AP NEWS

Applause The renaissance of theater critic Irene Backalenick

March 21, 2019

“When I die,” said theater critic Irene Backalenick, “I hope I’m sitting fifth row center.”

But, even at age 97, she’s too busy to stop. Interviewed in her apartment at Watermark, Bridgeport’s retirement facility, Backalenick said, “I often write about what I wish I had done and never did. I look back now and realize how much more I did do.”

Begin with Brown University, where she graduated first in her class, summa cum laude, earning a Phi Beta Kappa key. She also has a master’s in elementary education, a Ph.D in theater, and has published three books: one on Jewish theater and two of her poetry.

She has won many journalism prizes, been active in the League of Women Voters and became a respected theater critic, reviewing plays and musicals in both Connecticut and New York, during which time she co-founded the Connecticut Critics Circle, an association of theater reviewers. Oh, yes, she also managed, somehow, to give birth to four children with Bill, her late husband of 67 years.

Born an only child in Providence, R.I., to Lydia and Max Margolis, she recalled, “It was a lonely life. My mother was a loner and we really never had company. We were very poor. My father was a very quiet, shy guy, never thought much of himself and quite willing to be the family gofer. That affected my mentality and I didn’t expect any career or any success for myself at all.”

Being a voracious reader saved her. When old enough to walk to the local library by herself, she wondered how she’d be able to read every book. Devoted to the arts from an early age, she danced at age 4, recited poetry, wrote plays, auditioned for school productions (she was deemed too short).

“I’ve had a lifelong dichotomy between adventure and security,” she said.

After a series of secretarial jobs, she had an idea that would change her life.

“I was 22 when I applied to Brown,” she said. “They said I was not prepared for college but, if I would get tutored in a language and math they would consider me. I took French and algebra that summer and Brown took me in, conditionally. The cost was $225 a semester; they gave me a $200 scholarship.”

Living at home, she rode the trolley to college (7 cents plus 2 cents transfer). An English honors student, she drew cartoons for the campus paper, maintained a straight-A record except for one B in, of all things, creative writing. She wept.

Astronomy was a favorite, but physical education was not. Once, gasping for air, she had to be hauled out of the swimming pool. By taking courses in the summers, she graduated in less than three years.

Now what?

“I should have written to every magazine,” she said. “I saw an ad for a position with Radio Inventions, a company that worked on faxes.”

Besides being “a really dumb secretarial job,” it led to her own #MeToo moment. “The guy who ran the place hit on me. I couldn’t believe it. Just instinctively I swatted him away.”

She continued searching for newspaper jobs until marriage with Bill and an eventual move to Westport for a 45-year stay. Later, as the children grew, she worked at local papers — the Town Crier, the Westport News, the Trumbull Times, the Bridgeport Post — learning how to write feature stories.

“At first I thought I can’t do this. I had such little faith in myself. I used to cringe in a corner at parties and I wasn’t a good networker. Then, luckily, I sent some story ideas to the New York Times and was hired as a freelancer. Suddenly I became a celebrity in town. No one ever paid any attention to me before that. Now people came to me with ideas.”

Her topics ranged widely; a story about widowed and divorced fathers who had child custody won her an award from the Times. She wrote on integration for Sepia magazine, on Jewish topics for a Zionist paper, on theater for Theatre Week and Back Stage; and interviewed actors, the winner of a sewing contest, alcoholic women, shoplifting adolescents and pregnant teenagers. An article on the time she took a bath in a Geneva train station W.C., likened the experience to being “an embryo in its amniotic fluid.”

Widening her knowledge, she went for a summer program at Oxford. “One of the courses was British drama and that’s when I fell in love with theater. The first Shakespeare production I ever saw was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ outdoors in London’s Regent’s Park. Huddled under a blanket against the cold, I was entranced.”

After a chance meeting with someone enrolled in a Ph.D. program in theater, she thought “Bingo!” Since studying was always her way to get anywhere, she applied and was accepted at the City University of New York. Becoming a critic at last followed, as did membership in Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle and the American Theater Critics Association.

Her advice to budding critics?

“Begin with a love of the arts. Then get a wide range of theater experiences and history so you have some basis for comparison. Go to a production in two ways. With everyone else, enjoy yourself, let it waft over you, let it hit you any way you want. As a critic, look at not only the play itself, but the acting, the direction, the stage sets, the lighting, the costumes. You have to immerse yourself and then think about what you saw.”

Be true to yourself.

“You have to deal with your own nature, life experiences and knowledge,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who tries to find something good. Is that my Jewish background? It’s like reading the Torah: ‘On one hand, on the other hand.’ As critics, we set standards and help keep the theater arts alive. As long as there are human beings on the earth, exchanging language with each other, then theater will continue. Art shows us the world around us.”

At Watermark, she hasn’t lost interest in either art or activism. She has written more than 300 poems, many of which are collected in the two-volume “Rueful Reflections.” Here are poems about her husband, about the daughter she lost to cancer, friends and friendships, aging. One poem wonders “What happened to my family,” that all are artists of one stripe or another: graphic artists, musicians, a novelist, a poet.

Particularly incensed by the separation of border children from their parents, she wrote “Little Children” in which she compares the current situation with that engendered by the Nazis (“Ripped from their mothers’ breasts. ... All are hustled into trains/Shipped across the USA/America, land of the free”).

In a two-part essay for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, she looked back on her childhood years.

“I realize what a long, improbable journey my life has been — encompassing not merely the few hundred miles between Rhode Island and New York City, but reaching across galaxies. How I, a child of the Depression, and a timid child at that, could have left the narrow restrictive world of my childhood, and moved on, remains forever a mystery. Such thoughts give me sudden moments of faith. Was someone up there, out in space, watching out for me?”

Two public passions, the arts and education, both a search for knowledge of the world and of herself. Irene Backalenick’s mantra has always been, she said, “just wanting to know about everything.”

David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.