Theatre criticism is dead; long live theatre criticism. The newest scribes on this embattled block are Vinson Cunningham and Alexandra Schwartz, staff writers at The New Yorker who recently filled in on the stage beat while longtime chief critic Hilton Als was on leave. Cunningham and Schwartz officially begin as alternating co-theatre critics next week. (Als is reportedly not leaving theatre criticism entirely but stepping back from regular reviewing.)
They have big shoes to (partly) fill; in his 17 years as The New Yorker‘s theatre critic, some of that time alongside John Lahr, Als has distinguished himself with arrestingly distinctive opinions and observations, in prose that is vivid, discursive, and allusive, for which he won the George Jean Nathan Award in 2002 and the Pulitzer in 2017. While I have often differed with him vehemently (and joined those who’ve called out sexism in his writing), there is no questioning his influence, originality, even indispensability.
In their short time as pinch hitters, Cunningham and Schwartz have already made strong marks: He with sharp, pointed juxtapositions and she with intent close readings. I spoke to Cunningham and Schwartz last week from their offices at The New Yorker, where both began as staff writers in 2016.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congrats to you both. I’m not sure you think of it as a promotion necessarily, since you’re both already on staff at The New Yorker.
Alexandra Schwartz: I think about it as an opportunity to get into a whole new world in a really deep and exciting way.
So how are you going to divvy up the shows and decide who covers what?
Vinson Cunningham: I think it will be kind of the way it worked when we were pinch-hitting. We had a meeting recently with our editors and looked at what was coming up and kind of raised our hands, like, “I’d like to try that.” So it’s guided, as we always try to be here, by our wonders and interests and curiosities.
I’d like to ask about your backgrounds in theatre, on any side of the aisle. This isn’t a job interview—you two have the job!—I’m just curious.
Schwartz: It’s a very fair question. I grew up in New York City, and was quite lucky to go to a lot of theatre growing up. My parents were very interested in theatre, and my mother actually got an MFA in acting, and though she didn’t pursue theatre professionally, she did teach it for a while. I was like a dyed-in-the-wool musical theatre nerd; I’m sure that 90 percent of people who eventually get into this in one way or another have had the experiences of performing musicals from start to finish, solo, for some kind of caretaker figure in their life. So I had a childhood that was really influenced by that and acting in school plays and all, and at some point I got away from it and got much more into literature. In recent years, I have not been the most avid theatregoer, so it feels kind of extraordinary to be in this position of going to so many plays. It really does feel like a whole world opening up, a world that I had glimpsed in various ways over the years but have not engaged with, seriously professionally, for sure, until now.
How about you, Vinson?
Cunningham: Similar for me, actually. In high school, my first times on the stage kind of came through more my interest in music, so I was in musicals. I was the bad guy in Carousel, Jigger, and I was the voice of the plant in The Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II. And in college I acted and took playwriting. I was that weird station agent in The Cherry Orchard who gets up on a stair and gives the really bad speech at a really bad moment for the family. And I wrote a couple doomed plays that I have actually mortifiedly discovered in my e-mail over the last couple of months while thinking about this stuff. In recent years I haven’t been as connected to the ebbs and flows of what’s on the stage—I’ve gone maybe more than the average person but much less than I have been already in the last couple of months.
What’s interesting about The New Yorker’s theatre coverage is that’s it about something inherently local, but the magazine has a national readership. So do you think of your job as telling readers who may live here or are visiting what to see in New York? Or do you look at this more like writing for posterity, or at least for an audience all over the country who may never see these plays or these productions?
Cunningham: I think ideally it would perform all of those functions, right? For the person who is reading for the very functional reason that they might be going to see one or two of these things in town—that service is always foremost. But what’s exciting about doing this is that one of the functions of writing about theatre is to put on the show again in some way, even if it’s through just taking one idea that’s in the show and sort of doing a kind of performance of our own on that theme. Because the performance isn’t just the show, which of course evanesces the moment you see it; it’s all the ideas and stuff that come out of it. So I think we get to be the first improvisers on the themes that the show puts out. Another thing that’s fun is that we’re both city kids, and I think there’s a tradition at The New Yorker of performing a kind of person-in-New-Yorkness.
Schwartz: Yeah, I cosign everything that Vinson just said. I always feel when I write about books, and I feel this strongly, that I want someone who hasn’t read the book I’m writing about, or in this case, hasn’t seen the play I’m writing about, to be able to read the piece and get something real from it, get a descriptive sense—which I do think, as a critic, one of the first jobs and duties, to describe. Which already, in theatre, is so fascinating, because there are so many different sensory things going on. In some of the first reviews I was writing last year, I just thought, “Oh, God, my draft! I’ve written way too much about this set and there’s not space for other stuff, and how do you choose what you say when there’s so many things to describe?” But I also ideally would like someone who has seen the play or read the book to get something different out of what I’m saying about it, maybe to get a different angle or to direct attention a certain way.
The other thing that occurs to me that is so cool about writing about theatre is that we are going to have the chance to write about plays that are brand new and have never been seen before, but also to talk about revivals, Sam Shepard or Shakespeare or whatever, of texts that are sacred to people and are being put on in new ways. And I think it will be an interesting challenge to find approaches, either through the production or by going back to the text, that make them fresh for readers again.
Neither of you has a long paper trail of theatre writing, but Alexandra, you’ve mostly reviewed books, and in your case, Vinson, sports has been a major focus. Do you feel like these are lenses you’re each going to see theatre through—as literature on one hand, or as bodies moving on a stage in some kind of contention on the other—or do you feel like you’ll have to work against those impulses?
