In Search of a Criticism without Borders
In the following personal essay, the Nathan Award–winning American critic Randy Gener argues that criticism of international theatre activity needs to be given greater visibility and needs to be supported and more effectively diffused and promoted. “Dramatic criticism,” Gener says, “is a cultural asset. When practiced with integrity and excellence, it can be one of the bases in which democracy and community are built.”
ONE: Excerpted from an Acceptance Speech Delivered on March 19, 2009
I had an inkling I’d win the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. Every year, the Nathan Award winner is chosen by the heads of the English departments of Yale, Princeton and Cornell Universities, and their counterparts in the theatre departments of those institutions. On November 12, 2008, I received an email followed by a phone call from one of the Nathan Award judges. The judge from Princeton University confessed that I was a finalist for the Nathan for the 2007–08 theatre year. “I don’t want to sound like U.S. Homeland Security,” he said, “but I need to know if you are a U.S. citizen. American citizenship is a condition of the Nathan.” He explained that, in the 50-year history of the Nathan, there was only one theatre year, 1974-75, for which no award was given. The judges at the time wanted to honor Clive Barnes, the veteran New York Post critic who wrote about theatre and dance. The problem was: Barnes never relinquished his British citizenship. After assuring the Princeton judge that I am a naturalized U.S. citizen, I put down the receiver. Hands trembling with excitement, I called my partner and told him what had just happened. Then I asked Jim O’Quinn, American Theatre magazine’s editor in chief, if we could please confer for a moment. In the hallways of Theatre Communications Group, the nonprofit publisher of American Theatre magazine, I whispered to Jim the tale of my strange phone call.
On Tuesday, November 19, Clive Barnes died of cancer at age 81. In all the obituaries I had read that paid tribute to this esteemed critic’s life, the only thing I saw was the one nagging piece of knowledge, which I knew but which the newspapers did not know to report. I knew that Barnes had numerous opportunities since the 1975 to perhaps once again win the Nathan. For whatever reason he never did. [A year and a half after I gave this speech, his widow, Valerie Taylor Barnes, told me in an email, “My husband never became an American citizen. A few months before his death, we were talking about it, but sadly it was too late.”] I also knew that a Nathan would have mattered greatly to Barnes; the one thing any critic longs for in the world is to be commended for meeting the high standards of dramatic criticism and for achieving excellence in writing.
The Nathan is the highest accolade for drama criticism in the U.S. Its pantheon consists of the who’s who of American dramatic criticism. The first Nathan winner was the drama critic and stage director Harold Clurman. The first female Nathan winner was the fiction writer and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick. Michael Feingold won the Nathan not long after I served for two years as his unpaid intern at The Village Voice, where I served as a critic in the 1990s. Robert Brustein, Alisa Solomon, Eileen Blumenthal, Jonathan Kalb and Gerald Weales—all of whose writings in American Theatre I have personally edited—were all previous Nathan winners. My friend and mentor Eric Bentley, whose IATC Thalia Prize walking cane I packed in my luggage in Seoul and delivered to the door of his Manhattan apartment, won a Nathan for a series of articles in the Tulane Drama Review, which gave the judges an excuse to honor him for lifetime achievement. Bentley served me a Greek-style dinner in his apartment on a Thursday evening in late January 2009 prior to the news of my Nathan victory breaking in the New York Post on Friday and, three days later, in the New York Times. That night, I learned from Bentley that Jan Kott may have been the first foreign-born critic to win the Nathan for a body of theatre writings that were originally written in a foreign language (in his case, Polish) and translated into English.
