Reviewing Martin Denton



Prolific nytheatre.com founder pioneered comprehensive coverage

Martin Denton arguably has the most enviable job in the world. He goes to see plays about six times a week and writes what he thinks about them. Denton, the constant creative presence behind the nytheatre.com curtain, turned his passion for theater into the premier go-to site for anyone who wants to know anything and everything that’s going on under New York’s bright footlights.

In addition to cogent reviews and detailed listings, the website provides particulars to help people who aren’t experienced theatergoers. When Denton created the site in 1999, he thought about it from a tourist perspective (which he was at the time) — so there are clear directions to venues, information on theater amenities and even info about the area. There is a page to help purchase tickets, and a page listing discounts for students and seniors, “which people are not as aware of as they should be,” says Denton. He posts interviews with theater artists from time to time and conducts podcasts (which he has been doing for over four years — the first site to have a theater podcast series in New York). He also answers email inquiries, like “How do I dress?” “Isn’t that nice,” he said.

Denton, 49, who loves to talk about theater, started the website (then called Martin’s Guide to NY Theatre) when he was working as senior director of corporate accounting services for Marriott International in Washington, D.C. The hotel conglomerate had sent him to be trained in that new technology called Internet — and just for practice, he decided to build a website. “As a hobbyist, I did some basic listings, wrote reviews and immediately got attention because it was a novelty,” he recalled. “In those days, there were so few websites of any kind. It was a moment that you could grow with it.”

Within a year, requests for reviews began to pour in, and the website’s name was changed to its current appellation. Denton was still living in the D.C. area and commuting every weekend to attend shows. “I either had to stop because it was taking up so much time or leave Marriott, move to New York and make it a full-time endeavor.” Thankfully, in 1999, he chose the latter. In July of that year, he created the non-profit New York Theatre Experience, Inc. — and by December, the organization began publishing an annual anthology of new plays by unpublished playwrights.

For several years, Denton was the sole reviewer. Then, Chelsea Now’s own Trav S.D. became the “very, very first person” to review for the site. Denton credits actor/writer Michael Criscuolo, “a wonderful reviewer, for putting the bug in my ear that I can have other reviewers,” he said. Today, nytheatre.com has approximately 130 unpaid volunteers who critique over 900 shows in a single year. The biggest part of the site is listings in New York’s five boroughs, New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island (less in the outer boroughs and outer burbs because there isn’t much theater happening.)

The listings are constantly pouring in. On the day of Chelsea Now’s interview at Denton’s Murray Hill office (convenient for walking to Broadway, the East Village and parts of Greenwich Village), 465 shows were listed. When theater in New York was only Broadway, there were 200 to 300 shows a year. Now that’s a month. “But we review as much as we can,” he said.

Everyone who writes for the website — people he knows personally or through staff recommendation — works in Off-Off Broadway. “They understand the importance of getting feedback out to the productions. They go to see their peers’ work and understand the effort it takes to put it out with day jobs and little funding,” he said.

For Denton, the interesting new plays today are rarely on Broadway, perhaps once a season with luck, which wasn’t the case a generation ago. They are Downtown in what he terms “indie theater.”

“In the 1950s when Off Broadway started, like Circle in the Square, even though it was physically removed and scary to go Downtown, theater people knew about it. The main reviewers, like Brooks Atkinson, came, but not now. About 90 percent of theater is happening under the radar, which is our main bailiwick. So we level the playing field and provide the shows that people don’t know about, with as much space and access as possible.”

A nytheatre.com review is aimed at two audiences — those who see the show (for audience building), as well as for feedback, encouragement and helping the artists in a constructive way. “We recognize that a lot of reviews we write are much more about giving the companies validation and evidence of their work because the runs are so short. By the time the review comes out, there might not even be any remaining performances. So the review becomes a document they can bring to a potential donor or producer that says ‘people liked our work,’ or they can use it for whatever helps those companies grow.”

The site’s marquee event happens every summer — when they review every show in the New York International Fringe Festival, about 200 productions in two weeks. In nine years, they have not missed a single show. “They all come through for me and love doing it,” he said. Denton does no reviewing the week after the round-the-clock Fringe work schedule, “to do anything to clear my head.” He also has a current “moratorium” to not see a certain kind of show. “That’s what keeps my reviewing fresh,” he said.

He can go a week or two without seeing something he likes, but then a new work by a new artist or an innovative way of presenting things will grab his attention and make it exciting again. “I like to see what’s on people’s minds, what reflects what’s going on in the world today. I’m restless that way,” he said.

Denton also likes plays about people who aren’t like him, which include whatever non-domestic theater happens to find its way to these shores. “The world is smaller, not larger, but we don’t see original other theater from outside the U.S. except by English and Irish playwrights and an occasional festival. It wasn’t so before. We have become more insulated,” he observed.

Staffers who are bilingual are covering more of the Spanish-speaking theater world — “a very vibrant theater community.” He has also made a concerted effort to get more women and people of color on staff, “without trying to put people in holes,” he said — noting that there are very few women theater critics in a field that is still dominated by men. So for the Fringe, he put out a call for more women writers (the current ratio is about 40 to 60, female-male).

When Mamet’s “Race” changed cast and he was asked to re-review it (he had seen the original), he assigned it to a black woman. “I thought it would be an interesting perspective since I hadn’t read any black woman’s article about it. She looked at it in a whole different way. It’s more interesting and much more representative of the community.”

Denton didn’t love “Race” because it didn’t take a stand. “People seem less willing to do that. Most plays now are very wish-washy and cloudy,” which is why he appreciates downtown theater companies. “Vampire Cowboys [405 Johnson Ave. in Brooklyn] will surprise you in a good way. Axis Theatre [1 Sheridan Sq.] does very challenging visceral work, always very short and to the point. The Boomerang Theatre Company [220 E. 4th St.] did three shows, which were all wonderful and commented on each other. The Amoralists Theater Company, which uses the old Pearl Theatre space [80 St. Mark’s Pl.], has a raw, young aesthetic. Everyone seems to be under 30, so they don’t think the same way.”

He has also been excited by the work at HERE Arts Center (145 Ave. of the Americas) this season, especially a piece by The Talking Band, and a new play by Jean-Claude van Itallie at La MaMa (74 E. 4th St.) “Unfortunately, all of these will close by the time your article comes out,” he noted.

On Broadway he recommends “FELA” and “The Scottsboro Boys” — “both very entertaining, thought-provoking and extremely well-put-together.” However, he misses the big, splashy musicals, like “Hello Dolly,” “with stars who had a certain quality that is rare these days and made a career out of theater.”

As for some of the larger, well-funded companies (like Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Co.), they don’t have an artistic aesthetic, “except ‘we put famous people in plays’, ” commented Denton. “That’s just their way of doing business. Sure, there is one good Roundabout show every year. I don’t want to be mean. But people can’t see everything, which is why we exist — to guide them.”

The website “works beautifully” on any reasonably full-featured mobile phone, and he has the night’s and next night’s listings available for iPhone. He is working on adding new features, like being able to find shows by price, and a showcases page because equity members can see them for free. “The challenge is in two worlds. Every day there are new things happening in theater and technology. The freshness comes from pursuing both. I get tired sometimes, but never bored.”