SALT LAKE CITY — As many UTBA readers already know, Barbara Bannon, the former theatre critic at the Salt Lake Tribune, passed away on Thursday, October 11, 2018, at the age of 79. A former colleague at the Salt Lake Tribune has published a lovely tribute to Barbara and her work, and the American Theatre Critics Association has also published an obituary with some tributes from other critics. I want to add some of my thoughts about this wonderful woman.
I met Barbara about six or seven years ago at the Utah Shakespeare Festival when Nancy Melich (a former theatre critic who worked for the Festival) introduced us. It didn’t matter to Barbara that I was an inexperienced, unpaid theatre critic. She took me under her wing and served as a mentor, nurturing my skills and giving me encouragement–and gentle nudges when I needed them. Barbara treated me with love and respect from the first time I met her, and she never said anything that made me feel like I was “just a blogger.” Barbara taught me how to write a good lede for a play review, common traps to avoid, and the need to focus on the main message of a play—and not on the minutia.
Barbara and I soon formed a friendship, and we had several lunches together at one of her favorite restaurants in the Sugar House neighborhood Salt Lake City: the Dodo. We grouched about local theatre companies and raved about the great obscure shows that each of got to see in our respective corners of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. And while we would talk shop, the long conversations inevitably turned towards our personal lives and experiences. That was what I enjoyed most. She was genuinely interested in seeing pictures of my children or hearing about the troubles at my day job. But she could also spin a yarn about her college days or some happening at the Sundance Film Festival. She took joy in her friends and in writing.
When Barbara first told me about her pancreatic cancer diagnosis over a year ago, I was devastated. She had known for over a month at that point and had already started treatment. She gave me semi-regular updates of her treatment, and she was always so optimistic. Her quiet dignity and forceful spirit taught me a lot about magnanimity in the face of adversity. Being the fighter she is, she outlasted the cancer for over a year, and in that year she blessed the lives of others as much as she could. I never saw any indication that she wallowed in self-pity or was bitter about her disease. Even in the face of death, Barbara was still Barbara, only more so: more loving, more caring, and more interested in others than she was in herself. If adversity reveals who a person truly is, then Barbara‘s cancer showed that she was selfless and good to the core.
The last time I saw Barbara was at her retirement party at the end of April. Well over a hundred people showed up throughout the evening (and more probably arrived after I left). As I met people from the spheres of Barbara‘s life—her church, the Sundance Film Festival, her neighborhood friends—I was struck by how common my experience was. Everyone told of a chance meeting with Barbara and how quickly she encircled them with love and friendship . . . and then she would never let go. Barbara had an incredible capacity to have a wide circle of friends before the era of social networking and easy connectivity. And each of those connections was deep and meaningful. We tried to get together in the summer, but conflicting travel schedules made it impossible. I will regret not having a few more times to meet with her in her last months.
Barbara was a towering figure in the Utah arts community. Her forced retirement from the Salt Lake Tribune was a dark day for the arts in this state. Barbara loved the arts so much and believed that they could touch the soul of every person, if only potential audiences knew of the power of the work in their community. She had an unfailing optimism about every show she attended, and she spread that hope for a good experience to me as she taught me how to be a better critic. My goal is to keep her legacy of arts appreciation alive as I try to meet the high standards of criticism that she had.
I’ll miss so much about Barbara. I’ll miss running into her in the lobby on opening night or discovering that our seats were near one another. I’ll miss her eagerness to introduce her friends to one another and the joy she took in helping people forge new friendships. I’ll miss the hugs she so freely gave, and the charm and warmth that her writing exuded. Most important, though, is that I’ll miss her Barbara-ness. She had an ineffable quality that made her unique, and I know that I’ll never meet another person like her again.