One week later, in the early evening of November 26, 2008, on the eve of Thanksgiving Day, I received a phone call from Ellis Hanson, the chair of the Nathan Award judges and the head of the Cornell English department. Hanson said that this year’s judges had just met, and they had chosen me as the American critic who would receive in 2009 the Nathan Award for writing the best drama criticism published in any medium during the 2007–08 theatre year. “Do you know what a Nathan is?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” I replied, “but this could be a crank call, a practical joke. Would you please send me something in writing first? Then we’ll talk.” Hanson popped me an email. So there it was—I had in it writing. He then informed me that an official announcement would be sent out to the media as soon as the judges had agreed upon the exact language of the citation. Would I send him my current curriculum vitae? I did.
The next day, on Thanksgiving Day, I dressed the holiday turkey and placed it inside the oven. I took my usual afternoon run in Central Park (a 6-mile run) without once stopping—I was so happy and excited and stunned. Then it hit me, “Oh, my God, now what? What am I supposed to do next? Is there a next step after winning a Nathan—or is this basically it?” I had no idea. No clue. Adrenaline kept rushing through my brain and body. I ran around Central Park for yet another 6-mile run again. Once again without stopping.
TWO: Stray Thoughts When You Run Long Distances
If I won a Nathan for critical writings that, as the judges stated in their citation, “draws our attention to largely ignored voices and visions on the international theatrical scene,” that’s because I have chosen to seriously invest my time, money, efforts and thinking into educating myself while working abroad. In the U.S., perhaps in other countries as well, a certain class of ambitious intellectuals, experts and professionals suffers from cultural-class myopia; this group is blinded not just by the dollar signs of commercialism but also by the glittering institutions that signify great achievements and elite credentials. The quintessential best-and-brightest resume might mean an Ivy League education or affiliation, a Fulbright or Rhodes scholarship, a doctorate in a field of specialty and an association or employment with major media publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate or New York Review of Books. None of these cream-of-the-crop markers had been in the cards for me. Since the realities of my immigrant writer’s life in New York City will never make it possible for me to further my education, since my nonprofit employer cannot offer financial assistance or extended periods of time off from the daily grind to, say, take a sabbatical or pursue an academic fellowship, and since I feel that widening one’s field of vision to embrace the world is a critic’s most essential task, it became clear to me that I needed to take charge of challenging myself intellectually to meet my own peculiar turns of mind. Put simply, how is it possible for an American theatre critic to possess a broad-based and truly global outlook, what the two-time Nathan Award winner Robert Brustein calls “a repertory critic” whose purview transcends Broadway essentialism?
Before joining American Theatre, I had always had a keen interest in world theatre. Unlike my peers and colleagues, I never saw a division between “national theatre” and “international theatre”—a segregation of theatre between that which is foreign versus one that is native. Foreign dramatists like Euripides, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Caryl Churchill were never alien creatures to me. Good theatre is good theatre, wherever you find it. My first major article for The Village Voice, where I was a theatre critic in the 1990s, was an essay on a Japanese production of Yabuhara Kengyo written by the late Hisashi Inoue, staged by Koichi Kimura and presented at the City Center in New York City. I remember the thrill of seeing my essay blown up into a poster-sized print and displayed in a glass case right on West 55th Street. What I did not fully grasp at the time was that writing criticism about the international theatre is frequently considered career suicide among U.S. critics, since the players and personalities of the international theatrical world are mostly deemed too obscure and too lacking of import for general American readers. Moreover, publishers and editors deem theatre in general as too limited a growth market to become a consistent profit-making engine.
For these and other reasons of self-preservation, I do not view the international theatre as specifically my beat as a critic, editor or writer. Contrary to commonly assumed beliefs, the non-profit theatre magazine I work for, American Theatre, does not have a budget specifically set aside for international travel; neither does it employ overseas correspondents. Although it has recently attained an award-winning reputation for its international theatre coverage, the magazine’s mission is devoted primarily to documenting, celebrating and covering the professional U.S. theatre. This avowed domestic aim, if you consider that theatre occurs in all 50 U.S. states, presents an extremely tall order for any American critic with an ambition, as I do, to convey a truly national perspective. To appropriate a line from Alan Schneider, the danger with our national theatre being spread across the country is that it becomes three thousand miles wide and an eighth of an inch deep. Without a guarantee of receiving continued support for domestic or international exposure, with almost no places invested in publishing writings about the global theatre, I never delude myself into thinking that it would ever be possible for me to propose a transnational form of criticism that would cut across perceived boundaries.
