Chicago-based artist Regina Victor is busy: An associate producer at the Court Theatre, they’ve assistant-directed around Chicago (their next gig is Graveyard Shift at the Goodman Theatre), and they’re a teaching artist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where they’re currently “doing a devised opera with 30 Black teens”). And they’re the founder and editor-in-chief of Rescripted, an independent online publication that covers theatre in Chicago. “It’s a lot of things at once,” they admit.
But Victor isn’t the type to go small. Take Rescripted, which they co-founded in 2017 in response to the lack of racial diversity and, as they saw it, “empathy” in Chicago criticism. In just two years, Rescripted has become a go-to hub for Chicago artists to read reviews, op-eds, and coverage of local theatre controversies (all the more essential since publications like Time Out Chicago have eliminated theatre coverage). It’s a part-time gig for Victor, but they devote full-time hours to it. In addition to editing and writing, Victor runs the Key, Rescripted’s training program for young and new arts journalists (a talent pool that American Theatre has occasionally tapped). Rescripted now has 11 writers, as Victor counts them “three white, eight POC of all perspectives, four genderqueer, and seven cis.” Six are Key-trained.
I recently spoke to Victor about why they founded Rescripted, why being an artist makes them a better critic, and what they mean by “empathetic” criticism.
DIEP TRAN: Tell me how Rescripted was founded. You had mentioned to me previously there was seed funding involved?
REGINA VICTOR: Yeah. So Rescripted started forever ago, in April 2017. Me and my friend Katherine O’Keefe had been considering some kind of critical platform for a long time. When I wrote “The Need for Cultivating Theatre Critics of Color” with Tanuja Jagernauth for HowlRound in 2017, that article really defined the critic as a gatekeeper who determines many things, like how a show sells, whether it’ll be produced again, whether those artists work again, if a company stays open. Recognizing that a lot of those individuals are predominantly white and male, which means the art that sells and continues to be produced is predominantly white and male, we decided to found Rescripted and have it be an artist-led program. The mission being to reprogram the way we engage with each other using an empathetic lens and cultivating critics and adding new voices to the field.
It really started as the two of us. And then we were offered fiscal sponsorship about a year and a half ago from the Friends of Chicago’s Neighborhood Theaters, which is how people can continue to support us, by donating through them for now. Now we have 11 writers, including myself.
Because you’re all artists, is that why there is a “bias alert” at the bottom of every review?
Yeah, because everyone’s perspective is unique, but we are all artists who are embedded in the community. Sometimes the bias alert is as simple as, “I actually tend to not love this form of theatre, and this opened my mind, but know that that’s the perspective I’m writing from.” Or sometimes it’s, “I know all of these people because I am a Black theatre artist.” Whatever our artists feel comfortable saying. I usually note if I’ve worked at a theatre in a calendar year, for example.
When I read great criticisms from people, writers I respect at major outlets, a lot of times that criticism is very personal, even though objectivity is what we’re taught—it’s something we hang onto, and I’m not sure why. I think it devalues what we’re talking about, because art is inherently subjective. I think it can be stronger sometimes for me to understand where someone is coming from, rather than seeing it as an objective fact.
Chris Jones wrote a really beautiful review recently of something I worked on, His Shadow. And what I appreciated about it was that he talked about his son and how he was a parent of a student athlete, and it was going to make him think about some of the challenges that his child may have to navigate being in that system. And I thought that was really powerful.
You trained as an artist, so how did you find yourself in the role of critic?
For me, being an artist-critic was very much a necessity. It is about creating a field that is hospitable to the work that I want to create, that I see my peers creating. For me that is specifically, like, Afrofuturism, non-linear storytelling, marginalized groups, and voices that are usually undervalued. I wasn’t seeing criticism that met those plays where they were. I was seeing a lot of criticism that was aspirational—writing about the play that you wish you saw, rather than the play that you actually saw, or assuming an artist made a mistake instead of a choice.
So understanding where the artist is coming from.
There was a lack of understanding of intention, and I thought that as an artist, I could help to bridge that gap specifically. We start the Key by saying, “Thirty people spent three months in a basement for $50 making this play for you. That’s where you start. They did it for a reason, so find out what that reason is, and then respond to how well they achieved that thing that they wanted to do.” It’s a very basic principle of criticism.
Do you have a long-term plan for Rescripted in terms of diversifying funding, and do you want to be full-time at some point?
I think the future of Rescripted lies largely in the alumni of the Key. The future depends on the people we’re training and the careers they want to have in journalism or not. Because I think, unlike a lot of arts organizations, when our mission is achieved—when criticism is empathetic and truthful, and a wide variety of voices populate the field—I hope we’re able to close our doors.
The things that make me happiest are when I see other outlets start to use a bias alert, or start to figure out how to navigate pronouns better, because of the way that we’re doing it. They’re actually changing the way they list folks—listing all of the creative team now, right? As a mode of historical recording in a review. That’s starting to appear more often than not.
