Seems like I should have more mementos from the 11 years I was a freelance performing-arts journalist in Chicago. But I have no scrapbook full of saved programs or even a single past issue of the Chicago Reader containing my byline somewhere within the yellowing pages.
The theater section of the Reader—which is the city’s alt-weekly—is where my stuff (reviews, listings, previews, Q&As, trendspotting pieces, and such) appeared most frequently. I also contributed to Time Out Chicago, Chicago magazine, and probably others I’ve forgotten.
I had day jobs during all of this as well. Sometimes I’d meet folks who claimed to be full-time freelancers, but I could never figure out how to join their ranks and still be able to afford a lifestyle that included, say, the eating of food. I guess my colleagues subsisted entirely on the cheese cubes that some theater companies set out in the lobby on opening nights.
About the only thing I’ve kept, souvenir-wise, is Bigger, Brighter, Louder, a collection of Chicago Tribune theater reviews spanning a century and a half. The book was compiled and annotated in 2013 by Chris Jones, the Trib’s theater critic then, now, and, if he has any say in the matter, forevermore.
One year when I attended a kind of summer camp for performing-arts journalists at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, Chris was the head counselor. Since I lived in Chicago at the time and wrote about plays, I had seen him in various cheese-cube-bedecked theater lobbies—his distinguishing characteristics are a large, round head, a British accent (I want to say he’s from Manchester?), and a mischievous smile—but I had never really spent much time with him.
In person, he had a winking, eager-to-please demeanor that I found refreshing in a critic. After all, you certainly don’t want someone with that job to be humorless and withholding.
Unbidden, he gave each camper a signed copy of his book. “Chris ‘Linda’ Jones,” he wrote in mine—a reference to how I had made fun of him online for writing in a review that he likes to do household chores while singing the score to the Jekyll & Hyde musical.
I know it’s not nice to make fun of people. But if it please the court, I would like to enter into the record, as exhibit A for the defense, the following paragraph from the review in question:
“A new life,” I’d sing to no one in particular, channeling Linda Eder, albeit accompanied only by the sound of the vacuum. “What I wouldn’t give to have a new life!”
Actually, I made fun of Chris several times on the blog I kept during most of my Chicago years. His writing voice was just too irresistibly easy to imitate. Combine rueful philosophizing, hoity-toity diction, some incongruous slang or pop-culture references, and an overriding fixation on Broadway—et voilà.
Here, I’ll show you. Let’s pretend Chris Jones is telling a bedtime story to a child. It would go like this:
Once, as they say, upon a time—for all things in this vale of tears are dependent upon the relentless ticking of the clock, whether one rocks around its circumference in the manner of Bill Haley or runs up and down its length to a chorus of hickories, dickories, and docks like the time-conscious mouse in the nursery rhyme—there lived three bears.
It was ever thus.
And yet if one is to effect a transfer to the Great White Way—the only truly valuable measure of a life well lived—one must transcend such ursine beginnings. . . .
And you just go on like that.
Considering these satirical outbursts today, they seem to reflect not only my bratty streak but also a frustrated freelancer’s envy of a staff writer with one of the few steady gigs in the city—in the country!—covering the arts.
To put it another way: When Chris Jones was twirling around on his living room rug and belting show tunes about wanting a new life, little did he know that his was the life I wanted.
It was ever thus.