One reason I was dumbstruck by the question of “Now what?” during my run in Central Park is that I have no clue about how to overcome the obstacles I have faced thus far; I have no sense of how to sustain myself as a thinking writer over the longer haul. All the critical writings I have done on the international theatre have been by-products or side effects of other journalistic activities and artistic collaborations I have made based on the trust, goodwill and faith of many friends and likeminded parties, sometimes with the support of a few enlightened organizations that have offered small subsidies. The Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association, for example, has in the past given me a 50% subsidy to cover the expensive transatlantic airfare so that I could attend IATC’s young critics’ conferences in France and Korea. These events were strictly professional-development opportunities for me; the two essays that resulted from those experiences—an essay on contemporary Korean theatre which was translated for publication in the Korean Theatre Journal, and an essay on francophone theatre that won first-place for best travel writing from the annual North American Travel Journalists Association Awards competition—reflected the intensive studies and investigative researches I undertook after the initial spark of my brief encounters in the theatre scenes of those countries. In 2007, the Ford Foundation through the Institute for International Education generously sponsored the two lectures (on the intersections of theatre, technology and design) which I delivered at the Prague Quadrennial for World Scenography in the Czech Republic; in addition I voluntarily served as an editor and columnist for that event’s daily newspaper, Prague Quadrennial Today. The two essays I published about the quadrennial—one for American Theatre and another for USITT’s peer-reviewed journal, Theatre Design & Technology—were not specific requirements or expressed conditions of the grant I received. My passionate writings about Romanian theatre and its talented artists grew out of my intense participation as a writer in a visionary international cultural exchange program, called the American Romanian Theatre Exchange program, realized by the Odeon Theatre of Bucharest and the Lark Play Development Center of New York, with support from the Romanian Cultural Institute of New York, Theatre Communications Group’s New Generations program and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. I don’t use the adjective “visionary” lightly; the organizers invited me into their cultural exchange program but did not demand that I write anything about Romanian theatre when I returned to the U.S. They only offered me the brief freedom to explore the Romanian theatre scene at my own pace. Whatever came after issued from my own initiative.
These subsidies and exchange programs were one-time-only situations, however. Frequently I pay for my own way when I travel abroad. In fact, there are not many opportunities for true immersions or for intensive programs for international cultural exchange for American critics and arts writers. A critic or arts journalist who desires to consistently call attention to important voices in the international theatrical scene must face the stark reality that international theatre coverage is largely confined to the ghetto of academic journals as well as a few online niches. American Theatre magazine is, in my view as its senior editor, a unique and indispensable general-interest publication, because it will consistently feature significant yet unknown artists both domestically and abroad. The magazine’s trailblazing work is extraordinary within the context of U.S. journalism. It is the exception that proves the rule.
There needs to be more general-interest publications and more mainstream media outlets that embrace innovative coverage of the international performing arts. Newsroom agendas need to change from a tunnel-vision commitment to local news toward a more encompassing worldview that takes into crucial account the imperatives of arts and culture. As a critic, I prefer to work deeper in certain geographical areas rather than be a cultural tourist who drops in from country to country in my coverage. I am acutely aware of the dangers of parachute journalism. Parachuters hang out for a few days in one foreign city and then move on to the next. The cultural tourist approach is shallow and contrived and does not ultimately serve the critic, the reader, the publisher or even the theatre. A critic with little knowledge or experience can wreak damage and perpetuate regional stereotypes. There is no replacement for a critic, journalist or correspondent based in a region and knowledgeable about its history and culture. At the same time, if the spirit of true internationalism is to be sustained for the future, criticism on the world theatre needs to be given major visibility, it needs to be diffused and promoted, and it needs to be done consistently, with great creativity and with journalistic excellence. We need to nurture and develop and financially support diverse communities of critics, journalists and readers to become dedicated internationalists.
