#6 – Thumbs or Tomatoes- Theater Criticism in the 21st Century
In This Episode
Christine Toy Johnson: Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. I'm your host, Christine Toy Johnson, actor, playwright, and advocate for inclusion. This is our final episode of Season 1. We hope you found these episodes to be useful conversation starters. We have one more chat to share with you today, and it's all about the role of criticism. As always, the Dramatists Guild of America hosts these conversations. Our guests come with their own opinion and perspective and are free to express it. Whether you write for a major news outlet, your school paper, or your diary, we're so glad you're here. Today I'm joined from Los Angeles by playwright Leah Nanako Winkler.
Leah Nanako Winkler: Yes. Hello? Can you hear me?
LNW: Amazing. I am on.
CTJ: Great. So, this episode is about theatrical criticism. I know that you've helped to start 3Views on Theater. I'd love to learn more about what that is.
LNW: Yeah. So 3Views on Theater is a new online journal that, the official language is, is that it will “illuminate the art of theater writing and many voices about our community.” Sarah Ruhl, who started the whole thing and The Lillys say that “if there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, there are many ways to look at our national theater, think at least three views rather than one view.”
So it's, it's an online publication that creates content, not only through reviews, but also interviews. And, for me, the reason I was attracted for it, is that it's trying to diversify the types of people who review our work and talk about our work. Because for a long time, and I mean, there are many artists who’ve been doing this longer than me, but I, I have been active as a playwright in New York for 12 years now, and it's always been, um, if you want to get a top critic, it's two white dudes who did grow up in a certain upper class demographic who have the same sort of education, reviewing our work no matter what the background of the artist is. And, and obviously that affects the type of reviews that we get, sometimes good, sometimes bad. And I like 3Views because it is trying to expand that conversation and to see what happens when there's other voices thrown into the mix about talking into, talk-, talking about our work.
CTJ: How did you get involved?
LNW: Um, I was approached actually by Sarah, uh, after I had gotten a particularly, uh…I think some would say “problematic” review of, um, my last show. And I, like, a lot of theater women kind of reached out to me and was like, “hey, like, this really sucks. Like, we thought this review was really problematic.” And the conversation sort of started from there, and I had become a founding member, um, a couple months later.
CTJ: Can you say a little more about that experience? What in that review felt like the last straw?
LNW: Yeah. Actually, I wasn't even gonna read it? [laughs] Like, I got, I got, um, I've been reviewed by the Times, good and bad, about seven times and uh, throughout, um you know, my experience in New York. But the review that I got—which wasn't even like, the most problematic one I've ever gotten, but, um—the review that I had gotten after I had decidedly stopped reading reviews this year because just, my brain couldn't handle the pressure and I, but people were tweeting me about it, was a review for my play God Said This, which went up at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane this past winter, and it was honestly a pretty, um, uh, it, it was a story about a mixed-race family dealing with the matriarch, who's Asian national, uh, her illness or cancer, but it wasn't a race play, and, it had race in it, but it wasn't a race play.
And the gist of the review was like, “Leah Nanako Winkler is trying to fix everything, fix racism, fix cancer. Uh, she is, uh, she, she, she only should say small things. She’s trying to say large things, and that's bad.” And, and the reviewer, who was Jesse Green, kind of made it all about race and my social justice quote-unquote work. Whereas the play had nothing to do with it. It was, I mean, inadvertently, I guess it was a political act because it put a mixed race family in the South front and center, but it wasn't something like, um, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven where it was directly dealing with Asian American identity, uh, although it indirectly was. He put a lot of words in my mouth, basically, and it was extremely, viewed as condescending by other people. And I actually found out through other people, uh, the, how problematic it was, and then I read it and I was like, “oh, this, this is, um, this is pretty bad…” [laughs] but, but you know, that's just, like, one example of things that can happen in, I think, the critical landscape of New York City, and that's the only landscape that I can refer to because that's where most of my reviews have been—actually, that's not true, I've been reviewed elsewhere, too. You just don't, I, I just don't read-, I just don't read them all, you know?
CTJ: So, from there you decided to get involved with 3Views on Theater. What does that mean or look like?
LNW: Yeah, I mean, so I'm a founding member and that means that I essentially help get the word out. The project is led by Sarah Ruhl and The Lillys, and I think there's a great, great, great list of artists who support it. Basically, I'm an enthusiastic supporter who knows that the initial gauge of success from the fundraiser of 3Views helped expand the team to develop the project further along.
3Views is trying to expand the types of voices that talk about and review our work. And right now, I think just from the sheer power of the women who are leading the effort, they've already gotten Alison Bechdel, Eve Ensler, Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Zadie Smith, Wally Shawn, Gloria Steinem, to all sign on to write reviews. And I think that database is just expanding and expanding because the craving for more voices is just such a common, common, common desire in the community. I do think, you know, journalists and theater artists work hand in hand and we need each other, but we do need to get different voices in there so that we're not just reliant on two voices. I think if it works, and I think that it will work, it's just going to bring in a lot—okay, so people are like, already getting like, pissed off about 3Views, right?
