Another white guy?
That seemed to be the explicit or implicit response to the announcement last week that Jesse Green had been hired as The New York Times’s new “co-chief” theatre critic, alongside longtime chief critic Ben Brantley, starting May 1. The position became open—an astronomical rarity in a shrinking arts journalism field—last month with the departure of second-stringer Charles Isherwood. And in the outpouring of mixed feelings and speculation after that stunning development, many folks assumed, and some openly advocated, that the Times would take the opportunity to hire a critic to reflect the diversity not only of the world but of an increasingly diverse theatre field.
The problem, of course, as anyone who follows criticism and arts journalism might tell you, is that that field is simply far behind even the still-halting efforts of the theatre field to diversify its ranks. The critical talent pool is just not as wide or deep, demographically speaking, as it should be.
Also for anyone who follows theatre criticism, the announcement that Green will share the most powerful critic’s seat in the U.S. is at least cause for some celebration. He first came to my attention in a series of prickly, thoughtful, must-read profiles of folks like Tony Kushner, Arthur Laurents, and Julie Taymor for New York magazine. He brought a critical—sometimes highly critical—sensibility to them all, in beautiful prose constructions that could be studied as models of the art of feature reporting as cultural criticism. (I know I have.)
Since New York named him chief theatre critic in 2013, he has written fewer such features, but his reviews have become some of the most vital, vigorous, yet fine-grained around. I say “become” not because Green is a young or emerging talent but because, as he told me in a phone interview, he’s only really embraced criticism as his calling in the last few years. It seems to have embraced him back.
I seem to remember you starting at New York in a sort of provisional way. Do I have that right?
Scott Brown took paternity leave, so I subbed for him. Then, after he came back for three months, he decided to go for it with his own writing. That was in 2013, and they gave me the job outright.
I don’t know much about your background. Have you always written about theatre?
For quite a while I wrote mostly about other things. When the editor Adam Moss picked me out of the gutter back in the late 1980s for a magazine called 7 Days, he actually hired me and my friend Meg Wolitzer to create the cryptic puzzles. I think he had read my fiction in little magazines. And at some point he said, “I’d like you to do this feature”—I think it was about ACT UP. I told him, “I don’t do features.” He said, “Well, you will now.” I was like, “No, I don’t have the right tool set; I’m a fiction writer.” And he said, “I want your fiction skills.” So he made me start writing features. After that, more or less wherever he went as an editor I went as a writer, usually with a lag of several years.
What were those features about?
I mean, I wrote a little bit about theatre, because it was my background, but mostly I was on what I called the “tear beat”—really sad stories about things like mothers crying because they lost their child. I did a lot of AIDS coverage, stories about early vaccine development and public health, and a lot of gay stuff. I started writing about some of that for The New York Times magazine. Theatre was mixed in there, but it didn’t become my sole focus until I joined the Times Arts & Leisure as a freelancer in 2004.
So let me just go back further for a moment—you say theatre was your background?
I was a theatre and English major, and went to NYU for grad school in their directing program, stayed for about six months, and that was the end of that. I applied for internships and became Hal Prince’s apprentice. But unlike some people who got to be his apprentice, like on Follies, and got a good book out of it, I worked with him on A Doll’s Life, which was a total flop.
It wasn’t even Merrily We Roll Along, an interesting flop.
I think it lost more money than Merrily. But nobody wants the story of A Doll’s Life (although it had a beautiful score). I soon realized that he wasn’t going to let me, you know, direct a scene when he was on a break; that’s not how the apprenticeship was going to work. So I was dragged into the music side and I worked a lot with the conductor Paul Gemignani, later working as a music coordinator, also a lot for John Kander. I worked as a kind of an intermediary between the composer, the music director, the orchestrator, the copyist, and often the performers; I would sometimes teach them the parts, and if a song had to be put in a different key, I had just enough training to pull that off. I realized at some point: I could do this forever, but I was never going to get past a certain point. So okay, I thought, time to retool the factory. And that’s where Adam Moss came in.
I had no idea you had such a varied background—so many backgrounds, really.
I do think it’s important, and counter to some notions of where criticism should and could come from, that I have a great deal of experience in the making of theatre—not that I made a lot of it, but I was around it a lot and I know how it’s made. One problem with ivory tower criticism, though I enjoy it and there are reasons to keep critics isolated in a germ-free chamber, is that you don’t know how it’s done. If you’ve never been in a rehearsal room, you may be missing something; I mean, you may also be gaining something, I don’t know. I’m not doctrinaire about it.
You could have taken many different routes, but you really seem to have to taken to criticism, or it to you—it seems like you really enjoy it.
