What Happened When Critics Failed to Review My Latino Play?
I recently directed Karen Zacarias’ Mariela en el Desierto—Karen’s own Spanish-language version of the play for Teatro Del Sol, a part of Aurora Theatre Company. Through this annual program, Aurora offers Latina/o theater to its audiences in Gwinnett County, the most ethnically diverse county in the state of Georgia, located half-an-hour northeast of downtown Atlanta.
But this post isn’t about the production, which had been lauded by Aurora’s subscribers and audiences new to the theater, many from the surrounding Spanish-speaking and bilingual communities. And although I’m proud of the production and of the nearly-all Latina/o creative team that gave Mariela en el Desierto an authentic voice, an issue arose as the last weekend of performances approached:
No critics from the periodicals in the Atlanta area had attended or reviewed the show.
Now normally, as some artists I’ve worked with can attest, I regard criticism from the mainstream journalistic circles skeptically (that is old-school classical skepticism, which recognizes the limitations of their knowledge and maintains my own suspended judgment and intellectual caution when assessing said criticism. In other words, I recognize that neither the critic nor I may have the final “right answer”). While I appreciate the attention and look forward to the bounce in interest once a production is reviewed, I also view all reviews as detrimental to the psyche of the production. Therefore, I don’t—and respectfully ask my creative team not to—read them until the run concludes.
I leave it up to the host theater where I am freelancing to decide how they wish to publicize and use reviews in promoting the show through traditional means or through social media. And I know for a fact that Aurora’s staff had a difficult challenge in promoting Mariela en el Desierto, a play in Spanish that A. is not a musical; B. is not a comedy, and C. is a relatively new work. But they did all the right things and made all the right moves in terms of outreach to both the English and Spanish-speaking media.
The Spanish media was vociferous in their support and it reflected when Spanish-speaking audiences arrived in bunches (except on Easter Sunday—which is traditionally a very tough sell to Latina/os regardless of what show it is). Aurora’s regular audiences had come as well.
But two weeks had passed and there were only a few local pre-show write-ups for the show from the English-language periodicals. Granted, we all saw those pre-show articles as a success in a way, and we hoped that they would lead to an interest on the part of Atlanta-area critics to see the show and review it. So when it didn’t happen, I was a little chagrined, but not at all surprised. With productions that do not fit within the boundaries of the mainstream theater, there is a great deal of hand-holding and guidance with press and media to make sure that they articulate the uniqueness and worth of the production you’re promoting. And in the case of Latina/o theater, you have to take more than just a few extra steps. In many cases, it’s a marathon.
At this point when your production isn’t getting the coverage you would normally get you have a couple of options: really push for the critics to come, or just bite the bullet and hope that word-of-mouth will carry the day. And while I believe in the latter so much because of the tremendous work everyone put into the show, there was another reality that I had to deal with.
You see, I am also an assistant professor of theater at the University of Iowa, one of the few Latinos in the country teaching directing at the graduate and undergraduate levels in a NAST-accredited institution. I’m fortunate to have a tenure-track position that supports my creative endeavors outside academia. The university’s purpose in this is simple: to bring my outside professional experiences back to my students in the classroom. It is critical to my success as an artist-scholar to have a dual career in the professional theater and in academia.
For many scholars publishing is key to achieving tenure. My path is different in that as someone with an MFA terminal degree and as a working director, my portfolio must be filled with measurable and significant achievements in the professional sector. And one of the university’s measurements of success is that your production should be reviewed by someone outside academia. And, usually, that is the newspaper arts critic.
I apologize this prologue may be common knowledge to others in either the professional or the academic fields (or both). But allow me to share what went through my mind as a Latino, as a director, and as an artist-scholar:
As a Latino director: I want Latina/o theater to be acknowledged and vital to the fabric of the American theater. Never mind that it’s in another language. Atlanta already has Théâtre du Rêve, a company that produces plays in the French language, which in my research, never prevents critics from reviewing their shows. And besides, our creative team worked very hard to produce a show that could speak to all audiences, through the acting, the gestures, the movement, and the interpersonal relationships of the characters.
As a Latino academic: It is critical that my work is reviewed by an outside eye. When I direct plays at the University of Iowa I often invite peers from other professional and academic institutions to attend and view my work. Not only because it helps build those relationships, but because their letters of support will go in my dossier for when my year-to-year and tenure reviews come up.
This is particularly crucial when I direct outside of Iowa. My university colleagues will often not be able to attend an out-of-town production (due to their own projects and busy schedules), so I have to be extremely proactive to get critics or peers to see my work. And I know this is a cliché but an extremely important point: as a Latina/o, you have to work twice as hard to get your work reviewed and validated. A tenure committee is often made up of colleagues outside your discipline (and, more likely than not, outside of your cultural interests), and it is crucial that every bit of documentation is saved and included for their review and assessment.
There is no perfect solution to these problems for the simple reason that this one was unique to me, this production, and the company. The first thing I know from past experience is that you cannot take the path of doing nothing. The other thing I know (and my friends and colleagues know this well) is that I dislike both the over-promotion or self-promotion of work. So what then?
The company and I turned to social media, creating and adopting a single tactical strategy each. Aurora Theatre created a virtual postcard that highlighted how it was closing weekend and posted quotes from excited audience members who had seen the show during the first few weeks. Everyone at the theater and on the creative team shared the e-postcard with their friends and colleagues and posted it widely on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. This expanded the word-of-mouth publicity.
My strategy, as the director of the production, was “the ask.” I sent out a simple message on my Facebook page on the best time of the week to post something you really want people to see (usually Wednesdays in the late morning). “The ask” was specifically targeted to my expanded theater family, asking if A. anyone knew of journalists who would be interested in attending and writing a review, and B. if anyone in the academic community of Atlanta would be willing to attend and write a critical response in the form of a letter or perhaps something that would be published in Theatre Journal, Theatre Topics or online platforms such as HowlRound. From my “ask,” many friends and colleagues stepped up and offered to attend the show, including Jane Barnette at Kennesaw State University and Michael Evenden at Emory University, and do a write-up of the production.
Will these strategies bear fruit down the road? I won’t know since I’m writing this before the closing weekend of Mariela en el Desierto. But I do know that there are champions for Latina/o theater in regions of the country where one thinks it is unlikely to find such support. And I also want to honor the confidence and bravery of Aurora Theatre Company for producing this work. They are, in many ways, ahead of the curve for promoting diversity in their programming and expanding their audiences both culturally and linguistically.
If this Latina/o theater exists in your part of the country, do me a favor and see, support, and enjoy the work—and help make sure it gets reviewed and recognized in the press. If you’re a journalist, blogger, or academic, write a piece about a Latina/o production whenever one appears in your area. We are part of the American narrative, and soon, there will be a day when “Latinidad” will no longer be strange and unfamiliar: it will be recognized and celebrated.