Critics are leaders, whether they like it or not, and that’s abundantly true of Jose Solís, who’s been covering theatre, film, and the arts, including for The New York Times and American Theatre, for nearly two decades. From the time I started working with Jose, he’s shown an entrepreneurial streak, particularly in the creation of Token Theatre Friends, a podcast and web series bringing a person-of-color perspective to the performing arts, with then-senior editor Diep Tran. (They took it independent earlier this year, and you can go and support them here; you can find a backlog of their AT shows here.)
Now Solís has done it again: taken initiative when he saw a need no one was filling. In this case, it was a case of him taking note of the relative scarcity of theatre critics of color, and wanting to do something about it. Galvanized by protests and the belated consciousness-raising that followed George Floyd’s murder in May, he started a lab for folks who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), supported with a GoFundMe campaign, and began to teach a curriculum to a group of young future critics. Now he’s gotten official backing from Kennedy Center, under the auspices of its college theatre festival, to do another round in November: His BIPOC Critics Lab is now accepting submissions through Oct. 30. Over 10 weeks, critics will “begin by defining ‘What My Criticism Will Be,’ and finish by having their first paid piece published in a journalistic outlet or the materials of a partner theatre company.” They won’t be reviewing the work for that final piece but covering it journalistically in some way, and their work may take the form of traditional writing or “listicles, original podcasts, or audiovisual creations.”
It’s a bold and exciting effort, standing athwart not only the still predominantly white and male critical establishment but also flying in the face of an arts journalism field that was already crumbling before the pandemic tanked the economy and closed most theatres. I spoke to Jose recently about his experiences, his impressively sanguine outlook, and his Twitter feed.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: It’s been a while since I spoke to you. I keep up with you on Twitter and you seem fairly busy. Apart from Token Theatre Friends, have you been doing other freelance writing?
JOSE SOLÍS: Not really. I’ve done a couple of things for Backstage, and since March I’ve done one thing for the Times, and I do a monthly blurb for the weekend paper. Otherwise everything has been pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty dry.
What better time than to start a BIPOC critics’ lab, right?
Yeah, I had basically needed somewhere to channel my energy.
From Twitter, I recall you talking about having left a critics’ organization, basically because of racism, and felt the need to help create your own institutions for critics of color. Is this effort related to that?
Over the summer, I quit the board of the Drama Desk. I haven’t quit the organization, but I quit the board as the protests were happening over the summer. I was the only BIPOC member on the board, and I’m still the only BIPOC member on the nominating committee. And it sounds very grandiose, but having to carry the burden of representing BIPOC people and concerns without any help or guidance or anything from the organization—it was just too much for me. I had to move people to do stuff around the time of the protests; no one thought about why Black Lives Matter was important. Also I was the only person on the board who was actively trying to recruit members of color, and then I would have them blocked by the very archaic, very nonsensical membership process they have—just more gatekeeping. They were asking me to do the labor and then doing nothing with all the work I had done. I just got frustrated, and also I felt really guilty; I was like, how am I recruiting people to come into this place where I’m being treated like this?
Is that what made you want to start the BIPOC Critics Lab?
Actually I had been trying to do this for years and years. After I came back from the National Critics Institute at the O’Neill, I started thinking: There were like 14 of us in my cohort at the O’Neill, and only two of us were BIPOC. I don’t think until TCG did the Rising Leaders of Color with TJ Acena in partnership with O’Neill that they any way to secure a spot for a person of color. So for many years I would talk to people, including the Drama Desk and people who wanted to invest privately, people who wanted to help out and help me figure it out grants. I didn’t know how slowly everything moves in the U.S.
Yes. So the O’Neill maybe has a better record in the years since, but it’s true that there’s no equivalent effort designed expressly or predominantly for BIPOC folks. And you felt the need for that?
Yeah, because we are left out of this conversation. The last thing I’m proud to have done as a member of the Drama Desk board was that I started this demographics survey, because I wanted us to be very transparent about who we are; I think if we don’t show the world who we are, we’re never going to be able to change. And I never mean to do this these things as an attack or as a mea culpa, because I think that’s bullshit, but I want us to be self-aware. If we don’t look ourselves in the mirror, how are we going to know what we need to change? So I would advocate for this and I would get into very loud arguments with people. I’m never going to forget that during a Drama Desk membership meeting, an elderly white woman got up and she said, “Don’t those people”—you know, meaning BIPOC critics—“don’t those people have their own thing?” No, we don’t, ma’am.
