When 3Views On Theater first emerged in 2019, its founders, playwrights Sarah Ruhl and the Lilly Awards, intended it as an alternative to the white-male-dominated theatre-critic establishment, and to the related notion of a singular critical arbiter—hence the name 3Views, which promised that a theatrical work would be viewed from three angles by three separate writers.
Around the time it was getting ready to launch, though, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench, and 3Views nimbly responded, employing editor Melissa Crespo to turn the site into a space for curated reflections from theatremakers and, most movingly, into an archive of “lost” productions, with script and score excerpts, set designs, sometimes photos from productions either postponed or suspended.
Now, with live, in-person theatre making something of a comeback—albeit a conditional and cautious one—3Views is ready to return to the fray with a trio of new co-editors: arts and culture journalist Brittani Samuel; Sarah Rose Leonard, a dramaturg and live events producer; and critic and arts journalist Jose Solís. The rebooted site will kick off Oct. 11, with plans for a monthly theme centered around a single show, to be considered from three angles by three separate contributors.
It’s a fascinating and promising idea, and as fans of criticism in all forms (including forms yet to be minted), we at American Theatre couldn’t be more excited to see it. In the dialogue below, 3Views co-founder Sarah Ruhl interviews Jose, Sarah Rose, and Brittani about their new project.
SARAH RUHL: Can you tell me what this reboot will be like and what the evolution of 3Views will be in these amazing new hands?
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: During 2020, 3Views served as an archive and holding space for the theatre community’s thoughts and feelings during the shutdown. It remained this way until the one year mark of the pandemic. I assisted editor Melissa Crespo as she compiled productions that had been shut down, commissioned artists to capture what they were going through, and spotlighted projects and emergency grants that were coming through. We hit a point where we had gathered as many shuttered productions as we knew of on the website. (Note: If people still want to submit info about a shuttered production, they can write to us!) Melissa said that she’d like to move on, and that she’d like 3Views to go back to its original mission if and when live theatre came back. That moment of return, however shaky, feels like now.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: What normally happens when a show opens is that there’s an onslaught of reviews that come out from very familiar names that have security at their major publications. They are staffed writers with titles like “chief critic,” and that’s wonderful, but these people get to hold on to their titles for literal decades. It actively prevents new voices from lending their opinions to a production or piece of work. It not only discourages diversity, it discourages novelty. And I think what we’re offering here 3Views is the opposite of that, because for every single production we cover, you’re going to get multiple viewpoints. It’ll be an interview, a review, and a “purview”—a poem, painting, song playlist, or other nontraditional offering from the creative team itself or a contributor reacting to the show. All of this is going to be done by different human beings. You don’t have to have a degree in journalism, you don’t have to have experience in a newsroom or at a publication for blank number of years. The only thing you have to be committed to is curiosity and your desire to thoughtfully engage with the work. That’s what we’re putting into the world.
JOSE SOLÍS: I remember when I got that phone call from you and Melissa over a year ago, and the first thing that I thought was: Sarah Ruhl remembers me. That’s one of the most beautiful things about this enterprise for me. I’ve always advocated for there to be collaboration, more playfulness, and less antagonism between critics and artists. So when you wanted to bring me on board for this, you just gave me my dream assignment. This is the world that I dream of when it comes to criticism and art.
SARAH RUHL: I think it’s extraordinary synchronicity: that there are three of you, first of all, but also that it’s particularly you three. I saw Sarah Rose at Berkeley Rep, not long ago, and was amazed by her dramaturgical skill. I met Brittani at Signature and she’s been doing incredible work across the board in so many different disciplines in the theater. And Jose, I had the pleasure of meeting you through Jonathan Kalb, at a Theatermatters panel, which is great, because critics get to talk to writers—and why can’t we talk to each other? It’s absurd. What do you see as the function of criticism?
JOSE SOLÍS: There’s many hats that a critic wears. And unfortunately, because of the way modern criticism has been structured by legacy media, to turn critics into marketing aides and have them doing consumer reports, instead of actual reflections and criticism, we’ve forgotten about what critics are supposed to do. The most important one for me is that of being a mediator between the art and the audience. And by that I don’t mean someone who has to explain what the work is about, but someone who uncovers layers of meaning and aesthetics, and who relates history of the arts to the piece they’re reflecting on. That way they can get the public interested, not because it deserves a rotten tomato or a fresh tomato, or any of that nonsense, but because a critic helps illuminate what the work is saying about humanity.
