American Morrow

Jonathan Moscone and Lily Janiak in Conversation

In July of 2014 Lily Janiak wrote a piece for HowlRound in which she spoke critically of her experience seeing the play American Night at California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes). She criticized both the production and the setting in which she saw the play. In a follow-up, HowlRound editor Polly Carl wrote an apology for the tone of the piece. Both the original piece by Janiak and Carl’s apology created a conversation about the role of criticism in the theatre. Here Janiak and Artistic Director of Cal Shakes Jon Moscone talk about the impact of Janiak’s criticism and the controversy it stirred.

Actors in sheepskins on stage
Photo of Cal Shakes’ American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Lily Janiak: The first thing I want to say is—when we were talking about this, you mentioned the Mary Zimmerman-Jamil Khoury commotion. I’m just really glad you’re reaching out to me in this way. I’m grateful that you want to keep the conversation going, and that it feels genuine and about the ideas.

Jonathan Moscone: I’m glad that you wanted to do this. I think both you and I agreed that looking at the way these conversations are happening, it either becomes a really behind-the scenes thing, which seemed like what happened with Mary and The Jungle Book—we were reported to about it—or it becomes kind of a free-for-all. I’m really interested in continuing to build the dialogue from our experience in hopes of identifying ways we can progress the conversation with transparency through means like HowlRound and other social media.

LJ: I think “free-for-all” is the right word for it. Choosing to engage in that—you just never know what could happen to you, what things could be said about you. So…should we talk about the American Night piece?

JM: Sure.

LJ: For me, writing that, I knew I would get some criticism, some strong responses. I was thinking something along the lines of maybe the very first comment, which Rebecca Novick wrote, which was terrific and super-productive, and I loved her tone. But I really had no idea that it would get as huge as it did, which was naïve of me. Part of me wonders if I could have written that piece without being so naïve. Maybe not. But since then, I feel my critical approach is so much more conscious and aware, every time I sit down to write something for HowlRound or anywhere else. I could go more into that, but I know the piece changed a lot for you as well.

JM: I think you put your finger on it. There’s a level of consciousness around what I do that just snapped into a profound focus after that experience.

My first approach to all of it was to, after being shocked by it, just let Rebecca have the conversation. I had more of a political response—“Don’t say anything until you need to”—and then the conversation started to grow into something really uncomfortable for me. It questioned the culture of the organization, not just the play. For any organization like mine in the middle of the process of identifying new routes into doing different kinds of work, the first step is on the stage. But then you realize that there are fifty more steps, and that it’s about a change in the whole organizational culture. I think this is the difference between diversity and inclusion. Whose story is being told? Who is being represented? The broadness of that question forces you to answer: how much are you going to reflect the kind of diversity not only of our world but specifically of our own communities in your organization? Inclusion is a deeper, more ongoing process of active engagement that questions a lot of unconscious, structural, institutional ways in which, even though you are representing, you aren’t necessarily including. It’s more invisible in many ways. So to have it made visible was…hard.

nclusion is a deeper, more ongoing process of active engagement that questions a lot of unconscious, structural, institutional ways in which, even though you are representing, you aren’t necessarily including.

LJ: For me, as a critic in the Bay Area, I’m on the younger side, the newer side. I started writing reviews in 2009. I feel that one of the things I can bring to the table, and only for a limited period of time—maybe now after I’ve written that piece, that period is starting to end—is, to use a cliché, a fresh pair of eyes. I didn’t really know what Cal Shakes was like, even after seeing a couple of shows there. Of course, I’m certainly not the typical new theatregoer, being a critic and having a background in theatre, but the grounds of Cal Shakes and the theatre and the theatregoing experience—it wasn’t something I had grown up with, like I had always been roaming the grounds of the Bruns Ampitheatre ever since I was a wee tot. So when I came to the theatre, it was with that sense of being disoriented that anyone would have in a new space. But I felt I could use that as my part of my critical lens.

JM: For me, you pointed at things I didn’t see. Specifically because, being outdoors, it all seemed the opposite of any other large indoor theatre experience.

It has led to our organization really understanding the amount of work it takes to unearth what’s underneath. Doing a play that tells a story of an underrepresented community at your theatre—to tell Richard Montoya’s story—the risk was well within my purview. I could do that! I could make that play happen! It was enormously important for a lot of our board and members of our community—who were waiting without saying anything—for something like this to happen. But to realize that the work on the stage doesn’t just bleed into the building, that there are layers in which you are working—I think to have that lens on and be exposed to those layers sometimes really hurts because it’s exhausting. You start to question a lot.

So when I see work, I’m starting to see signs that I never saw before. It makes it hard to separate what that play is and what you’re watching from who’s doing it, who’s in the room—the signs and symbols that are a reflection of that big issue of real inclusion. You start to see the big picture. That’s where I am on my journey now.

