Bob Abelman’s got stage fright… (an interview)

As one reads through the book “All the World’s a Stage Fright” by Bob Abelman, it is easy for one’s inner Shakespeare nerd to emerge and squeee with joy. The book, subtitled “Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic: A Novella,” is 128 pages about a fictious actor’s journey through the terror of performing Shakespeare. Each chapter begins with a Shakespearian quote (foreshadowing), and the book is an easy read full of humorous and very relatable self-doubt. Since the author is a Cleveland native, many of the locations and history will sound familiar to residents.

Abelman, Cleveland-area theatre critic and actor, explains more about his process of writing this fun “fictional memoir.”

Kate Klotzbach: This book is semi-autobiographical – what is your personal, real-life relationship to The Bard and performing his works on stage?

Bob Abelman: The book’s most defining feature is that it is a fictionalized memoir that started life as nonfiction. Not long ago, my editor the Cleveland Jewish News asked that I “do a Plimpton” – to be an embedded journalist and write about what takes place on the other side of the proscenium arch while in an actual production. The result was going to be a series of behind-the-scenes articles. I decided to use the experience to write a memoir as well.

I’m a former professional actor and auditioned for and got cast in two shows, Shakespeare’s As You Like It at Great Lakes Theater and Isaac Singer’s adaptation of Yentl at Cleveland Play House. I chose Yentl largely because there was no iambic pentameter to memorize or classically trained actors to compete with.

Three chapters in, it was clear that I was not nearly interesting enough to warrant a memoir. And so, this book became the fictional story about an actor/critic like me who chose the Shakespeare production, despite an irrational, debilitating fear of Shakespeare-speak. And, to raise the stakes even higher, he shares the stage with endearing but thin-skinned actors he has brutally panned in the past.

So… everything in the book, at some time and in some form, actually happened to me EXCEPT that I never performed in As You Like It or any Shakespeare play except for Macbeth in high school. I was the third murderer.

KMK: Each chapter starts with a wonderful Shakespearian quote. What is your personal, favorite all-time Shakespeare quote?

BA: I don’t have a personal favorite quote, though I gravitate toward the Elizabethan insults. They are wonderful. The book is full of them.

KMK: How long was your process for this book, from when it went from idea to published piece?

BA: The start of the pandemic was when I picked up the memoir and turned it into a fictional memoir. That was March 2020. The final manuscript was submitted to my publisher in June 2020. The book was published in November 2020. I work fast – force of habit as a critic with tight deadlines.

The process toward publication was facilitated by my newspaper, the Cleveland Jewish News, working in partnership as a co-publisher with Gray & Company, Publishers. David Gray, my publisher, is in Cleveland, which also helps. This is a unique and wonderful arrangement. “All the World’s a Stage Fright” is set in the Cleveland theater scene, so everything about this project is local.

KMK: A quote from the book that made me laugh out loud was, “Then there are those rarified few who are revered as Master Actors because they have managed to make Shakespeare their bitch.” How has your experience with Shakespeare, and your studies of his works bolstered your confidence in life? Would you say that writing this book has helped you on the road to conquering any fear you have of Shakespeare? Have you “made Shakespeare your bitch”?

BA: Much of the research that is required for a book like this, to better understand Shakespeare’s writing, was already performed in the course of writing reviews of productions of Shakespeare’s plays. You can’t review a playwright’s work – any playwright’s work – without first understanding the playwright and his/her/their work.

While I have a pretty good working knowledge of the Bard’s canon, it tends to make me its bitch more often than the other way around. 

KMK: How was your writing process for this book different from your writing process as a critic? How was it the same? Do you find you prefer one medium over the other now that you’ve completed the book?

BA: I think that one of the reasons this book is a novella rather than a full-length novel is because I am so used to writing short form as a critic. That and the realization that sometimes all you need is a really good laugh and a short respite from the world, through a book, without making a big commitment. 

KMK: Your observations on being a critic being placed into a group of actors (whom you’ve previously reviewed) are spot on. How has your time on the stage shaped your view as a critic, and how does that influence your actual reviews today?

