by Lissa Tyler Renaud[1]

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Looking at Ellen Margolis’s professional life, it would be easy to think that the playwriting profession is not a difficult one in America. In fact, it is a credit to her enormous gifts and discipline that Margolis is thriving in her work in such a challenging field.

Already in 2004, Margolis won the New York Fringe Festival Award for Excellence in Playwriting, and in 2012 she was winner of Oregon’s Portland Civic Theatre Guild Award (Drammy) for outstanding achievement in playwriting. For the nearly ten years in between, Margolis has also been a finalist repeatedly in prestigious competitions, both in her current home state of Oregon and nationally. She has had her plays workshopped, produced at theatres and festivals, commissioned, awarded grants and published, all with unusual consistency. As a point of fact, she is currently working on not only one but two commissions, including a full-length play for Southwest Stageworks. She has also taken on leadership positions in the field, including serving as Literary Director for the International Centre for Women Playwrights from 2002 to 2004; she is a founding member of Playwrights West, Portland’s new-works theatre.

Margolis brings to her playwriting a profound and longtime engagement in the theatre. She earned an MFA in acting from the University of California at Davis; she went on to be awarded for her acting, as well as to work professionally as a dialect coach and voiceover artist. Margolis earned a PhD in Theatre History from the University of California at Santa Barbara, publishing and speaking in the field and, as a professional director, has gone on to be awarded for her directing. She is Chair of Theatre & Dance and Director of Theatre at Pacific University in Oregon. She is also, she says, mother of “two very noisy boys.”

It was delightful to have the following exchanges with Ellen. She is articulate, thoughtful, unpretentious and funny. You can see her for yourself, and see photos from some of her plays, here:

As a playwright, how has technology changed your relationship with the traditional “theatre critic,” now that anyone can write a review of your work on his or her blog, or tweet that everyone should see or not see your play?

My groundwork associations with the questions are: PR is now in the hands of artists; bad reviews have devastating economic potential for self-producers and small companies; playwrights need to know how to recover from a bad review (both PR-wise and personally); or, ten things I’m not thinking of… But before looking at the role of critics in the playwriting world, I want to note the narrowing of opportunities for playwrights in the past decade. Since 2001 (and especially since 2008), many established theatres in this country, no longer able to sustain themselves economically, have shut down. The ones that have stayed open have done it by making deep cuts. Frequently, literary departments were perceived to be non-essential and were eliminated. Literary managers and dramaturgs with 20-30 years of experience were replaced with unpaid interns fresh out of school. That’s if they were replaced at all; in many cases, theatres that had regularly presented new work now judge it too risky.

It used to be difficult to get a new play produced. Now it is difficult even to get a play read by anyone at a theatre that might have the resources to produce it, and seemingly nearly impossible to get a production.

I can imagine that’s the trend, yes. And where does the critic fit into this picture?

Personally, I have what may be an unusual relationship to critics. I’ve been much more aware of them as a theatre-goer than I have as an artist. Whether in cities I’ve lived in or cities I’ve visited, I’ve always figured out who the trustworthy critics are and (equally important when I’m considering how to spend an evening) who shares my taste. Until the last few years, I’ve generally been a voracious reader of the theatre section in any paper I could get my hands on. I’ve saved well-written reviews of shows I’ve seen and even of shows I would never have a chance to see, simply for the insights and good writing. Will anyone believe that last statement? It’s true. I love theatre so much that I save well-written reviews of shows I have never seen.

On the other hand, as an artist—well, I’m not one of those people who doesn’t read reviews, but I’ve read them pragmatically: will this keep people away or will it send them to our door? Many artists I know, in all fields, have the curse of remembering their reviews verbatim and seemingly forever. Perhaps because I don’t linger over my reviews, I don’t have that curse. (Now I ask myself how I have the useful gift of not obsessing over reviews, and I think the answer is that, when I first started out, I was surrounded by people who insisted “Never read them!” so I’ve treated reviews as radioactive and only allow myself a quick glimpse.)

That’s an important distinction you’re making—between reading critics as someone going to the theatre and as someone working in it. Tell me more about the situation where you live and work.