CTJ: Let’s talk, let’s talk about that.
LNW: Yeah, let…
CTJ: Why, why do you think they’re getting pissed off about..?
LNW: I don't know! I don't know. Okay. So like I was helping fundraise it because they started a Kickstarter for the reason that I just said. And, um, basically, I do think that the critical landscape of New York City, of the New York Times having all the power, it's not like we're trying to take anybody's jobs, but I don't think that it hurts to expand the conversation.
Like, for example, my identity’s extremely specific, but I'm a half-Asian Kentuckian, who's also a second gener-, or like a first generation, generation 1.5, uh, who, who moved to America mid-childhood, and I'm also a female. But the chances of my work being critiqued by even one of those things, by somebody who is one of those things, is at ze-, like at, almost a zero percent. And I've never, ever even been reviewed by a critic of color, except once, and that was in Minneapolis. And I, and I think a lot of artists feel this way, where if you are white and you are a man who shares a background of Yale—let's say like Jesse Green—um, th-, and you write about certain things that he relates to inadvertently, or he feels academically challenged by, then of course it's going to impact the way that he receives the work. Does that make sense?
CTJ: Yes, absolutely. Different assumptions will be made…
CTJ: …and expectations will be had, based on that person's background.
LNW: Right, and that's fine. That's fine, because we all do it, right? Like, I really love Olivia Munn because she is half-Asian and I look at her and I see like, somebody who looks like me on the television. I, I mean, it does make me wonder if like, white people feel that way all the time about like, Scarlett Johansson or whoever, but like…
LNW: …it's, but it, but it's, but people writing about experiences that you relate to impacts the way that you feel about the work. Now, in theater when there's two or maybe three types of people in power who only represent one cultural, racial demographic, and probably class demographic… I mean, I've done some research on the two and as much as, you know, I enjoy reading, reading some of their reviews, and like I, I don't mean to disrespect their work, I really don't. Um, like, it's almost predictable, which critic at the Times is gonna respond to what kind of work Like, and it's even murmurings in the theater community where it's just like, “oh yeah, like so-and-so's definitely going to like this one,” or “this one's definitely gonna be a critic's pick,” and they have so much power that it's almost become like, such a big part of doing theater. But it's problematic that there's only, um, certain types of people who are giving these voices.
CTJ: What responsibilities do you feel that a theater critic has, not only to their readers, but also to the playwrights that they're reviewing?
LNW: Well, I think that people should be able to write about whatever they want, and you know, write how they're gonna write. And I'm not somebody to tell someone to do their job, but I think that being racist and sexist is bad, so don't do that when you're writing reviews. Like I, I think it's actually pretty simple. And if you have a question about, “oh my god, is what I'm writing actually not a piece of criticism, but more of a condescending attack on a artist,” um, that you clearly underestimate, then…maybe don't write that?
CTJ: Well, well said.
LNW: Yes. I don't know why it's hard!
CTJ: Just don't be racist and sexist! Okay? Good. Thanks.
LNW: Yeah, or, or transphobic. I mean, I think…
LNW: I think just, just take the work in as it is and write about it. If you, if you have criticisms about it, that's great, but you know, you don't have to bring in somebody, like, like for me, um, like my ethnicity was brought into the equation for no reason. My sex was brought into the equation for no reason. Uh, and you know, it's not just this one review, it's a lot, but I will say that a lot of reviews have also helped me, so it's definitely a catch-22. And I think, that's why 3Views—it's not trying to hurt anyone is the thing. Like, that's why I'm like kind of surprised that people got pissed off about it. Uh, like I got blocked on Twitter because I like, tweeted out a Kickstarter, like people are actually like, extremely threatened by this initiative, and I think there's room for the way that criticism is now, and something like 3Views. Sort of in the way that there's, um, New York Theatre Review and Token Theatre Friends, and there used to be Theater in the Now. Like the, like there's room for all of these voices, it's just trying to elevate, elevate, elevate, elevate so that more people can have more than one authoritative or two authoritative opinions about a single show. ‘Cause there's shows that, I guess were quote-unquote critically panned that I loved and I still think about, and that's how it's been all throughout theater history.
CTJ: Sure. And you know, it's about not taking away someone's piece of pie, but making a bigger pie.
CTJ: So, and I, I've personally contributed to your Kickstarter, so thank you…
LNW: Thank you!
CTJ: …for, for talking about it. Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to say about 3Views on Theater?
LNW: I guess I kind of want to crush the misconception that 3Views is sort of an antagonistic effort. 3Views isn’t a negative effort, it’s a positive effort. And all it's trying to do is to diversify the landscape of who's reviewing our shows and who's talking about them. So not, not for the playwright's ego, but for audiences who see our show and for other artists who come and see our shows. Uh, and they don't have to just read one thing and be like, “oh, this isn't worth seeing.” Right?
CTJ: Right. Great.
CTJ: Great, thank you.
LNW: I'm just excited about the possibility of it working and of it going out into the world, but, I think that it's actually going to take a lot, like it's a huge undertaking.