This journey has impacted Cal Shakes—we’ve entered into an organization-wide, very long-term diversity and inclusion initiative. We were able to hire several people to help us work through this. Even though it has been almost a year already, it feels like day two to me. There are action steps, and then there are steps about thought-as-action and contemplation-as-action and conversation-as-action, as opposed to—“just do this.” James Kass at Youth Speaks said to me, “It’s not like they don’t have art to go to—the people who are underrepresented at your theatre. It’s just that they’re going to go somewhere else. It’s not necessarily like they’re sitting there waiting for you to put on that play.” Younger artists are going to start making art elsewhere if theatre doesn’t actually include them in a kind of systemic, procedural way, which comes from thought and consciousness. They’re going to disconnect. Not tomorrow, but over time.

LJ: I would love to hear even a few examples of some of the changes you’re most excited about. I’m already pretty pumped to check out the Bruns this season and see how things are evolving.

JM: Near the end of last year, during the last show, Rebecca Novick, who then ran our Triangle Lab and now is our Director of Artistic Engagement, invited some artists to start to look at the Bruns and see things that we, as people who have lived there for fourteen years, don’t see—to find some creative ways in which these artists can respond and help identify which certain literal signs and non-literal signs can be questioned and changed and thought about differently. So Rebecca is working on that. What can I say we’re doing? I don’t know yet because we’re still building the thing.

But a lot of it is—what does it mean to have customer service at a theatre? What does that actually mean? How are people being welcomed? When you have, say, a community access program, where you’re bringing a youth group you’re working with in Richmond—how do they get treated when they come versus “the donor”? How do we think of them? What signals are we sending? Again, this is about intention versus impact. Are we bringing those groups on nights when we don’t sell a lot of tickets, or do we bring them on a Friday night? Do we have a board member meet them in the same way a board member would meet somebody who gives us a big check? How do we not bifurcate while still building the organization as a business model? This is about how we expand the business model—when I say “business model,” I don’t mean just the money we’re making; but how we operate. It’s questioning things that you think as a “liberal citizen” you’re already doing. A lot of the work is about listening.

LJ: I really like the metaphor you used in one of our past conversations—about just being a good host, just being a gracious and welcoming host in your home, where you would treat everyone the same.

JM: Yeah. You make them all feel extremely welcome and extremely special.

LJ: For me, as a critic, I’m used to writing my articles, sending them out there into the void and never hearing from the universe again. It often feels like—aside from the occasional “fuck you!” comment from the most intelligent people on the internet—it’s very much a one-way street. I’m not even talking about having an impact on an organization, just having a conversation. That almost never happens. So I almost haven’t known how to process this, the fact that something I could write could have some small effect on an organization. I’m not talking about this like, “Oh, I’m so great and so important now.” This really means to me that criticism can have weight. Criticism can have impact. It can make change.

JM: Every critic knows that there’s weight to the pen but what you entered into, whether or not you knew it at the time—when you talked about the organization and not just the play—the impact of that can go on for a long time. We can’t change things overnight. In fact, when you asked me the question about the Bruns, I really should have answered the way it’s really happening—whether we do one or two things is going to be what this summer is. What we’re working on is internal. We have to start internally: who is making decisions about what’s going on there? The people who make the decisions about how we create a different kind of culture that’s far more inclusive and welcoming have to be people who will be impacted by that conversation, not just the people who have good intentions within the organization.

LJ: So it’s less top-down.

JM: Honestly, I try to be as great a host as I can, but there are things I’m probably doing that I’m not aware of. So to have enough people around me in that circle, in that room telling me what they see—I have to acknowledge that. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not what I intended!” Well, of course! No one intends to exclude in the theatre. So putting that conversation in as many circles in your organization is critical. The buck will stop at the point of leadership so I have to listen to what people in my organization hear and see. Having a bunch of wonderfully intentioned and very smart people defending Cal Shakes’ work in the comments to the article had the opposite effect on me. I didn’t feel validated. I felt like we weren’t listening as well as we could. Rebecca’s been really extraordinary about listening, and that’s why she wanted to bring artists in and start to have conversations. We realized that our intentions can get in the way. It’s the beginning of a long journey.

LJ: Listening probably won’t kill ya.

JM: That’s totally right. As Mike Daisey said to me, “Stop being so thin-skinned and just listen.” That’s a good thing.

LJ: One of the concerns you’ve expressed to me, both at the beginning of this conversation and other times we’ve met, is how do we keep this conversation going in a productive way? Where do we go from here, and how do we make sure that—the way you put it is, I think, that a diverse array of voices are included and that change actually happens? What do you feel needs to happen next?

JM: I think that having conversations in the blogosphere or through social media is a really tricky thing to do. You don’t know who’s listening. It stops being a real conversation; it becomes kind of like “opinion, then next opinion.” It’s almost like watching Sunday news punditry: does anyone in the room really change their mind? Did anyone who was around that table ever say, “Wow, I never thought of it that way. That’s so interesting. Let me consider that.” That’s not how our culture’s built. We can’t assume that free exchange on the internet automatically solves this problem.

