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We Are the Next Generation of Critics

Learnings from the Young Critics Program

Beatrice Perez-Arche: I’m a senior BFA student at Boston University, a theatre artist, and a playwright, and Livian you’re a playwright and translator based in San Francisco. We were both members of the Young Critics Program, created by the Front Porch Arts Collective and WBUR’s the ARTery—a three-part program during which we read and discussed reviews, did writing exercises, went to the theatre, and learned to think about the medium thoughtfully. It was a great experience for both of us.

How did you come across the program?

Livian Yeh: On Instagram. Ever since the production of my master’s thesis play received an unfavorable review—which really hurt as a young artist—I became fascinated with the power of the critic and the purpose of theatre criticism. I thought the workshop would help me get a better understanding of what theatre criticism is, and the application process seemed easy. How about you?

Beatrice: I received an email from a professor, with a quick description of the program, which said they were specifically looking for young artists and writers of color. I asked my professor, “Are you sure you meant to send this to me?”

As a Latina, I’m not used to being referred to as a person of color, so I had a small existential crisis where I was like, “Where do I fit in in this world?” I understood how my perspective might be unique in the Boston community, but it was definitely a complicated little moment for me. However, it was encouraging to see there are people who are seeking that perspective and creating programs to uplift it.

Livian: Being part of the program included getting a stipend, which made a difference because we were being paid. It was a job.

Beatrice: Right. It wasn’t like, “This is an opportunity and we’re paying you in experience! Hooray!”

Livian: Which is so common in theatre.

four people seated at a conference table

Participants of the Young Critics Program in a workshop led by Alisa Solomon. Photo by Pascale Florestal.

Beatrice: Experience doesn’t pay the bills, baby! There’s this idea that if the people before us struggled, we have to struggle now too. Once someone makes it, they’re like, “Well, I had it bad back in my day, so...”

That mentality limits a lot of people from having access to these different types of programs, and it also prevents innovation from happening, because it’s the younger generation who come in with new ideas and outlooks, which pushes the industry forward and keeps it alive.

Livian: Isn’t the very definition of an industry that it’s a profession? That it pays you to do a certain thing? If you’re getting paid in love, that’s not really a job.

Beatrice: And pay tells you your knowledge is worth something.

Livian: Absolutely. “This is a skill we’re willing to invest in.”

As young critics, we were expected to do all the readings and attend all the shows and do the work. But our efforts were valued.

Beatrice: Being paid in this program was more than just a kind gesture, though. It made it possible for me to say, “Okay, I can make this time commitment without fearing I won’t be able to pay my rent. I can take a shift off work and attend those show dates because I’m getting this stipend."

Livian: This program recognized that our time is valuable. As young critics, we were expected to do all the readings and attend all the shows and do the work. But our efforts were valued.

Beatrice: We also got compensated in other ways, including networking connections and getting to see shows for free! The first show we saw was Sara Porkalob’s Dragon Lady, which was fantastic, really one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.

The show, as a whole, was really dynamic, and it was inspirational to see how much can be done with one’s own history and ancestry. It was empowering, sitting there in the audience with my little notepad and being like, “I’m going to critique this show!” It’s nice to be an artist watching someone else’s art and feel my opinion is going to matter to someone.

Livian: We were also introduced to the marketing director of the American Repertory Theater, who treated us as professionals. That made a big difference.

a group posing for a photo

Participants of the Young Critics Program at the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Pascale Florestal.

Beatrice: The workshops were led by Alisa Solomon, who’s a professor at Columbia. We started the workshops with the question: “What is the role of a critic?” That was not something I had ever really thought about. It opened up what this career could be, because we talked about how a critic could uplift a show to the extent of providing it with a little more success, or how they could totally shut down a show.

I think a big part of the role of a critic is being somebody who holds artists accountable as well. When you are an artist and you’re presenting a work of art to your community, you know that you’re held accountable to your audience, no matter what your intentions were with putting out that piece. Artists can go out there and make whatever they want and say whatever they want, but its meaning is going to be received, and that merits a response.

Livian: That’s interesting too because our generation has “cancel culture” now.

Beatrice: Right! So if an artist puts out work and it is received as problematic, it’s “canceled.” I’m an undergraduate student and so much of what we learn is how to analyze theatre and art in general. Obviously, if you pick anything apart, you’re going to find something “problematic.”

A critic can be a really useful tool in stopping cancel culture and being a buffer. Like, “These are the highlights of the piece of art, and these are the things we don’t stand for, that we don’t want in our community, that we don’t want to represent a specific community.” Instead of, “There’s this one problematic thing! That show is canceled! Nobody go see it! Nobody support it!” because it’s easy to jump down people’s throat like that.

Livian: We received this journalistic training, so we know not to tear down a production with our words but to engage with it.

It’s nice to have theatre practitioners as critics because we notice things the average audience member might not see.

