Last month, there was a meme going around, started by a Twitter user named @stfutony, who asked, “There’s only ONE MONTH left in the decade. What have you accomplished?” That Twitter account has since been suspended, but the reverberations of that question echoed throughout social media, giving people license to brag, to reflect, and to snark (my personal favorite: the Twitter user who remarked, “I have taken many excellent naps”).
The simultaneous innocence and intimacy of that question led me into a kind of personal tailspin. My first reaction was to say, “Fuck you, dude!” aloud at my phone—as if, besides back pain, I needed another reminder that I am getting older. My second reaction was to ask myself, in one of those dark-night-of-the-soul moments, what the hell I have been doing the last 10 years.
The beginning of this decade was filled with transitions for me. In 2010, I graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, then moved across the country a month later to start a graduate program in arts journalism at Syracuse University. That year, I experienced my very first white Christmas when it snowed in Syracuse for seven days straight; the snow banks were so tall, they threatened to swallow me whole.
In 2011, I graduated from Syracuse and a month later was hired by American Theatre as an editorial assistant. Contrary to what I told then-associate editor Rob Weinert-Kendt in the job interview, prior to getting hired I had never picked up the magazine. I was a digital native and the magazine, at the time, did not have an active website. I did say in my job interview, though, that I wanted to build AT a website (which I wouldn’t get to do until 2014—an indication of how slowly things can move in the nonprofit world).
Those first years on the job, I felt un-moored. I was copy-editing, proofreading, and fact-checking, but I was bored. I didn’t get to write my first real feature story for the magazine until 2012, though not for lack of trying—I pitched plenty of ideas. But a monthly publication schedule didn’t lend itself to much day-to-day writing. I have since discovered that some of my best work comes when I’m either feeling excited, angry, or bored. Growing up as the youngest of four siblings who were wide apart in ages, I spent a lot of time alone. During the long summer days, when my parents had to work, I was told to stay inside and not answer the door. To pass the time, I became good at crafting castles out of bedsheets, reading long novels, and writing original stories. So as an adult, when I’m bored, I start creating.
I wanted to write, and I wasn’t writing enough at work. I started pitching to outside outlets, initially with hesitancy, then extremely shamelessly. I got my first New York Times byline in 2014. I learned that editors need content, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to send them all of your ideas, even if they’re not always fully formed. The worst thing that can happen is they say no. But no editor will blacklist you unless you miss a deadline.
At American Theatre, I started pushing more aggressively. I stopped taking no for an answer. When I believed in a story, I annoyed my co-workers enough until they finally let me work on it. Which is how my stories about immersive theatre and student loan debt got published in 2013 and 2014. Then in 2014, alongside former senior editor Suzy Evans, I built and launched AmericanTheatre.org. And just like that, the magazine started publishing daily instead of monthly. In being called on to feed the great maw of the internet on a daily basis, I started writing more at work.
In 2015, Rob Weinert-Kendt became the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. An editor-in-chief sets the tone for a publication, and with his encouragement and support (and similar trouble-making tendencies), I evolved into my next phase: to be “the person who tells us what we’re doing wrong,” as our publisher, Terry Nemeth, calls me. That year was when I went viral for the first time, penning an op-ed that called out the theatre industry for continually casting white actors to play Asian characters. The pushback I received for that piece was intense, but it was overshadowed by the support. For the first time, I received comments and emails from people who thanked me for saying the things that they couldn’t, for shedding light on an important issue very few people in the theatre industry were willing to talk about, and for giving them the courage to speak up. That same year, I also had the privilege of editing playwright Dominique Morisseau’s essay on theatre etiquette and white elitism, which remains the most-read article ever on our website (it regularly alternates in first place with my 2017 essay on Miss Saigon, depending on which piece is being taught in colleges at the time).
When I was first hired at American Theatre, I thought arts journalism was two things: reviewing shows and interviewing celebrities. But as I’ve grown in my career, I realized that it has become something else for me: Journalism is an act of service. The theatre industry, like most industries, is notoriously tight-lipped in many sensitive areas: compensation (or the lack of it), race and power dynamics, and sexual harassment, to name just a few. Those in power would rather you, the reader and the viewer, look at the art and not look too closely at what’s going on behind the curtain.
I got into arts journalism because it seemed easier than hard news reporting. But as I grew in my career, I began to crave the difficulty. The stories that became the most valuable to me were the ones that were the hardest to write; I took a month to research and write the magazine’s first #MeToo piece (and spent many more months writing follow-ups). As is often the case, those difficult stories were the ones that most needed to be told; many in power would rather they stayed behind the curtain, and those who were powerless needed the microphone.
I also learned the hardest stories are also the most impactful. Eight years ago, when I first started at American Theatre, writing critically about the field and its struggles around diversity, cultural appropriation, and gender parity—and calling out specific instances of injustice—were topics the magazine seldom if ever addressed, and that most artists were afraid to speak about. Now they are frequent topics of conversation and coverage, and many artists are committed to addressing them. While there’s still further to go, I like to think that me and the team at American Theatre have helped contribute to some positive change.
Over the years, the editorial team has had many lively arguments about those stories, how they should be told, and whether a magazine published by a theatre nonprofit (which comes with its own conflict-of-interest baggage) could or should tell them at all. We’re still having those arguments.
And I hope the person who replaces me at American Theatre will continue to have those arguments. As I write this, I am in my last week at American Theatre. Next week, with just three weeks left in the decade, I will start a new job as features editor of Broadway.com. To my successor, I say: Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself and your ideas, and to question what is being covered and how coverage can be improved. Remember that not only can strong institutions withstand a dose of skepticism—they need it. My hope for you, at this jewel of a magazine, which has inexplicably stayed alive while so many others have folded, is that you will get to tell the stories you’ve always wanted to tell, and discover new ones that need to be told.
For the last eight years, I’ve been lucky to have American Theatre as a core part of my life. It was my first adult job, and my only job, and in today’s world of continual media implosion, having a consistent journalistic home is no small thing. But as I close this chapter and enter the next, I want to especially thank you, the reader. Your encouragement, support, input, and love have made me a better journalist and theatregoer, and given me courage and conviction when I was afraid to speak. Thank you. For all the theatre people reading this: Continue making messy, innovative, beautiful, and provocative work. I’ll be there in the audience.