AMERICAN THEATRE | Critical Steps: Under Covered

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Illustration by MUTI.

The way critics are depicted in pop culture, you might mistake them for mortal enemies of the striving artist (or at least as the shadowy nemeses of plucky rat chefs in Paris). But the reality is that the relationship between artists and those who magnify and examine their work is much more symbiotic.
Take it from New York Times critic Wesley Morris, who put it beautifully in his Pulitzer Prize remarks in 2021: “Criticism champions, condemns, X-rays, and roots out,” he said. “It explains and appraises and contextualizes. It also dreams and marvels and mourns. You need some kind of knowledge to do it, sure,
and maybe (hopefully) some humor, but really—truly—you need feeling. You need feelings.”

This emotional connection between the theatremaker and the theatre digester is all the more poignant of late, as journalism and the arts have both been struggling for their very existence over the last few decades, with the sustained pattern of cutbacks in state and federal funding for the arts, the corporatization of local media, and then—boom—the pandemic.

Measured in layoffs, this past year was the worst year to date for journalists. According to employment firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, as of December 2023, the media industry had already slashed 21,417 full-time jobs.

The good news, though it’s cold comfort to anyone out of a job, is that people continue to appreciate the arts—as an idea, at least. This has been confirmed by the latest economic and social impact study from the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts. Their report found that 86 percent of attendees to arts and culture events state that “arts and culture are important to their community’s quality of life and livability.” The report also noted that 79 percent of that same group think the arts are “important to their community’s businesses, economy, and local jobs.”

This belief in the arts, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate into widespread support for full-time theatre critics. Many major theatre markets no longer have anyone being paid to write about performing arts at all, let alone for a legacy publication. But just as there is still theatre to cover, there are still folks finding ways to cover it.

Amid these daunting financial and industry realities, what does forging a path in theatre criticism even look like these days? Where does one go to learn best practices? To learn how to craft an expert pitch? Is it all learning by doing? If so, how and where do you get started?

To examine these questions, we spoke with six rising critics, all graduates from one of three theatre criticism programs, each designed to give cohorts real-world, boots-on-the-ground experience. They are:

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Critics Institute (NCI), a two-week workshop designed for arts writers and critics to sharpen their tools of the trade. Founded in 1968 and based in Waterford, Conn., the program is framed as a “boot camp” experience, owing to the intensive amount of writing and workshops with a variety of leading industry professionals.

The BIPOC Critics Lab, a program run through the Public Theater in Manhattan. Founded in 2020 by veteran arts writer Jose Solís with the mission to train and create work by emerging critics of color, it was originally hosted by the Kennedy Center.

The Kennedy Center’s Institute for Theater Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA), launched with the mission “to provide writers the opportunity to grow at the same pace as the artists whose work they review, celebrate, and interpret.” Eligible college students are required to be enrolled at a learning institution at the time of the program, or to have graduated within the last year. This program also provides a national scholarship to attend the NCI. 

What have young writers learned from these programs? What have they learned on their own out in the market? And what new opportunities, if any, remain in this shrinking market?

Throw Your Best Pitch

Billy McEntee.

When Billy McEntee was studying theatre at Boston College, it was a feature writing class with critic Don Aucoin that sparked his interest in criticism. Mentorship from an experienced writer “opened the door to the potential of arts journalism, criticism being a thing that I could pursue,” McEntee said.

Like many young critics, McEntee was a theatre kid. Growing up in New Jersey, he quipped, “I was not the best at sports. And I was fortunate to grow up in a school system that had pretty good arts extracurriculars.” His grandfather would also take him to see “Golden Age” musicals like Oklahoma!, Paint Your Wagon, and South Pacific—trips that were “kind of my gateway drug, so to speak,” McEntee said.

McEntee attended the National Critics Institute (NCI) in 2018, about three years after moving to Brooklyn, having completed a fellowship at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. At the time he relocated, he was attempting to freelance as a writer while working a day job as a communications associate at Playwrights Horizons, an Off-Broadway theatre focused on new work.

While he had assembled a few clips at HowlRound before NCI, that program opened McEntee’s mind about what was possible—not only in terms of how and where to pitch his wares but also in terms of how he could up his game as a writer. The writing boot-camp aspect of NCI, in which young critics must file a review every night for two weeks, gave him a chance “to see a show, get out at 10 o’clock, file a review that night, and then look at it with everybody the next morning at 10 a.m. That was foundational and helpful.”

He recalled a few high-pressure moments—like the time a critic from The New York Times was going to be the evaluator the next morning, and the play McEntee had under consideration was eluding his comprehension.

