Some years ago, while covering a show at the Off-Broadway theatre complex 59E59, I sat next to a fellow critic I hadn’t met before. (We can always recognize each other by the press kit folders we’re handed.) I’m not by nature a gladhander or business card giver, but as an editor at American Theatre I always keep an eye out for promising arts writers. So after chatting with her a bit, I gave my card to Maya Phillips (she/her), who was covering the show for Harlem’s Amsterdam News, and tried to stay in touch over the ensuing years, as she moved on to other jobs, including that of copy editor at The New Yorker and published poet.
She eventually wrote a few pieces for us before being snapped up as one of a large cohort of young journalists in a one-year fellowship program with The New York Times, where she was the designated arts critic of the bunch, with a theatre emphasis to boot. (She was already doing frequent freelance theatre reviews for the Times.) We couldn’t have been happier to see it. But there was one unexpected catch: The fellowship began in June 2020, by which point the coronavirus pandemic had rendered theatre, not to mention theatre criticism, a screen-lit ghost of its former self.
So, in addition to a number of reviews of Zoom plays and even a few live offerings, Phillips stretched out and wrote about a panoply of other cultural subjects, from television to movies to music to candy. And in December the other shoe dropped, in a good way: The Times not only brought her on full-time as an employee beyond the fellowship. They also designated her a critic at large—a job title shared by precious few at the Gray Lady (Wesley Morris, Amanda Hess, Jody Rosen), and which gives her a more-or-less blank check to write about arts and entertainment subjects and trends that strike her fancy.
So have we gained a new drama critic or lost yet another theatre talent to Netflix? Thank Thespis: Theatre remains Phillips’s central focus and passion, she told me in a wide-ranging, inspiriting interview last month.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I offer you my hearty congratulations.
MAYA PHILLIPS: Thank you.
Tell me about the “at large” designation. Do you find that exciting, daunting, or both?
Oh, I love it. I think it absolutely fits what I like to do and the range of my interests. I do love theatre primarily; that is my main beat. But I believe that culture should be looked at comprehensively. That’s personally how I engage with it. I find all these ways that things intersect across various mediums. I find that really fulfilling and exciting. So I’m glad that I can continue doing that, and look at TV shows and plays and movies and whatever else crops up.
Is that something you lobbied for, or was it something that has become necessary during the pandemic, with theatres mostly on pause for now?
It was a combination of all those factors. When I came in, they had a very specific idea that I was going to be seeing shows every night. I was super excited; I was ready to be at those Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway theatres basically every single day. But the pandemic hit right before that. Gilbert Cruz, the culture editor, had already talked to me about the possibility of writing about various other disciplines, because he knew that beyond being a theatre person, I was also interested in various other areas of entertainment culture. But it made a lot more sense once the pandemic hit and there wasn’t as much theatre to review, especially in the early days, before people started really getting going with the readings and Zoom performances and whatnot.
I had a conversation briefly with Wesley Morris once about being a critic at large, and he said he basically could write about whatever he wanted but he had to sort of check with the other department editors to make sure he wasn’t double-dipping or stepping on any other critic’s toes. Is that how it works for you?
A lot of that has to do with just me being in communication with the various editors. Each desk works differently. When you’ve seen me do movie reviews, I’ve gotten those as assignments, and those are usually keeping in mind what my interests are. But I have the most space in theatre, which is my main beat. So it’s a combination of me meeting with Jesse Green and theatre editor Scott Heller and planning out who reviews what, and the rest of the time I get to pitch notebooks. With the other departments, I usually try not to step on anyone’s toes; I know a lot of newsrooms can be very competitive that way, and certain things belong to certain critics who’ve been there a while. I totally respect that. So if there’s something really big that I want to have a say about, I usually try to find a more interesting angle into it if it’s already being covered. Because we don’t need three reviews of the same thing.
It may be before your time, but many folks look back on the days when the Times had the Sunday critic—basically, Vincent Canby or someone would write a column taking another look at plays that had already been covered by the daily critics, sometimes giving them another shot or knocking them down a peg, but in any case giving a second opinion. I know that’s not necessarily what your job is going to be, but will you have freedom to write about the same thing someone else did, even to argue with them about it?