LNW: Like it's like, I don't think any of the creators of 3Views want do it half-assed, which is why—the Kickstarter is successful, but it's not going to be, “here's an immediate website.” They're actually working really, really hard on making it an actual thing that is, um, legit as opposed to just like, “here's a website,” you know?
CTJ: Yeah, yeah.
CTJ: Leah, thank you so much for joining us.
LNW: Thanks for having me, Christine.
CTJ: After the break, I'll be back with Theresa Rebeck and Jose Solís for more TALKBACK on criticism. Stay with us.
CTJ: Welcome back to TALKBACK. I've got a guest from each side of the aisle. Please introduce yourselves.
Theresa Rebeck: Hi, my name is Theresa Rebeck. I'm a dramatist and a director.
Jose Solís: Hi, I'm, my name is Jose Solís, and I'm a freelance theater critic and journalist.
CTJ: Thank you both for being here today. I know this is a bit of a hot button topic. I want to start by asking you both how you think critics, and the function of reviews, have changed over time. Teresa, I know you have thoughts about this.
TR: Why do you know that?
Um, uh, you know, I actually think for, you know, because I’ve been doing this for quite a while, uh, since—well my first show was in the early ‘90s in New York. I've had about like 17 or 18 shows premiere in New York. Um. And it is, you know, at the beginning I found myself with a kind of hopeful, uh, open heart about, well, you can't control what they're gonna say, so you can't worry about it. And that's not whom we're actually doing the work for, we're doing it for audiences. And we all spend a lot of time in preview processes in New York, usually you get at least a week or two weeks to really consider the response of the audience and you kind of, uh, craft, or you consider like, where are you losing them? Where is the play really succeeding? And, uh, you work, uh, you sort of slavishly—in a good way!—to make the, the whole experience lift off as a communal event. And then there's this sort of crazy night, or a couple of nights, when a whole bunch of people walk in and just write about it and kind of judge it—not kind of judge it, their job is to judge it—and it changes the energy in the room, and then everything that we've cared about in terms of crafting this piece for a community of people just sorta gets tossed out the window. That seems dysfunctional to me, and it does seem like that's just a dysfunctional model. And, uh, over time that was very wounding.
I, I got some really crazy notices, uh, from the New York Times, like, famously crazy notices that, you know, you can all go look them up online. Everybody knows it happened to me, and yeah, I don't feel the need to talk about it a lot anymore, but they were very gender-specific and, um, and some of them, you know, were so crazy that you thought, “who do they think I am? What do they think I'm doing? Why was that impossible for them to see something that's so clearly a story told from a specific point of view?”
For a long time, I felt like, very connected to, of all people—but this is really true—to Spike Lee, because I felt like I was, um, I modeled my understanding of what a storyteller should be off of what I saw him doing, which is, you stand in your point of view, you stand in who you are, and you tell your story purely from that point of view. And I, you know, I don't think people realized from the beginning, uh, because I sort of, the first play that I, you know, presented in New York was Spike Heels, and it was this sort of dark comedy about sexual harassment in which our heroine, in many ways, colludes with what's going on, which is in fact what many, many women do when sexual harassment comes up.
I mean, since #MeToo that story has changed, but this was a good 25 years ago, and it was something that people literally didn't seem to understand that this is the world that women live in. Women understood it, but men were complet-, you know, I did get completely bizarre, uh, response, like, “why would she collude?” You know, [laughs] as, as she says in the play, she needs that job and she's not really done anything that means she should quit the job. And if she quits the job, she's got nothing as good to go to. And that's all in the play.
But somehow the fact that this was told, the story was told from such a truly s-, stunningly different point of view—which it didn't feel like that would, to me, it felt like I was just telling, describing the world that women live in—um, became something that rattled the critical consensus, which was like, not just two guys at the Times, but it was like, white guys everywhere.
CTJ: You mentioned you've been working in theater for over 20 years. What's changed?
TR: It does feel to me that since then, the point of view has shifted. People are starting to understand how to talk about work that's told from what is not their position in the universe. You know, that was what was so odd to me for a long time, to think that a certain kind of play was gonna always get a rave because it, uh, lined up with a, you know, the food group of the critic, which seemed like…that can't be fair. Um, and it wasn't fair. Um, and so I do feel like, that things really have changed, that there's an attempt to really understand different points of views and what different writers are attempting. So, I think it's gotten better.
CTJ: Okay, Jose, um, I'd love to know your, um, your point of view on, on this conversation so far as, as a journalist.
JS: I wanted to be a critic since I was 10 years old. And many people ask me, “are you sure you didn't want to be a playwright or a director or an actor?” And no. And the reason for that is, uh, I grew up in a country with almost no theater and no appreciation for the arts. So, reading the, uh, all the theater critics from specifically, I guess the US, for me was, uh, like having access to a world where I wasn't invited, because I didn't live there.
