SAN FRANCISCO: That Lily Janiak will succeed Robert Hurwitt as lead theatre critic at San Francisco Chronicle isn’t just good news for her. For the increasingly straitened field of journalism in general, and arts journalism in particular, her hiring counts as something of a pleasant surprise.
“It was a question, at least for me—I was very concerned they would go to their cadre of freelance people rather than hire another full-time critic,” said Janiak, voicing a widely held fear. “It was a real relief.”
Janiak, 30, has been covering the Bay Area theatre scene almost since arriving there in 2009, Yale theatre studies degree in hand. Her first gigs in town were as an assistant director, but she felt more compelled to write about the stage than to toil on it, and soon started contributing criticism and features for various publications, including SF Weekly, Theatre Bay Area, HowlRound, and American Theatre, as well as blogging.
I spoke to her today via phone from San Francisco, where she’ll soon take a brief vacation before starting at the Chronicle on May 23.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: So I recently found out that at least one of the vowels in your last name is silent—that it’s pronounced “jan-ik.”
LILY JANIAK: I like to say it rhymes with manic, panic, and satanic. Which I once had the opportunity to say to a priest.
Another small, telling detail to start off: I’m calling you at an 817 area code. Are you from Fort Worth, Texas?
My parents live there now. I grew up in Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas; we moved around. But I say I’m a Michigander; that’s where my accent is, I guess.
Why the move to San Francisco?
A friend let me stay at his apartment for free. I was back in Texas shortly after college, and it would have taken me a lot less to leave. I couldn’t say no. I had lined up an assistant-directing gig at Marin Theatre Company. I remember I arrived in San Francisco at 10 p.m. at night with a backpack and a duffel bag, and within 12 hours I was in my first rehearsal.
I don’t know much about the theatre studies program at Yale. Is that where you started writing criticism?
It’s a pretty academic program. The first year was all semiotics, just as an example; I think that was to weed out people who were hoping to have an easy major at an Ivy League school. It was a lot of theory and literature, and I kept going with that.
But your first jobs in the Bay Area were working in the theatre. How did you cross over?
Driving home with an actor one night at the end of the run of a show at Marin, everyone was talking about what their next gig would be. When it came to me, I said, “I don’t have anything to do.” And Julia Brothers, an actor, asked me, “Ideally, what would you want to do?” I said, “I want to be a theatre critic”—something I’d never said out loud before. Her reaction was, “Oh, I can make that happen.” She happened to know one of the critics and editors at an LGBT paper call San Francisco Bay Times. He let me write a trial review, and then I kept going.
I’ve also done some non-criticism stuff; I’ve dabbled a bit as a playwright, and did a play in a festival called the SF Olympians Festival. I dramaturged a show that went up at San Francisco State, and for a year I’ve worked in fundraising for New Conservatory Theatre Center. Oh, and I wrote features for Theatre Bay Area and did their listings.
People often joke that no one grows up wanting to be a theatre critic. Did you?
All of us theatre people start just enthralled to this art form and wanting to participate in any way we can. The most visible way to do that is acting, and most of us try that first and are terrible at it. Not a few of us drop out and just become lifelong audience members, but others keep trying to hang on and do something around the theatre. I’ve always been a writer, and at first I thought playwriting would be it. But I guess I’m only good at writing in my own voice. The way I usually put it is: I thrill at wrestling with my impressions of a show until through language I can turn them into evidence for an argument. It feels like alchemy. I get to build from scratch my own logic, and that process is magic to me.
Your own logic?
Because my evidence is no more than what I have observed and put into words. It’s not objectively verifiable.
I’ve often heard that critics should write from a theory of their ideal theatre rather than just respond to what they see. What do you think?
I think if I had a theory of the ideal theatre, it would be incumbent on me to be an artist and bring that ideal theatre into reality. I don’t have an ideal theatre in mind; you can’t review or write about what isn’t there.
