The critic and playwright David Cote and I once talked about making a musical out of Theatre of Blood, a camp Guignol film from 1973 in which a vengeful Shakespearean actor played by Vincent Price kills off London’s theatre critics one by one. It would be a nice meta-joke, we thought, for two critics to write a show about critics getting gored onstage.
It doesn’t feel so funny anymore. Today the brutal economics of arts journalism, not a single spiteful thespian, is murdering the jobs of theatre critics both in New York and nationally by laying them off, buying them out, or simply shrinking their word counts to event-listings length. And the dispiriting trend just claimed another victim: Cote himself found out yesterday that Time Out New York has “restructured” him out the job of theatre editor he’s held since 2003, after working as a theatre writer there since 2000.
In a phone interview today, he says he hopes to continue to write about the theatre, as well as write for it: In recent years he’s also pursued a career as a playwright and opera librettist, which he wrote a bit about for us. Indeed, American Theatre is one venue where you might hope to see a David Cote byline. (Another bittersweet read from our archives: His roundup of “last remaining critics” on the U.S. landscape, which he wrote for us…back in 2011.)
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I’m heartsick about this, David. Can you tell us what happened with Time Out, and what this means for its theatre coverage?
DAVID COTE: I wish I could answer that with a sort of overview of the situation. The truth of the matter is, the way these things happen is they call you in and they say, “There’s been a restructuring and there’s no place for you.” They can’t really tell you what that means. I’ve said this, and it might not be good news copy for you, but I have to be sort of grateful to Time Out for allowing me 17 years to be a theatre writer and editor. It was an amazing run. And it’s not over—I intend to keep writing about theatre. But I had 17 years. And that’s extraordinary.
I didn’t realize it was that long, though you’d probably mentioned it before.
Yeah, Jason Zinoman hired me as a staff theatre writer in 2000, then when he left to go the Times, I became theatre editor and hired Adam Feldman. I was able to weather all the changes over the years with blogging and social media, as our online presence increased.
And your word counts decreased.
Yeah. If you go back 5 or 10 years, you can see longer reviews. But Time Out reviews have always been the art of the bonsai—there would always be capsule reviews, 500 words or 300 words. In the earlier design of Time Out, the bigger reviews would be about 850 words, four columns, in print. I think the last long review I wrote was for The Designated Mourner at the Public in 2013 (a play you and I disagreed about). Just before I started writing at Time Out, I saw that in its original production Off-Broadway. So I sort of came full circle.
Up to that point, you were often flipping back and forth between writing short and longer reviews.
It’s a muscle. When you spend several years writing short reviews, the idea of filling 1,500 words seems daunting. But I can still do it, and I hope to have the chance to do it—to dilate on a subject at leisure and at length. Online obviously has unlimited space, so we’ll see what happens.
I know you were a theatremaker before you were a critic. When did you cross over?
After graduation I came to New York, and for about eight years I was acting and doing a little bit of directing in shows at PS 122 and La MaMa. I was in a Richard Foreman show, Pearls for Pigs, that toured around Europe and the U.S. I had done a play called Sport-Fuckers, about a key party in Arizona, and after I was hired at Time Out, they did a remount, so to speak, at Theater for the New City. So for a shining moment, I was a theatre writer at Time Out and acting in Sport-Fuckers. Nobody really cared about that then.
But you’d written about theatre before then, right?
I formed sentences about theatre for this thing called Off, a photocopied, hand-stapled zine I started with a friend, Jennifer Woodward. It ran from 1996 to 1998, and published manifestos, reviews, essays about downtown theatre. And then I also wrote for Edge NY, a glossy magazine about theatre. That was when there was the belief that there was actually a community around theatre; it’s hard to articulate that today.
So when Jason was looking for someone who knew downtown theatre, my name came up. I thought: Do I really want to become a critic—to go over to the Dark Side? I found that I loved writing, and I loved arguing about why some weird piece of theatre was something people should see. I went into it as an advocate more than a critic. I was also very attracted by the entertainment aspect of it, by which I mean: Let me entertain you with my write-up; let me write beautifully about this thing I’ve seen.
You said “manifesto” and “advocate,” so I have to bring up the review you’re maybe most famous for: Your trashing of Rabbit Hole as an exemplar of a kind of bourgeois play you hated, in which you confessed you found yourself “longing for pirates to crash through the kitchen window or zombies to shamble through the front door and chew the protagonist’s face off.” Do you feel like your role as a critic has been to lobby for a certain kind of theatre, and against another?
I think of that as a review I had to write at that moment, and about that play. But if a critic felt compelled to write that kind of review every week, they’d go crazy. You can’t be in a perpetual state of high dudgeon about the theatre, where your ideals are so high that the reality never measures up. Rabbit Hole seemed to epitomize a kind of theatre that didn’t need to be theatre, that could have been a TV movie. It was extremely well crafted, but never got past the surface.
Not many people know the epilogue to the Rabbit Hole review. It was a New York Drama Critics Circle dinner at Angus McIndoe’s however many years later, and David Lindsay-Abaire was getting an award for Good People, a funny, complex look at class and how personal choices affect your economic opportunities. I think he made a crack about how now he’d maybe resubscribe to Time Out. So after the ceremony, I’d had a few cocktails and I got the nerve to walk up to him and say, “Congratulations, it’s a beautiful play.” And he looked at me and said, “Well, maybe I’ll forgive you for that radical review someday.” I dropped to my knees and bowed down to him, and he said, “Quick, where’s a photographer?” I did not kiss his shoe, but I did bow down to him. In any case, my dyspeptic rant about the kind of theatre I was sick of certainly did not harm his career.