I don’t know how, but I think we have to talk to each other, even if we think of it as a local question. I’m not sure how, nationally, you can have a conversation in one forum. At TCG, when we did the national theatre conference—one track this last year was about diversity and inclusion. To manage that conversation is really rough. How do you have those conversations? I think we as a Bay Area community of artists owe ourselves the right and responsibility to create a necessary conversation in a way that allows everyone to come to the table and listen. How do we get past all the defensiveness and the intentions that we allow ourselves to hide behind in order to understand impact? Our missions all talk about that, right? Every single mission talks about impact. No mission says, “We intend!” So we talk about impact, but then we have a hard time listening to impact—all of us. There are probably people who are much thicker-skinned than I am who can listen to impact more easily. But I think we owe ourselves that conversation without feeling like we’re going to die or that we’re going to lose power. Think about how when you falter and fall down and get back up again, you realize there’s something stronger on the other side of this, something where the authenticity of conversation marks the character of the community of artists.

The ultimate interest in the community works beyond just butts in seats. We’re part of a larger conversation. We’re artists inside a world of change. We’re citizens who make work. We’re not theatre people who just happen to pay taxes.

I think you touched on that. I think you walked in that doorway, or that forest, when you wrote that piece.

Think about how when you falter and fall down and get back up again, you realize there’s something stronger on the other side of this, something where the authenticity of conversation marks the character of the community of artists.

LJ: For me, with the American Night piece, pretty much every aspect of my identity got raked over the coals. I’m a white person. I’m well-educated. I have a lot of privileges that come from that and from other things. I get to see shows for free. I mean, the list goes on. Seeing myself get picked apart in that way, as that list of things—that’s not all of who I am. But when I went to write another big piece after that—about the idea of applying the NFL’s Rooney Rule to the theatre world, which appeared in Theatre Bay Area magazine—a piece that you participated in—I was really grateful to have had that experience because it’s a little bit like what you described before: falling down and getting back up. I just acknowledged the shit out of my privileges in writing that article, and I think it had a much bigger impact as a result. I could have just taken on that pseudo-objective voice that critics and journalists always take, but because I added that aspect, the responses I got have been much more emotional and meaningful than those for almost anything else I’ve written.

JM: For me, acknowledging my privileges makes me listen to what I say, as opposed to just saying what I say. For you, listening to what you write as you write it is, from what I’m hearing you say, a new consciousness. That’s great.

LJ: Yeah. For what some of have been criticizing about HowlRound’s NewCrit initiative—if you can’t be freely critical as much as you want, is it really criticism?—for me, the remarkable thing about it is that I can experiment with all those different voices, and I can talk about different aspects of the theatregoing experience, all in one big-ol’ messy article that goes in a million different directions. That’s really exciting to me. Some pieces are more successful than others, for sure.

JM: In terms of igniting conversation?

LJ: Just because I’m experimenting with the writing and the form, not just in terms of igniting conversation but as a piece of writing. Does it work to talk about the aspects of a production and the sign systems when you walk into the theatre, all in the same piece? I’m not sure. But it’s so much fun to try to figure that out.

JM: I think if you see it and feel it and notice it and it affects you, why wouldn’t you write about that? And if it doesn’t, are you manufacturing a story for yourself?

LJ: Right.

JM: How can you get creative juice out of something that you’re obliged to notice, as opposed to something that really does affect you? HowlRound wants to be a place that instigates other conversations, not be the only place where we have that conversation. I’d love to better understand how theatres are having conversations as part of their communities as opposed to as an industry. We’re not making plays all day long; you’re not writing criticism all day long. You spend a lot of time on your bike! I spend a lot of my time driving across the Bay Bridge! I listen to news. I have family and friends. I think we narrow ourselves when we only talk about plays and criticism. I didn’t know what I was doing would open up all of these questions. But there they are. In my fourteenth year of running a theatre, it’s better to have more questions if we’re talking about sustaining a movement. We serve the public, but who is the public, and how can we truly serve it effectively?

The reason I proposed you and I get together and you jumped into the fray with me is we don’t want this to just go away as a thing that happened. So maybe what we’re doing is just putting out the question: How do we have these hard conversations? I don’t think we know. You and I don’t have the perfect answers. There are a lot of people who are struggling with this, and that’s a good thing because it makes us have to think harder and work harder and assess ourselves. I think it’s ultimately a very exciting time to be making work in this world.

LJ: And it’s a very exciting time to be writing criticism, much as people cry doom.

JM: I agree. There are people who want to write it very specifically on what they’re looking at, and not the other stuff. Great! This shouldn’t replace those conversations. This should be additive. There’s a lot more space in these rooms than we thought, and if there’s not, let’s make some bigger rooms.

 

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good writing, good discussions . . . and as an old maker of theatre, i still fail to understand why anyone who makes theatre would read or care what any critic wrote about their work

I greatly admire the way this was handled by both Lily and Jon (as well as Rebecca's Novick's response to the original piece). All have made very perceptive and intelligent points with respect for the other position.

I join Brad and Ben in my thanks for good listening and bravery on both sides. It serves as inspiration to us all.

Agreeing with Brad, and thanking you both so much for what you both bring, individually and jointly, to the Bay Area theater.

Thanks to you both for modeling how to have hard conversations. It's amazingly encouraging to me to see what happens if we can really listen -- and really speak to what we see.