Right, but have you ever felt moved to write in a more hortatory, essayistic voice—to step back from show-by-show reactions to speak to the scene in a larger way?
Typically I have worked more show by show. But again, if I had a theatre I so desperately needed to see, it would be my duty to create that. It feels like you’re saying that writing on a show-by-show fashion is somehow lesser, but I guess I don’t believe that. A show can always be the jumping-off point for a conversation about broader trends. I guess that’s why I also didn’t end up pursuing a more academic path than I did.
I guess a less tendentious way to frame that question is: Does the Bay Area and its theatre give you enough to chew on and write about?
The Bay Area is special. We are a place where living right next to each other are the wealthiest people in the world and so many homeless people that we have not just a public health crisis but a humanitarian crisis. We have the original counterculture folks, the aging hippies, right next to young people wearing hoodies with corporate logos on them. It puts things into sharp relief. That gives playwrights so much to write about, and it gives critics so much to write and think about. The theatre scene itself is so huge and rich and diverse. I know, like my predecessor, I will fail to give it adequate coverage; there’s just too much. But it’s a challenge I will relish.
One thing I love about the scene is that there’s so much—I would call it vertical integration. A playwright like Lauren Gunderson can have a home at Marin Theatre Company, a major resident theatre with a $2 million budget, and another at Crowded Fire, which has a budget of about $200,000. I can’t speak for her, but she’s created rich work and rich partnerships in both places that I’m sure are very rewarding for her.
So there’s a real exchange among big and small theatres.
It’s a town where everyone knows each other. The new awards we have, the TBA awards, are one gigantic, superlong awards ceremony where they give awards to both ACT and the EXIT. There’s no separation among them.
You’ve made no secret of having worked at some local companies and having befriended some local artists. Are you or the Chronicle concerned about any conflicts of interest?
To be honest, I’m not sure yet what the Chron’s policies on that would be. But as for my own policies: It’s a critic’s job to constantly force herself to be so open and so honest, in a way that’s kind of exhausting but also revitalizing. That goes for writing a review, of course, but it also goes to the question of, Can I be honest in talking about this artist or this show? That’s all up to you. Nobody else but you can answer that question. The theatre where I work now, New Conservatory—I’m not going to review the last show in their current season, as I feel too invested in its success. I think that’s going to be my only hard line.
In the past, I’ve brought artists to shows with me as my plus one. And some of the conversations we’ve had going home together have really helped jump-start my review writing. If I start to feel that I can’t speak in every register about this artist anymore because of this relationship, that means things have to change, unfortunately.
This is all speaking hypothetically right now. One thing that makes me suited to this job is—we’re talking about my artist friends here as if I have a coterie. In truth I’m kind of a loner. I wasn’t super well-connected to the theatre when I was in college; I’m just such an observer at heart.
You’re more than an observer, though—you’ve been something of a gadfly on occasion. Your HowlRound piece about what you saw as California Shakespeare Theater’s mixed success with an audience outreach program of theirs certainly earned its share of controversy.
At Theatre Bay Area I earned the nickname of Lightning Rod. In our weekly editorial meetings, whenever any pitch came up that concerned identity politics—race, gender, or some broader social issue—I would always be, “Ooh, can I write that one?” I do gravitate toward that. I have called companies out or celebrated them about, say, whether they have women in leadership positions, or if their cast and crew reflect the diversity of the Bay Area as a whole. That’s something that matters to me. As a still relatively young person trying to make a name for myself out here, I know what it’s like when you never feel like you’re going to advance in the theatre world.
Let’s talk about favorites. Which critics do you love?
My all-time favorite theatre critic is Ken Tynan; I have a bunch of quotes from him over my desk: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.” “Be light, stinging, insolent, and melancholy.” “Write heresy, pure heresy.” Reading his stuff is like eating candy; it’s so delectable and forbidden, it’s just the highest pleasure. So I have this urge to emulate him in some way, to goad and lacerate—but I have to always temper that with what I feel will actually serve my review and serve the Bay Area theatre scene. In truth I have to use those tools more sparingly. They are for special occasions only. He is definitely my favorite writer.