And I’ve encountered it when BIPOC artists would ask me or Diep to cover their shows, and I wonder, why are just a few people being asked to do all this? There should be a wider field. There should be an army of critics so that just the few of us don’t have to do all that. I mean, I love my work; I love going to shows and interviewing people, but it’s not fair for us. And it’s also not fair to the people who don’t even know that they can be this. I’ve always believed there are more people like us—it can just be a few of us, right? There must be more people out there. So I’m not big on sports metaphors, but I figured if I built a lab, it was very Field of Dreams.
They would come. So you’ve already started a version of the lab you’ll be doing at Kennedy Center, or is this a sort of beta test?
Around the time of the protests, I was so discouraged and so sad about not being able to do anything. So I started developing my own program. My mom is a pedagogist, and I got in touch with her and said, “I want to talk to you about this thing I want to do.” I explained to her my idea for a syllabus that would basically break with the idea of like academia—like, I don’t believe that being a critic requires a lot of academic preparation, to be honest. What we’re doing is just giving opinions, basically. So my mom said, “What you want to do is called disruptive education. You’re trying to break the system that’s already there. That’s going to be complicated, but it’s going to be fun.” So I developed the program over 10 weeks; I saw it as giving people 10 master classes, teaching them basically what I didn’t know when I first got to New York—the things no one teaches you about. Like, I don’t know if anyone taught you in school how to pitch or how to talk to a press agent, that kind of thing. People expect us to know that on the spot, and even among colleagues we tend to be very secretive about what information we’re sharing with each other. I’m all about transparency.
So over 10 weeks, I want participants to be able to get out in the world and know what they’re going to be dealing with. The most important thing for me—and it’s the one thing that most programs don’t have—is that at the end of the program, I want them to have a published piece somewhere and I want them to be paid for it. Asking that in the middle of a pandemic is kind of insane—I mean, I don’t even have assignments. But once I developed that pilot program for research, I realized that I wasn’t really doing a pilot program—I was already doing the program I wanted to do.
So how did you set up a paid piece for them?
What I did was, after I ended my first Zoom with the cohort, within an hour I started emailing people I know, artistic directors from various companies, saying, “You know, it’s time for us all of you to become involved.” And since there are really no outlets right now—I explained to them I’m not even making money, I’m freelancing—I think it’s the responsibility of theatre companies all over the country to nurture critics. I made agreements with eight of them that they would commission and publish a piece by each of the people in the current cohort.
It was a little confusing to them at first; they were like, we don’t want to pay for press, but I explained to them, you’re not paying for press, ’cause we’re not going to be reviewing anything. All of the writers are going to be doing either a feature, an essay, or a Q&A with artists in the upcoming season. A lot of the companies told me that that this had come at the right moment, because there was a lack and there was a need for those voices to be out there right now, with what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in the theatre. People didn’t want to go back and just start publishing pieces by the usual suspects.
And you’re lining up publication deals for the full program as well?
Yes, I’m already working on it. My idea is to at some point have every theatre company in the country involved with this. That way they can’t complain about one or two newspapers or publications being the only ones covering their work; we can not rely on one big newspaper in every town to be the only critical voice that matters.
I mean, in some markets you can’t even rely on that—the big paper, if it even still exists, just isn’t covering their work, especially work by smaller or newer companies. So what kinds of things are you having your writers do, in absence of plays to go see?
See, that’s another thing that’s really important to point out: The program isn’t necessarily only open to people who want to be critical as writers. It’s very important to me to open this to people who want to not write. In fact, one of the things I included in the form to apply was that I even welcome non-verbal applications. I mean, I love writing and I know you love writing and we love words. But I think that written criticism is a form of gatekeeping; you know, English is not my first language, for instance, and I know colleagues for whom English isn’t necessarily their first language and are very self-conscious about their grammar and about their spelling, and that keeps them from even trying. But they know how to speak—they know how to communicate. So I also want people who feel more comfortable with podcasting, or feel most comfortable making videos, to be able to make space for themselves. That is also a very cutting-edge form of criticism.
I mean, you’ve seen what Diep and I have done with our show; you saw us grow and try new things. So it’s very important to me that we leave room for experimentation and fun. So among the things we have been doing with the first cohort is that they’ve watched some of the plays that PBS has recorded, but they’ve also been engaging and things like the Corkscrew Festival.
That was fascinating.
Yeah, super cool. So each had to turn in a very short audio exercise, and in the most recent session we worked going over how to do a personal essay. I just want them to be very comfortable with all this, because the field demands that we do so many different things that we are not taught how to do. I had never been on a podcast before before before Lindsay Barenz invited me to be on Maxamoo, and I had never been in front of a camera before I was like, I want to do Token Theatre Friends. But these are the things we need to try out. And there is no lack of theatre to watch right now; in fact, one of the biggest challenges for me every week with the current cohort is narrowing down the things that I want them to watch.
