Criticism, Vitriol, and Announcing Our NewCrit Critics
A couple of months ago we announced that we would add criticism to the HowlRound site. The idea met with both great enthusiasm and deep skepticism. We expected this. When we originally discussed this idea with a large group of advisors, a warm and friendly meeting turned tense. Just the word seemed to put a group of theater artists on edge. As I introduced the idea to the group, I suddenly found myself watching sixteen colleagues speaking over each other and at odds with how HowlRound should proceed. We took the intensity of the reaction to the idea as a challenge and a mandate.
We believe that it’s important to talk about the work. What kind of profession are we if we can’t have a conversation about the “why” of the work? Why, then, do we matter? Is theater a profession where we just make stuff, produce it, and move on to making more stuff? Or do we have bigger aspirations?
As a precursor to launching the NewCrit initiative, Rob Kendt, associate editor of American Theatre, curated a week on criticism, to talk about why it matters and to explore its demise in the face of a declining newspaper industry. It led to a week of invigorating conversation and a depressing sense of something coming to an end, capped off in eerie fashion by the death of the most important critic of a generation, Roger Ebert, and the news that Backstage would no longer publish theater reviews. And the week also resulted in some really bad behavior in the world of Internet dialogue. Much like when we announced the NewCrit initiative, there seemed to be a desire from some corners to tear it down before it could start—with accusations such as 1) we were engaging some kind of self-promotion of our own productions by hiring our own in-house critics (except we don’t produce plays?), 2) we were naïve to think criticism could come through generous and positive inquiry, and 3) that Rob’s series was somehow reflective of HowlRound’s personal bent on the question of criticism and not appropriately reflective of the broader conversation.
Is the negativity that arises around this conversation the reflection of bitterness and defensiveness that is an inevitable result for those victimized by a disappearing profession? Is it the result of the utter breakdown in dialogue between artists and institutions and publications around the “why” of the work? Is it the result of the commercialization of our profession, always focused on the bottom line and a new marketing angle, where art is secondary to income? If theater criticism is dead, does that mean talk of the work just moves to social media and no longer requires formal channels?
If we all agree we must talk about the work we make, then theater artists must engage that talk. We must be willing to defend it, challenge it, contextualize it, and share it. And if the profession of criticism is indeed dying, then what will rise up in its place? Or will the demise of theater follow the demise of the conversation around it? Or will we have to redefine the terms of “professional” and embrace the rising “amateurs” filling the criticism gap?
We have no idea what will come of our own foray into addressing these questions as we launch our NewCrit initiative. But we launch with a spirit of optimism, and the hope that our contribution can invigorate an already energetic readership around the work on stage.
Initially we had planned to hire five or six NewCrit critics. But as the applications poured in and as we encountered the passion and imagination in the applications we decided instead to hire thirteen people to cover theater in eleven different cities. We love the idea of a centralized place to find information on theater happening around the country. And we hope to include more cities in the months to come.
Welcome to the HowlRound team NewCrit critics:
Andrew Alexander lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he writes about theater, dance, and other arts for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Creative Loafing, Burnaway, and ArtsATL. He loves bourbon, travel, and old records.
Sandy MacDonald, a double dropout (The Putney School and Barnard), was studying at HB Studio in 1969 when she became an editor and translator (Barthes, Jodorowsky, et al.) for TDR: The Drama Review, then at NYU; in 1970 Joe Papp invited the staff to initiate the journals Performance and Scripts at the Public Theater. In 1972 the Provincetown Playhouse staged her translation of Dacia Maraini’s Il Manifesto (commissioned by the feminist literary journal Aphra, which she helped edit). Moving to Boston in 1974, she embarked on long editorial stints as arts editor at New Age Magazine and, later, slush czar at Houghton Mifflin, while freelancing for national magazines and writing several books. Having covered New England for TheaterMania.com and The Boston Globe since 2002, she now reviews in New York as well, as a member of the Drama Desk. Avocationally, she sings with the Collegiate Chorale.