“That was definitely my worst writeup, and I felt so upset,” McEntee recalled. He needn’t have worried: The Times critic “gave very candid, honest, and helpful feedback,” he said. Gaining access to and feedback from seasoned writers through the program “made the bridge between my career and theirs feel shorter, and that was really meaningful.”

Since then, his writing has made it into The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Playbill, the Washington Post, and American Theatre. But even a thriving freelance career still involves cobbling together a myriad of hustles. While stringing as a writer, McEntee also works as theatre editor for the nonprofit publication The Brooklyn Rail, teaches and tutors, and occasionally writes copy. His main part-time teaching gig is with the School of the New York Times, which hosts students in high school and those doing a gap year before college.

One thing he teaches all his students is to be relentless with where and how many times you pitch—something he learned both from conversations and networking with the contacts he built at NCI, and by simply trying and failing, over and over again, until he finally landed assignments. One rule of thumb McEntee has picked up: Send your ideas to what may seem like an absurd number of outlets before you throw in the towel. “I think my record was, I sent a single pitch to nine different publications before I said, ‘Okay, fine, nobody wants this story. I’ll move on,’” he said.

Be a Fan First

Brittani Samuel.

Journalism wasn’t something Brittani Samuel thought she’d pursue when she started college at SUNY Geneseo. On the other hand, she said, “I’ve always had a fascination with art in all capacities.”

Fast forward to today, and journalism is what Samuel is all about: She’s co-editor of 3Views on Theater, a contributing critic for Broadway News, and a freelance theatre reviewer for The New York Times. She participated in the BIPOC Critics Lab when it was hosted by the Kennedy Center, as well as the National Critics Institute. In 2022 she was the inaugural recipient of the American Theatre Critics Association’s Edward Medina Prize for Excellence in Cultural Criticism.

It was a winding path that brought her here. Immediately after graduation, she had a “ridiculous job in the fashion industry that I was unqualified for,” which she left pretty quickly. She picked up blogging and landed on the radar of a woman who owned an e-commerce site that sold Tarot and affirmation cards and was looking for content. “I would write articles for her about pop culture or about women in the arts or anything that was kind of trendy in bringing people to her website to ultimately buy her products.” At some point, she recalled, “It just kind of clicked for me that all the articles I’m reading online are written by regular people. You don’t have to have a PhD in writing for the internet to do this.”

She then moved into a marketing assistant role at Signature Theatre and began to build up her connections and pitched her first article to American Theatre. Arts journalism at first was an opportunity to engage with work “that I would’ve probably been talking about all night anyway.”

Most of the practical nuts and bolts of freelancing, Samuel said, were self-taught: how to seek out editors online, how to create and send invoices. Through it all, she said, “I was very against the notion of calling myself a critic. I thought they were the enemy.”

What changed her mind was building a network of like-minded peers through the BIPOC Critics Lab and then the NCI, where she realized “we all come to it as champions and fans first, but the job is to critically engage. It’s a wonderful privilege to have your thoughts be the labor that you do.”

What’s more, Samuel sees tremendous value in the historical record that criticism creates around theatre, especially given that by its nature it is fleeting, only living onstage for a short time before it closes. “In that way,” she says, “you’re contributing to a kind of archive that people can turn back to in a hundred years.”

Take a Chance on Yourself

David Quang Pham.

David Quang Pham is all about reaching for the stars, literally and figuratively. As a kid, he attended both theatre and space camps, and was encouraged to aspire by his parents, both of whom emigrated to Michigan from Vietnam.

An astrophysics and theatre major at Michigan State University, Pham went on to apprentice with the 2020-21 New Play and Dramaturgy cohort of Working Title Playwrights, based in Atlanta, where he said he absorbed the value of being “open with your quirks or niches, because there will always be someone out there who wants to hear another unique thought.”

Then, in 2021, Pham was a moderator of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas’ “Dramaturging the Phoenix” Zoom forum, the topic of which was “BIPOC Reflections: Critic/Dramaturg Relationship.” Jose Solís of BIPOC Critics Lab and David John Chávez of the American Theatre Critics Association were the guest speakers at that virtual event. Pham connected with Solís, who shared that the BIPOC Critics Lab application was open-ended—you could send in a sample work “of literally any kind,” as long as it was personally connected to your interests.

“As an astronomer-songwriter, I wrote a music composition expressing my desire to be a part of Solís’s orbit,” Pham said. He got in, as the program is by design extremely open to a wide range of creative responses to theatre.

Throughout the course of the 10-day program, Pham discovered that journalism can be a lot like the scientific fields of astronomy or physics, in that they both involve “a lot of reading, a lot of research, a lot of meticulous, careful consideration to make sure the facts are right, everything’s correct,” as well as bringing in context and empathy for those doing the work you’re looking at.

