The American Theatre Critics Association, Inc. is the only national association of professional theatre critics. Our members work for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and on-line services across the United States. Membership is open to any writer who regularly publishes substantive pieces reviewing or otherwise critically covering theater.

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Join Us on Twitter: @theatre_critics and @atca_member
Member Blogroll
David Dow Bentley III is the, which can also be read at the Houston Chronicle and

Nancy Bishop is editor and publisher of Third Coast Review, a Chicago-centric arts and culture website. You can read her reviews there and her pop culture writing here.

Lindsay Christians is a full-time arts and food writer for The Capitol Times in Madison, Wisconsin. She has written theater reviews there since 2008.

David Cote blogs, reports on theater and reviews Broadway, Off and Off-Off productions for Time Out New York and

Harry Duke covers theatre throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. His essays and reviews can be found on the For All Events website and in the Sonoma County Gazette.

Sandi Durell is publisher, editor, and a critic at Theater Pizzazz which covers Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater, including openings, red carpets events, and interviews.

Michael Grossberg  writes on theater, comedy and the arts in Theater Talk, for the Columbus Dispatch.

Jay Handelman writes  News, reviews and opinion for the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Pam Harbaugh’s blog, Brevard Culture, offers reviews, commentary and links in arts and culture primarily for residents of Brevard County and the Orlando area.   

Lou Harry  writes Lou Harry’s A&E: opinion, debate and discussion on arts and entertainment for the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Bill Hirschman is editor, chief critic and reporter for Florida Theater On Stage.

Chris Jones writes reviews, interviews and commentary for Theater Loop at the Chicago Tribune.

Aaron Krause is the editor of, founded by Alan Smason (Steppin’ Out, WYES-TV), which offers original theatre reviews and republishes current critical print works online.

David Lefkowitz publishes the theater website, co-publishes the theater journal Performing Arts Insider, and reviews on his weekly radio show, Dave’s Gone By.

Jack Lyons covers the theatre scene for the Desert Local News. Jack is based in Desert Hot Springs and covers the entire Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California including select productions in Los Angeles, Pasadena, and San Diego.

Katherine Luck writes news and reviews of theatre in Seattle, Portland, and around the Puget Sound at Pacific NW Theatre.

Jonathan Mandell reviews Broadway, Off-Broadway and independent theater productions, and covers theater for a variety of publications, including Playbill and American Theatre Magazine.  He blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

Andrew McGibbon writes Theatre Opinion, News and Information in TheAndyGram, based in NYC.

Kathryn Osenlund reviews Philadelphia theater productions and some New York theater festivals for She also writes for —independent coverage of Philadelphia and arts, and tweets as @theatrendorphin.

Rick Pender edits   The Sondheim Review, a quarterly dedicated to the musical theatre’s foremost composer and lyricist.

Christopher Rawson is the senior critic (part-time) for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and also appears regularly on KDKA-TV.

Wendy Rosenfield covers drama, onstage and off, in Drama Queen and the Philadelphia Inquirer

Michelle F. Solomon is a critic, reviewing professional theater and professional touring productions, for Florida Theater On Stage and

Martha Wade Steketee writes reviews, interviews, and commentary on Broadway, Off Broadway, regional theatre, and film for Urban Excavations in New York City.
Steve Treacy is the primary theatre critic for The Port Townsend Leader. Find his reviews of Pacific Northwest shows at

Lauren Yarger  reviews Broadway and OB for Reflections in the Light and reports on pro theatre and arts in Connecticut Arts Connection.




For the full text of each Milestone, click on the name; for all these and previous Milestones together, CLICK HERE. They are listed in the order (latest on top) they appeared in the weekly ATCA UPDATE.

CHRIS RAWSON, Pittsburgh, PA, is hustling around the country playing catch-up, presenting the August Wilson American Century Cycle Award to theaters that have qualified.

, Provo, UT, has just welcomed his second son into what he hopes will be a lifetime of loving theater.

ERICA MINER, Edmonds, WA, has just published Murder in the Pit, a murder mystery at the Santa Fe Opera.

KAREN TOPHAM, Chicago, is actively seeking theatre critics from around the country to become part of the expanded edition of her website, Contact her here.


For full text of these and previous Milestones, CLICK HERE.

Do you have a Milestone to share? Member Milestones are generally for Transitions (new jobs, retirements), Achievements (awards, honors), Publications (books, TV specials) and Memorials (obituaries). Write a paragraph and send it here. Include a Twitter address in the paragraph so we can give it wider notice. 



After more than 33 years and (by her count) 13,000 reviews, the long-standing Chicago theater and arts critic Hedy Weiss has been let go by the Chicago Sun-Times. Reporting in the competing Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones writes that the sometimes controversial critic “fit into the decades-long Chicago tradition of powerful, hard-working and famously independent women writing about the arts, without compromise or apology.” Read Jones here. Here, the Chicago Business Journal reports. Weiss delivered ATCA’s 2015 Perspectives in Criticism talk in New Orleans: click for an audio recording.

As others see us: Amanda Peet on being devastated by a NY Times review and going cold turkey on reviews thereafter, click here.  

Martha Steketee’s accumulating interviews of critics for The Clyde Fitch Report (click for index).



See ATCA International for news of the International Association of Theatre Critics from the ATCA members who represent us there. See also the IATC’s own site (just [2017] handsomely redesigned) and its web journal, Critical Stages, where the current issue deals at length with Contemporary African Drama and Theatre.





The 2017 Tony Award for Regional Theater went, on ATCA’s recommendation, to the Dallas Theater Center in Texas.
Elsewhere (off)site: for the website of the Drama section of the (British) Critics’ Circle, click here.