Until that time arrives, I remain stumped by the question of “How am I to move forward?”—given that I mainly operate on the fly. I have lost vacation days and some of my savings for devoting time to international criticism and coverage; sometimes I amass credit-card bills. My monthly salary at American Theatre magazine mainly covers my rent. Any other expenses apart from that, including paying credit card bills, maintaining long-term hospital and dental insurances, setting aside savings for retirement in old age, or taking trips abroad to deliver papers at international conferences or to write about international theatre festivals for the magazine, I must earn by way of freelancing. Sometimes I give myself hex spells so as to convince myself that what I am doing is, in fact, investing in my own education as a citizen of the world. Making real money as a freelancer is, unfortunately, doubly tough for critics and arts journalists. The current state of the job market in the publishing sector remains pivotal, sad and directionless, although perhaps not so desperate as we are often led to believe. The book-publishing world followed the consolidation path of newspaper empires; following an aggressive series of mergers and acquisitions, a handful of large U.S. corporations (since 1980, the number of media companies dropped from 50 to merely five) now mold and control the flow of information that shape the views of the general public. Large commercial publishers consumed smaller commercial and independent publishers; the center stage became ever more crowded; the existing publishing models became steadily narrower. When the economic recession hit and the newspaper industry collapsed, the arts-and-culture pages were one of the first sections slashed.
Critical writing is a buyer’s market. The market teems with freelance writers looking for similar work often at the same publications. The few mainstream publications that still pay attention to theatre and dance already have their regular freelancers or staff members, and to attempt to break into those cramped newsrooms can be quite depressing. The rest are happy and content to give short shrift to the performing arts. Newsweek, The New Republic and The Nation, once bastions of drama criticism, have long since abandoned employing full-time drama critics. New York Magazine has a lively culture department in terms of film, television, visual art and music, but its theatre coverage—restricted mainly to celebrity profiles, occasional reviews of Broadway shows (mainly distributed through the Internet) and a graphic chart that values people and cultural events according to quadrants of high/low and brilliant/despicable—will leave you parched. At best, a print publication might pay a freelancer $200–300 per feature article (usually a celebrity interview) or $50–100 per theatre review. Most online publications, like the Huffington Post, don’t bother to pay its writers at all. Usually the owners of these websites—who seek to increase their profit margins and their prestige by way of generating page-views, advertising sales and marketing dollars—will state that the free tickets reviewers receive to see expensive Broadway or Off-Broadway shows are, in effect, the payment itself. Not only does a writer’s free labor support the rights of these companies to maintain their online existences, the very practice of not paying writers is being touted as an “innovative business model” for others to follow (indeed many do—under the so-called “new-economy” ethos that giving away something for free grabs a bigger audience for websites, while charging for something means a smaller audience”).
Despite the best efforts of labor unions on behalf of writers and freelancers, newspapers and magazines contractually demand writers to give up all rights to their work made for hire. Writers signing these work-for-hire agreements do not collect even a few coins of royalties after the first publication. That is, if you can find anyone to re-purpose your hard work, for unless you have attained mass celebrity or unusual fame outside of the theatre, no mass-market trade publisher is interested in publishing books on criticism. “Without famous names, there is no audience” or “theatre books aren’t commercial” or “what about the university presses?” are the oft-repeated mantras I’ve been told by literary agents and publishers either privately, at book conferences or during soirees. (Compare that to George Jean Nathan who from 1905 to 1958 published 34 books on theatre, almost all of them collections of criticism, under the Alfred A. Knopf imprint.) Neither is securing funding from state, federal or private foundations a viable option for arts critics and writers; the rare foundation that has a strong and admirable track record of supporting arts criticism, such as the Jerome Foundation, has been forced to tighten its belt due to the failing economy. Literary academies, societies of professional journalists and associations of editors and publishers generally reserve their highest prizes and financial subsidies to other fields such as investigative reporting, government reporting, social-issues journalism and environmental writing. In the past 5 or 10 years, new monies from foundations, philanthropists and self-appointed “academies” of arts journalism have emerged to seed digital-journalism projects and new-media technologies. Yet the forecast for the kind of long-form criticism I practice, in this age of bloggers and content aggregation, remains extreme inclemency.
