Josh Hecht (Photo by Edwin Pabon)

Offscript: Programming Diversely With Josh Hecht

On this week’s episode, we welcome Josh Hecht of Profile Theatre who explains why he only programs one writer a season. Plus, the editors discuss bias in theatre criticism.

Every other week, the editors of American Theatre curate a free-ranging discussion about the lively arts in our Offscript podcast.

Things get real on this week’s episode. Editors Rob Weinert-Kendt and Diep Tran welcome Time Out New York theatre/dance critic Helen Shaw onto the podcast. We discuss the much-debated HowlRound article “A Collective Call Against Critical Bias,” and what the article got right and wrong about bias in criticism.

Our guest for this week is Josh Hecht, the artistic director of Profile Theatre in Portland, Ore. Rob spoke to him during the recent TCG about why the theatre programs the work of one playwright each season (though 2018 will be a dual Lisa Kron and Anna Deavere Smith season). Excerpts from the conversation are below:

What Profile is programming these days:
“We are in the middle of a three-year diversity and inclusion initiative, where we’re only programming women writers and writers of color for three years. And part of what we have been exploring is how to integrate that into an organic narrative of our company. It’s surprised me the number of people who’ve said, ‘Well, with the new mission….’ And I would say, ‘Well, the mission hasn’t changed, we’ve just refocused the lens on how we’re interpreting the mission.’ So how to make it seem not like a shift but the next step in our story is something that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently.”

How to take it beyond just play production:
“We’ve been thinking about how a playwright at the center of our season might also include a curatorial capacity. One of the ways that I’ve been engaging with [2017 playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes] is to say to her, ‘How do you identify your community and how might we organize our community engagement efforts in a year-long way through that lens? Or who are the up-and-coming writers are you really excited about and that I’m really excited about? And can we program some development of that sort of next generation of writers?’ In that regard, there is something that feels akin to Portland’s maker artisan sensibility.”

Download the episode here. Subscribe via RSSiTunesGoogle Play, or Stitcher.


Helen recommends the musical Spoon River by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz. It makes death delightful and is currently running at the Signature Theatre in New York City through July 29. It’s presented by Soulpepper, a Canadian theatre company, so you don’t even need to travel north for some international flair.

Diep recommends the new Netflix series “Glow,” written by two playwrights, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. It’s funny and feminist, with a lot of well-choreographed fights. And there’s also a shout-out to the Bluebarn Theatre in Nebraska.

Rob recommends this New York Times article about the art and craft of performing onstage with a disability, with shout-outs to actors Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan.

  • Susan Jonas

    A few days ago I left a response to the podcast which seems to have disappeared. I’m not quite sure why. It may be that I somehow deleted it when I was correcting some typos. Donatella says many of the things I said but she says them much better. As someone who for almost thirty years has been working on representation issues — Including but not exclusively related to women in theater, I’m pretty fed up with the need to substantiate bias in the appointment directors or critics, or the hiring of women as directors and playwrights. Please repeat everything for people of color. As much as I admire the three critics speaking in this podcast, and I do, I’m disappointed that they seem to have missed the point. We’ve had enough studies, enough statistics, and enough anecdotal evidence and the situation has been concretized, proven and measured over and over again for 50 years. The letter was a call for a change and that is what needs to be discussed and acted on. The point is not how well Jesse Greene writes or whether or not Brantley undervalues the writing of womem and writers of color. The point is that we are at a disadvantage – as the theatre makers, educators and as a society when we live in a white male culture that excludes too many other voices as artists and critics, and that by now we know enough to see that the diminution of these suppressed voices relates destructively to our perception of their value as human beings. And that facilitates all kinds of social problems, including poverty, domestic and police violence, inequitable pay and education… The situation impoverishes the art form and our culture and continues to be a reprehensible element of discrimination in employment. It is as important to address in the nonprofit world as it is in the commercial world, in part because they are intimately linked, but also because this is not just an economic issue, as if that were not important enough, it is also one of stature. The dominant culture continues to diminish the stature of great artists because they are female or of color or both. Id like to respond to Helen’s comments that she might have reviewed INDECENT and SWEAT with the same mixed response she would have reviewed OSLO and DOLL’S HOUSE 2. Leaving aside what many of us think is an inappropriate privileging of lesser plays in favor of more ambitious and original and moving ones, it’s important to understand that those mixed reviews would have in no way prevented the male-authored plays from accolades and awards, But the female authored plays would have been and were disproportionately impacted and closed early. It is not because the plays are lesser or the playwrights are lesser. It is because women playwrights are judged by a different yardstick. The closure of these fine and important plays will not only impact the careers of Nottage and Vogel, but they will also deter producers from bringing other plays by women to Broadway. Stupid but true. Dispute this if you must, but it will take very little research into the studies done over the last 50 years to substantiate this. And we in the field must move on from constantly being seduced into providing evidence to the naysayers, and focus instead on meaningful aggressive strategies for change. One need only to look to the UK (about which I am writing for American Theatre magazine for the October issue) to see effective and inspirational models of change. But they require a kind of self-reflection and self-assessment that few theaters, foundations, boards, government agencies, publications and critics have been willing to do in any persistent manner; instead we get lip service, gestures, exceptions, theme issues. One of the greatest problems relating to this issue is that it is old news; no one wants to hear about it and read about it. But our exhaustion by the topic in no way relates to any significant progress over the course of many decades. We are the ratios have changed they have done glacially and rather insignificantly. I don’t want to see one more headline that says, “The Year of the Women.”