{For collected Pull Quotes going back to July, 2012, CLICK HERE.} 

I “believe in culture as a social justice and social change project, which requires not just looking at how ‘good’ a performance is, but at what it does in the world.” — Jill S. Dolan, critic for “The Feminist Spectator” (Princeton University, Dean of the College).

“The Internet allows an avalanche of opinion for infinite sources, many of them rubbish, mean-spirited and lazy. But there’s some terrific writing out there too, and best of all there are so many new ways of reviewing.” — Frank Rizzo, 33 years as Hartford Courant critic, now writes for Variety and many more.

* Previous Pull Quotes are ASSEMBLED HERE 

Past Conferences


New York Weekend Conference, November 3, 4 and 5, 2017. Details. 


San Francisco annual conference, 2017



NYC weekend conference, 2016 (for reports and details, scroll down central column)

2016 annual conference in Philadelphia, April 6-10.

Some coverage: day one, day two, day three-A, day three-B, day four, day five. Full schedule here

2015 NYC Weekend Conference
Sherry Eaker & Ira Bilowit, chairs


2015 New Orleans Conference 
Alan Smason, chair 


2014 Weekend Conference
New York City

Humana Festival, Actors Theater of Louisville, April 2-6
; chair, Jonathan Abarbanel.

2013 ANNUAL CONFERENCE, CATF, Shepherdstown, WV, July 17-21 — Details here; Tim Treanor, Chair

Logo by Tim Menees after Honore Daumier

Indianapolis, Indiana
March 21-24, 2013
Lou Harry, Chair 


Chicago, June 13-17, 2012
Jonathan Abarbanel, Chair
See ATCA BLOG for short takes

Milwaukee Add-On
Anne Siegel, Chair
June 17-20, 2012


Colorado New Play Summit
Denver Center Theatre Company, Feb 10-12, 2012

Ashland, Oregon July 6-10, 2011
Chris Rawson, Chair 

Logo by Tim Menees after Honore Daumier

Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Waterford, Conn.
Chris Rawson, Chair 

Playwright and critic

Playwright and two critics

Check out: ATCA Blog — scroll back for accounts of ATCA/Ashland, ATCA/O’Neill, more on the Pulitzer controversy, also from Humana and Denver festivals



Past event logos



(above) Sarasota, 2009. 




Fun ‘n Games

Honest-to-Goodness Theater Geek Trivia Contest, Florida Theatre On Stage, Bill Hirschman, ed. (includes links to answers)

Round One.
Round Two


ATCA gathers in Denver for Colorado New Play Summit

By Jay Handelman, ATCA Chair

About two dozen ATCA members and their guests gathered Feb. 10-12 at the Denver Center Theatre Company for the seventh annual Colorado New Play Summit, a weekend collection of staged readings and two world premieres. Playwrights and industry professionals mixed with critics and eager patrons who filled the various theater venues for the readings of plays that touched on everything from homeless youths (Lisa Loomer’s “Homefree) to an imaginative play about future technology that will allow us to spend eternity with our favorite memories (Michael Mitnick’s “Ed, Downloaded”).

Among those at the festival, were: front row: Barry Gaines, Barbara Bannon, Sylvie Drake, Herb Simpson, Jay Handelman, David Lefkowitz, Juliet Wittman and Bill Hirschman, and back row, Jonathan Abarbanel, Brad Hathaway, Lynn Rosen, John Angell Grant, Wendy Rosenfield, Ed Rubin, Jim Volz and Marjorie Oberlander

Richard Dresser looked at how far our realities have been warped by television in “The Hand of God”: Lauren Feldman’s “Grace, or the Art of Climbing” uses rock climbing as a metaphor for human and emotional connections.  the theater also put a lot of resources into an elaborately staged reading of Jeffrey haddow and Neal Hampton’s new “Sense & Sensibility: The Musical,” which got standing ovations from audiences and a lot of buzz at the festival.

As usual, the Denver Center staff made our members feel welcome, setting up interviews and providing plenty of sustenance for the three-show days. Sylvie Drake, a former ATCA ExCom member and Director of Publications at the center, extended Artistic Director Kent Thompson’s open invitation to ATCA for future gatherings at the summit.

The world premieres were Lisa Loomer’s controversial “Two Things You don’t Talk About at Dinner,” set at a Passover seder with an array of guests debate Middle East politics, and Samuel D. Hunter’s well-received “The Whale” about a morbidly obese man who is eating himself to death and the people in his life. Both plays had been featured as staged readings in the 2011 festival.

Philadelphia critic and Excom member Wendy Rosenfield, with her husband, Richard Weiner, kept members updated on the festival via Twitter and Facebook postings.

The weekend included a late-night Playwright Slam, with 10 authors reading brief scenes from new works in a cabaret kind of environment with popcorn and beer being served.

During the weekend, the ATCA Executive Committee met to discuss issues involving the budget and membership, which you’ll be hearing more about soon. Now we focus on plans for our annual conference in Chicago, June 13-17, with a follow-up side trip to Milwaukee. Details to be posted soon.



Theater Hall of Fame inducts 8 with reminiscence, affection and laughter

Meryl Streep was a surprise last-minute addition, presenting her friend, costume designer Ann Roth. Ann RothShe joined the other presenters, Liza Minnelli, Brian Dennehy, Brian Murray, Jane Alexander, Donald Margulies and Phylicia Rashad, speaking respectively for inductees Ben Vereen, George White, Tyne Daly, Elliot Martin, Daniel Sullivan and Woodie King Jr.; the late Paul Sills was represented by his widow and colleague, Carol Sills. For a full report, follow this link.


Francesca Primus Prize submissions due March 15

The Francesca Primus Prize is an annual $10,000 award honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by an emerging female theater artist, one who has not yet achieved national prominence. Historically the award has been given to an outstanding female playwright, but the committee also considers other significant female theater artists, such as directors or artistic directors. For information, click here.