In many cases, I feel that for many people it's still the same, like theater criticism can be a chronicle of a time, and in many ways, uh, it's like preserving history. However, I think what's changed the most is the way that everything nowadays has been reduced to, yeah, thumbs, or Rotten Tomatoes, or scores, because people don't want to engage with the criticism. They want to engage with, “uh, should I see this or not?” And I think criticism has shifted towards something that's completely consumer-based, which is something that I don't necessarily agree with.
I don't think the job of a critic is to sell tickets or to close shows or to tell people to go see things. I think the job of a critic is to be a, a mediator, a moderator sometimes, and opening a new ways of seeing a show and uncovering layers. So, I would say that the, you know, our need for instant gratification to know immediately, “is this yes or no,” uh, is what's hurting criticism the most. It's turned into this really toxic, uh, binary dynamic. And I don't like that. I, that's not why, [laughs] why I wanted to be a critic.
CTJ: Thank you so much. Jose, I'd love, I'd love to hear more about what responsibilities you feel like the theater critic has to the readers and to, to the playwrights. If, if you do feel like there a certain responsibility.
JS: You know, there is no such thing as being an objective critic. And one of the things that always makes me laugh as a critic is when critics say, “I'm objective.” There's no way you can be objective ‘cause you're bringing your very subjective point of view into every piece of criticism that you write, to every review, into every feature. So, the responsibility of a, the critic, I guess, in many ways also depends on each publication, and I know that this is a very, uh, vague, uh, way of looking at it but, you know, like, when I'm writing, for instance, for a paper, like, I know that I have a responsibility to my editor and to the people who are gonna be reading that particular publication.
But overall, I think, uh, the responsibility of a critic is pretty much the responsibility of any decent human being. It's to take into account, you know, the context of things, take into account where you stand in the world, take into account your own experience, but also the experiences of the people who are doing this work and producing and acting it and writing it.
I think the, one of the issues that I see nowadays with the criticism is precisely that critics don't think that they have a responsibility to anyone but themselves. And, for instance, when I'm writing for a, a larger outlet, I am much more careful with the way I—I don't like the idea of panning a show, for instance, but if there is something negative or if there's something that didn't land well with me, I will make sure that it doesn't sound like this catastrophe. And instead what I'll do is that I'll sit with myself, and it's almost like going to the analyst, except you're your own analyst, and you're like, “why are you saying this? Why do you want to write this?” And you explore that, and then you work with that.
So, the responsibilities of a critic are to have empathy, and to try to do justice to your work, but also to the work of all the people who are human beings. And I think we forget that sometimes.
CTJ: Great, thank you. Theresa, do you have, um, any thoughts that came from that?
TR: I loved what he said, I really did. I think that we could ask for nothing more. There was one point, uh, you know, the Dramatist every now and then publishes different issues and there was one issues on criticism. I was just like, “oh guys, can we please not talk about this all the time?” Because it's sort of like the bane of our existence. We spend all our time really trying to make something beautiful and then we just feel hammered and judged and disempowered. And all of these things are true.
And, um, David Ives wrote in one issue, ‘cause they asked him what he thought about critics, and he said, “playwrights don't necessarily want a good review, we want a fair review.” And I think that that is very to the point. Like, I think a lot of times when critics look at us, they say, “you just want us to like everything.” And I'm like, “you know, that would be great, but I don't expect it.” And in fact, I'm somebody who would say, if the critics are liking everything that you do, you're doing something wrong. Um, I, but I do feel like we want to feel like we've been given a fair hearing. And, uh, that too often, um…um that's not been the case, that, that the, there does feel like, especially because we're talking about one publication, and somebody over there at the Times said to me one, at one point—this is such tricky phrasing, I loved it—um, he said, “there is no question that there are writers in whom careers the New York Times believes.” [laughs] I mean, and I, ‘cause I was like, “wait a minute, let me parse that for a moment.”
But you know, so there really was a strong sense for a long time that they pick their favorites, and that was just, and there's still somewhat that goes on over there, and that's troubling to, you know, certainly, no one would say I was ever picked as a favorite by the New York Times, and that's too bad for me, man. I woulda liked it. Um, so I'm not saying I'm not a hypocrite about, yeah, man, that woul-, that sounds nice.
I always feel like it's not the job of the, these larger publications to create culture, it's their job to report on culture. And to report on culture wisely, they should listen wisely, and, uh, be open to all the different voices that are coming at them, uh, and that's, that's where, when the system fails that, we all feel the loss of it.
CTJ: How do you think it could be possible to open up these conversations so that, um, they were actually being had substantively? You know, um, so that other journalists might, uh, hear, hear these points of view?
TR: I don't know. I mean I, I think, I think my seat mate here maybe has a better idea about how that would happen.
CTJ: Go, go for it.
JS: Oh, it was for both of us? I thought you were asking…
CTJ: Yeah, sure.
JS: Okay. I, um, this is not gonna make me very popular in TheaterWorld, but I think that one of the aspects of, uh, the industry that's come, uh, pretty much unscathed in all of those conversation, are the people in marketing and the publicists. Uh, because they are the ones that often get, you know, all these pieces, right? And they’re…
TR: Yeah, I agree.
