Blistered and Burned
The Absence of Female Critics
A single review can change everything, and it often does. That’s not news to the theatre community—even Alec Bladwin acknowledged it in an insightful and straightforward article in The Huffington Post last month. For years, theatre artists have been losing hair as previews end and the finality of opening night arrives. Critics hold the power to decide the fate of many shows. Yet, with the rise of female playwrights, directors, and arts administrators, one has to wonder: where are the female critics hiding?
Lauded playwright Gina Gionfriddo has been well-received by the critics as of late. Her last two hit plays, Becky Shaw and the more recent Rapture, Blister, Burn, were both Pulitzer Prize-finalists. Of course, most of the critics from major media outlets were white men over the age of fifty. I clearly remember the day last summer when the well-respected company Playwrights Horizons made an addition to their marketing—Rapture, Blister, Burn had just been named a “Critic’s Pick” by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, and any tickets remaining for the run immediately disappeared as the literate New Yorkers snatched them up. “The image of women rapping away about gender roles may hark back to that seemingly distant era, but the rap itself is rich in new perspectives,” Isherwood raved in his review. Try as I may to weasel my way into Gionfriddo’s latest, it proved to be practically impossible. A box office employee confirmed this. “Once they name it a Critic’s Pick, it’s very difficult to get tickets,” she told me.
As the Fates would have it, I would wait a year to see the production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston where it would be directed once again by Peter Dubois who helmed the Horizons production. I marked it on the calendar and was pleased to make it to opening night. By intermission, however, my high hopes had mostly vanished into disappointment. The show that critics had dubbed as a fresh look at feminism and gender roles in society instead offered a whirlwind tour through basic feminist theory that somehow still centered around a singular (and stereotypical) male character. In fact, the man seemed to be the central object of the play. Most scenes that were not packed with references to the writings of Phyllis Schlafly wouldn’t hold up to the Bechdel test for long.
The increasingly diverse gender representation in the theatre community at-large calls for a mirroring diversity in the journalism that so heavily weighs the fate of individual productions.
The Boston Globe released Don Aucoin’s glittering review of the production the night after I saw it. I sat in my room practically grinding my teeth as fifty-five-year-old Aucoin, much like Isherwood, praised Gionfriddo as having “crafted a shrewd, incisive, thoroughly winning comedy” in which she “ranges across the topography of the women’s movement.” Did these men actually see the same play that had sparked a heated discussion of modern feminism (and anti-feminism) amongst my colleagues and friends? Of course, tickets to the production once again began flying off the shelf because these reviews still somehow matter.
Then the real question had to be asked: why in the world was a woman not reviewing this play about women?
The answer is most likely something like: oh wait, the perennial critics at any of the major American news outlets are not women. I don’t mean to generalize here—consider The New York Times with Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley (preceded, of course, by Frank Rich) who currently list zero out of the twenty-three Critic’s Picks as being reviewed by a woman; The Los Angeles Times lists nine theatre critics, led by veteran Charles McNulty, only two of whom are female; on the website for The Washington Post, Peter Marks and Nelson Pressley are the only two critics that get their own categories for reviews; The Chicago Tribune devotes it’s Theater Loop page to the reviews of Chris Jones; and at The Boston Globe, Don Aucoin is almost guaranteed to be the reviewer of any major production in town.
As if to drive the point home further, American Theatre magazine published by TCG released a list of the Top 12 Theatre Critics in America in November 2011, and only two on the list were women—Misha Berson of The Seattle Times, and Christine Dolen of The Miami Herald (neither city quite the theatre mecca).
One can speculate as to why such apparent discrimination exists. Is it because media outlets have always preferred to employ men (at least in print)? Are these aging critics left over from an era before society became conscious of gender parity issues? Will audiences trust the voice of a woman over that of a man? Where America falls short, Britain seems to be making strong efforts to include the voice of female critics. Almost every other review listed on The Guardian website is written by a woman, and nine of the seventeen faces they include on their “Stage Staff” list on Twitter are women.
The shocking lack of diversity across the board in American theatre criticism, however, should be considered, at the very least, incredibly out of date. In 2013, female playwrights are running rampant, doing much of the best work in the country. (Shout out to Suzan-Lori Parks, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Katori Hall, Young Jean Lee, Kirsten Greenidge, Sarah Ruhl, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Kathleen Tolan.) Women directors are hot like never before—consider the recent Tony Awards given to Diane Paulus and Pam MacKinnon, not to mention established talents Anne Kaufman, Mary Zimmerman, and Rebecca Taichman, among others. Although the scales are still unbalanced in terms of female artistic directors, we are lucky to have the strong presence of Martha Lavey, Molly Smith, Emily Mann, and the aforementioned Paulus, to name a few.
With women writing, selecting, and directing plays, where are the women reviewers? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a female perspective on some of these plays in addition to the established male vantage point?
The truth is that women have been burned out of their place in dramatic criticism by a tradition of misogyny in the field of journalism. But the times, they are a-changing. The increasingly diverse gender representation in the theatre community at-large calls for a mirroring diversity in the journalism that so heavily weighs the fate of individual productions. I, for one, look forward to the day I can sit in front of the latest newspaper and read reviews by both women and men, critiquing plays written by and directed by both sexes as well.