In Portland, Oregon, we’ve seen a sort of shutting down in the world of journalism over the past few years that’s been similar to what I described with theatres and literary departments. The Oregonian went from a daily paper to four days a week in 2013. At that time, it laid off many staff members, including its longtime theatre reporter, who was the one seasoned professional theatre critic in town. Now the reviewers here are (this will sound familiar) inexperienced and not particularly qualified. Other cities have seen the same sort of movement, from the Village Voice on down the line.

These changes on the newspaper front, of course, are a result of the proliferation of electronic media. Not only have blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., arrived in force, but they’ve all but pushed out print in many markets. So the ability of anybody with an opinion to reach a wide audience has replaced the outlets where highly qualified critics once delivered thoughtful criticism.

Truly, people who used to grab the Theatre section, as you describe, are now checking in with a blog, or getting a tweet saying whether to see or not see a show. So fewer reviews in the media means people rely more on social media—and in a vicious cycle—with more people relying on social media, the media that used to pay critics feel like they don’t have to anymore. Is there a way to “save” the profession?

Funny, just this morning I saw a line—”The Internet: where 13-year-olds can pretend to be 40-year-old movie critics.” The thing is, they really can’t. What real critics can do that “anyone” can’t do, or 13-year-olds or whatever, is practice the art of criticism. Which entails appreciation of history, understanding of form, the ability to distinguish thoughtful and arbitrary choices, fulfilled or failed choices, and text versus directing versus acting versus design!

Then do you see criticism as an art? One art form about another art form? Are theatre critics “theatre people,” or more like journalists?

Well. Hmm. I do think of it as an art, actually. But my sense of art has become absurdly generous. Like “anything that’s done with care and sustained human attention and a dash of hope.” I suppose even journalism (the old-fashioned kind, done by journalists) could be considered an art by that definition. Is that crazy? I’m almost breaking things down along a dividing line between that which is done with care and understanding vs. that which is just tossed into the air, or maybe (is this it?) highbrow vs. lowbrow.

I think what critics can do is provide criticism that’s of actual value! But to save the profession? Yikes. My first thought is to create their own outlets and establish brands—which is what artists across the board are now under so much pressure to do. Maybe this means publishing beautiful little broadsides or booklets?

And my second thought is to embrace the educational aspect of criticism, including educating people on the value of quality criticism.

Say more about these? I think a lot of people don’t really understand that criticism is not an “opinion.”

We fall back on this idea that a review, say, is “just one person’s opinion.” OK, that’s inherently true. But there are opinions that are well informed and opinions that are not. I have read negative reviews of work I love, including my own, that are well informed and therefore command my respect.

For you, as a playwright, what is that value? I mean, one odd thing about criticism is that it often identifies problems with a text or production after the production is already up. If they have such good ideas, why aren’t they dramaturgs, helping before the thing is in front of the public? Who are they talking to? And what makes it worth it to listen to them?

It’s OK to think they’re talking to the playwright, partly; plays do keep evolving even after their first production. Or even if the playwright’s not going to revise, I can envision that a critic’s review feeds the writer’s thinking about future projects, or about their body of work.

Maybe what I’m thinking of really is dramaturgy, or one of the functions of dramaturgs or literary managers at big theatres these days, which is outreach, preview articles to orient the public, study guides, engaging in pre- or post-show talks around performances, and so on.

You’ve said such important things about the function of traditional criticism and dramaturgy. Do you have more thoughts about how criticism has changed with the internet, and especially: what the new possibilities are. What should theatre criticism be now?

I can’t get excited about someone tweeting from the back of the house, and it doesn’t mean a lot to me when somebody posts on Facebook “intermission at Othello it’s SO AWESOME,” though I guess that’s nice for the producers.

Maybe the best case is that criticism becomes more of a conversation than ever. Critics can respond to each other more swiftly; they have access to the same channels and so on. Artists, too, can respond and draw out dialogue much more than in the past.

If critics take the lead more in terms of community and culture, they could focus on posing questions to create virtual town halls of artists and audiences. Questions about individual productions, and also questions that allow productions to speak to each other—then they would do a real service by energizing the community of theatre-goers.

Where do they do this now, though? On their own blogs? How do they live? These are tough questions. Pretty soon, critics will need patrons just like theatres and playwrights always have.