Theater Hall of Fame induction Jan. 30

As previously announced, this year’s class (chosen by an electorate dominated by ATCA members) is Tyne Daly, Ben Vereen, Woodie King Jr., Elliot Martin, Ann Roth, Daniel Sullivan, Paul Sills (posthumous) and George White. Those presenting them will include Liza Minnelli, Brian Dennehy, Brian Murray, Jane Alexander and Phylicia Rashad (all Hall members). Who will present whom? — we’ll know Monday. (Fuller info here.)


Historian and critic Mary Henderson dies

Mary C. Henderson, a theater historian and long-time friend of ATCA, especially in its relation to the history of the New York stage, died Jan. 3, age 83. See Bruce Weber’s NY Times obituary and Neil Simon’s funny riposte to her 1987 Times article about the place of the dining table in American drama.


Denver critic John Moore takes buyout offer

John Moore, who was recently rated one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the country by American Theater magazine, is taking a buyout and leaving the Denver Post after 18 years. He has been the theater critic since 2001.

In his Running Lines column, with the headline “You are all cordially invited to my third act,” he writes that in considering the newspaper’s buyout offer, “I came up with 463 reasons to stay and 463 reasons to go.” He says it offers him the “gift of time.”

“This buyout affords me the opportunity to put the brakes on the runaway train of my life for a few months, and to indulge in the kind of writing that I have never allowed my full attention. Creating art, not interpreting and evaluating it.”

You can read his full column here.


2013-14 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize



Click to read more ...


Randy Gener as of Feb. 10, 2014

Contributions still welcome

Veteran ATCA member Randy Gener continues to improve as he recovers from severe head injuries suffered in a street attack Jan. 17 near his Manhattan home. He successfully has completed his second surgery, in which a synthetic plate was placed where a portion of his skull used to be. He’s scheduled to move to a neuro/cognitive rehab facility this week where doctors believe he will spend at least six months and possibly up to a year. He is eating well and all physical function has returned except for some hearing loss in his right ear which doctors hope will return with time. Randy’s husband, Steve Nisbet, says “He is alive and improving daily. Once Randy is comfortably ensconced in his rehab, doctors say he will be allowed visitors!”

To pay for the neuro rehab, family and friends are continuing to collect contributions www.youcaring/ As of Feb. 10, over $65,000 had been raised towards a goal of $85,000. We are very proud that so many ATCA and IATC colleagues have contributed to date.

— Jonathan Abarbanel, ATCA chair


David Hays inducted

Introduction of David Hays
Theater Hall of Fame, January 27, 2014 

Click to read more ...


More on Randy Gener attack

To send Randy cards or personal wishes:

Click to read more ...


Sondheim on critics and awards, waxing sensible and acerbic

The Guardian has done us the favor of quoting from Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I made a Hat. The master’s observations are sensible, largely familiar (to critics), predictably acerbic — and only part of the story, because in spite of what artists often think, reviews are not written for them, but for readers. (Otherwise, why do our publishers pay us the big bucks?) Artists may listen in, if they choose, but as Sondheim says, why? Here it is.



Jay Stanley, 1929-2014

Longtime American Theatre Critics Association member Jay Stanley, who loved theatre and ran his own Marquee Awards for 35 years - at first in Los Angeles and, later, New Orleans - died peacefully in his sleep on March 8, 2014. He was 84.

Stanley, who in his youth was known for a wavy head of thick black hair and a moustache to match, was a social trendsetter. He and his partner, Jim Chastant, threw lavish parties for celebrities like Carol Burnett, Billy Dee Williams, Diana Ross and Deborah Kerr during the holiday season.

At a time when two men could rarely live together in public, they also pushed the norms of society. The couple adopted an eight-year-old girl, Mara, who hailed from Ontario, Canada. “I met them, fell in love with them and was adopted by them. They were my two dads,” she recalled. “They were the best people in the world.”

The two partners traveled extensively throughout the globe and were often seen in the couple of Co-Co, a capuchin monkey they rescued, who lived with them for more three decades and had her own “passport” with records of her rabies and distemper shots. A menagerie of pets including dogs and several birds – blue macaws, gold-crested cockatoos and a Malaysian parrot – lived beneath their sunny California roof.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1929, Stanley enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed for a time in Japan. Discharged in 1954, he worked in theatre as a set and costume designer and was noted as a very talented sewer and tailor. He acted in several roles and helped to manage the Mayfair Theater in Santa Monica and was involved with the Colony Theater in Burbank.

Eventually, Stanley turned to writing as a critic for the Herald Examiner and, later, its subsidiary, the Herald Dispatch. He began writing his column “Jay Walking in Hollywood” in 1978. He attended most every significant premiere from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

Stanley created the Marquee Awards as a means to acknowledge local theatrical productions throughout Los Angeles and the adjacent valleys.

When Chastant retired from his import-export business, the two moved back to his hometown of New Orleans in the mid-1990s. He and Stanley maintained an opulent, three-story mansion in the Garden District for several years until Chastant’s health began to fail and he was unable to negotiate the stairs.

The two sold their home and moved to nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where they purchased a ranch style, one-floor home. Stanley continued to commute to review theatre in New Orleans, even after his partner passed away in 2003. His “Jay Walking in New Orleans” column was published in the “Viva La Vie!” newspaper and several of his critical pieces were run by the Jewish Civic Press.

Following the destruction of his home and the loss of most of his possessions in the fearsome winds and storm surge from Hurricane Katrina, Stanley relocated back to New Orleans.

The Marquee Awards were given out for 15 out of the past 16 years (with the exception in 2006, following Katrina) to deserving New Orleans area theatre companies and individuals, even when Stanley’s health had deteriorated and he could only move with the assistance of a walker.

