Critic Spotlight: December 2020
Primary Outlet: KQED
Why is it important to cover people who spend their life telling stories?
It’s been useful to me to frame it in my mind as us both being storytellers. It just so happens that the focus of my stories tend to be other storytellers, who are perhaps more easily defined as such in a societal or professional sense. But I don’t feel at all divorced from the creation process just because I’m reporting on other people’s processes, if that makes sense. I feel a real kinship with the artists I write about, and consider myself to be driven by an artistic imperative.
Your criticism is always wonderfully insightful. How do you determine through your review if the piece you are writing about is a success or a failure?
My first professional criticism gig was freelancing for many years at the San Francisco Bay Guardian where I had the really good fortune to work alongside a critic named Rob Avila (whom, I believe, is no longer active, which is a loss).
Not only was he an excellent writer, but he also helped frame my eventual approach: Did the presenting company appear to fulfill whatever mandate or vision they set for themselves in the presentation/production of a particular piece?
I think we’re all well aware that different companies have different access to resources and different company missions and different reasons for wanting to put on the work they put on. So the lens I try to view any work through is not, “do I like this work?” but rather, “is this the work the company wanted to make?”
There’s always an element of speculation in that of course. The way a company markets their work and their production history is enough to give some clues.
I consider if they’ve met their particular goals, and if not, where did they fall short? I’m drawn to the embrace of failure, which is a notion that’s been simmering in the cultural milieu for some time. Sometimes a glorious flop is more exciting and artistically valuable. It’s the half-measures and anti-risk takers that I find tedious.
What are the toughest kinds of shows for you to review?
I don’t tend to go to many of the touring Broadway musicals, since I prefer to reserve my energy for the local scene. What’s good about my not wanting to weigh in on the SpongeBob musical is that they’re going to do just fine without me, so it’s pretty much a win for everyone.
You are currently studying dramaturgy at San Francisco State. How has your insight changed since you have sharpened your dramaturgical eye?
I credit criticism for leading me directly to dramaturgy. After 15 years as a critic, I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve been to where I felt I was there too late. What could that show have been if only I’d been in the rehearsal room to impart my notes ahead of time?
My approach to criticism is already dramaturgical in nature. I do tons of research ahead of time, read the script when possible, and try to contextualize the work within a historical, cultural, or socio-political context depending on the show and the angle. My hope is to eventually work professionally in both capacities. I know I’m not the only arts journalist who straddles both practices.
What is something you hope changes in theater once we return?
Whew, so many things. A lot of them were things that I already wanted to see change, so I guess it’s cool that we’re all having a moment where reconceptualizing our field and our artistic practice is at the forefront.
My big soapbox this year has been about the value of cooperatively-run and horizontally-governed workspaces, which is something I want to see more of in both theater and in journalism. I could talk about that topic for hours so allow me to just direct folks to this article I wrote on the subject and the panel I hosted over the summer with some of our Bay Area arts collectives.
You have covered so much of the Bay Area arts and underground theater scenes. What do you love about underground theater and what do you fear about the future of many of these institutions after the pandemic subsides?
A wonderful thing about creatives is our innate ability to create. To envision and build. The Bay Area theater community was already grappling with new laws around compensation that came into effect with the passage of AB5 (around classifying workers as employees or independent contractors).
Even if there had been no pandemic, we’d be having a lot of the same conversations, namely, how do we provide for our cultural workers, now and in the future?
You mentioned earlier that theater-makers are storytellers, and that’s so true. All you need for storytelling is a story and a teller. No matter what happens, that future is assured. What’s that going to look like practically and institutionally? It might be too early to say. I think some folks probably will bow out of the industry altogether.
But also, I think a lot of folks have been creating without benefiting from the “industry” to begin with — and those folks are going to continue to create no matter what. That is what I love about the underground arts. These artists aren’t waiting around for permission or blessing or grant money to do what they love, they just do it.
You do not own a phone or a car, and bike everywhere to get to shows. Does that present a challenge for you to do your job in a technological world and a car-heavy region?
As you know, you have to turn your cell phone off before the show begins, while you’re unwrapping your hard candy! So that’s not really a challenge. The car thing limits me from making it to a couple of pretty specific theaters, but anything within the city limits or that is Bartable (or within a mile of BART) is fair game.
But I chose specifically to live in San Francisco because I knew I could get anywhere I needed to go without a car, and 20 years in, I have zero regrets on that front. I have really been thrilled about the way I’ve been able to check out work from some of those further afield artists online over the past few months, so that might be something we can keep going in the future.
What makes the Bay Area theater scene unique?
I don’t think people outside of the Bay Area understand what a development hotbed it is, and how many “world premieres” I see every year. I don’t even think a lot of Bay Area folks quite know how special we are in that regard, because a lot of these plays don’t go further, which is frustrating but also fascinating.
We’re very very lucky to have been blessed with so much amazing, original work. I’m so grateful to have been in on the ground floor and watched some of the Bay’s most iconic artists grow and flourish, from the black box/basement to Broadway. I get a real thrill just thinking about that!
We like to end by sharing a few stories you’re proud of. Can you send us some links?
There’s so much potential for beauty in soccer, especially at the World Cup level, that it can move an arts journalist such as myself to spend the better part of a month lurking in dark bars at 7 am.
In Cutting Ball Theater’s “Free for All: A New Miss Julie for a New World” … we see August Strindberg’s Miss Julie deconstructed to a bare frame, then filled extravagantly back up with madcap futurism.
— Interview by David John Chávez. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.