BA: I try to perform in a professional production once a year or so, to keep my hand in it. I find that it helps me, as a critic, not take the art and craft of creation for granted. I’ve been doing this for quite a while now, so directors know that whether or not I get cast after auditioning has no impact whatsoever on subsequent reviews I write. 

KMK: Your history of the Theatre Critic is enlightening. How do you feel that the role of the critic is changing due to COVID-19 and our current inability to enjoy live theater?

BA: The role of the theater critic during the pandemic, with theaters shuttered, is largely on hiatus. The task now is to keep theater in the public conversation, in anticipation for when live theater returns. To a large extent, one of the goals of this book is to give audiences a sense of watching live theater while reading this book. Another is to give actors a sense of performing live theater while reading this book.

KMK: In your segment about traditionalists not wanting to re-write Shakespeare, the character comments on how gender fluidity, the demonization of Jewish people, etc. risks getting smoothed over for today’s times. There is a line that “We stand to lose much more by translating and simplifying Shakespeare than we stand to gain.” How is our current society and “cancel culture” affecting interpretations of these (and other) works, and do you also share the notion that censorship is not the answer? 

BA: Not long ago, twenty-two scenes from the film “All the Money in the World” – about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III – were quickly re-filmed at a cost of $10 million in a race to erase actor Kevin Spacey in the revelation of a history of homosexual misconduct and assault. And he was cut out of the remaining season of his hit Netflix series “House of Cards.”

The National Gallery of Art in Washington recently canceled a Chuck Close exhibit amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. One of his paintings, “Self-Portrait 2000,” was removed from the wall of Seattle University’s library.

Mayor Valérie Plante is asking the body responsible for administering the Order of Montreal to look into whether Charles Dutoit, former artistic director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM), should be stripped of the honor after several women came forward alleging they were victims of sexual harassment by him.

The alleged acts are unconscionable. But is it possible to separate the art from the artist? I hope so. 

We haven’t stopped watching “The Great Dictator” because of Charlie Chaplin’s proclivity for and power over underage girls. We haven’t stopped reading “Doctor Faustus” because Christopher Marlowe had a proclivity for and power over young boys. 

The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott argued that Woody Allen’s odious personal behavior may give us reason to revisit his work in a new light, but it does not detract from its aesthetic merit and cinematic genius. I agree.

By all means, chastise the artist and applaud efforts that make short work of the careers of predators. But shouldn’t we leave the work in the galleries, on the stage, on the shelves and in the cinemas to speak for themselves? If not, our cleaning house will need to include the brilliant works of Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.

KMK: What have you learned about yourself as a person after finishing the novella?

BA: A lot of people feel that they have a book in them. I discovered that I do.  

KMK: Are there plans for another publication like this from you in the future?

BA: I’ve got a sequel in the works as we speak. It picks up where “All the World’s a Stage Fright” leaves us – from Shakespeare to Sondheim. A glutton for punishment.


All the World’s a Stage Fright (Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic: A Novella)” is available through Gray & Company Publishers for $14.95. It’s a witty and highly entertaining view into the writing of Shakespeare, the experience of an actor-critic, and the relatability of the call of the stage.

Abelman

When a local critic takes an acting role with a top-tier theater company in order to write about the experience, he gets more of a story than he bargained for.

“An irrational, overriding, mind-numbing fear.” That’s how Asher Kaufman describes his relationship with Shakespeare—not what you might expect from a veteran theater critic. So when Asher learns he’ll be trying out for As You Like It, he realizes this assignment will be a very bumpy ride.

What starts out as a stunt to increase readership for the Cleveland Jewish Chronicle becomes one man’s personal battle with the Bard and ends up a laugh-out-loud tale full of twists and turns, endearing characters, and behind-the-curtain action.

How will this clandestine critic overcome his lifelong fear—while sharing the stage with actors whose past performances he panned (and without getting panned himself by his fellow critics)? It’s enough to give anyone opening night jitters!

This fictional memoir will delight theater fans who have ever wondered what might be going on backstage during a performance—or in the mind of a theater critic.

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