He was a longtime member of the Big Easy Theatre Awards Committee that also promotes the local theatre community.

A memorial service was held to remember Stanley’s life on Saturday, March 22.

— Alan Smason


ATCA honors playwright Topher Payne with 2014 Osborn Award

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, March 14, 2014    

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) announces that Topher Payne has won its 2014 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. The award will be presented April 5 at the Humana Theater Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.Topher Payne

The Osborn Award recognizes Payne’s play, Perfect Arrangement, which premiered in June 2013 at The Source Festival in Washington D.C., directed by Linda Lombardi. The award is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature. Last year it went to Keri Healey for Torso. Previous winners have included Yussef El Guindi, Rebecca Gilman, Keith Glover
and Richard Kalinoski.

The Osborn Award was established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn. It carries a $1,000 prize, funded by the ATCA Foundation. Making the selection from plays nominated by ATCA members is its New Plays Committee, chaired by Wm. F. Hirschman. That committee also selects honorees for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

While not well-known nationally, Payne has recently become a fixture in the greater Atlanta theater community as an actor and as a playwright of a dozen works, especially for smaller progressive companies. He is an artistic associate with Atlanta’s Process Theatre Company and the Flying Carpet Theatre and is the executive producer of the Atlanta 24-Hour Plays for Working Title Playwrights.

In Perfect Arrangement, which shares its LGBT theme with much of Payne’s work, two married couples live side by side in a Georgetown duplex in 1950. Their life is depicted as a television sit-com, down to comical visits from their boss and his wife, and the play’s cast list likens them to characters from I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show. But they work for the U.S. State Department developing criteria for identifying employees with Communist tendencies and they have just been asked to identify “sexual deviants.”

The kicker is that both the husbands and wives are gay, joined in sham marriages so they can live with their loved ones. But the laughs evaporate as the quartet wrestle with the hypocrisy of their lives. Part nostalgic comedy, part social drama, the plot tracks the couples considering whether to scrap their comfortable middle-class Eisenhower existence for a life defined by pride and integrity. Payne told The Washington Post, “It ends up being [about] how much you should disrupt your own existence for the sake of demanding something more. And that’s an argument we’re still having.”

Payne’s plays Swell Party and Angry Fags were both nominated for outstanding world premiere at the 2-13 Suzi Awards and the latter won the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award. The Georgia Ensemble Theatre premiered his comedy The Only Light in Reno last January. He wrote about his life with, in his words, “humiliating candor” from 2005 to 2009 in his David Magazine column, Necessary Luxuries, which was compiled into a book of the same name. From 2010-13, he chronicled suburban life in his Domestically Disturbed column in The GA Voice, winning the 2012 National Newspaper Association award for Best Humor Column.

The American Theatre Critics Association was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities. The only national association of professional theater critics, it has several hundred members who work for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites across the United States. ATCA is a national section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.

ATCA also presents the Francesca Primus Prize, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually it makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

For more information on ATCA, visit

Wm. F. Hirschman, ATCA New Plays Chairman, Florida Theater On Stage, (954) 478-1123,
Jonathan Abarbanel, ATCA Executive Committee Chair,



Dueling opinions from critics over when to say 'enough' - UPDATE

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood published a column on Oct. 7 saying, in effect that he didn’t want to be in a position to review anymore works by playwright Adam Rapp.

“Adam Rapp won’t have me to kick around anymore,” Isherwood began. “Oops. I think I got that backwards. I mean I won’t have Adam Rapp to kick around anymore.”

You can read his column here.

Michael Billington of The Guardian took note and offered his own opposing view.

“I think it’s a mistake for a critic ever to bring the shutters down,” he write. “In so doing, one denies oneself the possibility of a change of heart.”

You can read his full response here.

As president of the Dramatists Guild, composer Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Wicked”) also had a response, supporting Isherwood’s suggstion, according to a report from Broadwayworld

Isherwood’s column has prompted a lot of response on various websites and a report from the Poynter Institute’s Jim Romanesko, which you can read here.

Until we can develop our comments section, if any of you write about the subject, we can add links and have a discussion in that way. Please send your links to


ATCA heads to Denver New Play Summit in February

The winter gathering of the American Theatre Critics Association will be held in conjunction with the New Play Summit held at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 10-12, 2012.

It’s a return visit to the summit, where a small group met in 2010.

Details are still in the works, but the summit will be held Feb. 10-12. Those intending to join us should plan to arrive in Denver in time to register by 12:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10 and to see the first reading at 1 p.m. Events will end in time for you to catch a 3 p.m. flight out of Denver on Sunday, Feb. 12.

We’ll have registration costs and hotel information coming in a few weeks, but the center is helping us to keep costs down and will assist in finding affordable lodging for the weekend.

The weekend includes five play readings over the three days, plus the world premiere of Lisa Loomer’s “Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner” on Friday night and the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” on Saturday night.

A panel also is a possibility, and there will be a Playwrights’ Slam after the Friday evening performance.

Registration also will include several meals.

We hope you will be able to make plans to join us. Details will be coming as soon as they are available. In the meantime, if you have questions, please contact Jay Handelman at or administrator Barry Gaines at for more information.



Theater Hall of Fame annouces eight new members for 2011

(Sept. 26, 2011) — The Theater Hall of Fame today announced that the eight inductees in its 2011 class are (alphabetically) Tyne Daly, Woodie King Jr., Elliot Martin, Ann Roth, Paul Sills, Daniel Sullivan, Ben Vereen and George White. The 41st induction ceremonies will take place Jan. 30, 2012 at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre, where the names of more than 400 previous Hall members adorn the walls in gold.

Founded in 1971, the Hall annually honors those who have made noteworthy lifetime contributions to the American theater. Eligibility requires a substantial body of outstanding work (five major credits minimum) over a career of at least 25 years. The electorate is the membership of the Hall and of ATCA. Using the usual theater categories, the 2011 class includes two actors, two producers, three directors and a designer, but several inductees really deny categorization.

