By Kerry Lengel
Aug. 19, 2008
The theater has been the guiding light in Kyle Lawson’s life ever since he was cast in a historical pageant in his hometown of Logan, W.Va. He played the child of a pioneer family slaughtered by Indians. He was 4, maybe 5.
“I loved being covered in blood,” he recalls. “And I got to wear a coonskin hat. A real one, not one of those Davy Crockett things.”
His grandmother was a classics buff, he adds, and read him Shakespeare and the Greeks, with all those wars, murders and betrayals.
“I was a bloodthirsty little thing,” he says. “I loved it.”
The longtime theater writer for The Arizona Republic, Lawson retires this month at age 65. As a critic, he will not be remembered as bloodthirsty.
In his years as an actor and director, he says he learned at least one thing:
“No one sets out to make a bad play, but sometimes things don’t come out the way you hoped. . . . So I looked first for things that worked, then the things that didn’t. Which led the (Phoenix) New Times to say I never saw a play I didn’t like. Which isn’t true. But I seldom saw a play where I didn’t see something worthwhile.”
In more than 30 years writing about arts and entertainment in the Valley, Lawson crisscrossed the line between objective journalism and passionate advocacy. As a reporter, he was committed to fairness. But he remained, first and always, a theater person, and because of that, he didn’t just cover the theater community, he helped shape it.
“Kyle Lawson, along with other great arts leaders in Arizona . . . was a major contributor to the Valley’s arts renaissance, which I believe began sometime around the opening of the Herberger Theater Center in 1989 and continues to this day,” says David Harrison, the former director of communications for ASU Gammage who now heads up the business office for Parsons Dance Company in New York.
“Kyle was tireless in his efforts to discover and promote small, unknown performing-arts productions of extraordinary artistry that might never have found an audience if not for his enthusiastic coverage. His dedication to the underdogs made it safe for artists, producers and presenters to set up camp in the Valley and to take risks.”
Ever since that first moment onstage, Lawson was hooked on the theater.
“Even if they’re only in a historical pageant, actors are glamorous creatures,” he says. “Being a loner, I liked the camaraderie of the theater. It’s special.”
After dividing his childhood between West Virginia and Louisiana, Lawson attended high school in Milwaukee, then studied theater in college.
He remembers all too well the first time a critic reviewed one of his performances, noting the enthusiastic young actor’s “bulging eyeballs.”
“I went around squinting for a year after that,” he says. “I came very close to running away from home and joining the circus.”
While facing up to the fact that he might not become the next Brando, Lawson discovered he had a gift for directing. He also studied creative writing, developing a flair for descriptive writing that would open up a different career path.
In the late ’60s, he moved to Nebraska to help out with a church youth program. To pay the bills, he took a job delivering newspapers for the Grand Island Independent. Before long, he was a reporter, covering courts, city hall, anything that was needed. He even did a brief stint as the farm reporter.
In the meantime, he continued to direct for the local community theater.
“I pretty much had to leave my church after a scene where a character threw a Bible,” he says.
He also met his future wife, Pat, in Grand Island. After a couple of years in Colorado, where he was managing editor for a small-town newspaper, the couple moved to Phoenix, where Pat had been offered a teaching job.
Earning local respect
It was 1977, which Lawson remembers because he had just gotten home from the local premiere of Star Wars at the Cine Capri, when he got the call to interview for a job as entertainment editor for the Scottsdale Progress. He got the job and was put in charge of the weekend magazine.
“It was usually 60 or 64 pages a week. And I was it,” he says. “We had some freelance stuff, and the rest of it I wrote myself.”
He wrote about movies, music, dance, art. And, of course, theater.
A couple years later, he moved to The Phoenix Gazette. (The afternoon daily was merged with The Arizona Republic, its sister paper, in 1995.)
His job description changed through the years, but one constant was his determination to convince readers that you didn’t have to fly to New York or Chicago to see good theater.
“Thirty years ago, Kyle cared about theater when nobody who wasn’t an artist did,” says actor Bob Sorenson, a longtime favorite of local audiences, who now works out of New York. “He said, ‘Not only am I going to make people aware of theater in this town, I’m going to make them want to go see it.’ “
Michael Barnard, artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, says, “He was also a tremendous advocate of local talent. At our theater, I know patrons would begin to recognize when a particular individual was in a show, and began to see them as a local celebrity. . . . I think it kept talented people in the community longer than they might have in seeking out other marketplaces.”
It’s not that every review was a rave. But he was always constructive, never mean-spirited.
“You knew that when he was critical it was really something that you wanted to look at and focus on,” Barnard says. “There was never another agenda attached to it.”
“He’s the greatest thing that ever happened to local theater,” says actor Cathy Dresbach. “He genuinely wanted people to succeed.”
Many of the actors he has championed over the years, including Dresbach, are among the most prominent names in local theater. Others, such as Sorenson, have moved on to bigger theater towns, including New York and Los Angeles.
Lawson takes no credit for their successes, but he does enjoy a certain satisfaction, as he has watching Arizona Theatre Company and Childsplay evolve from small community troupes to world-class companies.
“Those were great adventures,” he says.
A critical mind
Whether in a feature or an in-depth news story, Lawson’s writing fairly fizzes with his enthusiasm for people, for life, for art. Yet he says he has always been reluctant to put too much of himself into his writing.
“Critic was always the least favorite of my jobs,” he says. “I believed that a reporter was a conduit between the news and the reader. Only when it was absolutely necessary did he inject himself.”
It’s an attitude that also shaped his philosophy as a director and, in turn, as a reviewer.
“It all began with the play for me,” he says. “The acting, the sets, the directing only worked for me as they revealed the playwright’s intent. So I had little patience for auteurs. I admire a Fosse, a Mamet. But are they the only reason for a play’s success? No.
“I can’t tell you what it was like to sit through a lifetime of Shakespeare adaptations. What some people see in Shakespeare boggles the mind.”
On the other hand, Lawson says, “sometimes I would go in with my interpretation of the play, and then the actors and director would open up a whole new world. . . . There have been plays that literally changed my life.”
One example was The Conduct of Life, Maria Irene Fornes’ play about a right-wing dictator in South America, which the alternative Planet Earth Theatre produced in 1994.
A self-described “apolitical Republican” for most of his life, Lawson says, “I walked out of that theater a different person, with different beliefs. . . .
“Theater is a constant teacher. If you commit yourself to it, it will teach you and change you. And it will make demands of you.”
In recent years, Lawson has struggled with chronic health conditions that have kept him from seeing as many plays as he would like. But his passion for theater – and for theater in the Valley – is unflagging.
“I have seen and been affected by good theater,” he says. “I might have seen more in New York or London or Chicago. But for the great moments, they were just as great here as anywhere.”