JS: …yeah, they’re out there, and it's the publicist and the marketing people who choose to focus on a paper or two.
TR: That’s absolutely right.
JS: And they are the ones—you know, just recently, I was, uh, looking at the website for a new play that's about to open and they had played Off-Broadway already, and on the website all the big quotes are by white critics. Not because, I know for a fact that about this play, many critics of color wrote about it, but someone made the decision to have only the voices of those white critics featured on the marketing and on the website. And as long as they continue giving so much power and turning, you know, two people, or one person, into the, you know, the final, the ultimate, ah…I don't know, answer? No, it's more of like a judge thing. They're, they're turning critics into, uh, judges, and what they say is like, the absolute right, and the last word on a show. And I don't think that's the case.
TR: I completely want to concur with that. I just, this spring directed a play written by Rob Ackerman called Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson—it was for the Working Theater—and we, uh, it was a very beautiful production, as it turned out, it was really successful. And the Times gave it a kind of good review that then said, “oh, the play’s a little thin.” And says it twice, okay? And so everyone went into huge panic about, “oh my god, oh my god,” And I, I came to think, “oh my god, you have to have a rave from the Times for the Times to count anymore.”
But then every piece after that—including the New Yorker, including some very, very prominent pieces—were raves. And by the end of the run, we had collected like, 15 straight-up raves and we kept posting them all over Facebook. So, the run was short, um, you know, it was like four weeks, and I actually have a lot of faith in that guy who runs that theater over there, and he really got the word out and, uh, the place was packed and it was, it was by the end of the run, considered extraordinarily successful and kind of a cult thing, and people were telling each other about it.
So, it does feel like, I mean, if we had had a little more time, I wish we had had a little, a little longer run, so that we could have seen what we could do with all the incredibly positive, uh, you know, because the other thing about that piece was, there were a lot of ways to go at marketing that thing. And it, there's no question, the Times has a kind of loud bullhorn. Uh, you know, it's interesting to me how many different voices there are out there. There are a lot of really passionate theater bloggers who write very, very well, and they're all over. Um, and it's exciting to see a, see how much enthusiasm there are for critics, for the theater, from all these different critics from all different, uh, walks of life. And…
CTJ: I’d love to actually talk to you both about that, about getting a little bit away from the New York Times and, and talking about other, um, other writers out there who you might’ve account-, encountered across the country, because I know that Teresa, of course, your plays are done all over the world. Um, and if you have any, uh, things that you'd like to share about that.
TR: Yeah. I, I think that I completely agree with where you're going, Christine. There's a lot of interesting writing about the theater out there, and, uh, if you want to read it, uh, if you're interested in that, which at times I am, it, it, uh, it rewards, you know. People are thinking about theater and accepting it in a lot of different new ways. That's why I said I think it's getting better, because, you know it was interesting listening to Leah talk about 3Views and I thought, you know, god knows, I wish them all success, but I also thought the thing that we've been yearning for in New York, which is that there would be many voices. That has come true already.
And like, my experience with this, um, with this play at the Working Theater with A.R.T. New York was really exciting. It was, there were some wonderful writers who said really brilliant, interesting, uh, things about that nutty play. And the, it was beautifully designed, the design, you know, we all had a great time. And so I, and I, I find that to be true all over the country, and that there is less of a, you know, there's a couple of places like, everybody overthinks the Chicago Trib[une] review or the Washington Post review or the, you know, there's like three or four papers where everyone has that kind of panicky, “uh oh, the giant paper didn't stand up for us.” And I do wish those giant papers would think about that a little bit more and look at what, uh, you know, their fellow writers are writing and respect it, ‘cause I, I kind of feel like, uh, there's really smart stuff coming out of smaller publications where they also have more room to, uh, get into more nuance.
CTJ: Jose, do you have thoughts on this? And especially, I'd love to know your insight on what, what's out there.
JS: There's a very exciting conversation about theater going on on Twitter constantly, and there are some tweets that in 280 characters are more insightful, uh, than a 2,000 word review.
And, you know, I talk a lot to, to young people who want to become critics. And when at the end of the talk, you know, and they've heard me say how hard it is to be a critic and how they're probably gonna you know, they're not going to be rich doing it, uh, one of the things that I tell them when they're like, “what do we do? Like what can we do to improve this?” And I tell them, my homework is very simple: go, go online and find one or two blogs, or one or two people on Twitter who are saying interesting things.
JS: And then share that more than you would something from a larger outlet. ‘Cause we have to do our homework also, like the, you know, we also can become very complacent and we just go to those outlets, uh, obviously aided by the marketing and all of that, and because we see the same review being shared by absolutely everyone.
But there's more than that.
TR: Yeah, there are also different outlets that like, you know, there's this guy at The Wrap, he, he writes, is clearly a passionate about the theater and he's always got something interesting to say. And the, he kind of comes at everything with a real vitality and a joy. And like, I'm al-, I’m always happy to read whatever he's got up his sleeve, you know? And that's, that's relatively new, you know, that wasn't out there for a little while. I mean, I think that's what I'm seeing is that new outlets are rising that have really interesting writers at them. So, that's good news.