Click to read more ...


[expletive] Good Plays On Broadway and Off

NEW YORK (September 19, 2011) — Continuing a tradition that dates back to 1920, the Best Plays of 2010-2011 were announced today by editor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. For its 92nd edition, the annual chronicle of United States theater honors 10 new works staged in New York City and three regional plays cited in the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association new play awards competition, and it continues its comprehensive collection of facts and figures about the year in United States theater.

Click to read more ...


Playwright Gunderson stakes out some Perspectives in Criticism

Perspectives in Criticism talk, the 33rd in a series that began in 1992.
By Lauren Gunderson, playwright

For the ATCA National Conference at the Humana Festival, April 3, 2014

(Some history of the 23 year series.)

Hello my name is Lauren and I am a playwright and you are room full of critics and that is not awkward at all. Not at all.  We’re all gonna be fine.

Now, I do not speak for all playwrights of course as we are, like dogs, a many and varied species.

But I do understand that I’m the first playwright who’s had the honor of speaking in this series, and it is a quite an honor. It’s also an addiction as I’m sure you’re like me and could manage to talk about theatre all day if someone would let you or pay you or both. Or neither. We’re all going to talk about it anyway.

So we meet today as a support group for those compelled to find each other in the dark, turn off their mobile devices, and watch people live in front of us for hours. We’re an odd bunch. But here we are.

Fact: In pre-revolutionary France actors and executioners weren’t allowed to be full citizens because of their morally questionable professions. I don’t know where playwrights and critics fit on that morality scale but wherever it is, we’re probably right next to each other.

So. Once again. Here we are. Together. Hoping that the next show we write, or the next show we review knocks our socks off.

Here we are. Together. Thrilled at the leap of an athletic actor into a role we’ve never encountered before.

Here we are. Together. Going to theatre, caring about the theatre, believing that the theatre can do good work in the world, knowing that this ancient practice belongs in the present. Here we are being full theatre idealists in the way Todd London showed us we could and should be.

Indeed we are together in this craft and in this art. That’s why it’s not awkward. We are all together in the vitality and accessibility and coherence of the American theatre. We are not practitioners and we are not individuals. We are collective advocates. It is our ecology.

We all love theatre.

We all want it to be its best. We all have high standards, and work our asses off, and don’t get paid enough, or have enough time, and sometimes we have to make imperfect compromises, and we all know it when we do, but we get up –-not at the crack of dawn because we’re theatre people — but we do get up and when we do we support, make, and make people talk about, art. And most of us, I hope all of us, cannot wait to see what someone comes up with next to shake us out of our patterns, or surprise us, or move us. 


What can I tell you about criticism that you don’t already know, at which you aren’t already professionals, that I would have any right or knowledge to explain to this esteemed body?

I’m still not sure. But I am still honored to have the stage, and I’m also still talking. So we’re gonna just go for it and be honest and fluid and generous of heart. And last week I read a ton of theatre criticism which makes me an expert.

- - -

I can tell you how to make a play. It takes a damn long time usually. And when you get to the end and write “black out” on the first draft, which could take an untold number of months and tantrums, that’s actually when the real work starts. Readings, rewrites, pitches, rewrites, workshops, rewrites, take a shower, have a life? No time. Rewrites. Or committed procrastination. Either way it’s very taxing.

Now the pattern I’ve recognized after doing this for a decade or so, is that I usually get to draft 16 before the play is done …. ish. Draft 14 is usually the draft that goes into first production if I’m so lucky to have one. You will note the number differential there between first production and done …. ish.

After the first production I continue rewriting to take in all that we learned. Audiences tell us so much. So do trusted friends and dramaturgically minded confidantes. So does my mother who always has two notes that make all the difference. All of this teaches and inspires and reminds and propels. Much more than we can apply (or force on our capable actors to apply) by the time our few previews are over in the regional theatre. And we open.

Which is when y’all come in.

This is also where this speech could get awkward again. But we won’t let it. Honesty and fluidity and generosity of heart. OK. 

This is where I can tell you what it’s like to read reviews of your brand new show while it’s currently in production just starting out, hoping your artistic intentions were seen and manifested and understood. It’s a roller coaster every single time.

Good reviews are amazing. Good reviews feel like a relief. Like there’s hope for more plays in the future, like maybe they’ll invite me back, like maybe theatre is not the most insane profession of all the liberal arts, maybe it’ll go beyond this production, maybe it’ll see other cities and other versions. Maybe it will last, maybe it will grow, maybe, maybe.…

Maybe this play will actually get the chance to find its audience. Which is the real point, isn’t it? Not praise or commissions or pull-quotes. Audience. Theatre doesn’t work without it. We want them coming back. We want them engaged.

So any review that encourages audiences to see the play for themselves is a good review to me. That’s a healthy American theatre. “Hey everyone! Go see plays.” Even if the review says “I hated it, like really completely hated because of this and this, but you should check it out anyway because of this and this….” That’s fine. I’ll take it. “I didn’t like” is different from “it’s not worth seeing.” I’d actually love much more of that than I ever read. 

I can tell you that more than being disliked, playwrights fear being misunderstood. That’s the worst. That’s when it feels like the review is for a play you didn’t write. No one learns from that.

I can tell you that reviews of new plays are powerful forces in that play’s future.

I can tell you that people outside of our towns read reviews to decide whether or not they’re going to even read the play. Not everyone does this. But a lot of people do. It’s sad and unproductive and does not trust the new play process.

I can tell you that plays need to grow and mature and that usually takes at least one full production plus some distance plus another rehearsal process for the second production before it’s done .… ish. 

