first person

I Make Plays. I Write Criticism. I’m Not My Own Enemy.

How those two roles enhance each other.

The author, at work on a production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Photo: Scott L. Friedman
The author, at work on a production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Photo: Scott L. Friedman

I never thought I’d be a writer.

No, that’s not true. For most of middle school, I thought I’d be the next Lloyd Alexander or Ursula Le Guin. I used to come home from school and write for fun, my progress in various fantasy realms marked by the height of a stack of floppy disks. Somehow, my one completed novel, a seventh-grade Celtic-mythology-and-burgeoning-sexual-awareness-infused opus called The Changeling, never made it to publication. So runs the world away.

But I never thought I’d be the kind of writer I am now, that freighted C-word that, spoken by some, sounds like ripping through wet wool. A critic. I didn’t train as a journalist. I’m a director who went to the theater one day and got really mad about what I saw. So mad that I wrote about it — and, as a result, found writing reemerging in my life in a way I hadn’t imagined. As a teenager in the first throes of my love affair with theater, I had thought my days of filling floppy disks with winding Word Docs were over. I never really wanted to write plays. I wanted, in the etymological sense of the word, to be a play-wright. To work not only with words but with space, time, imagery, physical objects, sights, sounds, and — best and hardest of all — human beings. For a long time I thought I only wanted to make the thing, not talk about the thing. Like a lot of young aspiring artists, I harbored an adolescent disdain for analysis, which felt grown up because Wordsworth once said “We murder to dissect.”

But plays aren’t frogs, and taking one apart won’t kill it. And these days, after a year and a half writing theater criticism for New York and Vulture, the shoe fits and I needs must wear it. I am a critic. And I’m a director. Which still provokes looks on some faces like that moment in High Fidelity where Rob tells Laura that liking Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel is like saying you support the Israelis and the Palestinians. But New York’s first drama critic was the great director Harold Clurman. Peter Brook is responsible for some of the most iconic — not to mention penetrating and straightforward — analysis of theater in the last half-century. The hawkish divide between theater making and theater writing is a relatively recent development, driven, I think, by two pretty simple factors: money and fear. Artists are poor (or maybe they’re not, but money is never not an issue), and we fear and resent what we perceive as the undue and unearned power of the critic — the putative ability to “make or break” our shows — yet we scrabble after good or even lukewarm press like starving dogs after scraps, desperately reprinting our posters with a “Critic’s Pick!” stamp, illogically praying for audiences to believe good write-ups and ignore bad. (What’s the old saying? “If you liked it, tell your friends! If you didn’t, tell your enemies!”) Those of us who want to make things very seldom feel passionate, or even comfortable, in the knowledge that we must sell what we make — but almost always we must. And it’s easy to fear, resent, even to start hating the people who make that sale even more difficult than it already is. Especially when they seem, as critics so often do to artists, unadventurous, pedantic, blinkered, backward, snotty, snarky, or plain bad-tempered.

And over on the other side of the barricades, print and web outlets are poor (or maybe they’re not, but money is never not an issue), and we fear the fate befalling old comrades like The Village Voice — so we see publishers scrabbling after clicks and ad revenue like starving dogs after scraps, desperately retooling the critical form to fit the age of the listicle.

One thing I’ve learned in a year and a half? If my fellow critics are anything like me, they’re often just tired. I saw approximately 150 shows in 2018. I wrote about roughly 120. I also directed one play and am currently in process on another. Directing is a social profession: You expend massive amounts of energy — mental, emotional, physical — but it comes back to you through the bodies and minds of your collaborators. The input-output cycle is constant and, for me, invigorating. Writing, by contrast, is pure output. You, a blank screen, a blinking cursor, and the hovering responsibility of trying to do right by something — be that thing a brilliant piece of art or, more frequently, your own complex response to a production that, for whatever reasons, failed. Articulating ourselves is the hardest thing. Doing it again and again, on deadline, juggling generosity and rigor, faith and frustration — with full commitment, full vulnerability, full knowledge that you’re actually trying to build something not destroy something, full willingness to dance naked in public and possibly be tarred and feathered for it? That’s criticism. Burnout twinkles ceaselessly on the horizon. It’s dangerous to say so — because it risks future hypocrisy — but I believe that, like artistic directors and politicians, critics need term limits, for their own sake and for the sake of the art they grapple with. At the very least we should do a bit of crop rotation every now and then. But again: money and fear.