During the pandemic, especially, our job was to be historians. I think, for instance, of how much comfort and warmth I got from reading reviews of plays from the 1920s—shows that have never been revived and I will probably never be able to see. But because critics made sure to write about those pieces, I could dream of things that were happening a century before I was even alive. During 2020 critics did just that. If we still have a planet Earth, fingers crossed, in 2121, people are going to know what theatre was being made during the pandemic. And that makes me excited, because it makes me feel like we’re part of history. I don’t mean that in some grandiose way. But it’s like we’re doing the mission that we were sent to Earth to do, which is to preserve, nurture, and continue loving this art form.
SARAH RUHL: One thing that’s moved me so much in your criticism, Jose, is that you bring your own personhood and subjectivity to the review process. To all of you, is there such a thing as objectivity when it comes to criticism?
BRITTANI SAMUEL: The word exists, and there’s a definition for it. But that is not what we’re putting forth. We’re very much leaning into personhood, as he said, and subjectivity, because why deny that that exists? And rather than ignore it, and try to put on some façade, why not use it to actually engage with a piece? Why not use it as a critical tool? To speak to your question about the function of criticism, sometimes it’s just an extension of the art! As in, if you go and consume a piece of art in order to connect with the story and connect with other people, why can’t you get that when you read the review of the show? Again, with our mission of bringing in more folks, I think we’re gonna seek a lot of younger people and people of color to write about these shows. Not that you have to capitalize on your identity in any way, but you damn sure have to bring your full self to the piece, just like you’re going to bring your full self to the theatre that day. If you had a bad day, if your mom yelled at you, if you didn’t make your bed, whatever the case may be, bring that here.
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: This is uniquely bizarre when it comes to theatre. If you read a book review in The New York Times, that writer—who is sometimes a very known entity and sometimes not—is valued for their opinion and the writing itself is upfront about that. It’s weird that in theatre, which is seen by people who are sitting in the dark together having a communal yet deeply individual experience, we walk away thinking that there’s one experience to have, and that a reviewer’s experience is the one that should seek to replicate.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: Amen. I think there’s this weird thing that’s been happening with critics or people reacting to critics where they’re like, Oh, did this critic get it right? Like, there’s no way to get it right.
JOSE SOLÍS: I have a question for you, Sarah. Listening to Sarah Rose and Brittani, and your question about objectivity, made me think about how, though I’m not an actor or a theatremaker, I kept thinking about how many times I remember the experience around a performance more than the performance itself. I’m never going to forget the guy who dumped me hours before Moulin Rouge, which led me to find a last-minute second date. It was also raining and I had a cold. So I wondered for you, Sarah, if it’s similar: When you reread your work, or when you’re seeing a different production of your work, do you remember exactly where you were sitting when you wrote a line, or how you were feeling when you created a scene?
SARAH RUHL: Yes, I could tell you blocks I was walking on in New York while dreaming up different moments. That’s something I love about a physical book, because the sense memory of the book helps me remember where I was, and who gave it to me, and what I was feeling when reading it, whereas theatre is so like lightning in a bottle. It passes through you where it was. I love all that granularity. I would love to read that review of Moulin Rouge!, and hear about the general shittiness going on as you walked into the theatre.
One reason there was this impulse for 3Views to begin with was there was a lot of rage. I don’t want to start with rage. It’s always better to start with love. But many writers and artists I knew who felt like the reviews were not speaking to their ideal intended audience. Women were not being reviewed by women, people of color were not being reviewed by people of color. Brittani, I love what you said about identity not needing to be a barrier. But I do think who we are in our bodies does affect how we see things. Do you feel criticism, as it has been written, has been helping plays reach their intended audience?
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: Yes and no. It’s a guarantee that at some point in time, you are going to walk into something you thought you’d like based on a review and not have the same experience as the critic. I wonder if criticism can be a way to acknowledge that you actually might not like something and here’s why it’s worth trying it out anyway. I wonder if critics and theatres can work together to give people signposts to hold on to, so when they go to a show, they feel like they can have a little bit more legibility.
SARAH RUHL: I would like to know what the critics’ favorite 10 songs were and what songs they hate. Then I could be like, Oh, well, but they also hate Bob Dylan. So I might like what they hate because they hate Bob.