Yeah, that’s very satisfying to me. If there’s a show or movie or a play that’s really kind of buzzy in the cultural conversation, and a bunch of our writers are also talking about it but I see something that someone may not have pointed out, or I disagree with one point—obviously, those are the pieces where the internet likes to come after me too. But I still find it really really satisfying, especially when people reading it are like, “Oh, I was trying to find something that reflects my thoughts on this thing that I haven’t read so far, and I’m so glad you brought this up.” I love that.
There was a piece by the art critic Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post about how the pandemic has forced him to just think about what he actually wants to write about and what he has to say, as opposed to just covering his beat—like, I’m going to this opening, there’s this assignment, and another one, etc. Obviously a big part of criticism is just reviewing what’s out there, what’s sent to you. But that impulse to say, “I haven’t seen anyone write about this, I’m gonna be my own boss, I want to write about this”—like, it’s a real gift not only to have those ideas, but to have a place to put them, right?
Yeah, I mean, there have been a lot of bad things happening this year, obviously. But the good thing about being a critic during this pandemic is that it forces us to be flexible in a way that a lot of critics may have been resistant to. I think it’s really essential that we don’t lock critics in this very strict, old-fashioned idea of what criticism is and should be. The pandemic has emphasized that there should be a broadening of ideas of how the arts interact, and in theatre, what the art form even is. That’s really intimidating but also exciting, and I’m fortunate to be stepping into this space on such a large platform at such a strange, experimental time.
Speaking of broadening, I know there’s been a lot of talk about critics being too white, too male, too of a certain age, and—one of my hobbyhorses—not as diverse as the art onstage has increasingly become. That’s been changing a bit for the better in recent years, and your hire is part of that trend. I’m also eager to see diverse voices brought in to write about everything, not just work by folks who share their racial background: Vinson Cunningham on Will Arbery, Soraya McDonald on Oklahoma!, Jose Solís on Brian Lobel.
Absolutely. It’s obviously a problem that there’s not more diversity in criticism. And when there is a person of color who’s a critic, there’s a very good chance they’re being tokenized; if you’re a critic of color, that’s just something you come up against in your career. It’s an unfortunate reality. A lot of these critics of color are not in a position where they feel like they have the authority or agency to speak up and represent themselves in a way that is not just as the token on staff or token freelancer. But to the extent that they can, I think part of that is on the writer to feel comfortable enough to say when they feel they should be the voice representing whatever art—and if they don’t want to be, that should be okay too. That’s a function of how comfortable they are speaking and how the newsroom is set up, if the editors are aware of the nuances of that, and whether people are looking out for those writers. That’s the thing that doesn’t often happen; even if you have the writer of color there, they don’t often have the support.
I’ve talked to a lot of artists of color over the years who are tired of the idea that there is one anointed spokesman or reference point for their identity—that there is room for only one Black genius, or woman genius. In the same way that’s not a burden any playwright should have to bear, I don’t think it should be placed on critics’ shoulders either. I see you wearing a Marvel shirt; knowing you a bit and having read you a lot, I feel like your nerd identity and your background as a poet is as much of what you bring to your work as is being a Black woman writing for the Times.
Absolutely. I’ll also say that there’s also a pressure that comes from the artistic community and from the audience to which the art might be speaking. I’ve gotten feedback like, “You’re being too critical of this, Black artists like you should be supporting this genre,” as though criticism is automatically in opposition to the art. My reply would be: I would not be picking this apart if I didn’t have respect for it. This is my way of engaging with it, holding it to the same standards as other work. I think that we’re doing the works of artists of color a disservice if we’re not taking them seriously.
NEWS: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be an arts critic. I DREAMT of being a @nytimes critic & was determined but wasn’t sure if it was *actually* doable. The last few mnths in the fellowship confirmed this is my dream & NOW IT’S OFFICIAL: I’m a permanent critic at large
— Maya Phillips (@mayabphillips) December 10, 2020
There’s a joke you’ll sometimes hear that no kid dreams of growing up to be a critic. But there in your tweet you said that had long been your dream. You are also an artist, but I wonder, what was the thing that made you want to be a critic?