This year, Allison Vanouse's essays have appeared in Big Red & Shiny, Spirited Magazine, and rWp: a Journal of Robert Penn Warren Studies. An independent director, performer, and producer, Allison is an alumna of Brandeis University (2009) and the Saratoga International Theater Institute (2010). Most recently, she has performed in a new translation of August Strindberg's The Stronger by Ulrika Brand, and in a vigil-like 3:00am visitation of Samuel Beckett's Not I held at an abandoned outdoor theater for the 24-hour performance series Glossolalia, curated by Maria Molteni. Allison serves as Literary Editor for Riot of Perfume Magazine and as Editorial Assistant for The Battersea Review. She works in the Boston offices of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.
Dani Snyder-Young is a Chicago-based dramaturg, director, and critic. Her artistic work focuses primarily on political theater, community based performance, new play development, and adaptations of classical texts for diverse audiences, which dovetails with her scholarly work on applied and community-based theater. Dani is the author of Theatre of Good Intentions: Challenges and Hopes for Theatre and Social Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and an artist-in-residence with Halcyon Theatre. She is Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she runs the BA Theatre Arts program. Dani holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MA and PhD from New York University.
Chris Garza hails from San Antonio, TX. He moved to the Great White North to attend Macalester College and graduated with a degree in theater. Somewhere along the way the Twin Cities theater scene stole his heart and he’s been looking for it ever since. He is a freelance director who spends far too much time thinking about contradictions. He is grateful every day for the network of friends and theater makers that have accepted him.
Byron Woods, a member of the HowlRound NewCrit Critics Project, is entering his 20th year as an award-winning arts journalist and critic based in the Triangle region of North Carolina. In addition to his work as contributing editor at Durham’s INDY Week (formerly the Independent Weekly), he has covered the area's theater and dance for Raleigh's News & Observer, and national publications including Back Stage, Dance Magazine, Danceinsider.com, InTheater, and the Village Voice. A recipient of two NEA fellowships in arts criticism and a National Critics Institute scholarship at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Woods has been honored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and the NC Press Association, and has served five times as critic-in-residence and clinician in various regions of the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival.
Bertie Ferdman is a contemporary performance aficionado whose research specialties are in site based art practices and urban theater. Originally from Puerto Rico, born to Argentinean parents, she is now half French and lives in Brooklyn. Her articles and reviews have appeared in PAJ: Journal of Performance and Art, Theater (upcoming May issue), Performance Research, Theatre Journal, and Theatre Survey. She is currently working on a project that documents innovative curatorial models in live art practice as well as an ongoing international exchange platform between artists and venues from Brooklyn and Marseille. Bertie is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Communications, & Theatre Arts at Borough Manhattan Community College, CUNY. Education: B.A. Yale University; Ph.D: The Graduate Center.
Lily Janiak studied theater at Yale and San Francisco State University, where she wrote her master’s thesis on Young Jean Lee. She writes about theater for SF Weekly and Theatre Bay Area and about film for The Village Voice. At SF State, she teaches the course “Writing About Theatre.” She’s also a playwright, director, dramaturg, blogger, and guinea pig for makeup artists. In her spare time, she cooks a mean gumbo and rides slowly but with dignity on bike tours. @LilyJaniak.
Matt McGeachy is a dramaturg and theater critic based in Toronto. As a dramaturg, he has worked with Factory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, the Kennedy Center, York University, and The Playwrights’ Center, among others. Previously he has written for MinnesotaPlaylist.com and MONDO Magazine. When not reading scripts, working with playwrights, or seeing shows, he is an avid cook, bicyclist, and reader. He tries to live a life in theater guided by the words of Albert Camus: “Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Patricia Davis writes plays, nonfiction, and poetry. Her first play, Alternative Methods, was selected for readings at Urban Stages, Georgia College and State University, and Catholic University. Produced in the Capital Fringe and New York International Fringe festivals in 2010, it was chosen as a recommended pick by New York Theater Review and was honored with a Best Director award. With Dianna Ortiz, a US nun who was tortured in Guatemala, Patricia co-authored The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth, winning Best First-Time Author and Best/History Biography awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada and a Best Book Award from Spirituality and Health magazine. Former director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, she has published articles in The Nation and Hispanic, has blogged on theater for Arts America, and has written reviews for DC Metro Theater Arts and Maryland Theater Guide. Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A finalist for the 2011 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize and the 2012 Blue Light Poetry Chapbook Contest, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from American University and a BA in English from Carleton College.