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.

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I don't think it's useful to re-enter the rounds of lamenting the dearth of coverage from mass media. For one thing, mass media has its own problems. To a certain extent, it's a sinking ship (for a lot of the reasons we all know) and you have to wonder about placing effort there. Two, I'm far from convinced that it's all that useful as a primary agent of awareness---in my experience, it tends to be used as a reference for people who have already decided to go or are wavering about going.

But the lack of awareness among critics DOES have its parallel among the general theatre going audience in general. And for people who are supposed to be very current about theater in general, critics and reviewers seem to be indifferent to the very real accomplishments of minority theatre (for example, Seattle reviewers didn't seem to care when an Asian American theatre troupe had the nation's longest serial stage play, a 20 chapter series that spanned 13 years in real time). I think developing ways to systematize word of mouth (using trusted friends as a means of vetting the play),has some real uses of doing both.

Tlaloc, thank you for your Cafe Onda article. It is excellent. It led to me thinking about an alternative strategy. I wonder if anyone else has tried it? When my play premiered in Panama, it was featured in many publications, all in Spanish, which I could throw into my tenure dossier when I was at UNM. Some were easy to auto translate. This made me wonder, how many Spanish newspapers are there in Atlanta? Here is what I found from a very quick google search: La Noticia, Mundo Hispanico, Atlanta Latino, El Universo Grafico, Georgia Latino. While I still believe Atlanta English speaking papers should have covered the play, I wonder if anyone else here has thoughts about Spanish language coverage and its efficacy for tenure/ career development? Certainly Spanish language quotes can be translated for future publicity in the English speaking world. Is this a road you have already been down? A thought you have already had, or something new? A strategy worth re-invigorating? Abrazos!--Elaine Avila

This is a fascinating article on a very real situation that's got us -- here in Los Angeles -- really scratching our heads. 99-seat theater was highly dependent on 2 main outlets for reviews, and both folded in the last 12 months. So, in my mind (as head of marketing for our theater company) I consider the whole game of RECEPTION DOCUMENTATION has changed.

The very correct point is made that we all need to fundraise, or leverage great work for further career validation (that's certainly true of my artistic director/producer who's always working to get more work). It's one thing to have audience review capacity on your website (so there's some kind of virtual paper trail that the tree fell in the woods and SOMEONE witnessed it). But they're just not super credible, when you're being reviewed by peers in the biz, or funding institutions, or major donors. So just who does validate the quality or lack thereof?

And your solution -- soliciting formal critique that's probably not marketing fodder -- is very VERY smart.

And overall, I'm just amazed at how thoroughly the game of WITNESS and VALIDATION has change in just the last 12 months here in Los Angeles. It makes me feel a lot of pressure to be the smartest one in the room and be on the leading edge of figuring this out -- because if we can sell tickets we die. It's that simple…

Thanks for the provocative article.

I had a very tough time getting past the line, "I view all reviews as detrimental to the psyche of the production." Wow. Where can this discussion even go when this director is apparently asserting the boggling notion that criticism - and presumably then all outside consideration - has no place, constructive or otherwise, in the creative process? And yet his work must be reviewed as a condition of tenure? Just. Wow. It's head-spinning.

A company before a review uses its connections to each other, the text, the director and the audiences to gauge its truthfulness and guide its focus. The same company after reading a review adds a voice to the creative mix written for purposes other than art without a stake in how truthful and understanding of the creative goals it must be, often written in haste with an eye heavily focused on furthering the critic's persona and career. Why is it mind-boggling to not wish a communal artistic experience unnecessarily derailed from within?

Tlaloc,

I completely empathize with you! Here at Borderlands Theater, 60 miles from Mexico, we have reviewers that come to our shows everytime but seem to have a bias against not only Latino plays with unconventional structures and plots but also political plays that push the envelope. Recently, we produced an Encuentro of plays from the US and Mexico. The critic wrote "Borderlands theater fest courageous, necessary" and then proceded to give our two plays a one line review: "The play was convoluted, abrupt and not successful", and the second one” is didactic and at times bizarre". The audience was very positive about the plays and attended the performances nonwithstanding the reviews. One person wrote a letter to the editor:"The current Borderlands Theater one-act plays valen la pena. They are definitely worth seeing, recent lukewarm reviews notwithstanding".What to do? Produce plays that will satisfy the tastes of the critics, or continue to get beat up? Food for a nice discussion within our community of Latino artists...EvaBorderlands Theater

The points and observations you make about the difficulty of getting your work review by local critics is extremely important. I found myself in the same situation as you, where whatever work I direct or write that is in Spanish gets little or no attention from the local media because of its nature.

Worse, in the area where I am, the local newspapers don't even review the local theatre companies unless they are A) Actors Theatre of Louisville or B) Broadway Series. This leaves the rest of us artists to advocate for ourselves.

Here in Louisville, a local artist organization (Arts-Louisville) was created and it is dedicated to write previews, reviews, interviews, write-ups about ANYTHING regarding the local arts in the city and surrounding areas. This outlet has been very helpful to have a sort of 'writing statement' regarding the theatre work many of us do.

The issue, however, lies when productions are in Spanish. There aren't many people who speak and understand the language to attend a production and write a review or a preview of it, which in itself causes a problem.

One comment you made reminds me of some of the difficulties we Latino artists have faced for many years. You mentioned that Atlanta has a theatre company that produces plays in French and they get reviewed all time. As someone who has written and/or directed plays in Spanish, I often find myself "defending" the work against people who believe writing is Spanish is wrong because this is America and English is the language we all should speak.