Even at its snarkiest, though, criticism can’t kill. Not these days, not really. No matter how much we might cling to the melodramatic idea of a smoky, black-and-white world of pinstripes and pince-nez and midnight deadlines for the late city edition, where men with names like Maxwell Q. Nightingale annihilate productions with a single withering dismissal. Plays with enough real life in them or (because the world isn’t fair) enough money behind them will survive the onslaught of opinion. The unfortunate thing is that there are far more of the latter than the former. The Times won’t topple King Kong, and I won’t close American Son. But if I approach my writing with the same discipline and the same vulnerability I’d ask of myself in making a piece of theater, then perhaps something new might arise. Criticism at its best can increase both marvel and understanding. Dismantled humanely — which doesn’t mean meekly — bad plays often have much more to teach than good ones. It’s easy to skate blissfully across the surface of something you like (a passionate, precise articulation of what makes it work is much harder), but hating a thing forces you to ask yourself why, and that’s where the digging begins. Even if you’re standing around a crowded bar shouting across your third beer, you’re burrowing toward your own personal ideology — what you think theater is really about, what it should be, what it could be.

There’s an essay I love by E.M. Forster: “What I Believe.” It starts, “I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own.” I get those words stuck in my head like tenacious pop-song lyrics. Because if it’s honest, every review is an attempt to formulate a creed — a flexible, interested, open-hearted creed, an ideology with clarity, fervor, and resolve but without reverence. Reverence and militancy, I think, tend to come hand in hand. I’m not a worshipful person by nature, but I love hard. And sometimes I think I ended up in this — what should I call it? Profession, field, life? Probably life — life because theater is the art form that has the potential to make me more joyful and more angry than anything else. I spend my life searching for the joy and attempting to interrogate the anger. It’s like a person I love, with equal parts anxiety, absurdity, and fierce loyalty. Theater annoys the living hell out of me. There are times I want to punch its stupid face and never speak to it again. I also want to spend the rest of my life with it. So runs the world, etc.

I try not to engage in social media. I don’t have the constitution for it. But recently I let myself get into a Facebook debate that sprung up around something I’d written, a review that expanded in scope to talk about what I see as a particularly irritating phenomenon in modern playwriting. “I’ll just say,” commented an acquaintance who also writes about theater, “I come to see what there is to see; I leave my soapbox at home.” This person knows me as a director. He praised my enthusiasm but questioned whether “using any play as an opportunity to be prescriptive about what theater should or shouldn’t be” was “more the part of a theater-maker rather than theater critic.” Even more recently, a couple who declined to attend an event where I was speaking felt, in their own way, the same. They were affronted by the fact that my politics comes out in my reviews. Why can’t she leave her soapbox at home?

The thing is, no one’s soapbox is ever really at home. That deceptively complicated little charge — to “take a play on its own terms” — doesn’t mean ignoring the context in which it sits, or the multitudes you bring to it. There’s no such thing as critical objectivity. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? And we have thought so, or told ourselves we think so, for a long time. Plenty of critics have written with removed, impersonal authority. We’ve allowed them to be our voices of judgment — thumbs-up or thumbs-down like Caesar in the Forum. But we don’t live in an age that allows any one of us to pretend to that kind of omniscience, no matter the depths of our particular knowledge. Our fraught moment demands that we do something we should have been doing all along: acknowledge our subjectivity. That we own the specifics of who we are and dare to share our histories with each other. Every human being who cares about the theater comes to every play with that individual history — personal, creative, political — in tow. It’s a waste of time to talk blandly about plays as if they’re expensive vacuum cleaners.

It’s easy to be objective about a vacuum cleaner. (“It sucks.”) But we’ve created a deadly tradition of theater criticism as consumer reporting — “This actor was good; this actor was less good; the costumes were pretty; the plot went like this” — that combines the middle-school book report with an assessment of whether or not a luxury good is worth our $250 (or, you know, $2,500). Ever-tightening space constraints in print drive many of us in this direction: In 300 words, a plot synopsis and three or four evaluating adjectives are about all there’s room for. But whether critics are fighting the hard fight of diving deep in limited space, or taking advantage of the bottomless internet to communicate at more length, I believe it’s up to us to widen the focus of our reviews so that they contain not only the play but the world. “Using any play as an opportunity to be prescriptive about what theater should be” feels to me like exactly the job of every theater-loving person, whether maker, audience member, or critic. Every play — that we make, that we see, that we write about — is a chance to engage with the bigger questions of the art form. Why we love it, why it matters, what makes it infuriating, and what makes it incomparable, transcendent.

