And now for something completely different: In the latest high-profile hire in theatre criticism, for the post of lead critic at New York magazine and its website Vulture (where the likes of John Simon, Jeremy McCarter, Scott Brown, and most recently Jesse Green have held court), editor-in-chief Adam Moss has drawn something of a wild card.
His choice is unusual not because the magazine’s new critic is a woman—welcome news in a critical field overstocked with men—but because Sara Holdren, a recent Yale Drama School MFA grad with her own small theatre company in New York (Tiltyard), hasn’t worked as a theatre critic at all until now; instead she’s a self-identified director and theatremaker.
As I discovered in a recent phone conversation with Holdren, while she may not have published any theatre reviews apart from a blistering Culturebot takedown of the Public Theater’s widely disparaged David Byrne/Alex Timbers musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, in April, she has spent a lifetime making, responding to, and writing about theatre (the latter chiefly in an academic setting). In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, she sounded as eager to plunge into what she sees as another facet of a long-term career in and around the theatre as the rest of us are curious to read her. She starts on July 31.
I heard that someone at New York magazine saw your Joan of Arc piece on Culturebot and reached out to you about a job there. Is that true?
There is truth to that. I never expected to make a career as a critic, even though I truly love seeing and writing about theatre. But over the last month or so, it’s become a really exciting piece of what I’m seeing as my future.
I’ve Googled a bit but haven’t seen any other writing of yours out there.
There’s one other thing that is out there in the world but that I didn’t search for an official outlet to publish it in. A couple of years ago, when Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced their plan to rewrite all of Shakespeare’s plays, I had some thoughts about that, so I wrote a pretty long essay about it and posted it on Facebook.
But you haven’t sought an outlet for your reactions to theatre until recently?
I always have responses to the theatre like the ones that ended up in that Joan piece—maybe not exactly the same emotions on the exact same scale—and I have a community that I love, and we might stand around a very loud bar and scream our various opinions at each other. But a lot of those responses in the past haven’t made it to the page. I mean, one reason not a lot of people have seen my writing is that I was in grad school rather recently; I’ve only been out two years. My writing itch was scratched daily in grad school, because that’s what we were doing there—writing what amounted to critical pieces about pretty much every show at the school and at the Yale Rep. So I know there’s not a lot out there; I don’t have a big bibliography to look through. But considering the amount of time in my life I’ve spent talking and thinking about theatre, I’m ready to start sharing that side of where my brain constantly lives more publicly.
What prompted that Joan piece in particular?
Honestly? I went to see that show and I left the theatre with two friends, and we just stood outside on the sidewalk kind of shaken, and incredibly frustrated, and we were having this vehement sidewalk conversation. I had this moment of floating outside of myself, seeing all three of us standing there and thinking, we can’t possibly be the only three people having this conversation, or conversations like it. I feel like this needs to be shared. I know it’s going to… come off strong, to put it mildly. But at the same time, I genuinely feel like, as someone who is also a director and an artist, I want this type of talk to be going on about the work, whether or not it comes from someone who happens to be professionally designated as a critic or someone who identifies as a practitioner. Whoever is starting the dialogue doesn’t matter to me. It has to be out there. I remember talking to a couple of friends, saying, I think I really want to write about this, and people were very encouraging of that impulse. So that’s what came out. I’m really excited by the fact that it seemed resonant to people.
The thing that makes me laugh a bit about having that be the only piece of writing out there by me is: I promise not everything makes me that mad! I also really enjoy things, and I have found myself frustrated when I’m in a room full of creative people where somehow enjoying something or having fun is seen as uncool, where someone is afraid to say, “Well, I really liked that.” That’s something I’ve always raised an eyebrow at. So I value having one half of my brain that really wants to have fun, to see a show with a capital S, and having the other half of my brain that is the critical writer, the critical thinker.
It’s interesting that your training is as a director. It’s a job I think critics—speaking for myself, at least—often have the hardest time evaluating. We can hear the words of the script, see the actors and set and costumes. But how do we judge the direction? I’m afraid I’ve sometimes been guilty of sandwiching directors’ names into reviews almost as an afterthought.