So I’m interested in those kind of influences, and it’s not about the intellectual property or who is doing it first. I want them to do those things.
How has Rescripted become a resource for theatre companies, producers, artists in Chicago?
That whole thing of the empathetic lens and calling out and calling in is something I get asked about a lot. The definition of empathy is to understand and share the feelings of another person. This is definitely the root of Rescripted, around identifying the intention of a piece before responding to it. Our original mission is to critique with love. Love is a verb, it is a practice, it is a way of being. The foundation of love is truth. So if I love you, I can tell you the truth; there’s no decoration or self-satisfaction. But the trick in that for me is that the truth is inherently cruel. So if you’re making a business of truth telling, you have to also make a business of empathy. So that’s how empathy became the word and the mission.
Every piece that comes across our desk, I ask the writers and myself, if I were to read this piece to someone’s face, would it result in a productive conversation? People make mistakes, and often those mistakes aren’t noticed and they become normal. I think this does our community a disservice. If everyone is talking about it in a cruel manner behind someone’s back, my first instinct is to then translate that sentiment into something that’s direct, and true, and sometimes even funny. The person can’t solve a problem if they don’t know it exists, right? If you’re being called in, it means you’re not just relevant, but you’re respected. And I think that people often take offense to it when really, I think it should be considered a “yes, and.”
I don’t think any of these critical practices are set in stone either. So by talking about them in the shadows, it makes it seem like things can’t be changed.
Yeah. At [the 2019 TCG National Conference] I remember someone saying they were so frustrated with the local coverage and all our outlets. But then I was like, “Have you just written a letter to your editor?” And he said, “I didn’t know I could do that.” I was like, “That’s actually the problem.” The problem is that we’ve removed ourselves so intensely. And I understand why, because I’m constantly in contact with the community; I’m constantly getting inboxed about the things that we publish, right? I am having these conversations. I do understand how someone could get tired. How someone could be afraid. But I think that’s part of the work that we’re doing if we’re engaging in public discourse.
Well, speaking of public discourse, I really wanted to talk to you about, for example, in terms of calling in, the “Dear White Critics” series you have, where you lay out problems you see in reviews. Have those columns led to the conversations you hoped for, or did they lead to you rethinking the way you can make your case differently?
There has always been a response to Dear White Critics. It has never been directly to me. In every case, there has been some response that lets me know that the article has reached the person. If I say it, it’s because the community is saying it. And I think it’s fair to just bring it into the open so you can engage with it. I don’t think that opportunity has ever been seized upon the way that I hoped it would be.
Perhaps I’m optimistic, but if these critics were to write pieces in response to mine, not necessarily explaining or justifying anything, but just actively engaging with what they wrote, and why, and how they’re growing, I do think people would really appreciate it, because there’s so little accountability in our world. I’m just constantly trying to give people the opportunity to engage with that. It’s what we want, it’s what everybody wants. Everyone just wants to have a conversation.
I think it was fascinating, because I didn’t actually know that this is not normal until earlier this year—the way that I critique other critics. And it was surprising to me. And it is why I want to be clear in this interview about the purpose of it because, to answer your original question, I don’t think that there will be a shift in how I’m approaching it, mainly because those articles are so rare, but also, I hope I don’t have to write them again. I say that in every single one.
It seems like it’s also like an equal opportunity thing: If you critique artists and their practices, you can also critique critics and their practices.
Well, yeah, and I think perhaps because I am so critiqued by my own community, I thought that was normal. Do you know what I mean? Because to me, I’m like, this is really chill compared to some editor letters I get.
I think the first time we talked was when I read your review of Thomas and Sally at Marin Theatre Company, which was a really controversial play. It was striking to me that though you are an artist, you were not afraid to critique your fellow artists in a very direct way. Since you’ve seen firsthand the effects of things you’ve written, has that affected your relationship with other artists in the community?
I think that’s been a really interesting transition. With Thomas and Sally, I used to work at that theatre, and I actually did the research for that play. So when I wrote that, I actually called the artistic producer the night before. I do 24-hour calls a lot of the time, because I want to prepare them for the conversation, and I want to give them the opportunity to respond if they want to. Very few people have taken me up on the response. But typically, I make myself very available to have a conversation about what has gone on, like on the website, letting folks know that what I’m putting out there is because someone was hurting, and healing needs to happen.
I would say, overall, that this has not weakened the relationship. I think sometimes there can be awkward things, like, is this on the record? Is it not? But I’m really careful about hearsay. Really careful. I always go back and I’m like, “Hey, you said this to me once. Is that something that I could include?” Nothing is on the record unless they say it is.
I did have one moment where I went to a first preview of a friend’s show and the press person got in touch with them and asked if I was reviewing. Which led to understandable panic. So there are little things like that sometimes. But I would say that me being around has strengthened the relationships other critics have to the community. Because I’m at the opening party sometimes, and I notice now other critics are staying a little bit and talking to people about the art, which I think is really beneficial. Those tiny, tiny cultural changes are happening and it’s exciting.