It was through this program that he got his very first shot at an interview with an artist: Carrie Rodriguez, the composer and lyricist of the musical Americano, when it ran Off-Broadway. The BIPOC Critics Lab partnered with TheaterMania to compensate Pham and cover his trip to complete the article. Originally, he told his family that he’d be back in Michigan in a couple of weeks. 

Then another week went by, then another. Enchanted, as many writers have been, by the artistic delights at one’s fingertips in the Big Apple, he signed a one-year lease to stay in the city. Since then, he’s been working as a playwright and arts journalist. Of course, relocating to an expensive town like New York City takes some financial finagling, and Pham combined his income from a yearlong Playwrights Foundation Literary Fellowship, freelance dramaturgy work, and a full-time job at Great Performances Hospitality toward a move to Washington Heights.

Thinking back to his inaugural trip to New York, Pham recalls taking in The Music Man revival on Broadway, a canonical American show that he’d never seen before. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know this play was about scammers,’” he said with a laugh. Pham realized that many of his fellow critics may have seen “thousands of plays and dozens of versions of The Music Man,” but that he could bring a fresh set of eyes to the well-worn subject.

One angle Pham could bring to the brass-heavy show, though as yet no one has hired him to write it: As it happens, he is an accomplished trombonist.

Write for Your Community

Kelsey Sivertson.

At 32, Kelsey Sivertson knows she’s an outlier from her classmates at Hope College in Holland, Mich. But there are some benefits to going through undergrad after several years in the working world. Now a senior, Sivertson said that taking time in her 20s to work full-time in economic development while taking courses at Grand Rapids Community College taught her valuable time management skills. And it gave her the room to realize her true passion: creative writing.

To pursue that calling, she quit her full-time job, trying to ignore the pain point of losing the full-time income. After all, she had grown up most of her life grappling with factors well out of her control. Her mom died when she was 13, and she grew up in “survival mode” economically. Her early exposure to performance came through her family’s church, which would “put on these big productions for Easter or Christmas, like a Passion Play or a commemorative drama. That truly was my theatre,” she said.

Sivertson didn’t become a Shakespeare fan until her mid-20s, but it happened thanks to a community college literature professor. “I’m such a dork, but King Lear changed my life. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what theatre can be,’” she said, remembering how she thumbed through a thrifted copy of the 500-year-old tragedy, marveling at the writing. 

“From a more allegorical lens, what Shakespeare is saying about sight and blindness and mental capacity is fascinating,” she added. “I think it was a credit to my professor for illuminating the text to us.”

Through her advisor at Hope College, Sivertson connected with Kennedy Center’s ITJA, winning the competition for her region, which allowed her to attend the program. “I just said yes, which has been the philosophy of my life the last couple of years—just saying yes to the opportunities that check the boxes of what I’m even slightly interested in,” she said.

When she attended NCI later, she began to realize that she was most drawn to criticism as a way of getting to write for her community and those like her, who might not automatically feel comfortable articulating their thoughts on art. In communities like the one that raised her, Sivertson said there can be a great deal of stigma around the art of live performance. People don’t want to feel dumb or uninformed, like they “didn’t get it,” she said.

“I found myself wanting to write in a language that people like me could understand,” she said. “The idea of making a review accessible to people who may come from backgrounds like mine, who were not afforded the opportunity to go see theatre growing up but have a desire to understand it, and to engage in that critical conversation—that is what I’m most interested in.” She added, “Writing in this way would’ve helped me growing up.”

The growth continues: Sivertson is looking into MFA programs to pursue after she graduates from Hope.

Mind the Margins

Sravya Tadepalli.

For most of Sravya Tadepalli’s life and career, she’s been keenly aware of how social justice and art are interwoven—and also cognizant of the unequal amount of attention that some artists get over others.

Since elementary school, she’s been writing plays, and in fact writing theatrically stretches back through her family roots. Her great-grandfather, a playwright in India, wrote works condemning British colonialism—something she said landed him in jail for four years and got his plays banned. “To this day, we don’t know what the plays said or where they’re at, because they were probably destroyed by the British,” she said.

Tadepalli will tell you that she does not consider herself a theatre critic, but a journalist and a writer. Under that broader umbrella, she contributes regularly to Prism Reports, an independent nonprofit newsroom run by journalists of color, focused on reflecting “the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice,” including people like her great-grandfather. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is figure out ways that journalism can be used to help whatever entity I’m writing about,” she said. 

When she was in college at the University of Oregon, she said she “really loved journalism,” but realized that it would require long, intense hours in return for an insubstantial salary if she decided to pursue it full-time. Not only that, but the pace and amount of work in a full-time gig seemed “super, super intense” and “exhausting,” especially the prospect of daily assignments she wasn’t necessarily interested in.