Schwartz: I absolutely am conscious of having that lens. I love thinking about Vinson’s writing on sports, because it is really a good comparison to theatre that hadn’t occurred to me before—just how to capture in description or analysis a performance someone is giving. But for me, yes, it’s a comfort zone to go to a text and burrow into it, and I am looking forward to bringing that lens to theatre reviewing. But a text is totally transformed by direction, performance, stage design, all of those things. So it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to, changing my lens a little bit.
Cunningham: I think that’s right. Every writer comes with a tool kit of things that you’re able to do more intuitively than other things. And always the joy of digging into a new medium is seeing what opportunities that medium offers to develop other skills. Even these few play reviews I’ve done, I’ve approached as exercises of a kind. How much traction can I get from how Kerry Washington looks, you know? And so you dig through it for things that are, again, a service to the reader, but there is that sort of joyfully selfish thing of, like, What new way can I write that fits with the demands of this medium?
You two are fairly young, and you’ve come up in an age when criticism seems to be in a state of decline, both in terms of how many jobs are left doing it and, relatedly, in terms of the readership it draws. Seeing you two employed, and reading your vigorous writing, makes me hopeful for criticism. Are you also hopeful?
Cunningham: We might be slightly ill-equipped to answer, because we’re coming from a privileged place whose tradition is to be a kind of safe harbor for critics and people who want to write in these ways. And part of the deal of the kinds of jobs we’ve had is that writing has always been an option for us. So I feel that I’ve been sheltered from the larger feeling of being endangered—when you hear about whole art sections of papers dropping out, and whole alternative weeklies across the country and things like that.
Schwartz: You know, I have a bit of a contrarian streak, which is either a pro or a con, depending on your point of view. I sometimes feel that we’re really living in an age of the profusion of criticism, even though many of the traditional venues are closing down and they’re shuttering local papers, they’re getting rid of art sections, all these sorts of things that are really distressing and a huge problem in the culture. At the same time, you have the kind of parallel development of, everybody has a platform. Our colleague Nathan Heller had a really great piece about this. He was reviewing A.O. Scott’s book, and his question was basically: When everyone’s a critic, what’s the point of critics? That is something I think about a lot. The best I can do, or the best I’ve done so far to answer the question for myself, is that there has to be value in a certain kind of meaningful engagement with a work of art, and an engagement over time, which is another thing that will be a pleasure in this job—just being able to engage with theatre and its development over time, not just kind of dart in and out.
And to really believe that art—theatre, books, music, whatever it is—has a real purpose. That’s something I really believe, and, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Vinson also believes. Fortunately we do have a home for that here, to value that and to value a kind of deeper criticism that tries to see, tries to look for real meaning.
As far as being young and stepping into this, I will say that I was nervous when we were chosen and announced that people would say, “Oh, what does she know? She’s new to this field and she’s really young.” And actually I’ve been so encouraged and touched by what I have felt has been a really enthusiastic, supportive, welcoming atmosphere. We’ll see how long that lasts! But I appreciated that people were open to hearing some new voices, and open to the fact that we will be figuring it out and we will be taking some time to develop ourselves as theatre critics. That to me, is all to the good.
Do you have critical role models?
Cunningham: Well, we’re inheriting this job from one of those people. Well before our jobs were a twinkling in David Remnick’s eye, I think we both have loved Hilton’s work, and part of the joy that comes in doing this is to do it after someone who’s done it so well. Who else? That’s such a hard question.
Schwartz: It’s like, I could say 30 people or no one. I will just say that if I can write about anything as well as Joan Acocella writes about books and dance, I will be very happy.
Cunningham: I’ve found that one of the difficulties of this is how much plot recapitulation to do, you know? And how to make the bit of effort you have to do with that shimmer with some sort of meaning. My favorite on that is, I’ve been reading a lot of Darryl Pinckney. Because he almost speaks through the plot of the book; he kind of reinscribes the plot with the ideas in such a subtle way. I’ve been trying to learn how to do that from him.
Looking into your biographies, I noticed something interesting in each that I wanted to ask you about. In your case, Alexandra, it’s that you lived in Paris for a while. Tell me about that.
Schwartz: I went to Paris after I graduated from college and lived there from two years between fall of 2009 and fall of 2011, and elsewhere in France, but mainly in Paris. Some people catch this bug or compulsion of being in a different place and wanting to learn the language there, and that is the bug I caught about France and French. And I still have it; I go back quite a lot. I write about France for The New Yorker, not all the time but with some regularity. It’s a beautiful part of my life. I love speaking French and also thinking about a society that is not American society. I find it clarifying and helpful.
Do you know that Molière in the Park just kicked off in Brooklyn?
Yes, I’m excited to check that out.
And Vinson, the part of your bio I was intrigued by was that you worked as a staff assistant in the Obama White House. What was your job there and what was that like?
I was a fundraiser on Obama 2008 campaign, and then in the White House I worked in the Presidential personnel office—the office that serves as the sort of the President’s in-house headhunter. It’s not clear to me that Trump has this office anymore, because nobody seems to want to work there. It was split up into issue-oriented clusters of agencies and a three- or four-person team would work to find new appointees for those cabinet agencies and also be the liaison from the White House to those agencies on a personnel level. I remember looking for a Maritime Commissioner, stuff like that. It actually helped me understand the guts of the federal bureaucracy a bit better.
That’s pretty far away from writing.
It was. I got into all of this because I was tutoring a kid in English whose stepmother was a friend of this state senator from Chicago. And I stopped doing it partly because I was bad at all of it—politics, government, you name it. But also because I wanted to come home and start working my way toward doing this.