I had a teacher once who said we’re doomed to a mention by the adverb: “artfully directed by.”
Another way to ask it: Are New York’s directors on notice that they’ll be facing a new level of scrutiny?
[Laughs] It is something that I feel attuned to. If there’s a decision up on the stage that really interests or frustrates me, I try to figure out: Was that a directorial decision, an acting decision? It’s one of the things I think about a lot when I’m writing about or responding to a piece. I’ve had a bit of training in Russian theatre pedagogy, and they have these phrases I find very useful—you’re going to laugh, but one is “the suffering of the author,” and the other is “the director’s scream.” The language is quite emotional, but they’re so worth identifying, particularly when you see a piece that has a conventional writer/director setup. First, what is the author suffering over, wrestling with? What question is this play asking of our world? And if you can make an educated guess as to that, the second question is: What is the director adding to that? The director’s scream is the attempt at an answer to the author’s question.
This also gets to something—I find that when I read criticism that really bothers me, I feel that a critic is either neglectfully or perversely not taking the work on its own terms. I think there has to be that attempt at the top, in thinking about a piece: What is the central question that’s being grappled with? And then once that’s identified, how well did it succeed?
Direction won’t be all you write about, of course.
Of course, it will completely depend on the play at hand. I’ve spent some time in Russia, and that’s a director’s culture, whereas we are a playwright’s culture. There is not a new-play scene there like the one we have. People say, “I wanna see what Butusov has done with The Cherry Orchard.”
Did you see his Seagull?
Only on video.
On my one trip to Moscow I was lucky enough to catch that.
He is mindblowing. So I might be drawn to talking about direction where someone is reviving a canonical work as opposed to a new work, where the focus is more on what the play is putting into the world. But I think there’s also much to be said about direction in new plays. It’s a really interesting and delicate thing. Tearing apart a Shakespeare play is obviously a completely different thing than working with a living collaborator in the room. I personally don’t love the idea that directors are purely interpretive artists, but it’s a line that we walk. How much of what we do is holding up a play, making it as clear as possible, and how much of ourselves do we add?
Or you have a case like Rebecca Taichman, who’s co-credited with Paula Vogel as an author of Indecent.
I’m so happy that show is being talked about, and that it’s been extended. It’s so rare for a project that had kind of birth to have that kind of lifespan—to come to Broadway, let’s just say the word. That piece began as a director-generated piece, and that’s such a rare thing in our current landscape, at least on this level. It’s really exciting to see that.
So obviously you’ll bring knowledge of how theatre is made to your writing, and that can be an asset. But inevitably there will be questions about conflicts of interest. How much are you going to pursue directing while you’re a critic, and will there be people and projects you have to recuse yourself from reviewing?
I have a couple thoughts about that. In terms of my own work, in the long term of my life I always want to be able embrace an identity as both a maker of things and a writer about them. In the short term, I don’t know what that holds. Like, directing a play tomorrow? I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’m excited to be really immersed in this new venture. But I am not giving up director as an identity; I trust that my future will hold that for me at some point.
As far as the stickier question of relationships in the theatre and recusing myself, that is going to have be on a case-by-case basis. It will be a delicate thing to navigate. I can only try to be completely straightforward, both with the artists and with my reading audience. I remember a piece that Frank Rich wrote, “Exit the Critic,” when he left the post at The New York Times; he mentions that he never reviewed Wendy Wasserstein’s work because they were really close friends. With other acquaintances and people he knew, though, he used his own judgment.
You know, for so long in my own peer group and in the theatre community, I’ve heard such excitement over the idea of a critic who comes from the community of practitioners. Well, you can’t have one without the other: If you want someone who has the background and the knowledge, that person is going to know some people. But even if you’re a person who came down a completely different road to this position, the idea of pristine critical objectivity—I think we’re all humans with predilections and relationships, and we have to be as open as we can about them and write as honestly as we can. It may mean writing a piece and acknowledging, I went to school with this person. And it may mean on the rare occasion saying, I do know this person well, and someone else should review their work.
All right. But you’re a young director, and surely you might want to one day work at some of theatres you’ll now be in a position to say nice or mean things about?