In the U.S., our playwrights, directors and designers receive extraordinary development support for their new works. Numerous places exist that will offer artists and theatre groups grants, fellowships, travel support, development opportunities and enhancement money. Even though these opportunities are extremely competitive and even though there is a severe infrastructural misalignment between the cultivation and production of new works for the stage, there is at least a culture that actively looks after and supports artists. That culture does not exist for arts critics. Without question, to be an artist is immensely difficult, but, from a purely funding standpoint and all other things being equal, the status of artists in our society is sexier and more attractive to funders, because critics are mainly creatures of dissent. A few arts-writers fellowships and critic’s training programs do exist perhaps to ameliorate the worsening situation, and perhaps these educational programs may bode well for the future.
One day I think I will have to leave criticism—sooner if the opportunities for survival and intellectual adventure dry up. Pauline Kael speaks for me when she said, “I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. If you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or a film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.”
THREE: A Speech Delivered at an LGBT Summit and National Convention in San Francisco, September 4, 2010
In his Memoirs, Tennessee Williams insisted that his place in the world had always been “in Bohemia.” He had tasted Broadway and Hollywood success, but he saw how mainstream conceptions of success can turn against and sometimes corrupt artistry. He understood, painfully, that commercial success can be a demon for those artists who are in constant pursuit of innovation and experiment in the practice of their craft.
I am grateful and honored and overjoyed and absolutely stunned to accept this recognition of Journalist of the Year from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. I am thrilled to receive this award, because it recognizes the professional achievements of an LGBT journalist working for a mainstream publication. Yet I realize a profound irony: While I am receiving this national recognition from the LGBT community that has sustained my life during all these years that I have lived in the United States, a majority of the people present here perhaps do not really know me or are not familiar with my work. If I were better at networking, perhaps we had had a chat at one of the many cocktail receptions at this incredible convention and media summit. If I am luckier, perhaps you’ve already met me in that space where I am at my most Bohemian: in my writings. If it were up to me, this recognition ought to perhaps lead you to subscribe to American Theatre so that you can discover for yourself the first-rate work that the magazine’s editorial staff and our numerous freelance arts writers have consistently been doing for the past 26 years in the trenches of this Bohemia. Every month, American Theatre valiantly proposes a necessary and evolving picture of what a national U.S. theatre might be like, given the wealth of theatrical works that issue from across our vast and diverse nation.
I do realize that my kind of long-form journalism does not swim in the U.S. mainstream any longer—especially now, after the Angel of Death passed from door to door, decimating every newsroom around the country. In their lovely citation, the NLGJA judges prefaced their praise of my writings by stating: “Some of the best journalism is being done outside of traditional newsrooms and by people covering niche areas.” If the judges are speaking the truth, if it is true that I belong to a “niche” and outside a “traditional newsroom,” that’s because our societies of American publishers, editors and professional journalists—and by extension the world at large—have made it so.