    • Will_I_Tell

      I’m sorry, and I know you’re tired of explaining this, but what studies are you referring to proving that male writers are immune to bad reviews and that female writers are judged by a different yardstick? I’m legitimately asking, I mean no offense.

      My main problems with this discussion is that we are looking at statistics and implying causation. Differential outcome does not equal differential treatment. We know a massive disparity exists, but if we look at stats and assume they prove systemic sexism, we will never fix anything. I believe that’s why so little progress has been made. And anecdotal evidence does not help because it can be dismissed with different anecdotal evidence.

      If you really want to prove a systemic problem, we need to prove disparate impact. We need to know applicant/submission data. We could actually provide smoking gun evidence that is even admissible in court. But we aren’t doing that because we look at the stats and immediately assume causation.

      One last thought: I think we should change tactics. When we launch into polemics about white male supremacy, people recoil. It’s unnecessary and counterproductive. If you accuse people of protecting their privilege, how do you expect them to act? If you accuse critics of bigotry, you are drawing battle lines. People do not like this.

      We should drop the polemics. Demand more productions. Demand quotas, that’s probably the only real solution and even though I find it illiberal, I don’t see any other way to satisfy everyone. Even as I write this I don’t like suggesting it, but it could be done if we stop attacking people as bigots. If aggressive tactics haven’t worked, why would you want more aggressive tactics?

  • Donatella Galella

    I’m pretty sure that you need to be moved, too. I’m disappointed that
    some of the speakers on the podcast need more evidence to believe
    structural white supremacy and patriarchy to be real and that somehow individuals are exempt. You say that you
    understand how everyone is implicated, but do you really? By alleging
    that critics “might have implicit bias,” you betray that you believe
    people “might” have bias or they don’t, as opposed to grasping that we
    are all conditioned by intersecting systemic oppressions, and that
    people with privilege tend to socially reproduce their privileges and
    rationalize them as deserved or as not even there in order to obfuscate
    hierarchies. By using the diction “misstepped,” you reveal that you
    think people are accidentally sexist and racist rather than actively
    protecting their privileges. How much evidence do you need for you to
    consider a critic racist and/or
    sexist? What did you think of Brantley’s review of Venus? Or his
    Chinese food-laden diction in reviewing the revival of Flower Drum Song?
    How recent and how far back do we have to go? What is the difference
    between a “pattern” and a “body of evidence” with regard to Weiss’s
    documented devaluing of minoritized people? Why do you need us to tell
    personal stories of our struggles to see us
    as human and deserving of better treatment? Why aren’t statistics
    combined with close readings of texts good enough for you? I’m hurt
    that you would tell us that the solution to white supremacist
    patriarchy is telling “I” stories and blaming the victim for not being
    sufficiently persuasive, not redistributing resources equitably. What
    evidence do you have, on a structural level, that critics are a strong
    “bulwark against” structural oppression rather than complicit with
    oppression? How would you reconcile your argument with those of sociologist of
    culture Pierre Bourdieu? Why “couldn’t [you] go there,” with regard to
    the comment section on HowlRound? Why not respond to outright bigots as
    part of your feminist, anti-racist practice? Finally, Nottage’s and
    Vogel’s tweets did not stimulate the HowlRound letter. It was originally
    drafted weeks earlier.

    • Will_I_Tell

      Since we have all decided that implicit bias deeply
      influences behavior—which has been denied by one of the IAT creators and
      disputed by recent meta analysis of over 80,000 test subjects over 20 years and
      499 studies (—I’m
      going to tell you what is about to happen.