Tadepalli said that one of the valuable questions she was able to examine when she attended ITJA as a college senior was the question of what constitutes the theatrical experience for populations outside of hubs like New York City.

“Almost all Americans have an experience with theatre, but it’s not Broadway—it’s not even a professional theatre,” she said. “It’s maybe their high school theatre or part of a festival. What does that kind of theatre, and theatre that most Americans experience—what does that look like? What are those trends?”

It all came full circle last year when she wrote for American Theatre about Off-Kendrik, a Bengali theatre company in Boston that strives to make Bengali stories from the early 20th century relevant to contemporary culture in the United States. Raising awareness of this kind of theatre company is mission critical for her.

She also said that working jobs outside of journalism while freelancing gave her “breathing room” to be able to pitch what she wanted when a story truly interested her. It has also helped pay the bills lately, while she pursues a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Full-time graduate coursework at Harvard combined with freelance journalism sounds like it might get hectic, and Tadepalli affirmed that the juggling act can sometimes get overwhelming. “I feel like I’m constantly not doing something I should be doing, or like I’m behind on things,” she said. “I think editors have been really generous with me about deadlines, so that’s really helpful, because in the non-freelance world, you don’t have that.”

Dissect, Don’t Dismiss

Ana Zambrana.

Writer, director, and actor Ana Zambrana’s dad was a doctor, so naturally she gave pre-med a shot at the very start of college. But—“clearly,” she jokes—it didn’t last. She was already way too invested in theatre.

Since her earliest days as a Puerto Rican kid growing up in South Dakota, Zambrana recalls being enamored with the way theatre allowed her to communicate in “real time” with a gathered crowd. “The feedback you get immediately from the audience as a performer—that’s the thing that got me.”

She earned a BFA in Acting from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and is currently a Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers Directing Fellow, a Kennedy Center Directing Initiative alumna, and a Van Lier Directing Fellow at Repertorio Español. As an actor, she recently completed her first lead role in a feature film.

While she was still completing her undergraduate studies at UCF, she connected with the Kennedy Center to do a couple programs with them. It was through the Kennedy Center that she met Solís, who encouraged her to apply for the BIPOC Critics Lab. Zambrana said that one of the major highlights from her time as part of the Lab cohort was being reassured that her “voice and opinion were valid,” she recalls. Before the program, if you had said “critic,” Zambrana might have conjured a stock image of a “man with white hair and a beard and a little pipe,” she said.

One of Zambrana’s first assignments through the Critics Lab dispelled that image forever: She was assigned to interview Carmen Rivera, a playwright whose La Gringa has been running for more than 25 years at ​​Repertorio Español on East 27th Street in Manhattan. Though she didn’t know Rivera’s work going in, Zambrana said she went to see the show with her mom and walked out sobbing. “It was exactly the experience I had gone through as a Puerto Rican woman born in the United States and the trouble I had connecting with my roots,” she recalled.

Zambrana, who is now based in New York City, has also come to realize the value of her background as an artist in fostering empathy and respect when she’s writing a critical appraisal of a theatrical work.

“When I see a show, I know what it’s like to be in the creative process,” she said. “I know if something gets messed up here and there, I don’t chalk it up as like, ‘This is the worst show I’ve ever seen.’ Putting up a show is hard work.”

Still, she has also come to appreciate the need to speak up when something onstage is offensive or demeaning. “Sometimes women of color who are critics, there’s a fear of talking about things that should be criticized, like, maybe I’m not going to get work after this,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to never be afraid to use our full voices, because odds are, if we’re thinking it, there’s probably someone else in the audience thinking the exact same thing.”

The Last Word?

The uniting aspect of all of these emerging arts writers’ journeys is that our careers as theatre critics, or as freelance journalists, are constantly in flux. Life sometimes places opportunities in our path that demand to be pursued. Sometimes a voice cries out for us to take a pause or to go in a different direction for a while.

Coming out of the pandemic lockdown, with the move toward more sustained remote work, ideas are continuing to shift around what the structure of work in general even looks like. Arts journalists and freelancers know this gray area well, which may give us the nimbleness to adapt.

As audiences slowly but surely return to theatres, they will seek out new voices to guide them. And just as there is no single linear path to recovery for our nation’s theatres, there is no one way to become a critic or arts journalist. Writers who do make a go of it share three key traits: talent, drive, and a belief that even the seemingly impossible and thankless career path is worth pursuing.

Alexis Hauk (she/her) is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Bitter Southerner, Time, Mental Floss, Washington City Paper, ArtsATL, and more.

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