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: I know you said to not start with rage, but I think it’s a very natural starting place. We’re all here because we read something we thought was unjust, unfair, perhaps unkind. As a result, we are motivated to ask, what’s the positive solution to this? I’m curious about what it might look like to have an honest and compassionate response to a play that we had a negative reaction to, or maybe even felt indifference.
SARAH RUHL: I’d love to say something about compassion for critics, who exist within a system that doesn’t give time for reflection, that sometimes doesn’t pay second-string critics enough to properly have time to read and write and do their job. That encourages a certain attitude that can be like consumer reporting. I don’t think individual critics are to blame for this entire theatre system where critics have become marketing. Who would continue to love theatre if one’s job was that hard, to see a play nightly, with no time for reflection, no time for love? So I love that you’re taking your time, doing one play a month. I think about the tenderness with which we will come back to the theatre after this time, the miracle that we’ll be able to be in the same room together. Will our criticism reflect that? Or will we kind of go back to a Top 5 list? Do you all have hopes and dreams for how we’re coming back to the theatre?
JOSE SOLÍS: One of the things I also keep thinking about hearing you talk, Sarah, is how my least favorite thing about contemporary criticism is this notion that a critic has to be right, when there is no such thing as being right. I’m one of those freaks that thinks that you should show the world what you love rather than show the world what you hate. That’s why I am always wearing the artists that I love. I have my favorite artists tattooed all over me because I want the world to know who I am.
So this notion that your review has to be right is just so preposterous and so ridiculous. Because it means that you’re asking the world to freeze you in this specific moment in time, when one of the most beautiful things that we have as human beings is our ability to grow, to change and to learn, and to be wrong. I love that criticism creates this possibility, an invitation to humbleness, to see what a critic saw that we didn’t. I’m not saying people are gonna come and change my mind about something either—people always try to tell me how much Taylor Swift sucks, but they don’t know my history, how I fell in love with her music thanks to a piece of criticism.
One of the things that I hope that criticism does, after the pandemic, is precisely that: to remind us of uncertainty and why being in the moment is essential. I hope these scary times remind us nobody cares if we’re right or wrong. I don’t want it to be morbid, either; I don’t want everybody every review to be about death. I want every review, and every piece of criticism, to be about celebrating life, and acknowledging that, oh my God, we pulled through this.
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: It’s hilarious that you said you don’t want to be morbid, but inherently theatre criticism is a eulogy. Right? The play will eventually end, but writing about it lives on.
JOSE SOLÍS: Maybe I want writing to celebrate my life at some point, instead of telling people if I had a horrible death!
SARAH RUHL: Brittani, I saw you nodding at points.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: Wait, Jose, we never talked about the fact that I am one of the people who thinks Taylor Swift sucks. But that’s neither here nor there.
I actually did see a Broadway show recently; I went to the first preview of Pass Over and I specifically turned down any offer to write about it. For a minute there, I was like, why would I deny an opportunity if I’m trying to be a critic and a writer? But I hope whoever is writing about theatre now can take a second to just enjoy it as well. I know that’s a privileged thing today; make no mistake, I have another full-time job. But when you can take a break, when you can take a moment, and just go there without a notepad or a pen or the script in your email inbox, and just remind yourself that you enjoy this, whether you enjoy the play or not, you enjoy this habit of going to the theatre—if every once in a while, you can remind yourself why you’re still a “chief critic” after 2,000 years, please do that. It just might motivate you to lay the ego down and do everything in your power to make sure the person next to or behind you gets a chance.
SARAH RUHL: I think theatre has so many lessons to teach us about being present in a world where people increasingly don’t feel present. What you’re saying, Brittani, about coming to the theatre as a critic and being present as we come back without a notepad, without observing one’s thoughts, but just experiencing for a moment, seems like a prayer—seems right.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: Or a meditation. A way to practice gratitude for this theatre thing we are still fortunate enough to have.
SARAH RUHL: That speaks beautifully to the mission. I also feel like I need to know if Sarah Rose likes Taylor.
SARAH ROSE LEONARD: Ha! She’s a guilty pleasure listen for me. I do think 1989 is a very good album.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: I can’t, I can’t…
SARAH RUHL: Next issue: three views on Taylor Swift.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!