CTJ: Uh, I wonder also, you know, it occurs to me with, with social media and being so much in the middle of everything, can you speak about how the online culture, or the call-out culture that we have so much these days has affected reviews, reviewers, and theater makers?
TR: I can like, start a beginning. I know this…
TR: …was for Jose, but I will say on my play, Dig, that’s just up in Dorset right now, somebody tweeted, “go see Dig, it will break your heart wide open and then put it back together.” And I thought, “wow, that's a great little…” and so I think that's what you're talking about, is when sometimes when people have to really be concise, something beautiful happens.
JS: Right, I agree. Uh, you know, when it comes to call-out culture, [sigh] oh god, that’s a, if we would need like a whole day, I think to talk about that.
JS: ‘Cause, uh, I, again, I find it very disturbing that…
TR: What is call-out culture? I don’t even…
JS: You know, when someone says something…wrong, or, and then people are instantly saying like, “fire them” and like…
TR: Oh, yeah yeah yeah.
JS: …”kill them, and “set them on fire,” and all of that.
CTJ: And I think because people don't have to have a, they don't have their faces talking to that other person, so their accountability can be really different. There was…
TR: So it’s…
CTJ: …they can say something anonymous and it sparks a whole conversation that may not be solidly based on, on truth. Or, or the…
TR: So this is calling out certain critics for what they write? What, I mean, what i-, is that what happens?
TR: Oh, okay.
JS: That's, that's at least what I…
TR: That’s it.
JS: …that's what I understood.
TR: Okay, I just want to make sure I'm on the…
JS: And recently, you know, I saw one of my, one of the critics I respect the most, go through the whole like, cancel culture thing. And I was very conflicted ‘cause, ah, you know, I was debating, you know, this is someone who I really admire and at the same time I was glad that people were calling out the mistakes that, that this person had made.
The thing that I find, uh, very interesting is seeing how the critic in question reacts to this. For instance, I think the call-out thing is great if you use it as a learning experience, and if you learn something from it and then you don't do the same thing all over again, then it's great. We all should get feedback, right? And if we mess up, people should tell us about it.
The problem is when people are calling out the same critic over and over and over and over and over again for the same reasons, and they don't want to change. And that is when, you know, some action should be taken. I don't like that thing where people are just like, “fire this person,” or, you know, they tell them to disappear or go away or whatever.
The internet just makes it so easy for people to be cruel to each other. And because we're behind screens, we forget sometimes that we're talking to people in the end. Except if they're the Russian bots or whatever. Uh, but we forget that it's people and everyone has feelings. And I, you know, I wish that rather than calling out people and telling them to go away, we would use these things as dialogue, ‘cause that's also one of the, you know, you asked me earlier, what are the responsibilities of a critic, and it's not to be the final decision on a show, but rather to open a conversation.
I see my work, for instance, not as, you know, “this is what I think, and you either like it or not,” but, “this is what I think. Please talk to me about it. Please have a conversation with me about it. If you agree…”
CTJ: I think that's incredible.
JS: “…great, yeah. And if you don't agree…” I would love to hear from people who don't agree with me!
CTJ: Right. And, and to, to, to, um, piggyback on something, uh, Theresa said much earlier about really being able to sit in your own point of view, in a good way, you know, and, and say, um, that, uh, we might have room, then also, to hear each other's points of view. Um, that would be amazing too. I have a question for Theresa: um, I, I wondered, so you do read reviews. I know that not everybody reads reviews.
TR: I read reviews when I've directed the play. Um, I find that, uh, it's just easier, though. I don't feel quite as exposed. Um, and, uh, I, it's clarifying, you know.
CTJ: And so do you, you not read them when, when it's about your own play?
TR: Um, I tend to not read them when it's about my own play. I do find them to be, uh, a little too cruel, just in general, is how I receive them. Um, I read this book, there's this book, it's really precious to me, called The Gift by Lewis Hyde, and it's very much about gift-giving and, and, uh, and capitalist cultures and Maori culture. I mean, it's about gift-giving and art and culture and the fact that art presents itself through the artist as a gift, and that we, we receive it very painfully, you know, the way you would to be judged.
You know, that we're like, we're giving you a gift, and you're like, opening the present at your birthday party and saying, “I don't like this, I don't like this, I don't…” you know, it's to, to me, my whole, my own instrument feels like it's kind of rude, you know? And I, I, you know, and I also write fiction, it’s, and some people told me that, “when the reviews come out from your book, you'll be further away from it and it'll be less…painful.” Well, that doesn't turn out to be true.
CTJ: Well sure, because you're putting yourself into your work.
TR: It's just, so, generally, uh, I, I have a system whereby my manager or a friend will read them and then give me a kind of generalized report. And, uh, generally I find out, like with Bernhardt/Hamlet, everybody was like, “oh, the reviews are really good.” And I thought, “oh, the reviews are really good.” And I tried to read one and was so horrified, I couldn't make it through. Uh, so I, I tend to not read them. Unless I've directed it, in which case…
TR: …they kind of ignore the director. I love that.
