Meet Bob Abelman, Jewish Rhode Island’s new theater critic


Bob Abelman, an award-winning former theater critic for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News, is now writing reviews of the Providence Performing Arts Center’s Broadway and Encore series productions for Jewish Rhode Island.

Abelman’s singular voice and engaging writing style will become increasingly familiar with each posted review. But he says the best way to get to know him is through “All the World’s a Stage Fright: Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic,” his funny, fictionalized memoir that was written and published during the pandemic.

Jewish Rhode Island met up with Abelman, who recently moved to Rhode Island from Austin, Texas, to discuss his life as a theater critic and what inspired the novella.

It seems as if you were busy writing about theater during the pandemic, even though all the venues were shuttered.

I was in survival mode, missing theater, along with every actor, crew, designer and audience member. Years ago, when I became the theater critic for the Cleveland Jewish News, I auditioned for a local professional production of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl” so I could write about the experience for the paper – sort of how journalist George Plimpton played quarterback for the Detroit Lions during a preseason scrimmage so he could write about the disaster for Sports Illustrated. As a much younger man, I had been a professional actor who appeared on Broadway, and so far off-Broadway it was Connecticut. I got cast in the show, and wrote the article, and during the pandemic, thought to turn the “Yentl” experience into a memoir.

As backup, I also auditioned at another theater and got cast in a small role in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” I chose to perform in “Yentl” because I thought the story would be of greater interest to the readers of a Jewish publication. At least, that’s what I told myself. In truth, I found the idea of acting in a revered 400-year-old play with classically trained actors at a world-class venue in a role originally played by Shakespeare himself more than a bit intimidating. When I started writing the memoir, I began wondering what it would have been like if I had actually chosen “As You Like It.” So, I wrote about that instead [of “Yentl”].

Also, I had read that when the bubonic plague hit London in 1603 – when the Globe Theatre and other playhouses were shut down – Shakespeare continued to put quill to parchment and wrote “Measure for Measure” while in quarantine. When the plague returned in the summer of 1606, Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches on “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Writing about “As You Like It” during the pandemic – using that plot to drive my own and usurping the most famous line from the play as my title – felt right.

So you went from writing an autobiography to an autofiction?

Autofiction is a bona fide literary category, according to The New York Times Book Review, where details of the author’s life blend with fictional information, characters and events. It reads like a published first-person account of the writer’s real life, but it embellishes that life with immense poetic license. I went from doing a Plimpton to doing a George Santos.

Where in “All the World’s a Stage Fright” does the autobiography end and the fiction begin?

My avatar Asher Kaufman is taller, better looking and significantly less functional than me. And rather than being intimidated by being in “As You Like It,” he has an irrational, overriding, mind-numbing fear of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s plays have been called the Mount Everest of English-language literature. The air certainly gets thin for Asher when he’s in rehearsal for this play, as if the stage was five and a half miles high and ice-capped. But Asher’s backstage experiences and relationships were mine during “Yentl,” and all the characters are informed by real people, albeit wildly exaggerated. And it’s certainly my voice coming out of his mouth.

Was the book difficult to write?

It was great fun conjuring up this book, which made the writing easy and quick. I always write quickly – a tendency born from having worked on tight deadlines my entire career as a critic. The novella was published just eight months after I started writing it, due in large part to its snack-sized length and my newspaper serving as a publishing and promotional partner. We found an audience even though signings at bookstores and appearances at book fests were limited due to COVID.

With the continued cancellation of theatrical productions due to the coronavirus variants, I wrote a sequel called “Murder, Center Stage” – an Agatha Christie-like whodunit involving the same cast of actors, and a fully invested Asher, who have moved on to a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd.” They find themselves in the middle of an unscripted, onstage, opening-night murder. As an observant outsider, Asher is asked by police to help find out which of his quirky castmates is the killer. They all claim innocence, but they could just be acting.

Thank goodness theaters have reopened and I’m back to reviewing. If they didn’t, these two books would have been turned into a trilogy.

Was writing these novellas different from writing theater reviews?

With reviews, I don’t have to invent a production of a play or its actors since I’m attending an actual performance being staged by an actual theater troupe. But, like the books, I use my stage experience in my reviews to describe and explain the creative choices being made by the actors, designers and directors, and to critique the execution of them. And I try to make everything I write a good read – engaging and entertaining.

You’re new in town. Tell us more about your background.

My wife, Judy, and I live in Tiverton. My son, his wife and our granddaughter live in Barrington, and our daughter lives in Chicago. I was born when Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” first opened on Broadway.

When I was a kid, my Yiddish-speaking grandmother used to call me a “klug tokhes.” I earned my actors’ equity card when I was 8, studied journalism in college, and developed my writing and thinking skills while earning a Ph.D. from the University of Texas-Austin. This is the perfect storm for the making of a theater critic.

What’s your take on the Providence-area theater scene?

It’s very much a small but well-balanced artistic ecosystem. There’s a variety of professional venues offering something for everyone [and] stabilized by reputable, long-established companies like Providence’s Trinity Rep and Warwick’s Gamm Theatre. I look forward to exploring them all.

There is no centralized, downtown cluster of theaters – like Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Chicago’s Loop and Boston’s Theater District – which can be a disadvantage to finding audiences. But the Providence Performing Arts Center has been serving as a hub to bring local and surrounding state theatergoers downtown for more than 45 years. I hope my reviews in Jewish Rhode Island will help readers determine whether it is worth the trip.

Learn more about Abelman’s novellas at