those damn Tonys and the Academy Award nomination.

What about the job makes you crazy with joy?

There is so much that gives me crazy joy, even after close to 1000 plays and theater features. The staggering talent in Chicago keeps my work fresh and urgent, as well as delightful. One of the special joys of the job is watching talent develop, be that a company or individuals. Also the theater community in Chicago is comprised of so many extraordinary and lovely people, on-stage, off-stage and in the audience, in every capacity and at every level. There is something about theater in Chicago that draws remarkable people to it and it is a joy to share their experiences.

Can you write about a favorite moment that you will always remember from a Chicago production?

A number of performances immediately come to mind, too many to mention individually. I was just talking with a friend last night about heartbreaking productions/performances. There have been a handful of plays that I’ve seen where I was burning calories trying to keep from crying because they were so emotionally honest and compelling. There have also been a few shows where I literally physically hurt from laughing. Those extremes leave indelible memories. But to pick one moment would slight so many others.

What do you most dislike about doing this job?

Scheduling shows is a pain for me, especially when there are so many openings like now as the season is opening. I try to see as much as humanly possible and feel bad about everything that I miss.

Any advice you would give to Chicago’s producing community – either the non-profit or for-profit side?

The community is doing such an incredible job that it is hard to come up with advice. The arts in general are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, between a struggling economy and the commercial homogenization of thought. Chicago theater serves the community on more levels than simple entertainment. It is a place where epiphanies happen on personal, political, emotional and social levels. It fills so many vital gaps.

It is also this place where, night after night, the imaginations of its creators come to life, where ideas become three-dimensional organic tactile expressions. And this alchemy happens against huge odds, be that with fledgling companies or long established ones. When you set out to produce a show you choose to play in a rigged ball game. Yet theater companies in Chicago consistently win these rigged games, or at least give them a good run for the money.

More so than advice, I would be inclined to give Chicago’s theater producing community an enthusiastic request to keep fighting the good fight and assure them that their Herculean and undercompensated efforts have profound and broad sweeping impact.

What do you want us to know about you as a person?

I take theater and what I write very seriously but don’t take myself too seriously. Winning the “very informal ‘Best Chicago Critic Poll’ from is a wonderful surprise. It is great to know that my work strikes a chord for so many readers.

Anything else you want to mention?

August 26, 2009 was Chicago Stage Review’s one-year anniversary. I launched the website to try and pick up some of the slack for the shrinking print coverage of theater in Chicago and in its first year has grown dramatically.

I’m thrilled to announce that this year the After Dark Awards, which were originated by Gay Chicago Magazine and have been acknowledging outstanding theatrical accomplishments in Chicago for close to two decades, are transferring to (Your Chicago theater examiner got the scoop!)

Gay Chicago Magazine created an extraordinary legacy of Chicago theater coverage. The transfer of the After Dark Awards to is an honor and we are committed to maintaining this vital tool, just as we’ve been committed to reviewing and supporting Chicago’s incomparable theatrical work.

(Click here for the original Examiner article Meet the Citics #1: Venus Zarris of

for more on Chicago Stage Review and Venus Zarris …

ABOUT – Chicago Stage Review

Venus Zarris Captures Examiner’s ‘Best Chicago Critic’ Poll – Chicago Stage Review