I can tell you that sometimes new plays die too early because of poor critical reception. We all know this happens. I hate this, I’m sure many of you do too.

I can also tell you that I’m not going to accept that there is an inherent antagonism between critic and theatre-makers. Because we’re all theatre-makers. We are all audience-builders, and art-advocates, and theatre champions. Of course we are.

But this is where it gets tricky. Our relationship is complicated, and as much as I have the right to build a play as I see fit, y’all have the right and duty to convey your opinion of it. And sometimes that opinion is painfully powerful and stunts a new play before it starts.

This might have been the case for the very play that you are honoring as a Steinberg/ATCA nominee, my play I and You. For its first production at Marin Theatre last year we were reworking up until opening as writers often are. We got really close but there was room to grow for the play, as I well knew. There’re always things you learn in that last preview that you wish you could go back into rehearsal for a week and rewrite the whole scene. But alas. We open tomorrow. 

The audience taught us a ton, including that this is a play that draws young people. The best compliment this show got as far as I’m concerned was when teenagers who came to see the school matinees retuned with their parents to see the play again. Teenagers brought their parents to the theatre. Our salvation has come, theatre is safe, amen.

But! Two major papers reviewed it and thought that it was annoying and boring. Our terrible and brief appraisal of art in the Bay Area, our version of stars, the “jumping man” -– and we can have a whole discussion about the aggravating insouciance of stars and thumbs ups and other false quantifiers of art which I think demean the whole endeavor -– Sorry. That was my one time lashing out. We’re done.

Our version of stars is a little jumping man, whose excitement and position in his theatre chair tells you how “good” the play is. He was not happy nor was he jumping. The little man was sitting still, not even clapping.  This is bad. Even though we got glowing reviews from the other papers and theatre blogs in town .… this was still very bad. Ticket sales weren’t great. There is an algorithm for this theatre that for every decrease in position of that stupid little man, their revenue shrinks by tens of thousands of dollars.  The show was not getting an audience, even though I got emails saying, “thank god I came with my granddaughter anyway. We loved it and she wants to come back to the next show!”

That could have been the end of that play. With those prominent reviews it suddenly sunk to bottom of everyone’s to-read pile.

If it had not been a National New Play Newtwork Rolling World Premiere. Before we opened at Marin we already had 3 more productions lined up at theaters across the country. There was a built in safety net for me and the interested parties to continue the work on the play in our way, to implement the larger discoveries we saw during the run, to let that production teach us not define us. After rewrites, a new cast, design, and director continued the premiere of I and You at Olney Theatre where it’s gotten some of the best reviews of my life. And became a Susan Smith Blackburn nominee, and a nominee for your prestigious award.

What do we make of this? Well, I carefully and with great hesitation wrote a blog post called “On Rolling World Premiere and Only Reading Good Reviews,” which I think is why I’m here today.

Yes. I learned a long time ago that when you’re going to glance at a review of your own work, only read the good ones. It’s not denialist, it’s self-protective. So, I have my husband scan them and tell me which ones seem fair, which ones seem to have understood what we were going for. I should have put this duty in our vows. It’s very important. The good reviews needn’t be raves, but someone who is a believer in the play like I am. A person who thinks it’s worth their time, like I do. That’s a person I can have a conversation with.

Because neither plays nor reviews are actual conversations. They are catalysts of conversation but they are not a dialogue unless we make them. We are offering things to each other in the dark, throwing halves of conversation over a fence, but we are not talking. Conversational criticism. Let’s invent that. It’ll take more time and it’ll take extra bravery on everyone’s account but we can do it. Especially if it means that theatre is presented in an ever fuller and more authentically complex way around discussion, not judgment. Which will serve us all.

Side note on this front: I’m loving projects like Mark Blankenship’s TDF Stages, which includes video profiles of theaters across the country. It’s sharable, communal, conversational, celebratory and a platform to have artists declare their intent. Yes to this.

- - -

As I mentioned. I did not read those bad review of I And You. I could tell by their titles and the fact that no one was posting them anywhere online that they were .… we’ll say unsupportive; they may have been snarky or kindly and gently dismissive, I don’t know. I only say this again to explain that it wasn’t whatever those reviews said that prompted rewrites. It was the natural process of playwriting. The natural lessons you learn in a production. The organic flow of a play’s growth.

It took two productions.  For me it always does. Even when the play gets raves on its first outing, I still go though that same natural process and rewrite before anyone does it again. Does this mean that the play wasn’t ready for a production? That plays just need more development? Productions are development.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Rolling World Premieres saves lives.

This isn’t a new idea in American theatre, that plays need to learn and grow through production not just readings and workshops. Not all plays need it but most do -– every playwright I asked said it takes at least two full productions. Even the ones who already got raves, like my mentor Robert Schennkan whose play All the Way is on Broadway right now. He continued to work the play while rehearsing in the Neil Simon. Fences got slammed in its initial production and went on to be a firm feature in the American cannon. Over and over again it happens. Those are the plays that made it out. How many of them didn’t? The playwright wasn’t big enough, or didn’t have other committed productions to continue to make it more perfect.

I’m not saying “be nice to new plays.” Maybe I am. I am saying that: BE NICE TO NEW PLAYS. They are hard as hell to write and they take a lot of time and it is always the play itself that suffers a bad review most keenly, so -– wait. No, I don’t know how to do your job anymore than you know mine. So I don’t exactly know what the answer is. Awareness of our ecology is part of it.

And maybe we don’t change anything. And we keep it simple. And we all just do what we’re already doing. Playwrights write the plays, reviewers come on opening. Sure. Fine.

Or. We might think of what serves all of us the most. And that is the health and vibrancy of theatre as a cultural force in America. Can we iterate that with respect to playwright-critic relations? Can we invent conversation criticism? Can we say screw the old format let’s offer something else, let’s let others in, let’s admit that there is more to theatre than “tell me what you think”?