      I’m not going to try to change your mind. It’s too late. But you won’t be able to say
      you were never warned.

      Here is what is going to happen.

      Since everyone is already guilty, everyone who can be
      accused of racism/sexism will be. Some rightly, most for little or no reason at
      all. If you think you’re safe, you’re not. A reporter for Windy City Times in
      Chicago, a gay publication, was recently demoted for reporting on anti-Semitism
      at the Dyke March. Anti-Zionist activists smeared her as a bigot against Palestinians after some attendees were
      hassled for pride flags with the Star of David. Such is identity politics.

      But I digress.

      This constant public shaming and defamation will chill speech
      to the bone. It will scuttle free expression.

      This will result in most work being more and more similar.
      Things such as dialogue and characters will no longer matter; ideology will be
      the most important aspect of the art. Because the productions will be so
      strident and so repetitive and so humorless—by this time, people will be afraid
      to laugh—they will start to fail. (See: Building the Wall.) Companies, writers,
      actors of all races and genders will suffer as audiences—some of whom will
      already be loudly called racists—leave. This is what happens in every industry
      which has done this.

      When this happens, it will be interpreted as more proof of
      systemic sexism and racism.

      Nobody will win. Nothing will be learned. A lot of innocent people will be destroyed.
      The backlash will take years to repair and we will become even more obsessed
      with race, gender and sexuality.

      Break a leg.

  • Susan Jonas

    I am afraid that despite my admiration of the speakers AS critics, I found the discussion disingenuous and disappointing . There is so much accumulated evidence of critical bias and there is no reason to have to prove that underrepresentation of women and artists of color as critics, artists and gatekeepers exists nor that it is a problem. It’s faux naivete to to think that condemning the white male critical system is at the expense of the condemnation of funders, producers, etc. ALL of it has been addressed over and over again. BUT THE POINT is this was a call for CHANGE! Let’s talk about THAT. Let’s talk about strategies. It’s not about just “fairness” and “democratization” but equitable employment and compensation, and a theatre and culture that represents and supports a greater variety of people s artists, critics, gatekeepers and audiences. Quality goes without saying. And non-profits DO also need to address these issues; women are high profile exceptions but the ratios remain almost unchanged– with women at less than a third of directors and playwrights and in artistic leadership, and almost invisible at the non profit institutions with the greatest public funding, Biased criticism is just as deleterious to non-profits. It may cost less in an obvious way but it often costs the possibility of commercial transfer as well as the very careers of the playwrights. And it’s not “merely” about promoting diversity so that it with provoke more, though this is increasingly true, nor because it is “right,” though it is–these are good reasons–but because it is an economic necessity for women and people of color to earn more money– for a variety of reasons– affecting children, health and education. Also it is a cultural necessity for an artistically undernourished form. But most importantly is because supressing those voices or diminishing them disproportionately is a way of oppressing and diminishing those actual PEOPLE– undervaluing women and people of color as humans– which has vast social implications of that. bear on myriad social issues affecting children, childcare, health, domestic violence, sexual slavery, inequitable pay, lack of opportunity and promotion, crime, safety, incarceration, police violence. In response to the assertion that we must protect critics’ rights to be mean, which I won’t argue for the moment, that’s not at issue. That’s not the point. It’s about measuring plays by non white non males with a different yardstick and this has been proven over and over again. You say the answer is to speak back but not everyone has the platform or volume ; if a critic reviews in the forest…And, Helen. you might have written mixed reviews of OSLO, DOLL’S HOUSE, INDECENT, SWEAT, but It is a good bet OSLO and DOLL’S HOUSE would be unscathed by criticism and would still win the brass rings that guarantee future success, while the others– which I will insist are significantly more ambitious and provocative and original, and mattered deeply to many more people– were closed by mixed and ultimately unenthusiastic criticism by the influential critics, and may end the hope of future Broadway opportunities for Nottage and Vogel, and that will in turn influence the programming and commercial productions– or lack thereof– of other women. Stupid? Yes. But true. The question is not if Jesse Green can write. The point is that plenty of women can write as well if not better and from a broader cultural point of view and why aren’t they amongst the gods? Finally you say the answer is to get more voices. That is precisely what the call is for — so let’s talk about THAT — A CALL FOR CHANGE– and how it is achieved and why it matters? The conversation needs to move ahead. It’s been an unprofitable loop for half a century.