I really didn’t know that until I started it. I had resisted it for a long time. Even when it became clear that Scott Brown wasn’t coming back and Adam offered me the full-time job, I once again told him, “I don’t do that.” I didn’t think my tools really were shaped for that. I was scared to start; I didn’t know I could. You need to have very thick skin and I don’t; I’m very thin-skinned. It’s fine if you have a thin skin and you’re not ambitious, but if you’re thin-skinned and ambitious, as I am, you put yourself in ego danger at all times. It’s been a real growing experience, and it turns out that I love it. If it had never happened, and I was still writing the “tear beat” stories, that would have been fine too.
When I think of your writing, both your features and your reviews, the thing I think of is argument—both in the sense of fighting and in the sense of making one.
It’s central to my way of writing, and to my life, in criticism and in many other things. I like to read criticism and other work that is clear about what effect it wants to have. I don’t need to like the effect or agree with it, but I like that strength, particularly in small pieces, when you’ve only got 1,000 words. I want to be sort of manhandled, in a way— I want to be told: Here’s what I’m going to do, and I’m now going to do it.
I have to passionately engage with what I’m writing about or it’s not worth doing. When I don’t like something, I think it’s because its argument is odious or it fails; I’m looking for a good argument. And in order for criticism to make a good argument and make it vivid, the top requirement is good writing. That means, in the case of reviews, really big writing, and it means taking quite a lot of risks, well beyond what I would have thought I would be comfortable with. You can do some of that in a feature, but you spread them out: You may have a lede or a transition where you really try something, or a moment that you preserve, the emotional core of a piece. But you have to spread those out in feature when you’ve got 5,000 words—I used to write pieces as long as 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 words. When you have 1,000 words, every line had better be pretty big.
I mean, there are downsides to it. I’m highly critical of my own writing. Ben Brantley’s and David Rooney’s writing, just to pick two of them, is crystal clear. I wish I were that clear. Instead I’m big and emotional. But I’m happy with that tradeoff.
This resonates with something someone once said of Pauline Kael—that she had a gift for effrontery.
What’s the point of criticism if it doesn’t promote a conversation, even if it’s an angry conversation? If it’s vague or bland, even if it’s accurate, it’s not doing its job. If I want to promote theatre that is big and vivid and starts arguments, my criticism should be that too. I’m asking: What does this play want to have happen to me? Whether that intention is built into the play or the director’s interpretation of it, is it succeeding at that, and is it worth succeeding at? I’ve been criticized that I don’t review performances enough. I certainly don’t name everyone’s names. It’s because I’m not interested in that unless it’s part of the making of the argument. I love actors, but usually they’re at the service of somebody else’s vision, and it’s that somebody I’m most interested in engaging with. I mean, if you need to talk about the questions of cultural appropriation or Orientalism in Miss Saigon, you’re not going to be talking about the guy who plays Chris; that all happened before he was cast. I like to read other reviewers who will give their opinion of the actor in the third lead. But I can only write one review, I can’t write five. So I write the one that’s most interesting and important to me.
I do think that every play is engaged with the world, is making an argument about the world, whether it knows it or not.
It’s relatively easy to find the words for plays you love or hate, or that make you angry. But what do you do with the “meh” plays?
Those are very much the hardest reviews to write—of a play that is just okay, that isn’t even ambitious enough to be bad. The play that doesn’t know itself. There’s also a category of cynical plays that drive me up a wall, whether they’re vanity productions or are clearly the work of somebody who is trying on playwriting as if were the most chic thing to do. Don’t invite me to those plays.
I think I know what you mean—I guess you don’t want to name names?
I’ve hurt them enough.
So I have to address this: A lot of folks were fervently hoping, and openly advocating, that the Times not make their next theatre critic another white man.
I was one of them. I didn’t seek the job; I was offered the job. And the first thing I said was, “Don’t you want someone who brings more diversity to the table?” When I spoke to Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, I raised the issue. I’m a trifecta of non-diversity: I’m a gay white Jew, and that’s almost the entry requirement to the theatre in New York. He said something quite interesting—and he should know—he said, “It’s wrong to try to solve all of an institution’s diversity problems in one hire.” I have to believe that they wanted me for things that took priority. I wasn’t going to turn down the offer; I’m not a saint. But I share the critique that the theatre would be better served by more diversity.
My feeling about this is that theatres have done a much better job of diversifying than arts journalism has—we’re way behind.
Yes, but it takes longer to develop critics who are qualified. With films and television, there’s more of it and it’s more available, and critics can develop quicker. Theatre is not very available, so it takes longer to develop the skills needed to write about theatre at the level of the Times. It will change, but it’s going to take a while. In the meantime I feel it’s my responsibility to act as if I represented greater diversity in the way I choose what I review, and in the way I look at what I choose.
That seems like a good segue to talk about a recent controversy, in which both you, writing for New York, and Laura Collins-Hughes, writing for the Times, questioned the racial optics of City Center’s recent Encores revival of Big River. The Times review triggered a furious open letter from producer Jack Viertel, and a response from the Times editors.