What can reviewers, critics, playwrights, producers do to help American theatre besides what we’re already doing?

I’ll tell you what hurts theatre: Bad press and bad plays.

Once again, it seems that we’re in this together.

- - -

Why don’t I follow that advice of “if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones”? Because an opinion is not a universal fact. Because art and reactions to it are fickle. Because my job means that I have to have my taste and my aesthetic forefront or else I can’t do what I do. Because it doesn’t feel good. Because it makes me angry that some potential audience will be turned away before they get the chance for the play to speak for itself. Because we worked, usually, damn hard on that. Because there is a point to that story. Because bad reviews don’t help writers write. At least this writer.

We still friends? Yeah? OK.

So why don’t bad reviews “help me write”? The same reason novice theatre goers who are just trying to figure out what “going to the theatre” even means might not be helped by reviews. We don’t know you. Some reviewers I do know, and I do trust them. Some reviewers have made connections in my plays that even I didn’t see -– linking styles to other writers, or connecting first act moments to final act moments. It’s amazing when that happens.

But for many of you, I don’t have that history. I don’t know your Point Of View. I don’t know if you’re a formalist, an advocate of absurdism, a PhD in Jacobean tragedy, of political theatre, of Brecht. I don’t know if you’d rather see Beckett or Wasserstein or why, and that means that I have no idea how to place your thoughts next to my own.

Neither do novice theatre-goers giving our art form a try. They could take your word for it, you write for fancy papers and blogs. But no one just takes someone’s word for it these days, certainly not young people. Who are you and why do you think like you do? What are your patterns, your interests, the last 5 plays you adored and last 5 you hated? That’s data. That’s context. That’s helpful.

With every review, at least online as I know space is so limited, why not tell us, remind us who you are, why you love theatre, and what you look for in a play. There is no such thing as objectivism. Why not define your subjective for us?

From lauded critic Julius Novick: “To write as yourself, to keep the reader aware that it’s one individual writing, who may or may not be coming from where the reader’s coming from, that’s honesty. To own up to your subjectivity is to give the reader what she needs truly to make up his or her mind.”

There is always context. For playwrights it can be artistic intent. For critics it’s your point of view. Y’all know this of course. I’m just putting this all together myself.

So. Why don’t we all explain who we are? Me too. I’ve started keeping a tumblr for each new play I write as I’m writing it -– is one example. It explains why I’m telling this story in this way, what sources and histories it’s tapping into, what my artistic intention is, and how we’re going about manifesting it. And because I will practice what I am literally preaching, after this weekend I’ll go home and write a super clear post called, “Who Am I and Why Am I Writing This.” For every play.

Now. What would that look like for y’all? Declaring intent and subjectivity?

“His abiding interest in theatrical givens like theme, story, dramatic construction and character could make him seem old-fashioned, and set him in direct opposition to the auteur school.” – That was Stanley Kaufmann’s NYT obit

“As a drama critic he typically championed the iconoclastic and the cryptic. And he consistently dismissed the more naturalistic, commercial fare found on Broadway.” - That’s Richard Gilman’s NYT obit.

Why wait for an obituary to re-declare our tastes and trends so that new audiences can learn which critics speak for them?

- - -

How do we serve audiences best? We get personal. We put our taste and our biases and our hopes up front for all to see. What is your mission statement? What is your context? Knowing what you usually like helps me decide how to read your review, which is nothing but helpful, open and encouraging of an accessible theatre.

Everything else is getting more and more personalized, why can’t theatre and its criticism? You can’t write a review from the perspective of each individual, but we can let them personalize based on our honesty. We personalize through the airing of biases and tastes.

What if you tell each of your communities why you goddamn love theatre. You don’t just love it. You goddamn love it. Why? What do you think as you sit down to see a new play? What’s the play that’s moved you most, made you laugh the hardest, stuck in your brain weeks after you saw it and why? Why do you think theatre matters to America today?

Not only would that catalyze theatre, it would re-introduce your perspective to new audiences. Why should new and potential theatre-goers trust your review? Where does your taste come from? Does it match their interests? The new American is tailored to, is used to on-demand that’s curated for them. It’s about if you liked it its about a fuller picture of why.

The selfish part of this on behalf of playwrights is the option for theatregoers to not read a review as a fact but as a personal opinion. I don’t want someone to be turned away from a play based on someone else’s personal taste, when that play could have changed them into a life-long theatre patron. Again. “I didn’t like it” is different than “it’s not worth seeing.”

How do we encourage theatregoers to define their own taste. That’s a theatre devotee in the making.

- - -

Because the real point is not my show, your review, or the next best thing in New York. It’s not about the objectivity and prominence of the critic’s voice or whether you read or don’t read reviews. It’s theatre as a whole.

And I think we need more cheerleaders. Loud and proud. With every project we do or play we cover we are ambassadors for this art. We are our own advocates. And we can all make theatre sound awesome, more awesome than we even feel it is when working on deadline and not getting paid enough and why god did I major in this charade.

How do we make theatre matter to more and more Americans? How do we make sure that theatre occurs to them to seek out at all? We know theatre achieves different storytelling that TV and film, how do we explain that over and over again?

We tell them How Theatre Works for and in America. We tell them often. I know many of you already do, but in this fast-posted, re-tweeting, what’s-next world, we need to be pumping it full of further examples of theatre kicking ass and changing hearts.

Cats get way way more attention than theatre does online. And I think, although this is debatable, that theatre does more work for the world than do cats. Again, everyone’s a critic.

Todd London’s book An Ideal Theatre is an inspiration to me. Reading all of those charged-up women and men who said, “we’re doing this differently,” “we’re doing this locally,” “we have other options.”