On a personal note, Jose, I’m impressed that you decided, “I’ve done this for a while, I can teach it to others.” That’s confidence I don’t necessarily have, except within the scope of my job, and I just wanted to ask you, did it take a leap of faith for you to just say, “Yes, I’m an authority on this”?
I don’t know. Now you’re making me nervous! Maybe this sounds like bullshit, but I every time I write something, every time I record an episode of the podcast, every time I teach a class, every time I talk to students, I’m taking a leap of faith. I’m terrified each and every time. I don’t know where I’m gonna land. I don’t even necessarily know that I have anything to teach, but all I know I can do is share my experiences, and I think that’s teaching. One of the very first things I told the current cohort was, “In this space we’re in right now, there is no right or wrong.” There is no power structure, which is why I don’t call them students; I call them future critics. I’m learning from them as much as I hope they are from me.
One of the most beautiful things, and I promise that this was a coincidence, is that we meet on Sundays. I was very aware that there’s so much going on right now in the world, and the last thing I wanted to do was to add the stress of having a session on, like, Wednesday at 10:45 or something. That doesn’t fit into the real world, which is one of the things that programs and workshops often demand of people; if we want to be a part it, we have to take time off work, stop living our regular life. So we settled on Sundays, and they’ve kind of become like church. Our sessions started at 60 minutes, because I want to be very respectful of their time. And now we end up talking for over two hours sometimes, and it’s become a really beautiful space.
A published piece of criticism is far from being the last step in the process; that’s when the conversation should open. So if there’s something that I really want the future critics to learn it is that your voice is not some holy mandate. It’s not the last word.
I wonder if you could talk about social media, and whether that’s part of what you teach or talk about in your sessions?
Yes, it’s very important to me that they know very well the importance of social media. As much as Twitter can be a complete hellscape, like you said, you keep up with what I’m doing on Twitter. And I’ve had really great professional and personal things come from Twitter. But why I love Twitter so much—I’ve muted the president, obviously, so I don’t see anything of what he says—is that when I was growing up, I used to read Lisa Schwarzbaum’s film reviews in Entertainment Weekly, and I would have imaginary conversations with her, like, “Lisa, why do you say that? Why do you think about that?” The beauty of Twitter is that critics are there and those conversations don’t need to be imaginary anymore. And I want my future critics to be comfortable with that.
For me, a published piece of criticism is far from being the last step in the process; that’s when the conversation should open. So if there’s something that I really want the future critics to learn it is that your voice is not some holy mandate. It’s not the last word. We are there to talk to people, to maintain dialogue, to have a conversation with them.
That conversation can get ugly, though, can’t it? This gets to a larger question I have about criticism, not just in the academic sense but in the literal sense of being critical, like occasionally saying negative things and rendering judgments. It’s also related to the relationships you’re forming with theatre institutions. Do you feel you have the freedom on Twitter, where theatre artists and institutions follow you, to say, “That was disappointing,” or, “What’s up with that?” Or if theatre companies are paying your future critics for their writing, is their room for their honest perspective?
I know what you mean, but the idea of conflict of interest for me is another form of white supremacy and gatekeeping. One of the things I tell the critics and everyone who asks me about criticism is that I would never write, or say on a show or a podcast, something that I wouldn’t tell the person to their face. And if we remove the layer of cruelty and meanness in the current critical establishment, where trashing a show is almost like this Joan Crawford spectacle, where people love sharing mean reviews and love making fun of people—if we removed that meanness from criticism, most of the times we would realize that those reviews have really nothing to say. They’re just bullying, right?
For me, conflict of interest cannot exist if we are treating each other like human beings. And what I want to bring back is a sense of kindness—not bullshitting kindness, or a fake being-nice-to-people kind of thing—but humanity, you know. I want critics to remember that every piece of art, especially if it’s a show, especially if it’s theatre, there are hundreds of people whose work is on the line. Everyone put in time and effort and love into what they’re doing. It’s very Mr. Rogers, but I tell them to be the kind of critic you would want to know, the kind of critic you would want to go to for conversation. Not for advice, not for recommendations, but just to talk about art.
I hear what you’re saying, but I want to push on one thing. You seem to be framing critical meanness in terms of punching down, and this is a very real thing, because the most powerful critics are still mostly white men and they have positions of power, no question. But is there a place for criticism that fearlessly calls out theatre’s excesses, its biases and racism, that takes note of lazy or bad playwriting or producing? After all, not only critics have power; theatres, especially but not only commercial ones, have advertising money behind them and institutional power, and that needs to be critiqued fearlessly and independently. Is there room for the jeremiad in your view of criticism?