Media organizations everywhere, whether they call themselves part of the old guard or new, promote a calcified hierarchy of newsroom values when it comes to arts criticism and journalism. The criteria by which publishers, reporters and editors judge “news value” consistently consign arts criticism and arts writing to the “back pages” or “at the bottom of the hour.” According to the new academic provenance, what I do is, allegedly, “specialized writing.” Since the heyday of the print dinosaurs, journalism has been defined only as reporting on “serious” subjects. The language used reeks: We who work in the arts-and-culture pages dole out “soft news” as opposed to “hard news.” Pay close attention to this jargon that has marginalized or imprisoned us, and consider the real-life implications of this apartheid between “hard” and “soft”—the language of difference is sexualized; from a writer’s standpoint, the way the arts are dealt with is creatively restricted to prescribed formulas (reviews as consumer-news reporting, for example); and, for women journalists and critics, the denotative labor-value this jargon implies is quite possibly sexist. This barely suppressed contempt for “soft news” becomes especially harmful (if not deadly) when the works being reported on or critically evaluated come out of artists of color, culturally based companies and LGBT communities that do not depend on the politics of celebrity and image enhancement for their daily bread.
For me, the arts have always been a portal to a large, diverse, complicated and stimulating world. This past year, I wrote about the intersections between architecture, theatre and space; I wrote about how site-specific work in the Netherlands reflects Dutch cultural identity; I wrote about how the remediation of the screenplays of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni into stage pieces; I wrote about the Yoruban cultural influences of an African-American playwright; I wrote one of the first serious critical essays on the emergence of a new genre of Middle East–American playwriting after the Sept. 11 tragedy; I tried to shed light on government censorship and repression of the arts in a post-communist European country. The range of my work has been huge and substantial. All of you hard-news gatherers who think that my work fits a niche will have to pardon me if I respectfully disagree. There’s nothing “soft” about the arts criticism I deliver. The arts are not any more “specialized” than politics or sports or business are.
So I am absolutely stunned and awed that the judges and leadership of this national organization looked past my so-called nicheness. I thank the judges for the generosity of your spirit, the largeness of your visions. May you shine the spotlights on other Bohemias where writers have been bound in nutshells yet count our selves divas of infinite space. Right now, I am savoring this mind-blowing recognition. Right now, I have stepped outside of Bohemia to relish the few moments I get to shine in front of this national audience. Can you hear the moments slipping away? (Pause). Tomorrow, I return to my “niche.”
What have I learned from this experience? To make a difference in the world, we have only the knowledge we possess and the talent we can bring to bear on describing what we see—these are the fundamental tools. In an ideal world, this facility with language and expression would appeal to, coax and beguile audiences, artists and hard-news journalists alike. My critical essays represent a passionate effort to explore, investigate and display to the arbiters of the hard-news and the journalism establishment how theatre and its criticism can intervene in U.S. conversations about politics, society, culture, identity and globalization. I think of what I write as affirmative signals to market-driven media oligopolies that have allowed art, criticism and intellectual dissent to languish and deteriorate. I aim to be a greater success every day in tracing what is happening in the world of theatre—first, to reconsider the place of American arts and culture within a global context; second, to call greater attention to both national and international theatrical voices and visions to regular Americans; and third, to integrate both approaches into a coherent critical vision that moves in both as well as many different directions at once.
I wake up every morning feeling the charge of promise and possibility. The world I live in now cannot or does not meet my hunger and my desires. Why? Because I am in search of a criticism without borders. I tell myself everyday: Perhaps I am the first in the party, and the party just hasn’t begun. I see the distortions that visibly surface when doom and gloom lurk around, seeming ready to pounce. I am humbled by those distortions, especially now—at this precise moment—when I feel truly invigorated by the very notion that there seems to be common readers out there who believe—as I do—that dramatic criticism is a cultural asset. When practiced with integrity and excellence, it can be one of the bases in which democracy and community are built. I hope my writing shows—rather than tells—how the drama and its criticism can play a significant role in achieving our country. So on this occasion, the 20th anniversary of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, I return your great commendation of my work by saluting you as well: Long live—Mabuhay!
 RANDY GENER is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. His photographic installation-art piece, In the Garden of One World,”recently debuted at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria. Author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays, he is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States, for his essays in American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group, where he works as the senior editor. He won a 2010 Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “shedding light into censorship and repression of the arts.” He was named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association