Beatrice: There definitely was diversity in the room—the workshop was filled with people who came from various backgrounds and had different experiences to share, and that was, frankly, really refreshing. It felt nice because sometimes it’s hard to find that type of acknowledgement and friendship in the arts community.

Livian: A lot of times I’ve been the only person of color in a certain artistic space, and it’s always nice to not be.

Beatrice: Yeah, and for it to have been intentional. That feels hopeful. As for the workshops, they were intense. We got a lot of information in a very short time, and Alisa made every minute valuable. She also provided us with a lot of material that I wouldn’t have sought out by myself.

With your background as a playwright, is criticism something you were taught to consider?

Livian: No. In the writing programs I’ve attended, we never talked about the role of the critic or how, as artists, to deal with criticism.

In a sustainable artistic cycle, you have the performer, someone to hold them accountable, and the audience, right? It should be a whole ecosystem.

Beatrice: And it’s valuable to learn every part of the ecosystem and every part of the cycle. What we learned in the program was so valuable for both of us as playwrights. Now I know a little bit more of what to consider when I’m creating my work of holding myself accountable before anybody else holds me accountable.

a group posing for a photo

Participants of the Young Critics Program at American Repertory Theatre's production of Dragon Lady. Photo by Pascale Florestal.

Livian: In the undergraduate program you’re in, do they talk about criticism?

Beatrice: Yes. I’m a theatre arts major, and we talk a lot about dramatic criticism and artistic analysis. I’m not sure, though, if there are workshops like this that specifically teach people how to write a review. But there’s a need for it. Personally, as a design and production student, it’s my pet peeve that sometimes design elements are overlooked. And often, with reviews, if nothing is said about your role or your work, you did great.

Livian: They only talk about it if something goes wrong!

Beatrice: Exactly. And so it’s nice to be able to sit in an audience and then, in my critique, put some of my knowledge of production to use.

Livian: That’s why it’s nice to have theatre practitioners as critics because we notice things the average audience member might not see.

Beatrice: There was a wide range of people in our program—we had everything from undergraduate students to post-grad students. As an undergrad in the room, I felt a little intimidated because I was like, “I can barely get my dramatic literature papers in on time, how am I here right now?” I don’t know how you felt in the room, if you were like, “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely qualified to be here.”

Livian: I was like, “I don’t even know if I qualify as a ‘young critic.’” I’m done with school, I’m working, and the way they described the program made me think, “Maybe it’s just for students.” That speaks to the different ways we think we’re not qualified for things.

Beatrice: I always think, “I’m probably not qualified for this, but I’ll apply anyways.” But we were all made to feel welcome, at whatever level we were at, and with whatever style we were writing in. There was another young critic in the program who had a very poetic style of writing, and no one said, “Wrong! That’s not the style critiques are supposed to be in.” It was very open. That was comforting to me, and I thought, “Okay, then my style of writing can be a review, too.”

I learned that my perspective, as a first-generation American, can be important. We’re not told that enough, honestly.

Livian: All the reviews we read, from the New York Times and New York Magazine, had different voices. And of course, at the end of the workshop, we had to write a review of our own on either Dragon Lady or the other show we saw, Romeo and Juliet.

Beatrice: It was due at 7:00 am the next morning. The pressure was on to go home and write, to get it in by the deadline. The simulation of what it would be like felt cool. That night, I might have stayed out too late and left it too long, which I would not recommend. How was your overnight review?

Livian: I feel like I tried too hard to sound smart, and I wish I had just enjoyed it more. But we were never made to feel badly about our writing.

Beatrice: I actually felt pretty good about my review towards the end. I learned that my perspective, as a first-generation American, can be important. We’re not told that enough, honestly.

Livian: Because we are told to look at reviews from an academic perspective. School teaches you to write a certain way or sound a certain way, and that only certain viewpoints matter.

a group sitting around a conference table

Participants of the Young Critics Program in a workshop led by Alisa Solomon. Photo by Pascale Florestal.

Beatrice: The ability to recognize the form but also to be confident enough to break from it is a testament to what this program was able to do. I know some of our peers have received jobs from this opportunity. This is great because so many times you go to these workshops, which you probably paid for, and then you’re like, “What did I gain from this?” But in this case they were actually actively looking for our talent, to see where it could be placed.

You got an opportunity out of it as well, right? You felt qualified enough to apply for something you might not have before.

Livian: Yeah! I never felt like a journalist before, but after I did this workshop I contacted a community newspaper in Chinatown and said, “I’m a theatre critic, can I write for you?” That is the difference of having “credentials,” you know? Or even just confidence. We are theatre majors and have always had these thoughts and skills, but this program gave us the tools and the confidence to hustle and put our voices out there as critics.

What about for you?

Beatrice: What I got out of the program was definitely the knowledge that my perspective can matter in a different way than I thought previously. It gave me new joy for theatre. So easily, as a theatremaker and student especially, you can become a little cynical about the industry. It was really nice to see that there are people who are investing in the industry’s future and the different perspectives we need right now.

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