Trust me, I would have gotten a lot farther in my career already if I worried more about not pissing people off. As a director, I’ve really been trying to make my own work, which is incredibly difficult but is always what I’ve wanted to do. My entire life so far has been about wondering, personally or professionally, whether I should, or can, disattach my heart from my sleeve. It’s too late. I’m 31, and my heart is pretty firmly stuck there. I’m going to to say what I have to say passionately and as clearly as I can. If that loses me quote-unquote connections, they’re not people I would have wanted to work with anyway. I’m not coming at this position afraid to offend.
But I want to be clear: I don’t identify as a John Simon-style critic. I don’t revel in the art of slicing things up. I really believe in trying to grapple with each piece and making an honest effort to see what it’s trying to communicate.
It is a little amazing to think about your post being the one formerly held by John Simon. I don’t know if you read my interview with your predecessor, Jesse Green, where he says as a young gay man he read Simon’s often homophobic reviews with a mix of admiration and disgust.
I know. For anyone who loves articulate writing, it’s like, this is fun to read, but it’s so horrifying.
Putting Simon aside, who are some of your critical heroes?
Some of the names might seem weird or archaic. One of them is E.M. Forster. I came to him through adoring his novels, but I also love reading his essays, especially his essay “What I Believe,” which I just returned to recently and have been mulling over writing my own version of. Ursula LeGuin is a big influence in terms of critical/essay writing—not criticism of others’ work per se, but beautifully crafted imaginative essays. And there’s a book by Paul Woodruff called The Necessity of Theatre: The Art of Watching and Being Watched that was assigned to me by a grad school mentor and is deeply important to me.
I always enjoyed reading John Lahr; as a kid I would steal my parents’ New Yorkers. And there are these books called The Meaning of Shakespeare, which have short essays on each play by Harold C. Goddard. I think they’re really fine academic writing that is not rarefied and doesn’t put up barriers to you engaging with it. I love Pauline Kael—I mean, Jesus. I think there are some great critics writing right now: Emily Nussbaum, I really enjoy reading her writing on television.
I think this is going to be an education for me as well; I’m looking forward to reading much more contemporary criticism than I have, and view it as a conversation. With the Joan piece, I really cloistered myself to write that, but once it was published I went out and found others who wrote about it. It feels like a brain exercise, imagining having a dialogue with these other people who’ve seen the show. With some of them I’m like, Did we see the same show? I guess we did.
How about some of your theatrical touchstones and heroes?
There are many rabbit holes there, but just a few….My hero is really Ariane Mnouchkine and her Theatre du Soleil. A lot of who you’ll hear me talk about are ensembles and leaders of ensembles. I’m just so attracted to work that’s made in an ensemble setting. Dmitry Krymov, who was a mentor to me, and his father, Anatoly Efros, who also wrote about the theatre; he has a book called The Joy of Rehearsal, full of these amazing essays about the playmaking process. I really admire Emma Rice and Kneehigh, Simon McBurney and Complicite, Declan Donnell and Cheek by Jowl. And I don’t know if they’re on hiatus or something but the British company Propeller, run by Edward Hall; I adore Propeller. My only issue with them is that they’re all men, but I can barely resent that because the work is so wonderful. I admire Phyllida Lloyd. I definitely had criticisms when I went to see all three of the all-women Shakespeare pieces she did here. Were they perfect? No. But there was some really interesting work there.
And I know she’s not working with the TEAM as much anymore, but I loved Rachel Chavkin’s work with them—you’ll notice that many of the other companies I’ve mentioned are British, because we have so few of those kinds of companies here. So it’s exciting that the TEAM was doing work that very purposefully looked at what it means to be an American. I also like Eric Tucker’s work with Bedlam.
I’ve often heard—and I’m not sure I agree—that a critic should have an ideal theatre in their mind. Do you?
I think I like my theatre to have to be theatre, do you know what I mean? I don’t want it to be, Well, that could have been TV, that could have been a novel. We’re in the middle of a TV renaissance, and a lot of it’s great, but I see a lot of things onstage where I think, what made it necessary for this to be an explosion of live bodies in a room? I want theatre to feel like, this is the necessary medium for what’s being communicated.