I have had conversations with people (and students) who said, "I hated the play because it was "bilingual" (English/Spanish) or it was in Spanish. I mean, why can people write in English." These are the same people who have no problem with bilingual plays that are written in English/French or English/Italian.

For some reason those plays have are elevated as literary works because of the use of those languages but if they are in English/Spanish, there seems to be a problem about its language and the fact that this is America.

I know what I'm talking about is different from the points you are raising in your article but I do believe that what I'm trying to say has a lot to do with the attitudes about local newspapers NOT wanting to review plays produced in Spanish. At least I believe it does.

So, thank you, Tlaloc for sharing your thoughts on this matter and sharing your experience regarding MARIELA EN EL DESIERTO. As I can see by the comments, you have open a door for a conversation that very much deserves to be taken place. Y adelante, my friend! We will continue to make a different, one theatre, one play, one city at a time.

I'm also an artist-scholar, poet, playwright, performer who recently left the academy after a six year stint as full time faculty. Everything you share here resonates with me. Thanks for taking the time to post up. Keep on, keeping on Tlaloc...from someone working on the margins. Peace,Mary E. Weems

As a New York based playwright I have the same problem. One of the small theater companies I work with even hired a publicist. Zero critics came. I've been told that unless someone famous is in the cast, or the playwright or the theater company is famous - or the production buys substantial advertising - newspapers will not send people. Also in NYC casting directors / agents do not come to small productions either. Even when sent invitations and information and calls are made (which is the way actors are told we need to get noticed - "be in plays") and two of my productions were in midtown - not hard to get to, near the offices! It's not likely a "Latino Play" problem - it's likely a "not a famous person in the cast problem" and I take it you're not famous? Newspapers are a business, and they have to pay a critic to come and if the company doesn't spend money on advertising.... And in New York there's a lot of theater, small companies get lost in the mix. I do feel that the agents and casting directors should have come though. Too many agents and casting directors these days prefer to go to the "pay to play" "audition workshop" things where they get paid to attend auditions by actors.

Tlaloc, As an Atlanta-based playwright, I can empathize and sympathize with your disappointment. While the mainstream press -- if you can even call it that in Atlanta -- does review and feature some plays, there is notable shortage of theatre coverage throughout the city -- except for a few chosen theatres and artists. Aurora does get a fair amount of press from time to time, and I think it's thrilling to hear about your play, but with its limited resources, I'm sure those who might give Aurora some coverage decided to allot its resources elsewhere. Personally, I think your play warranted more coverage -- especially as theatre tries to engage more communities -- so I can understand your frustration. I help run a theatre company in Atlanta, and our marketing plan is based on the assumption we will not get any maintstream coverage and anything we receive is considered your bonus. I have a feeling the situation in Atlanta is parallel to those in other comparable cities. It's a small measure, but I will share your concerns with others in the community, and perhaps this can help draw interest before your show closes.

hank Kimmel

Artists and creators in other domains like music, engineering, business or mathematics all benefit from peer review. Specifically *documented* peer review. In fact, I would go as far as to say, no real serious innovations in any domain are made without considerable attention and consensus by the field at large. I think your idea of approaching colleagues to tangibly report on your work is a very beneficial idea. In fact, I would argue, discussion by those that actually DO the thing they are discussing always trumps those that simply OBSERVE that thing. Theatre makers, it would seem, would have a better handle on discussing theatre than journalists. In fact, youmay receive more solid and substantial criticism from critically-minded colleagues than from newspaper reviewers.

It is a different approach than getting reviewed in a newspaper, though. Peer review will benefit you personally and professionally, and in an indirect way, the field as a whole in the long-term, but it will not help spread the word and thus sell more tickets. So, problem half-solved.

Though I see documented peer review a really positive approach and I applaud you for troubleshooting the idea. I am sure you are aware (it seems that you are)… it will not serve the purpose of exposing more potential patrons to your work.

Great article and all the best with the production.

I don’t know if you saw the Neil deGrasse Tyson video making the rounds where he addresses a question about why there aren’t more women in the field of science. He makes a point that I think intersects very much with your experience of having to work twice as hard to get the word out about Mariela en el Desierto—that as an African American man pursuing a career in the sciences he was taking the “path of most resistance through the forces of society.” And that now, as one of the most visible scientists in our country he wonders where the others who might have been his colleagues are. But they aren’t there. They didn’t overcome the relentless obstacles that came with going againstthe current—against the societal paradigms and structural systems that continue to limit equal opportunity.

I thought of his commentary when I read your blog post. And I recalled an interview with a playwright—I can’t remember her name or in what publication I read it in online so I apologize—who lamented the career that “might have been.” Sure she had success now after almost 20 plus years, but what if it had started sooner. Not the success, but the access to opportunity. And how might have she had grown as an artist if she had those opportunities earlier on in her career.

Because, and here’s my point (finally), this call for more diversity and gender parity on our stages, on our artistic teams, in our leadership and in this case for those who offer criticism (or what they chooseto review) isn’t just about wanting to see the stories of marginalized communities finally on stage. It isn’t just about presenting a fully dimensional rendering of what it means to be American that includes the depth and spectrum of diversity that many of us see in our day-to-day lives. It’s also about our livelihoods as artists. It’s about our careers. It’s about tenure-track professors getting the reviews they need for their portfolios. About an actress who decides not to go Equity because she knows she won’t find work once she does. And playwrights who wonder if they’ll only ever have a career on the periphery of American Theatre.

So thank you, Tlaloc. Thank you for writing about your experience because it’s an important part of the conversation. And thank you to the Aurora Theatre Company for producing Karen’s play.