Naveen Kumar offers Perspectives in Criticism
New York, December 31 — The ATCA Perspectives in Criticism series added its newest chapter on November 10, 2023, the first day of the ATCA New York City conference “Holding the Curtain”.
The 2023 speaker Naveen Kumar is a journalist and culture critic who contributes theater reviews to The New York Times and Variety. He is a contributing editor at them.us, and his work has also appeared on The Daily Beast, Vox, Town & Country, and more. He is associate director of the National Critics Institute, the leading arts-writing workshop for professional journalists.
The full listing of Perspectives speakers includes critics, playwrights, performers, and others reflecting on the critical arts. Previous “Perspectives” speakers have included critics such as Helen Shaw, Maya Phillips, Lily Janiak, Diep Tran, Jason Zinoman, Michael Finegold, Henry Hewes, Frank Rich, Dan Sullivan, Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley, Clive Barnes, and many others.
The 2023 offering was in the form of a conversation between Kumar and current ATCA Executive Committee Chair David John Chávez.
Chávez: I was part of the National Critics Institute in 2020, which at the time was fully on line as everything else was. We were fortunate enough, my cohort, to be able to spend a long weekend in Connecticut the following year when things had calmed down quite a bit. I sat across from Naveen at dinner. When you have access to a critical mind like Naveen’s, it’s really something that you embrace. If I’m home with my family, nothing clears out of room quicker than me talking about theater criticism. But I’m amongst all of you, and when I’m with folks I can meet and around people that are going to just kind of give me more to get better at what I’m doing, is truly an honor. Now, we are fortunate enough to have him present for our conference so he can share with all of us the way he processes things and to talk about criticism, about the field, and the challenges that we have. Since 2020 he is the associate director of the NCI, and able to see and work with a lot of the top critical minds in the country.
Naveen, I want to start off by talking a little bit about NCI. And if you could talk to us about your role there and the impact that you feel that NCI is having around the country in terms of young and mid-career critics.
Kumar: Thank you for that introduction. The National Critics Institute we run out of the O’Neill Theater Center, which is one of the last surviving developmental launchpads in American theater, where their year-round overall mission is supporting the development of new work of the American theater. That happens through teaching students year-round and then in the summer, the developmental conferences, which break into plays, musicals, puppetry, and cabaret as a beautiful ecosystem with theater development. The Critics Conference has been part of the O ‘Neill since the beginning. It feels like an interesting somewhat unnatural fit, because we’re a little bit of a fox in the henhouse. This is a place where the artists are protected from critical views and can develop freely and see their words back about for the first time. It’s a contrasting tension we bring to campus
So about 15, 20 of us spend two weeks there. It’s a boot camp situation where we see performances on campus, the developmental ones, and write about them overnight. We do not share or publicize those reviews. they’re just for internal critique, so we sit around and talk about each person’s writing the next day. We’ve all seen the same thing. It’s a rare opportunity for writers of any kind. I think journalism increasingly, whatever your specialty, is a very solo venture. Even people who work in newsrooms are at home on Slack. So just the opportunity to sit around together and talk about writing is special and fun. People have to be vulnerable and work on instinct because you’ve been working overnight and everyone’s in the same boat. So that’s special and it creates a kind of community, in a profession where it can feel like you’re in your own mind. So groups like this [ATCA] and conferences like that, any other community to bring writers together I think is a really special thing.
And then there is being in conversation with the artists on campus, you know, even at the picnic tables, and bringing in the playwright or the actors to talk to the critics before or after we see their piece. Some of them have defensive or sort of trauma response to us. But I think it’s helpful for them and for us to see that we’re all creative minds, we all care about the form, we want to see it be more expansive, we all want the same things.
Chávez: Just as an add-on to that, what year did you attend NCI as a critic participant? Do you remember what was being developed when you were there?
Kumar: I was there in 2018. Slave Play was there, Jeremy O. Harris. Teeth was there. It’s an exciting place to be, with artists, and to see the work that we see as well.
Chávez: And you were just there, Lynn Nottage was honored the other night, right?
Kumar: Yeah, we had our Monte Cristo Award gala, our fall fundraiser, and Lynn Nottage was the honoree. She talked about how she workshopped Ruined there [in 2006], a few years before it really took off. She had a touching story about how having that space, hot, muggy, and non -air conditioned as it was, became a launchpad for that piece and much it has meant around the world. It’s become a vehicle for empathy and understanding.
Chávez: I want to talk about something that’s near and dear to all of us, and that’s process. The way we enter a theater, the way we watch something and, depending on what our deadline is – maybe some of us have deadlines in a couple of days, maybe some of us have a couple of hours — and there’s so much that goes into trying to write something that’s coherent, that’s insightful, but having very little time to do so. So I wanna know specifically about your process as a critic. Taking notes. There are so many things about taking notes. Sometimes I find my notes are absolutely useless and sometimes I’m so caught up in watching the show, I forget to write things down. We all have a different process. So for you, what are you looking for when you see a show? How do you begin a review? Do you perseverate on a review or do you just kind of move on after it’s done? What’s your process like as a critic?