Yeah, of course. But as long as it’s being framed, not only by the critic but by the media that they represent and marketers, as opinions. ’Cause criticism is opinion. It’s a matter of taste. And what bothers me is when those who have too powerful a critical voice are able to leave people without work, and when critics enjoy the idea of having that power, like, “Oh, I can close the show with that.” That’s not cool. That’s not fair. The other thing I hope we get to see less of is: I feel that some critics are frustrated script doctors, and instead of dealing with the piece of art they have in front of them, they deal with what they could have written and what it could have been. Who cares? This is what we have to work with, so talk about this. Not understanding the choices the artists made because you wouldn’t have made them—that’s not criticism.
I was teaching a criticism class to a bunch of kids, like sixth graders, and I was trying to find positive examples of critics in the media, and there aren’t any! There’s Addison Dewitt, Anton Ego, the character that Lindsay Duncan plays in ‘Birdman’…We’re all seen as monsters.
You mentioned you don’t think there’s necessarily an academic requirement for criticism, and I agree. Do you feel that one area of education critics could use is to do more reporting and journalism about theatre, to see what the people involved are doing, and learn more about the process, so that they better understand what they’re evaluating?
I’m glad you mentioned that because when I was on my soap box, I forgot to talk about that. That is precisely why I don’t believe in conflict of interest, Rob, and why I think conflict of interest is gatekeeping and white supremacy. I was listening recently to Eula Biss, she was talking to Krista Tippett in the On Being podcast, and she was saying that because of racism, white people have lost the possibility of having meaningful relationships with BIPOC members of the community. I feel that kind of applies to critics. We have removed ourselves. We have excluded ourselves from being part of the ecosystem because we think that we belong outside.
I was teaching a criticism class to a bunch of kids, like sixth graders, and I was trying to find positive examples of critics in the media, and there aren’t any! There’s Addison Dewitt, who’s delicious but so fucking evil. There’s Anton Ego in Ratatouille. You remember the character that Lindsay Duncan plays in Birdman? She’s vicious. We’re all seen as monsters.
The thing I love about Anton Ego is that although he’s portrayed as a villain—and he looks like a cross between Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley—he is won over by the end, because he actually has the humanity and the taste to recognize, “Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” I think he’s sort of vindicated by the end. At least, I hold onto that.
Oh, totally, but by then the movie’s almost over, and he’s spent his entire life suffering. But I don’t think you, and I know I definitely don’t, go to the theatre hoping to take something down. Every time I see a show, even on Zoom right now, there’s a sense of possibility and wonder. I keep telling people that critics have more in common with cheerleaders than any other profession that I can think of. Because we love this too much, we love talking about this so much, that’s why we barely make any money from our profession.
I want to bring critics back into the ecosystem. Imagine how much we have lost as critics because we don’t come to rehearsal, because we don’t talk to directors about their process, or we don’t talk to the actress, because we’ve always been on the other side. We have lost so much. I think it’s time remind us that we’re on the same team.
I agree with some of that but I don’t think I’d put it that way. My feeling is that the value of a critic, what they uniquely have to offer, is their own subjective response, and the job is to be as honest about that as possible. And many people don’t have the strength of character, if you want to call it that, to be as honest as they could be if they feel like they’re going to damage a friendship or a future paycheck, or get dragged on Twitter. I want to make sure there’s room for the independent, subjective voice, and that’s what’s endangered.
Speaking of endangered, the field of arts journalism isn’t exactly bursting with opportunity, so what posts are you educating these future critics for? Or do you think it’s another case of, if you build it they will come—that these are the voices the field has been missing, and maybe one reason arts journalism is in decline is because these folks have been shut out?
I think that precisely. We have maintained for so long that the critics are on pedestals, like we are the Supreme Court. That’s not who we are really. And the thing that excites me so much about this cohort is that there are people among them who don’t want to be quote-unquote critics, but want to be, for instance, cultural moderators, like have their own talk show, that kind of thing. And if we give people the tools and show people what the field looks like, and if we allow people to fall in love with the field and to play with the playwrights, maybe with the actors, who knows the kind of flow we can create? Maybe being just a critic doesn’t make sense anymore—obviously it makes no sense. Like, if I only wrote reviews, I would starve even more than I’m starving now. It’s a time you have to wear so many different hats. So basically I kind of think of myself as someone giving people their new spring wardrobe.
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