It says on your résumé that you’re from Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. Are your parents academics?
They met at UVa; they were both in the English department. They thought they were going to be in academia but then they thought better of it.
Were you exposed to a lot of culture there? How did you catch the theatre bug?
My parents constantly read to us, every night, a before-bed tradition as a small child. I remember they’d read big books: Treasure Island or The Hobbit or Three Musketeers, these big hefty adventures. My dad would read them and we’d be on the floor drawing pictures, illustrating them as he read.
Shakespeare entered my consciousness really early; Shakespeare is really where I come from as a theatre person. I was taken in the second or third grade to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at—it’s now called the American Shakespeare Center, but then they were just this ragtag touring ensemble called the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. It was 10 people wearing all black and Converse high tops. I was totally enchanted. The pure storytelling joy of it—the fact that it was so simple, it was just actors’ bodies and text and physicality, the wonderful use of space and of the audience. That show was transformative to me. They also ran a really remarkable summer program for high schoolers, the type of program where you go in as a nerd not knowing who you’re supposed to be and come out a really confident nerd who knows exactly who they’re supposed to be. And one year I remember discovering this incredible video store, Sneak Reviews, that had every classic film and BBC series. They had the nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby, the Royal Shakespeare Company staging, and I made my parents check that out so many times. That was a DNA changer.
Your hiring comes at a time when there are really intense conversations going on about the lack of diversity both in the arts and among those who cover the arts. You write in your Joan piece about gender parity and progressive politics, and though you’re grounded in the classics, from what I could tell about your theatre’s adaptation of Midsummer, it had an ecological spin. How much does social or political consciousness inform the way you view and respond theatre?
One cannot be awake in the world that we find ourselves living in today without having a space in one’s mind for that. I’m not saying that always has to be at the forefront, or that it plays a role in the telling of every single story. Some time ago I was talking to Liz Diamond, the chair of my directing program at Yale, and I was fretting over the fact that I, Sara Holdren, have never liked what I perceived to be aggressively political theatre, and that had always seemed okay to me—until now. I was wondering to her: Am I wrong? Are my politics retrogressive in some way? And she told me, “Sara, the personal is political.” It’s not necessarily that every piece of art should have its politics literally on the table, where that is the thing that it’s about, the thing we’re all here to have a conversation about. But even a story that can seem entirely domestic, personal, small—there’s a politics to that. There’s a politics to humor. That interests me: getting into things that are actually sort of quieter but in a way stronger about their politics.
The thing that bothered me so much about Joan is the thing that bothers me every time I open my Facebook feed. There’s a large part of the population for whom politics has become the performance of their politics, where tweeting is tantamount to an action, or making a very loud play that checks off a lot of boxes. They’re performative gestures that I don’t think are undergirded by actual political thoughtfulness. So I am keenly aware of being a woman stepping into this particular realm at a time that is charged and that’s full of a really necessary questioning. I’m trying to be very cognizant. I’m trying to read every piece I can get my hands on: that HowlRound letter and response that came out of the Paula Vogel discussion, what’s going on with the Chicago community and Hedy Weiss. I’m looking at what our community is hungering for and asking for in terms of criticism. Will I please everyone? Hell, no. No critic ever will. But I think this is as true of directing: Listening is as much a part of the job as talking is.
It’s been such a pleasure to talk about all this that I forgot to ask you about one of the most high-stakes parts of your new job: reviewing the commercial theatre offerings in that district in the middle of Manhattan. I don’t get the sense that you’re a Broadway baby.
I am not a Broadway baby. But I am excited and I hope open-minded. There are just so many different eyes and brains with which one can watch shows. Seeing and writing about a dense Richard Foreman show is a completely different muscle than seeing and writing about Hello, Dolly. And there’s plenty to be mined in both.
There’s some kind of essay to be written about the deep human value of fun. There’s this poem by Jack Gilbert that feels like a personal manifesto to me, called A Brief for the Defense, in which he writes, “We must risk delight.” It’s good to remember in the world that we’re currently living in, and where theatre can feel very heavy, full of self-righteousness, dragging around the train of its own seriousness, that delight and astonishment are hugely important and can be transcendent.