TR: You know, they talk about the play, they talk about the design, they talk about the acting, and you know that you're behind all of that.
TR: And s-, um, but nobody really lands on you. Although like, I did get a couple—I got this one review from the New Yorker said that, my direction had a “gently surreal touch,” which I will carry to my grave. So, I'm glad that, every now and then you want to hear something like that, but you can't, I find that I can’t open myself to like, what's really debilitating noise getting in your head.
And you can't…
CTJ: Jose, have…
TR: …you cannot let it in there.
CTJ: Yeah. Jose, have you had an experience where, um, someone you've written a review about has come to you to talk about it?
JS: No, the only time that's ever happened to me, I think was, oh god, years ago when I was a uh, cause I started as a film critic and it was like 10 years ago, and I published a review on my blog that I started when I was a teenager. And I had been to a festival in Mexico and I saw this, uh, I think it was a Belgian movie that I didn't like. And the director found me on Twitter, and he told me that I knew nothing and I was very ignorant. [laughs]
Uh, but you know, usually what I get, I hear it's, rather, you know, not from the people who are involved with the, with the work, but something that really breaks my heart is that I get more feedback from people, uh, in the industry or not when they think I wrote a negative review. And people think that, you know, writing scathing reviews and panning shows is something that we love doing, and nothing breaks my heart more than people saying, “I loved how vicious this review was,” and I don't think I read vicious reviews. I would, you know I, I, I hope not.
But when people perceive that, you know, they will share a negative review more than they will a rave.
CTJ: Right. Why do you think we tend to give so much power to negative reviews? Is it just human nature that negative things get amplified more? I'd love to know both of your thoughts on that.
TR: Uh, you know, my experience in the community is that it gets amplified by the community. That there's a certain, I think there's so much anxiety in our community about, uh, getting your next job, how little actors are paid, I, you know, that it's just, there's a kind of, um, very deep pain that's in, out there, and these reviews are sort of like, toxic, uh, potions that get poured into a lot of anxious people.
And so then schadenfreude shows up, and so I, I, you know, I don't think it's good. And that's something that the community, I wish there were a way that we could take more responsibility for that ourselves. Um, and so that's why so many people don't read them. I'm certainly not the only one who largely stays away from them, but I think also, uh, Jose's point, really good point, about the marketing and the press people and what they do—and the producers as well—just hyper-react to those big reviews. And if they're negative, that can affect your career for years. You know, it's like, sort of shocking, uh, how they're all, it's a little reptilian, the way everyone's just moving toward heat. And, uh, you know, somebody gets a good review and everybody just rushes over to that side of the boat. Um, so would be great if we had a little more common sense. Wouldn’t that be great, Christine?
CTJ: [laughing] Yeah. Jose, do you have, do you have a response to..?
JS: Yes, I, you know, people just like being cruel to each other. And there's something about seeing people, especially if there's someone who's been praised before, people love seeing that person brought down. Ah, and you know, I keep thinking about something, I went to the, uh, to the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, uh, in 2016, and one of our instructors was, uh, Ben Brantley, who is one of the most demonized people, I think, in, in theater. And as a, you know, I was a younger critic back then, and I, I also had this fear of who he was going to be, and, you know, how do I approach this person?
One of the most mind-blowing things that, that Ben Brantley said to us—and I think this is something that if people knew about this, it could change the way that people perceive the work, not only of, uh, Mr. Brantley, but most critics—and he told us that his reviews were meant to be read after people had seen the show. They were not meant to be, you know, decision-making, uh, pieces.
JS: And I completely, uh, you know, and that changed the way that I read his work and because that's the way that I approach my work also.
TR: Can I just say though, he knows that they're not. Like, in reality. That makes no sense to me. Right? Then why don't they publish those reviews after the show was closed?
JS: I, yeah I, I agree. I…
TR: Did anyone ask him about that?
JS: I don't remember.
TR: That seems like, so peculiar.
JS: But it’s…
TR: Like, like utterly peculiar.
JS: Yeah, but it's, you know, it's the way that I think about the work and it's, you know, it should be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.
JS: And I don't know if it's because of the way that things are run in, in the media and because editors’ demands and, and stuff like that. And yeah, it sounds like a very idealistic thing to say, especially knowing that, right. Uh, which is why, for example, like, you know, when I was mentioning earlier that when I write for specific outlets, I'll measure myself and when…
JS: …I write for the New York Times, it's one of the times when, when I think very specifically and very carefully about each word…
JS: …and each comma that I'm using, ‘cause a comma could be, you know…
TR: Yeah. You know, I went up and talked to that thing too, and I, last year, so Chris Jones was there, and, uh, I have to say, I said to all these young critics, “try and like things more.” I mean, we could really use the help. And that was seen as, like a sort of crazy thing to say, and I thought, “except we're all in the soup together.”
