Critic Spotlight: June 2021

Critic Spotlight: June 2021

Karen Topham

Chicago area
Primary outlet: ChicagoOnStage

Karen Topham

How many years were you a high school drama teacher?

Overall 37 years. I taught drama in one way or another for most of those years. I always taught units on performance because it made for an interesting switch from just doing speeches.

How has that informed the way you critique a show?

I tend to have inside thoughts about how shows are put on, and what actors have to go through. Teaching taught me how many aspects have to go into it and how hard everybody works, from the stage crew to the ensemble. If something is glaringly wrong, it’s emphasized because I know what it should have been. 

But if it’s good, I want to acknowledge all those people who created the work. I just like to acknowledge people. 

How do you determine if a show is a success, or if it didn’t quite work out?

I try to judge each show on its own merits and work to see what the director and the company wanted to create. Then the question is, did they make that happen? If I watch a piece and feel drawn to it in some way — because of excellent lighting, a brilliant performance or something else that’s going to color the production — that’s how I see if a show is a success. 

There’s been more conversation of late about how to cover transgender artists. What should critics be aware of when they’re covering plays with transgender artists and issues in order to write with respect?

I have tried to see every show in Chicago that’s either written by a trans playwright or features trans characters or a trans plot. My son is a trans actor. Through him, I’ve met an awful lot of trans artists, especially the young trans actors in Chicago. I love watching them perform. I just think they are some of the most talented, young people in Chicago.

What critics have to remember, I think at all times, is that these people have fought very hard to be their authentic selves. It’s hard to fight that long, that consistently and keep going. But it’s so easy to create a moment of pain.

Have you seen reviews that were particularly cruel to a trans artist?

There was a review of The Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels” (in which) there is a character who is meant to be nonbinary and they had a trans performer playing that part. The critic thought he was being funny and made a cruel comment about the actor, and it blew up into this whole controversy. 

To his credit, he apologized, but it never should have happened. It never would have happened if people recognized that we are who we are.

There are things we can do to support those efforts, like to include correct pronouns in our reviews. For those who want to share their pronouns, they can easily be put in a Playbill or in press materials we receive ahead of time. What are some other ways?

We spent a lot of time getting here, so just acknowledge that effort. Acknowledge the fact of this trans actor standing in front of you: a person who wasn’t always recognized for their true self, and even today may be still going through a lot of rejection for who they are. It’s important to do simple things like getting pronouns and names right. 

Another thing we can do is take a look at the rest of the Playbill and see if there are other trans people involved in the show, nonbinary or trans people involved. I would love it if every program in the world had pronouns. 

As critics, we always have biases and perspectives we take into a review. How do you approach that? 

We review plays all the time that are out of our knowledge base. I have the same feelings when I review a Black play, a Latino play for example. I’m not Black or Latino, but I try very hard to understand the context of these plays, and I’m very aware I have work to do. I am constantly aware that I am not making statements that are a white person’s interpretation of the show. I really try not to do that. My reviews are couched in the knowledge that I’m not an expert.

You are taking over ATCA’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee, which has been proactive in helping to educate about diverse issues in American theater criticism. What goals do you have for the committee going forward?

The current and past leaders of EDI have fostered a group that has manifested a real revolution in the membership of ATCA, challenging and changing opinions and the ways critics respond to the world. Among my goals are to continue that good work, to expand on recruitment of POC and trans critics, to provide more resources for all members, and to use this committee to commemorate the life and work of our late member Ed Medina. 

If I could help more people recognize how to work with, write about, and understand the contributions of transgender theatre people, I wouldn’t mind that either. 

Please share a few clips you’re proud of. Thank you!

“A Personal Perspective of Timeline’s ‘Boy’ From a TG Critic”

“Mostly transgender cast makes for a special Southern Comfort”

“Come From Away’s real Kevin T discusses Gander, life lessons, and his book”

— Interview by David John Chávez. Edited for length and clarity.

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