In our celebrity-infected culture, the mass media glorify the exploits of famous people to all corners of the globe. Interviewers chase after pop stars, star athletes, top politicians, as well as popular film and TV personalities. Frequently it does not matter that these people have not achieved anything. They are known simply for their well-knownness.
Ironically, when it comes to covering the arts, the “new” media behaves pretty much like the dinosaur ones. Instead of acting as a corrective or alternative, digital media everywhere scare up gossip, tawdry scandals and freaky tidbits to feed the appetite for celebrity. According to web analysts, online publications cling to the number of clicks generated by scandals, controversies, nude photos and deaths to kick up their page views and boost their SEO numbers. In the process, they reward data-driven marketers and thrust their businesses ahead of the competition. Journalists and editors re-confirm this formula by churning out aggregated variations on what is plainly obvious: “It will publicly unfold online that ______ (insert celebrity name) will be determined to be involved in _______ (insert scandal/controversy here).” Good writing about theatre is, as ever, shunted to the dustbin of niche.
Given this state of affairs, critics who intelligently interview theatre artists are a special breed of advocates. They are serious thinkers deeply engaged with matters of the Art. They are torchbearers whose interviews become occasions for illumination. Theirs is a commitment that goes beyond opinion-mongering. Their work’s added-value issues from actually contributing new news to the culture: by edging us closer to the hearts and minds of theatre artists who are re-defining the scene.
Take, for example, the charming Indian critic Deepa Punjani who tracked down the Delhi-based director Deepan Sivaraman for this current edition of Critical Stages (CS). “This is just my second interview for CS,” Punjani tells me. “Previously I had interviewed Ramu Ramanathan, whose plays I hold in high esteem. Deepan and Ramu might as well be chalk and cheese, but both have strong roots in Kerala which have found expression in their work in very different ways.”
Sivaraman has been appointed Director of the International Theatre Festival in Kerala for 2014. “He is representative of the select few contemporary theatre makers in India who are perceptive about design and aesthetics,” states Punjani. “The light, sound and visual narratives are integral to his kind of work.”
The Bay Area teacher, editor and critic Lissa Tyler Renaud trips the design fantastic, too. She spent time with U.S. stage designer and painter John Warren Travis, whom she says has been “both an early and ongoing pivotal contributor to the dynamic Bay Area theatre scene.” She adds: “Not nearly enough has been written yet on the important early theatre work in the greater San Francisco Bay Area—classical, contemporary and experimental. Travis’s extraordinary sets and costumes were a significant part of it and deserve wide attention.”
Renaud charmed the Bay Area designer into sharing images of his sketches, designs and renderings so that the international world may peek into his artist’s portfolio. Renaud tells me, “Travis has a rare gift for articulating his visual work. Unlike my earlier CS interviewees—directors, actors, playwrights—Travis is both a painter and a poet. He talks not only about space, color and production concept—he also speaks wonderfully about text, and actors. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre history, and his engagement with a play is multi-faceted to a degree we encounter less and less; I am happy to capture a hint of it in print.”
An ardent follower of dramatists, the critic Irene Sadowska-Guillon often introduces us to rising personalities in the European theatre. She has an unerring eye for calling attention to French theater artists in particular. Nicolas Lormeau, an actor and director at the Comédie-Française in Paris, is no exception. Pop-culture vultures have probably heard Lormeau as the French voice of the British actor Colin Firth in the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, and yet his artistic innovation is what moves Sadowska-Guillon. Lormeau’s theatre work, she says, bears a “specificity that he has worked out for a long time at the Comédie-Française.” “Lormeau is an inventor of new forms of musical performances.”
Sadowska-Guillon praises Lormeau for a directing approach that “does not renounce comedy to augment his practice of scénic art.” “He has a special interest in the discovery of new texts by French dramatists and foreign authors,” she adds. “His ideas about how to stage classical texts is different from that which is ‘à la mode’ today.” By the latter she refers to the impulse among today’s directors to personally rewrite plays in production.
Imagine for a moment if the global mass media suddenly stopped paying attention to the same parade of film stars trawling the red carpet, the same creatures infesting reality TV, the same animals trapped in the cages of celebrity. Would an adulating public experience the pain of withdrawal from their addiction? Would the world end? Would fame-hungry vampires cease to exist? Would the true Theatre emerge?
It’s difficult to speculate what might happen. Because celebrity has become a metaphor for value in our modern society. Because celebrity has come to represent the power of “the individual” and the heart of capitalist culture as a money generator.
One thing is for sure. In the midst of an epidemic of fame and a quest for celebrity, probing conversations with authentically-centered theatre artists, such as the five interviews in this current section, provide an essential service to the field. They throw shining spotlights on a cultural firmament that is frequently ignored, neglected and overlooked. And they each have the potential to contribute to the creation of a lasting, generative legacy called Theatre.
 Randy Gener interviewed the French philosopher/playwright Jean-Louis Sagot Duvaroux and the U.S. director of hybrid theatre Phil Soltanoff in the current edition of Critical Stages. He is a George Jean Nathan Award-winning editor, writer, dramaturge, critic and artist in New York City. His official website is randygener.org.