Diep Tran and I worked together at this magazine for nearly a decade, and if I may say so myself, those were exciting and interesting times for American Theatre, not to mention for the American theatre. In her writing for the magazine she covered everything from trends in immersive theatre to plays about young girlhood, from the crushing impact of student debt to the struggles of survivors of abuse and harassment in the workplace, from leadership turnover to the economics of Off-Off-Broadway. A certain amount of her work was what you might call meta-critical—i.e., writing and thinking about how the theatre field is covered, whose voices get elevated and suppressed, and how to diversify not only the subjects we cover but our own ranks. Along those lines, she gave this influential speech and co-created the podcast Token Theatre Friends.
Diep’s talent and entrepreneurial drive, and her often well-founded critiques of the theatre industry, made me think she might seek and find work covering another field. While I’m sure she considered that road, I was heartened to learn a little over a month ago that she and I are colleagues again, albeit on different mastheads: Diep is now the new editor-in-chief of Playbill, the leading publisher of theatre programs as well as a full-time theatre news website.
At the end of her first eventful week there, I got together with her over lunch in Queens to talk about the new job and what she’s been up to in the years since she left AT. (Note: After we spoke, Playbill made news for going dark on Twitter in protest of the site’s “tolerance for hate, negativity, and misinformation”; by email yesterday, Diep told me that while she supported the decision, it wasn’t her call, though she can apparently take credit for the priceless headline “Bye Bye Birdie.”)
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations. Does this post put you in charge of both the website and the print publication?
DIEP TRAN: Yes, both the programs you receive at Broadway, Off-Broadway, and major regional houses—I edit the articles in those…
And the restaurant listings?
No, someone else does those. I don’t endorse restaurants! And then I also oversee the daily online publication. My friends have told me I am Playbill. No pressure! [Laughs]
Does Playbill have other platforms, like podcasts and such?
We have video. It’s quite a contrast with American Theatre: We have a staff photographer, a staff videographer. And right now I’m ideating not just print content and web content, but also video, Facebook, TikTok—I’m going to help figure out how to build up a bigger social media presence. It’s a big job!
I know you just started, but can you give me an impression of where Playbill is now and where you want to take it?
For context, I’m on Day Five. I’m really proud of how fast Playbill gets things up—we really want to be the first to break a big piece of theatre news, and I rely on the diligence of the team for that. Right now I see my job as really deepening the features that we do, to really ask more probing questions of our sources, and to write longer features that may not fit on a 400-word page in the program. Right now a lot of people who work in the field are being a lot more honest about what it is to have a life in the theatre, and I want Playbill to be the place where they can voice a lot of their dreams and their concerns.
I know that Playbill doesn’t publish theatre criticism.
Right, but we do publish roundups of reviews, so those sites do get the clicks. We’re doing our part to foster criticism!
It is a time of change and challenge in the field, and in your time at American Theatre, you did help push the magazine toward airing more of the tough conversations folks have been having about equity and access. I know you’ll never publish criticism in the sense of reviews at Playbill, but what about content that is in some way critical of the field?
I literally just got here, Rob! You know, it was a struggle at AT and always a developing conversation; we had to have a discussion about how we chose to do it and it took time. With this job, I came in Monday [Oct. 17] and right away had to figure out how to cover the Sara Porkalob 1776 controversy, and have it be more than just a list of tweets, but to really think through: how do we do this fairly? How do we give credence to both sides on this issue? The good thing is, I don’t need to opine about the state of the industry; the artists are already doing that. I think the job of Playbill is to give them a platform.
You’ll recall that one way AT has covered inequities in the field is to lift up the folks that are “doing it right,” which implicitly acknowledges that there’s a problem that most companies and leaders are not addressing. Is that one way Playbill might approach these issues as well?
The baseline for Playbill is always to be a celebratory publication for theatre. I think that’s what readers expect from us, and that we give them backstage access to artists. So that’s not going to change. The change is going to be pushing the publication and the field at large to go deeper on these issues, to go deeper on, what does it mean to want a better theatre industry? How do we get there together? What happens when we don’t agree? And not to be afraid of the hard questions.
Do you still think of yourself as a theatre fan, despite all its problems?
I mean, I wouldn’t have taken this job if it wasn’t still driving me that way, because this job is difficult. There’s a lot that will be asked of me, and I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel I had the capacity to give—not 100 percent, because we all know that’s impossible. As Sara Porkalob would say, you’ll probably get 75 percent of me on any given day! And I’m high-functioning; my 75 percent is top-tier work.
But it’s been complicated. We’ve been through a pandemic, and I was incredibly burnt out after being on staff, after all the energy I had to put into my career at that point. Playbill offered me this job in 2020—well, it was managing editor, because it was a pandemic and they had downsized, but the duties were the same. In 2020, I didn’t take it, because I didn’t feel like I had the capacity to do it. I don’t want to take a job for ego or for a title or to go to fancy parties—I would rather stay home, honestly. I want to take a job where I can grow, that will challenge me and push me further, and also where I can make an impact and help others to grow. Two years ago, I didn’t think I could be an editor, be someone’s boss and help nurture someone else’s writing. Because to me, when you become a manager, you are becoming a mentor. You are putting other people’s careers before your own, putting your own ambitions aside so you can build the skills of the people under you and help them find their own voice. There’s a selflessness that comes with that. Two years ago, I couldn’t put the oxygen mask on another person first.
And you’ve developed that strength since then?
Yes, and I have less to prove to myself and the industry. That’s the reason I decided to go freelance for two years, because I’d never done that before. I wanted to see if I could survive on my own, just by the strength of my writing. And I did. I made great money. I wrote for all these places I’ve always wanted to write for, and wrote some big, challenging stories. I got to develop my voice as a theatre critic, and I realized that writing reviews kills me a little bit. So when this job came around again, I thought, well, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, and I felt like I was ready to do it. Even though it also terrifies me. So I’m scared—excited and scared.
That’s an inspirational story, I have to say. Maybe you can give me some more inspiration on our last subject: the state of theatre journalism and arts media. I have to say, I’m always on the knife’s edge between despair over the loss of paying jobs for folks like us, and excitement about new voices entering the conversation, new media, new conversations. How are you feeling about our field, Diep?
After having survived as a full-time theatre journalist the past two years, I’m pretty positive about it. When I was first hired at American Theatre 11 years ago, you could count on one hand the number of theatre journalists of color in NYC. That number has grown, you can now count us on two hands! It’s not where it should be, and no one is getting paid what they are worth. But I cannot afford to be cynical when there are young people who are hungry to become journalists. It’s my (unpaid) job to lead them down the path. I do tell them that it’s a tough road, but if you have stories inside you you want to tell, keep pitching, pitching, pitching, until someone lets you tell them.
On the artist side, I remember when I was first hired at AT, I was told that we couldn’t critique people in the field, and slowly that changed. I remember when I was writing about Miss Saigon and about cultural appropriation, I got so much hate for that, like I was raining on everyone’s parade, on the magic of Broadway. But the conversations I was trying to start and was interested in having, about not just art but also impact—those are now mainstream. It is no longer taboo to say that theatre is not diverse enough. So I think at AT we showed how, if you cover something honestly, if you ask the right questions, you are not going to risk people not wanting to talk to you anymore. Most theatre outlets are afraid of asking the tough questions. There’s a perceived risk, but the actual risk is very small. People are learning you can actually say the quiet part out loud and there will be folks who support that. And that may lead to a greater conversation than has been had before, and it will lead to better articles and better writing and better ways of thinking.
Better theatre too.
Exactly. I think we do theatre a disservice when we don’t talk about it honestly.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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