Kumar: So this is all obviously super subjective. We all have our own approach, which is what makes it great, exciting. I always sit down and anytime I’m in a theater, my first and only question is what are we doing here? Being a grammar nerd, I can break down that sentence. What is the what, what’s actually supposed to be happening here? In the present tense. We’re all in this room together at this time. What is cliche about theater is true: it’s alive, it’s in the room, it should speak in present tense. You can talk about the past; it doesn’t mean that you have to be confronting the present in a political way or with any agenda. Maybe we’re here to laugh, maybe we’re here to feel uncomfortable. Whatever it is, I try to figure out what is that thing and, why are we doing it now and why are we doing it here. It’s the only medium where everyone is sharing the same air. If the air inside the theater has no relationship to what’s going on outside the theater, it’s like a distance that, I get caught there. What are we doing here?
Obviously, everyone has their own taste and what they like and appreciate, that’s just always my first question. I try to remain open to the sense that that could be anything. I think we see a lot of theater; it could be easy to slip into “here we go again.” People joke that everyone loves ninety minutes no intermission. like, but when it’s three hours, well, I like theater. So when it’s three hours of great theater, I like this. I try to remind myself that anything could be possible. There’s a blank slate; anything can happen. That sense of possibility and curiosity drives my impression.
In terms of note-taking, I ask myself a lot of questions in my notes. Maybe it’s something that the play’s gonna answer, or maybe that’s gonna nag at me. Physical details and stuff that I’m not going to remember. When I sit down, I start writing what stuff looks like. “What color was that thing?” could be helpful to write down, especially if it’s something that’s not in production photos, or you don’t have access to them. Language that I might use. The most helpful notes, again, are just descriptors that come to me in the moment, like a color, or a quality of a performance. Things that are striking me right then that I might not recall. When I’m really engaged and love something, I write a lot down. that I write it down.
It’s hard for me to describe how something worked on me, as opposed to how it could have worked differently or better.
Chávez: After you’re done with the review does it stay with you? I remember when I asked you a question about something that you wrote that I fell in love with, I said, “Well, so how did you do it?” And it was over. So are you someone that moves on pretty easily after a review is done, or do you go back and read it? Do you think if you could have done this better, did I describe this in a way that I wanted? Do you perseverate on a review?
Kumar: I think when I file it when the copy edit is done. I may visit it a little later because someone comments on it. Usually when I read it several weeks later I think “that was not bad” but if I read it right away I might be harder on myself. You have to move on to the next story, the next job. I don’t think it’s helpful.
Chávez: One thing I think is really important for critics to understand is that we are also fodder to be criticized. Sometimes critics honestly think their opinion is “on high.” But that’s the nature of the beast. We put out our opinion, and we allow others, and we don’t get to determine how people react to the work that we review. We should be called on the carpet for many things as critics. That’s just the nature of what we do. In terms of criticism of your own work, writing for some of the high-end publications, how do you handle criticisms of your own work?
Kumar: I would say I’m fortunate in that I haven’t received a lot of negative mail directed toward me. There’s always the comment section which you can choose to look at or not. I sometimes think that when it’s a typical play, people want to go in there and talk about it themselves. They’re not necessarily coming for me, they’re just having a conversation, which I find interesting. I’ll look at it and if I get the sense that it’s not going to be helpful to me, I won’t look. I think for me, like for a lot of people, it’s my inner critic that’s most … I remind myself every time I’m sitting down to write, it’s so cliché how insecure I am. Writers by nature constantly question their own voice and value. That’s the kind of thing we talk about at NCI. Trusting your voice and getting out of your own way. And when someone does agree with you or points out you’re insightful … allowing yourself to feel positively about your writing as the bad comments make you feel negatively.
Chávez: I know for myself at one point I would be harder on myself if I read something else and thought: how did they see that? I didn’t see that. I must suck because I missed that, and they got it. But you start to trust that they’re looking at things from an entirely different perspective as well. So you’re not going to see the same thing all the time. Which leads me to the next question. In terms of being a critic of color, we all know the statistics on that, especially in theater, there is a wide swath covering music and film, critics of color engaging in other art forms, not so much theater. How has being a critic of color shaped the way you view things?
Kumar: It shapes my subjectivity. Everyone’s approaching their work and the stories they see from their own perspective. A lot of people who are not of the dominant culture would say this –I’m used to, as an imaginative exercise, putting myself in other people’s stories. I never saw myself in any stories growing up. I have this muscle, I don’t know if it’s an expansive imagination, if I’m watching someone’s experience on stage and it’s absolutely nothing like mine, that’s something I’m very used to. It’s like an amputee muscle, like any sort of interpretation analysis exercise, expanding how you’re able to imagine yourself in these stories. As we’re seeing more artists of color, you don’t have to push to see more of those stories told. For me it doesn’t feel like an intrusion or that anything’s being lost. I will always want to hear more stories, whether or not they’re like mine. I’d never expect that, I’ve still never really seen it. Whatever the story is, I just want more and more of them.