Favorite local companies?
I love the Thrill Peddlers. There are few companies more San Francisco than they. I love how tawdry and smutty they are. I love how in every show of theirs I have what Taylor Mac might call a bourgeois crisis, where am I genuinely shocked and horrified. It’s a good cleansing to see one of their pieces. I try not to miss anything they do.
That reminds me—you wrote your thesis on Young Jean Lee. Has she been done a lot in the Bay Area?
Crowded Fire did Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven, and Yerba Buena Center did Untitled Feminist Show. Crowded Fire is going to do The Shipment, which I think may be my favorite contemporary play.
Who else do you like in the Bay Area?
The new venue Piano Fight—those guys have so much crossover appeal outside of what we think of as theatre people. Young people and tech bros go to their space. They have this aesthetic of, “Got an idea? Let’s put it up!” They’re just three young guys who aren’t that much older than I am who made that happen in the middle of one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, and they do dramas alongside sketch comedies and the San Francisco Theatre Pub.
This may show my ignorance of the scene, but is Piano Fight kind of like a new-model Z Space?
I’m glad you mentioned them. In terms of more mainstream companies with bigger budgets, Z Space is one I’m most excited about. Their programming—they bring in some of the most exciting artists but they’re also incredibly devoted to locals. I love that they don’t have a season, that they only bring in projects when they’re ready. Every project there is a passion project. Their stuff is terrific; they should be up there in people’s minds with Berkeley Rep and the Magic.
Since you mentioned two of the bigger houses in the Bay Area, don’t you feel like becoming the lead critic at the town’s daily paper means you’ll be expected to grapple a lot with ACT, Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, etc.?
It’ll be a conversation. I know my predecessor faced insurmountable pressure to cover everything and couldn’t do it. I’ll make different coverage decisions than he did. When touring musicals that have been done a million times come here, for instance, I like to think I won’t be obligated to cover them. But I can’t speak yet to all the different kinds of pressure I’ll face.
Did you say you’ll be making your own coverage decisions?
I hope so. They have hired a very opinionated person.
Talking to you makes me hopeful about the future of theatre criticism, which is not something I can say very often.
It’s true that theatre criticism has changed a ton since the days of Ken Tynan or All About Eve, when a theatre critic could plausibly have Marilyn Monroe as a date. But I also probably couldn’t have gotten this job in those days, so for me to lament that doesn’t feel right. And those theatre critics didn’t have the opportunity to try in some small way to revitalize the form, as we do now—whether that’s mixing print coverage with other kinds of media, or writing in other registers other than just using the omnipotent-god voice. In my conversations with the Chron, they’re as open to and as passionate about exploring those news avenues as I am. They know that the theatre scene is changing and that their audience is changing. It behooves the Chron to change along with that—more than behooves them, they’ll perish if they don’t.
What other media are you talking about? A podcast?
Possibly. I love what Andrew Andrew do with their iPhone theatre reviews. The problem is that there’s only one of me.
Last question: Any chance you’ll be able to get rid of that goddamn clapping man?
I’m resigned to him—and to never being able to compete with his charisma! I do wish instead of a little man in a chair, he could be a tallish woman on a bicycle! (That’s how I get to theatre, so theatres with secure bike parking are already on my good side.) But at the same time, I relish the challenge he poses: How do I make my first words so beguiling that my audience can’t help but read them?
For further reading, a Janiak sampler: Her reflections on Buried Child; a piece on theatres considering a version of the Rooney Rule; on rethinking the new-play development model; on Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive; on the Aurora Theatre’s The Arsonists; on Boxcar Playhouse’s A Lie of the Mind; and on the boundaries between reviewing and doing.