You know, everyone's worried about the theater audiences shrinking, about the fewer jobs for critics, and I think, I think we should encourage people to come. I would like you guys to encourage people to come. It's a communal art form, come in and see what we're doing. And uh, sometimes I worry that, that that's not what critics are being told, that part of your consideration could be, bring ‘em in! And the, that that didn't go down so well. What do you think? Jose?
JS: I love what you're saying because if I could, and I don't mean to sound silly, but if I could, I would not call myself a critic: I would call myself a cheerleader.
JS: ‘Cause that's what I think of myself as. And many times I'd think about, uh, John Waters said in an interview once that he didn't think there was art that was bad, and I completely agree.
TR: I agree too.
JS: Yeah. And he said, and I love when he said this, he, he said that when he went to a movie and he found himself being bored by, uh, by the plot or by the acting or whatever, he would, uh, focus on the lamps. And then he would choose, he would pick something to love from that work. And I agree.
JS: We should all focus on the lamps. There's something great about every single piece of art. And even when my friends, uh, and people who know me asked me like, “don't you get tired of going to the theater every night?” And I say no, ‘cause even when I go see a show that I don't necessarily love, I saw someone's point of view.
JS: And I was exposed to something I didn't know before, and I'm grateful every time that I go to a show because of that.
CTJ: That’s so wonderful. Thank you for that, that's fantastic. I do have another question. We, we touched on it when you brought up what quotes get the most light, um, by marketing and publicity, and it occurs to me that also, we haven't talked about how we can encourage more diverse voices to come out, and be highlighted in, in these conversations? And I wonder if you have thoughts about that. Jose?
JS: [heavy sighs] Yeah, I’m sighing a lot ‘cause this is something that I grapple with every day.
I, I tell people often that, you know I, I grew up in Honduras, I grew up in a country with no critics, right? And I refuse to believe that I was the only person growing up there who wanted to be a critic. And now I'm in New York and I am a member, for instance, of the Drama Desk. I'm on the board and the nominating committee. And many times I've heard people who have been doing this for decades tell me straight in my face, “uh, people like you don't exist.” And then I say, “well, here I am.” Right?
So, one of the most important things for me to do is to advocate, and not only—cause I'm also getting tired of the whole thing, like we need to have a conversation. No, it's, we're done with the conversation. We need to act, and we need action. And one of the things that I'm trying to do with my work is to offer people mentorship. I unfortunately don't have the resources, like I don't have any big organizations or institutions backing me up in this, but I tell people online: if you have work that you want me to look at, please send it. And if you're someone who's ever contemplated being a critic, it’s also one of the things that I think we should change a little bit is the idea that a critic is a writer. And nowadays, because of the way that people, uh, you know, go through the world on with their headphones and on screens all the time, it's about time that criticism changed also. Ah, people laugh because I often say that I dream of the day when a review is not going to be, you know, a bunch of words, but a cookie.
JS: And I would love to see someone, you know, I would love to see someone who knows how to cook, say, “hey, I made this cookie inspired by what the show made me feel.”
And as long as we keep also just focusing on the writing aspects of criticism, we are turning away a lot of people who maybe don't know how to communicate…with words, uh, you know, with written words, but are maybe incredible speakers or maybe incredible artists who could turn in a collage after they see a show.
And, you know, it's like when we go to, when we go to the museum and we look at a Picasso or like, a Frida Kahlo or whatever, and they make us feel things. And I think critics can also do that without necessarily being writers. Um, so, well, since I mean, since, since I'm here, if there are any young critics, especially young queer and people of color who want to become critics or are interested in this, reach out to me! I'm on Twitter.
CTJ: Thank you so much. Theresa, do you have any last thoughts to add about that and before we wrap up?
TR: I don't think I can top that. That was fantastic.
CTJ: It was fantastic, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us in this really important and fascinating conversation about critical thinking. As always, to be continued. Thank you, Theresa, Jose, Leah, and that's the final episode of season 1 of Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. Thank you so much for listening.
This has been The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, a production of the Dramatists Guild of America and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is lovingly produced by Sarah Storm, Christine Toy Johnson, and Amy Von Macek. It's edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Terry Stratton, Adrien Glover, and John Marshall Cheary.
TALKBACK is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content, visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack.
I'm Christine Toy Johnson. Now go see a show!
In our final episode of the season playwright Leah Nanako Winkler tells Christine about a 3Views, a new initiative to invite more voices into theater criticism.
Later freelance critic and journalist Jose Solís and playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Theresa Rebeck talk about Jose’s first love- theater criticism and why boiling everything to thumbs up or down is damaging to the industry.
This episode features Leah Nanako Winkler (God Said This, Season 2 New Amsterdam on NBC) Jose Solís (TCG’s Token Theatre Friends) and Theresa Rebeck (MCC’s Seared, Bernhardt/Hamlet) The Dramatist Presents: Talkback is a production of The Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated . This episode was produced by Sarah Storm, Amy VonMacek, Christine Toy Johnson, directed by Sarah Storm, and edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. It was recorded by Eric Dabdoub for JMM. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Tari Stratton, Adrien Glover, Robin Lai, and John Marshall Cheary.