I suppose I was a very strangely ambitious and practical child. I definitely said I wanted to be an artist; that was always a given for me. I said, “I am a writer.” I didn’t think that would be separate from my career. But pretty young, I understood that I couldn’t just whip out a novel or something at age 30. I still had that as my goal, but I knew that I needed a backup plan. I really liked journalism, but it took me a while to figure out that there was a fun way to do journalism. I wasn’t a fan of reading the news. But, probably when I was in middle school, my dad started bringing home copies of the Village Voice, and I would I pick up the Times, and I was like, “Oh, wait, there are arts sections, and these people, all they do is write about movies and TV and plays? Like, that’s their job—they get to think about culture as a job?” That absolutely blew my mind. I was like, well, that’s obviously what I need to do.
What steps did you take to get there? Go to journalism school, start writing for newspapers?
Pretty much. I remember always having arts criticism as the final goal in mind, but it was hard to be in a position where I could do that, and that remains true—there aren’t that many jobs out there, and not a lot of publications have arts coverage anymore. In the meantime, I was like, I’m going to just pick up as many skills as I can to make sure that I have everything I need to eventually be in a position where I can become an arts critic. That meant I learned news reporting, and I hated it, but it taught me how to be a reporter. That’s useful for me to know. I learned copy editing, fact checking, and just picked up everything I could. I wrote about music, even though I knew nothing about music, I wrote about plays when I could get into see a play, and wrote about movies—just anything I could kind of get my hands on, to get as much experience as possible. I did a crazy number of internships in college and cast around for so many jobs. I really kind of hustled and tried my best to just get it done.
Did you have any critical models?
It was a little spotty, because in my house we didn’t like consistently get papers. I remember reading A.O. Scott, who is now my mentor, and his work I still find just stunning. I really love Dwight Garner’s reviews too. When I was at The New Yorker, I of course loved Vinson’s work. I like the way he thinks. I really value Richard Brody; he’s a person I love talking to about criticism, and he’s the model of the delightfully contrary critic.
I do love that he often functions as a corrective to Anthony Lane, and even to some of the Pauline Kael legacy that lingers around that magazine.
Yeah, I love how brave he is, and that’s still something I’m getting used to—trying to toughen myself up. Obviously I’ve written for some big publications, but as soon as you start writing for the Times, everyone has various very loud thoughts, usually on social media, about the way you do your job.
I cut my teeth as a critic before social media, and I almost can’t imagine what it’s like to do front-line criticism in the age of Twitter. Do you spend a lot of time muting your Tweets and blocking people, or do you get into it with folks?
It really varies day to day. Actually, let me be more specific: It varies piece to piece. There are pieces where as soon as I send a pitch to the editor, I’m like, lol, people are going to be mad at me on Twitter about this. I’ve just been trying to prepare myself for those moments and take a lighthearted attitude to it. Because even though I did grow up with social media, I’m certainly not immune to the sinkhole it can become, where you can easily get sucked in and it can be a really toxic place, with people being really cruel and nasty, and also petty and stupid, for no reason.
Was it your Last Airbender piece that got the most flak?
Yeah, that did have a lot of pushback on social media. I got a lot of emails about that too. It’s hilarious to me, because I absolutely love that show. But it’s just a TV show. Like, obviously I’m a nerd, and I understand fandom, but I don’t get being so offended to the point that you’re attacking someone for having a different opinion. It was that piece, which I published pretty early on, and then more recently, my Lovecraft Country piece, people were also mad about.
It does seem that if you come after certain franchises or pop stars, you get torched on Twitter, but less so theatre. There are controversies, but people don’t seem to pile on quite the same way.
Yeah. I think when there is talk in the theatre community, it can be more around the show—for example, for a while everyone was talking about The Prom. The theatre community is smaller, and it’s certainly more insular than, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where everyone and their mother has an opinion about the latest Thor movie. I think it’s also the nature of the art form; you approach a big blockbuster fandom or franchise differently than you’re going to approach, say, an Off-Broadway show, right? There’s just a different scale involved.