Being a critic has felt like walking across terrain I know well in very high shoes: The vantage point is different, I’m much more visible, and balance can be a bitch. Not least because it’s been vital to me to maintain my identity and practice as a director in the meantime. I get asked about conflict of interest a lot, as if it’s a really hot topic, and I never have much to say. We’re all conflicted. We’re all interested. I use my judgment and I try to say what I see. Frankly, we need more theater practitioners writing about the form. (Think about it: Virtually all book critics write books of their own.) But we still tend to separate the study of theater from its practice, and we still don’t take the latter entirely seriously: I can support myself writing about theater full-time, but I can’t support myself making theater full-time, nor can the majority of the brilliant artists I know. Studying the thing has some intellectual cachet, be it journalistic or academic. But doing it is niche and nerdy. It’s either a pastime we’ll grow out of before choosing a more practical major, or it’s an elitist extravagance. We still eye it with a touch of suspicion under the glamour — second-oldest profession that it is. It’s high and low, kings and clowns, awkwardly, gloriously straddling the art-entertainment gap like a cowboy atop two galloping horses.

It’s like us — it’s been dying since it was born. It’s a wake, a dance astride of a grave. As soon as Aeschylus introduced the second actor, some Greek critic (Maxwell Q. Nightingale’s chiton-clad ancestor) probably turned to his buddy and yawn-whispered that theater was a dying art. Maybe. But it’s also that Monty Python guy — not dead yet! And if it’s going to stay that way, we — we critics, we artists, we in the audience — have to keep demanding more of it. (My own passionate frustration is nothing new. In 1947, Brooks Atkinson, the Times critic, wrote that “what the theater needs is not the suppression of opinion but a sharp and drastic deflation in the cost of tickets and a sharp and drastic improvement in the quality of plays.” Seventy years ago!) We’ve got to keep taking it apart and putting it back together again. We’ve got to recognize that we’re all engaged in more than a transactional relationship. My job as a critic isn’t to tell you if something is worth your money. It’s to try to engage you in an ongoing conversation about this whole theater thing. This big, crazy, expensive, strange, possibly obsolete, potentially revelatory, unkillable and inimitable, ancient and awesome collision of people, time, space, and story. What makes it different? Why is it not TV or cinema? Why should any of us care?

When I was in college, the Yale Art Gallery did a marketing campaign where it sold brightly colored T-shirts that said, in block print, on the chest: “WHAT IS ART AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?” I saw an old school friend recently and she was wearing the shirt, ten years old at this point. “I get into more subway conversations wearing this,” she said. That’s what I believe criticism is for. For asking that question every single time I write. I believe it’s my job to own what I know and what I don’t, to reveal rather than conceal myself in my writing. To be as exposed as the art makers I write about — because I’m one of them, and I know how vulnerable it is.

The Russian director Anatoly Efros described actors as having no skin. Theater people in general are used to getting flack for being sensitive (we’re dramatic, have you heard?). My entire life I’ve been encouraged, or downright ordered, to develop a thicker skin. To work on my defenses. To stop crying so damn much. I think I’ve finally given up. There’s no unpinning my heart from my sleeve at this point. Besides, I’ve come to believe that directors — and critics, too — have a kind of paradoxical task in front of them: To balance sensitivity and judgment. To receive every signal, every tiny reverberation in the air — whether in a rehearsal room or in a theater with the lights down and the fourth wall up — and then to start sorting for usefulness and significance. For the melody inside the noise.

Recently — while working on that same review that sparked the Facebook debate — I went back to María Irene Fornés. She wrote, “If theater is to be successful it must be loved like one loves an animal that one wonders at.” That’s breathtaking. And I believe it’s true. And it’s very, very rare. Because art is hard.

Art is hard and most of it fails — either in small ways or catastrophic ones. And the failures are fascinating. Like soil that’s rich with deposits, precious veins ready for mining if we could all be a bit less precious ourselves. “Astonish me,” Diaghilev used to tell his performers. It’s the only direction, really.

Art is hard because astonishment is hard, and yet we try to manufacture it like we do cars. Our assembly lines spit out productions in six weeks. It’s a miracle that as many things are as good as they are. It’s all a miracle, really.

The artist–critic war of attrition is boring. It’s a cliché — and if there’s a common enemy that all artists and all critics should share, then cliché is that enemy. When people give me that look upon discovering that I’m a critic and I’m a director — that look that says they’re suddenly not sure where to put me, that I must be a traitor to one camp, and which one is it? — I generally laugh it off, as if to say, Yeah, crazy world isn’t it?

But what I really want to tell them is that at heart, criticism and directing are the same. Sister processes with complementary results. What I really want to tell them is that Wordsworth was wrong: The best dissection isn’t murder but, somehow, strangely and wonderfully, more life.

It’s my job to see and to imagine. To look at what theater is and to imagine what it might be. To articulate both. To keep interrogating and refining my creed. To piece out my own “What I Believe” every time I write. Never to become reverent or militant. To own what I know. To call out boredom and cynicism and cliché. To demand astonishment. To keep seeking that wondrous animal.

I Make Plays. I Write Criticism. I’m Not My Own Enemy.