But those kinds of reviews are important. If you can’t write a review every now and then like that—it’s like Tynan said, “A good critic is able to articulate what’s happening in the scene, but a great critic sees what’s missing.” I think it’s important to use those muscles and have a broader view of the scene.
I’m also very careful about saying something is a masterpiece. Is Sweat a masterpiece, truly a great play that will stand the test of time? I try to refrain from making those kinds of statements.
You must have stuck your neck out about something over 17 years.
I will say, about Young Jean Lee’s Lear—her treatment of King Lear, relating it to her own life—it was getting trashed by reviewers here and there, but I loved it. And I said: I don’t know if in 50 years it will be considered a great play, but I do know that a lot of the things that are around right now won’t deserve to be around in 50 years, and I hope this piece of culture will still be around.
So you came from downtown theatre, but you’ve clearly embraced Broadway too—maybe not a certain kind of living-room play, but big musicals and other large-scale productions.
For years I was a downtown snob, assuming without really knowing that Broadway was a dead zone of zombie art or empty spectacle. When I actually started seeing more of it, I realized it was not that easy. I saw a show like The Full Monty and I really loved it. Or a play like Take Me Out that went to Broadway, and great revivals like Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Brian Dennehy. The divisions between downtown and uptown came down pretty quickly for me. If anything, I started wondering—this may sound a bit presumptuous—whether people working in downtown theatre are able to see uptown theatre clearly, if it all looks too plastic for them and they can’t see the craft. I felt in some ways there was a craft gap, certainly between a scrappy downtown fringe show and the world of professional Off-Broadway and Broadway.
But then you have someone like Young Jean Lee, who didn’t go to the conservatory, but whose craft, on the design and directing level, has been strong for a long time. And now she’s coming to Broadway. That’s a progression I find extremely remarkable. The sheer power of her writing and her vision took her from being considered a weird downtown voice and she’s about to reach a much wider audience, and seems ready to. So I think Broadway has changed a lot. Not just in terms of Hamilton, but with Will Eno, and with Sam Gold directing, Lucas Hnath writing.
Do you think critics like yourself had any role in helping to change it?
Well, if I ever led a critic at a larger publication to check out artists they hadn’t heard of before, I’m happy about that. But the great thing about Time Out is that I had the complete freedom to see the smallest downtown show and the splashiest Broadway show. That versatility is probably important for music and art critics as well, but for a theatre critic it’s essential, to know what you’re looking at, rather than just writing, “Oh, this is a crazy experimental show,” and then using some descriptive language to try to capture it.
Right. There can be a learning curve for all different kinds of theatre—I hope not such a steep one that it’s only legible to a small elite, of course, but whether it’s a musical or an avant-garde show, there’s something to be gained from prior knowledge and context.
A good playwright, like Will Eno or Annie Baker or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is always sort of teaching you to how read their plays as you sit in the seat. On the other hand, if I am able to make sense of it, then it’s my job to pass that on to the reader, and to give them a key into the piece: “Pay attention to references to color.” Or like the time I noticed—and Isaac Butler wrote a great piece for you about it—“Hey, a lot of weird, interesting playwrights are writing really ‘straight’ plays,’” what I called “dramaturgical normcore.” So there’s a little bit of trend-spotting to do, some context to provide.
In my experience, that’s one of the puzzles and joys of writing criticism—deciphering how shows are speaking to each other and to the moment. The problem now is: Who are the critics speaking to?
Nobody seems able to answer the question of how you can make theatre criticism more appealing, more clickworthy. One answer is to be a goddamn flamethrower every week, be a bomb thrower, to write scorched-earth reviews. Just be completely hedonistic and ego-driven in your criticism, become a master stylist, and treat everything in front of you onstage as fodder for your most delicious and vicious language. That’s one road. And people may enjoy your writing. The thing that’s sacrificed is any sense of a larger responsibility, and any aesthetic consistency. I don’t think anyone is following that model right now—just being a complete jerk.
Well, Rex Reed is still writing.
Ah. Well, you can also be a standard bearer, and insist that work doesn’t measure up to your high standards. But I think the art makes the standards. I’m not going to sit there and say, “This is the way you do Shakespeare.” I believe that every play establishes its own standards, and our job is to just evaluate it.
But everybody’s looking for the formula for how to talk about culture so that people who don’t have any time to read want to read about it. Is there something beyond thumbs-up, thumbs-down criticism? I would hope there’s a way to talk about a theatre event in real time—meaning while it’s still going on—in a way that’s engaging, funny, witty, and evaluates the elements of the thing. But it’s like if you had a friend who was like, “Gee, are you working out? You look great. But that’s a terrible haircut.” Nobody wants that person around.
I hope some people still do! Are you still going to be doing TV reviews for New York 1?
I think I’ll continue to do that. And once I get over the slight feeling of being stunned, I’ll look at the landscape and see if there’s a place for me in it. It’s a time for reflection. I wanna breathe. I wanna stretch. Next week’s issue will have my last review for Time Out, of Six Degrees of Separation.
It’s a really dark time for theatre critics.
Yeah, there’s this weird habitual thing happening of critics losing their jobs. If I didn’t have a happy personal life, and have genuine creative side projects, I’d be much worse off. But I started as an artist before I became a critic, and I’m still an artist.