Chávez: That leads perfectly to my next question. As theater critics, we see lots and lots of work and that doesn’t mean that we’re going to relate to everything. We see a lot of things from communities that maybe we’re not part of, but we care about those communities, and we want to see them thrive. There’s a certain level of empathy that you bring when you’re a theater critic and you’re watching something that maybe you don’t have a lot of connection to. For you personally, how do you approach writing about people of color or communities you don’t have a lot of experience with or that you’re not part of?
Kumar: That’s interesting. For me that also includes white culture. That circles back to how I see things as a critic of color. White culture isn’t my culture so for me it’s not a neutral thing. It’s not like this is the norm, everything else is different. When I’m writing about other communities I’m not a part of, I don’t see a lot of salvation plays. I try not to make assumptions. We tell young writers to as a critic own your authority. I don’t want to admit ignorance. I would acknowledge it for myself, but I’m not going to tell my readers that I don’t understand something. But at the same time, I’m going to be careful and cautious and try to inform myself about a community or a certain type of story or a crisis, what it is, the context of the story being told so that I’m informed in some way and not saying: I don’t get why this community is so traumatized by XYZ. Well, there’s a centuries-long history that if you did understand that you might see the story differently. And I think that not making some effort to do that is not doing your job. I would be careful not to claim authority over a community that I’m not a part of. I have been asked to write a lot about black artists, just because I’m not white. I have an innate interest in and hunger for those stories, and imagination for those stories. But I’m also conscious that I’m not gonna relate to them on the same level and I’m not going to presume. I’m still going to be cautious about making assumptions.
Chávez: So there’s no secret about where our field is at the moment and the challenge that we face – not just theater criticism but theater in general. We all hear stories and certainly in our communities we have theaters that are closed and spaces that you never would have expected. And in the midst of that, we still have twenty percent of our membership show up to New York for a conference, which is very exciting. We have things that we can really hang our hat on and look forward to and feel like we’re making the right steps in the midst of this uncertainty. What do you think about theater, and what we do here in this room, theater criticism, what gets you excited about those two things?
Kumar: I heard the first panel with musical theater artists [“Performing Sondheim” moderated by Rick Pender] and I thought: we all want the same thing – for this kind of storytelling to continue because it’s live and in the room, because of all these feelings we have in the dark, together. I think there is a shared love of the form and belief in what it can accomplish in the world that has a certain synergy. We all want the art to be better and for the stories to bring us together. I think recognizing the shared value of the mission is exciting. The more attention we can pay the better. Any artist or theater would rather have a middling or bad review than be ignored. So part of what we can do is keep responding to the work, because it exists in conversation. We’re an essential part of that ecosystem. Regardless of tensions between “I like this one not that one” or “they rock my world” .. all of that aside, we’re part of that system.
Chávez: So the hope is that all of us who chose to be here this weekend, share the goal to continue to get better at criticism. The minute we stop trying to get better, is the minute we shouldn’t be doing this, move onto something else. The companies who are working so hard to provide art to our communities deserve the very best we have to offer. It is because of weekends like this that make me feel like I am getting better at this, and nowhere near where I want to be, but further along than I would have been without these conferences, with the people in this room, without these conversations. It forces us to look inside ourselves and ask ourselves the question, “why are we doing this?”
I will ask you one last question. As you were to look around this room and say to the people in this room, I want to challenge you. I need to challenge you. What challenge would you present to people in this work who are doing this work.
Kumar: We’re at the nexus of dual industries in crisis, right? So we can think about the crisis of theater as a business and an art form, certainly in regional companies and in New York. If we’re at a time of asking what is the value of this art form? How is it going to move forward? What sorts of stories are we telling? Which audiences are we serving and how? And then also journalism and media and what is the worthiness of arts coverage. What is the value of it and how are we going to sustain it? I would say to not turn away from those challenges but to face them and really engage them and see how your work can confront those crises. Whether it’s looking at the stories you’re seeing and the push to expand your imagination and how you’re thinking about stories and whose stories are being told and for whom and why. All that is so deeply important and especially powerful in interpreting and opening a dialogue about the work that we see.
We need more readers, we need more audiences, we need more artists of all different backgrounds and variety of experiences. Engaging all those stories with your own subjective point of view in a way that allows your readers of your work to work toward more curiosity, more engagement, more unheard stories, as opposed to putting your head in the sand or wallowing over the state of things.
— Transcribed, heavily “linked,” and edited for clarity and length by Martha Wade Steketee