Laura’s review did not make any points that mine didn’t make. But nobody came after me; I find that very curious. It may not only be that I’m a man; it may be that I’m very well established and older, she’s younger. Maybe people are a little more wary around me. But I feel very bad about it, and I think it was a terrible mistake on Jack’s part. What I most want to say about that, though, is that to see a show like Big River or Miss Saigon and not inquire into its racial politics is not to be doing the job of criticism today.
You know, when I started out I was “diverse.” I was an openly gay man at the Times when you couldn’t even use the word gay, and the macro- and microaggressions around trying to write about openly gay stuff were unbelievable, let alone when I was trying to write about trans people in the the early ’90s and you couldn’t use their preferred pronouns and there was so much prejudice. It was terrible. And it gives you a feeling of solidarity with those who are facing those representation and misrepresentation problems now.
As you probably gather, I’m deeply invested in the state of criticism—who it’s for, why it’s valuable—in part because it’s always fed and inspired me, nearly as much as, or in tandem, with the art itself. Even when you were pursuing all those other possible careers, were you an avid consumer of criticism?
Oh, yes, I grew up reading reviews in the Times and New York and The New Yorker. I even read John Simon—a terrible racist, homophobe, sexist. I was stunned when he would say homophobic things at an age when I was realizing I was gay; but I read him anyway. I loved reading him. How do you pull that one apart? Great writing is powerful and weird, and he was a great writer.
Of course I also worry about the future of criticism. Are there still kids out there thrilling to critics they’re not sure they agree with?
I worry about it too, and I don’t think I have anything wonderfully new to add to the discussion about the state of criticism. But it sometimes occurs to me, and this is even before the Times honored me by offering me this job: Because it’s sort of the last Gray Lady standing, everybody’s hopes and dreams about representation, the future of criticism, and the value of art are all focused on this one paper that is trying to get through this challenging time like everyone else. And that kind of pressure produces huge distortions and unfairnesses. We should look at the fact that the Times has 21 critics in the culture department and is hiring more, and there is some diversity in those ranks, if not enough. And there have to be other publications besides the Times that maintain the rank of writers, and also the interest of the public, until the environment turns around again, which we all hope it may. It’s not just a question of who’s going to write the reviews but who’s going to read them? If most people are used to reading TV episode recaps, which are fun, and blog posts from people who are passionate about the work but are not critics, what is criticism going to be?
The only solution I know is to make what I write feel like news. I want it to feel the same way that talking about Trump feels: urgent. To me that’s the only hope that arts criticism will continue to matter. And that’s the brief I was given when I got the job.
I have to ask about the “co-chief” part. Charles Isherwood infamously chafed at playing second fiddle to Ben Brantley, but you’re going in as an equal. How did that come about?
I already have what I consider the second best job in theatre criticism. It was just me and my editor, Chris Bonanos, and we did what we wanted. So at the Times, co-chief is the only thing I would be interested in, and the only thing I was offered. Ben has been extraordinarily gracious; you might think that someone in that position wouldn’t be, but he has been. So the way it will work, as far as I know, is that Ben and I and the theatre editor, Scott Heller, will meet every so often and look at the month ahead, and we’ll divide up what we cover. If there are disagreements, Scott will help us un-disagree. I think we’ll each cover about half of the Broadway season.
I’ll add that we’re leaving open the possibility for a lot more dialogue, so even if I write the review of a big Broadway opening, we’re hoping to find a mechanism by which Ben can offer a dissent, or agree with me, as the case may be, and vice versa. Obviously we’ll both continue to see everything, but the burden of writing about everything will be eased. He will continue to cover London exclusively because that’s his specialty and personally I am afraid of flying.
Does that mean you won’t do the regional coverage Isherwood used to do?
I am interested in that, but Ben and I are going to divide that too. I am quite interested in the regions, but the season is quite heavy in New York. And there will be more dialogue between us—more he-said/he-said discussion, whether that’s in print, online, on a podcast. And I hope we will continue to have a lot of stuff assigned to Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski and other freelancers. I think it’s going to really be an enrichment: more voices, more discussions. It will be a healthier way for the theatre community to be integrated into the story of the world.
I just remembered, I have one bone to pick with you: In your review of Bronx Bombers you made a very tasteless crack about Lou Gehrig. You wrote that the character “ends up in a corner, inventing his disease.” I really hated that.
Well, that may be a case of me not being clear. What I was trying to criticize was the show’s naïve exploitation of that. The director had him over in the corner starting to show signs of his disease; he kind of reduced him to that.
Ah—I didn’t see the show, so I didn’t get that from your review. I thought you were just making a cheap joke about Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I would never do that. But this is a good example of: Critic, heal thyself. Look, I’m not that much more woke than anyone else. But it’s my job to try to be.