Fan reaction aside, do you feel more free to bring out the heavy artillery for a big movie with a huge ad budget than to take cheap potshots at an Off-Broadway play?
I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. I mean, there is some truth to it; I subscribe to the view that you do have to be at least somewhat aware of the scale of what you’re reviewing and the amount of resources and the work that went into the product. Because even if you’re totally hating it, if you’re being a little bit flippant, one would hope that you still took that time, however many hours or whatever, to think about the work that went into that product. One of the tricky things about being a critic is determining what tone to use. That’s not necessarily contradictory to the idea that you need to be honest, because of course, you always need to be honest; it is simply, how do I deliver this in this context, in a way that is helpful, that’s informative to the readers? And secondarily informative and helpful to the people who are doing the art. And also to be fair; and fairness means that you can’t necessarily judge everything on the same playing field, because not everyone’s playing the same game.
I interviewed Ben Brantley recently, and I was curious to hear his thoughts about his taste-shaping power and whether he wielded it consciously. I wonder if you have thoughts about your power as a critic to shape not just what the audience watches, but even what the field might do. Or is it too early in your tenure to talk about that?
When I consider that question, the thing that comes to mind is that I do want to see theatre that is more diverse, in terms of the people onstage, the people who are behind getting things onstage. And also in terms of diversity of form itself, different structures, different content. I think it’s perhaps a plus in the pandemic that it has forced people to think outside the box and reevaluate what theatre is and can be. That’s really exciting.
In terms of using my influence as a critic—I don’t want to be like the voice of God. I would never want to be that. It’s really difficult with an institution like the Times, because there is that status, that prestige and privilege attached to it. But I definitely don’t want to be the main voice, the main name on the marquee, like, “Maya says this is a great show!” Even though that’s gonna happen, and has happened in ads and whatnot. That still baffles me. The thing that I want as a critic is to help readers and artists engage with the work in a way that is thoughtful and is more of a dialogue. It’s about the way I think, the way I write; I don’t always have a sure idea of, you know, the show was good, the show was bad, because most of the time things fall in between. I love figuring that out through the process of writing and having the reader along with me to do that. I love that more than being this powerful figure. That is what I want out of criticism, and that’s what I aspire to do.
Have you been reviewed as a poet? And did it feel weird to be on the other side of that?
Yeah, I had a mini-review in the Times. Stephanie Burt had it in a roundup when it came out. And yeah, it is strange. I’ve had other reviews of my work too, and thankfully they’ve all been positive, at least the ones I’ve seen. But it’s anxiety-inducing, so I totally understand that. That’s why I will never take it for granted what I do, and I will never take it lightly. That’s also why I get frustrated with Twitter trolls who are like, “Why can’t you just sit back and enjoy this?” or “You’re just being mean and petty because you’re sitting at home smoking crack or something.” I actually got that because I disagreed with something.
Yeah, I find the most annoying comments to critics are the ones that don’t even engage with the arguments and just say, “Why can’t you just enjoy it?” It’s like, that’s not the job. I love your idea of criticism being a dialogue, but I feel like so much of the way people engage with each other about art anymore is with these quick hits—they read a headline, they read a tweet, and respond. I start to seriously wonder how much people value criticism that’s longer than a tweet. Obviously, you do and I do. You’re younger than me; without asking you to speak for your whole generation, do you feel like there are lot of other folks like yourself who still want to read and engage?
I think so. I absolutely believe in that. And I hope I’m not being naïve here. I know people like quick hits and whatnot, but people also still love digging into works that they have strong feelings about. And even if they get angry about the criticism and say, “Why aren’t you enjoying this?,” those people are still reading the pieces, because they had the thing to get angry about. So obviously, even if they disagree with it, they’re still engaging with it. I don’t know, I absolutely believe in criticism. I think criticism is essential. It goes hand in hand with the arts. I think that’s something to remember.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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