Personally, what do I hope for? I hope for somebody to come to the theatre with an open mind, to recognize what I’m trying to do (whether it’s done successfully or not), and to respect the effort enough that they respond with actual care. If that is the case, I don’t think it matters much what medium is used.

Now that’s pretty interesting. How could all this work for you as a playwright? Support your work? Help you develop your work? Connect you to other playwrights? Would YouTube play a role, or other video? Would there be moderators? What is the line between strangers exchanging opinions and well-informed strangers offering useful remarks? I am reading this question everywhere: how does the online stuff, all the social media, how do they change the ballgame, as it were? It clearly changes politics, the economy, fundraising—the medical “profession,” etc.—but also book-buying. So nobody knows and everybody is wondering. So your ideas are making a contribution.

Inherently, if there’s a lively conversation about new work going on, every playwright’s boosted by it. If I’m included in that conversation at all—even if it’s “Ellen Margolis’s dismal attempt at the same themes last year makes Annie Baker’s brilliant new play all that more impressive”—I’m part of the world of people worth paying attention to, at least. And even better if critics are drawing comparisons, not evaluatively, but just “Play A in Istanbul uses this convention, and how does Play B in L.A. try to work with similar conventions?” (Michael Feingold was one of those critics I often read just for the pleasure of his insights, and to get a sense of work that I may never see. He often did articles that looked at how a theme was coming up in a lot of American writing, or other kinds of round-ups. That, I think, is very useful.)

Now, maybe here’s a positive change emerging from new media and globalization: critics can get their hands and eyes on more theatre than ever—if some of it virtually—and have more ability to know what’s going on worldwide, and much more access to each other than ever before.

As for the how, I don’t think it matters so much. An energetic virtual conference a couple of times a year could be brilliant. Supposing there is a Critics and Artists forum of really passionate people. Twice a year, a themed online conference that lasts a few days (I’m thinking mostly posts and conversations, but also some video to point to examples. Every two years, a real conference for everybody to meet and talk in person.

All of this makes me feel much more like critics are allies rather than darkly lurking evaluators, which is nice!

One more thought: I seem to be predicting or calling for a shift of some of the work done by theatre’s literary departments and dramaturgs, as those positions are disappearing from theatres. Maybe a plus to this is that if, say, an introduction to an important but seldom produced play appears in the newspaper (or its online presence) rather than in a playbill or a theatre’s website, it reaches a more general audience?

Is there a political dimension to all this? I mean, who has access to online media, tech gadgets—and even to the theatre tickets themselves?

Politics? Access is a big issue, for sure. In Portland, it’s conventional for theatres to comp critics and to comp members of the Drammy Committee (our theatre awards circle) as well. One relatively new critical presence is a couple of guys doing a weekly podcast who refuse to have their tickets comped, but that’s going against the grain.

Side note: their podcast format is reviews plus an interview every week. They are doing well with that format, and are respected. But then, there’s a question of devices. Most everyone seems to have them, with the exception of some people over 50 and many people over 60. Theatres may not care, because they take the older patrons for granted and are in a constant push to get younger audiences (largely to ensure a future).

An issue of criticism I see is that moneyed theatres are consistently accused of being conservative, and theatres with little money are credited for being risky and progressive. Or sometimes money isn’t even the determining factor, but for some cocktail of reasons a theatre or playwright or even a play or production will get labeled as “safe” or “subversive.” In any of the above cases, those labels may or may not be valid. And it can be confusing then to read reviews if you don’t understand the context. And there are perceived to be critics’ favorites and so on. It’s really kind of small-town politics.

Well, it’s very heartening to hear from a playwright who has found theatre criticism worth thinking about in such a rich variety of ways. Thank you.


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[1] Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training, based in Oakland, California. She has taught, lectured, and published widely on acting, voice, body alignment, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico, Russia and Sweden. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Council grants, she is an award-winning actress, a director and popular recitalist. Publications include her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009, 2011) and her chapter on Stanislavsky’s voice and movement work (Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013). Renaud is Senior Writer for Scene4 international cultural magazine, and founding co-editor (English) of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.

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New Media: An Energetic Virtual Conference? ━ Interview with Ellen Margolis, playwright, director; Chair of Theatre, Pacific University