I am one of his cohort complete with a “roaring impatience, crashing idealism, compelling fanaticism, and over-the-top belief -– against all odds and reason -– that theatre matters and can help us change the world.” That last bit was Todd’s.

We can’t just be that, we must project that.

As longtime editor of The Village Voice Ross Wetzsteon said, “I don’t mean the kind of parietal ‘they’ve all worked so hard’ encouragement that doesn’t do anybody any good, but simply a sense of mutual commitment to enhancing the theatre, a sense of alliance, however uneasy, in a common cause. Far from being incompatible with ‘high standards’ this attitude provides their very basis.” Hell yes, Ross.

My stint as an essayist on the Huffington Post (your laughter is welcome here) is as a cheerleader for theatre more than a reviewer. The post I’ve written called “How Theatre For Young People Could Save The World” is not a complicated article, but it ties together the way young people can practice listening, empathizing, and being curious, and how theatre can do all that with craft, wit, and activism. It’s just a big high-five to theatre for young people, but I believe it and it might just energize parents to take their kids to a play. Not that this is the great moral beacon of our age, but that article has been liked on Facebook 47,000 times as of last week.

I’ll take articles, posters, memes, Instagram videos, ANYTHING that keeps theatre in the forefront of our minds, especially young ones.

Wanna Do Something Different That Might Change How You Think? Go See A Play.

Wanna remember what being in the moment is like? Go See a Play.

Wanna Laugh Your Ass off and feel super smart? Go see a play.

We need a Theatre is America campaign, country wide. Theatre is Life-Changing, Theatre is Epic, Theatre is YOU. Let’s “Got Milk” this thing, y’all.

No, wait. This isn’t about sleek ads, this is our honesty. Theatre needs to be re-introduced as a force for human connection, artistic innovation, mind-bending ideas, empathy, intellectual revolution, boutique community building and life-affirmation. Think Global, See a Play Local.

Now, my colleagues need to hold up our end of the promise and create some holy shit theatre, and knowing the writers working today in American theatre, I can promise you we will. But y’all are the front line of this re-introduction. Your papers, and blogs, and reputations, and outlets.

We are all creating the culture that we want and allowing the culture that we don’t. We’re creating how theatre lives in a modern society, we’re offering the tone of theatre’s success or failure as a medium of meaning, we’re doing that together. 

As David Bohm says, the observer and the observed affect each other. We are all of us affecting who comes to theatre, who discovers it, who comes back, who sees it as a hobby and who sees it a profession, who comes for the first time, who thinks they aren’t allowed in, and who doesn’t have the context to feel welcome.  

I want theatre to do work in America, not just entertain. I want it to thrive and provoke and challenge and inspire and revel and participate in the issues of our time not just reflect them.

And yes it’s about excellence, of course it is, but for god’s sake can we move past the idea that that word isn’t inherently relative and can be confined to two or three opinions? If we don’t admit this we are relegating our field to the further echelon of elitist culture esotericism, which is not the way to welcome new and diverse audiences. This does not mean lowering our standards or a rogue and peasant populism. But excellence cannot be one thing and biases must be aired.

We are all responsible for the vitality and excellences of American theatre.

We are all responsible for making sure new audiences can find what’s going to change them into theatergoers.

We are all responsible for making the theater occur to people it’s never occurred to before.

We are all responsible for helping people find plays that fit them, not that satisfy us.

We are all responsible to the fact that female characters are fewer than male characters on most seasons -– not to mention female writes and directors.

We are all connected to the lack of diversity onstage, behind stage, in the audiences, and in our cohort of critics.

We are all connected to those things that theatre needs to be doing better, because it’s failing all of us if it doesn’t.

Yes there’s a simple way to do our work – and that is the way we’ve always done it. But as I tell my playwriting students, this is fiction. We’re all making this crap up. Let’s make it up differently.

As I said in the beginning, ours is not an antagonistic relationship, ours is also not an esoteric private dramaturgical conversation. We are together and we are in public. And that public co-presence is also responsible for public coherence.

Thank you for trusting me to talk to you in honesty and community.

May we all keep advocating for an excellent and open and urgently valuable theatre. May we also ask what else can we do.  

I think it’s worth closing this speech on a point of community. We are all, after all, writers and thus share the grand presumption that anyone should give a crap about what we think anyway. We are bonded in that.

Thank you again. And I hope we meet as friends, theatre ecologists, and compatriots.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say.


Job opening at Cleveland Plain Dealer

The Plain Dealer in Cleveland is seeking to fill an opening for theater critic, the job most recently held by Tony Brown and before him Marianne Evett.

The newspaper recently received approval to hire a new critic, according to Debbie Van Tassel, the assistant managing editor for features. Here is the announcement of the position and information on how to apply.

Seeking a full-time theater critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland,
Ohio’s largest newspaper and a Top 20 metro daily. Northeast Ohio is
rich in theater offerings, from PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland -
the second-largest performing-arts complex in the United States - to
cutting-edge professional companies and a robust community-theater
scene. The ideal candidate will have 8-10 years of daily newspaper
experience, including writing about theater, both as a critic and a
reporter. Hard-news background is a plus, as this beat generates a lot
of news, much as theater generates millions in economic activity for the
region. Enthusiasm for online journalism, from blogging to social media,
is essential. The Plain Dealer has a full staff of arts and
entertainment critics, and our features sections have won national
recognition. Please send resume and 5-10 clips showing your range to
Debbie Van Tassel, AME/Features, The Plain Dealer, 1801 Superior Ave.,
Cleveland, OH 44114; email


Some reviews and commentary on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Caesar (left) and her Brutus share a drinkSome ATCA members have sent links to what they’ve written about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, based on the ATCA annual conference, July 6-10.

We’d like to see more links – send them here.

Click to read more ...