jakub | August 7, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Reviewing the Situation With Sara Holdren and Jackson McHenry

Jackson McHenry, Sara Holdren.

When it comes to the perpetually endangered field of theatre criticism, I say: the more the merrier. So I was happy to learn that New York magazine and its online arm Vulture have adopted the two-critic model of The New Yorker, the magazine to which its last lead theatre critic, Helen Shaw, decamped last year, joining Vinson Cunningham on the beat. New York/Vulture now has a similarly able duo: Alongside longtime entertainment reporter Jackson McHenry, who in the interim has been handling most theatre reviews and news (as well as a dishy but meaty newsletter, Stage Whisperer), will be Sara Holdren, a theatre director who stepped into the job for a brief and blazing tenure from 2017 to 2019. She starts back at her new/old job on Aug. 14.

I spoke to McHenry and Holdren about their shared role, the responsibility of critics, and the challenges the field is facing.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Sara, I’ll start with you. Can you tell me a bit about why you left the job in 2019 and what you’ve been up to in the interim?

SARA HOLDREN: I left mostly because I was fighting a combination of burnout and feeling like my director muscle was a little undernourished. I really wanted to get back to feeding that side of who I am. At the time I had a couple of really exciting projects coming up. I worked on a production of Merchant of Venice, and I worked on a production of Twelfth Night that opened in February 2020. So everybody stood there and sang, “The rain it raineth every day”—and then it rainethed for two years, and maybe it’s still raining. It was a wild time to go back to a freelance lifestyle. My partner and I were honestly really lucky at the time, because we had moved out of New York City to house-sit for an arts organization, so we were very randomly and very fortunately in this huge, empty house in Connecticut. We were also one of those couples who were supposed to get married in 2020, but instead, we went to the courthouse, and instead of any sort of gathering we’d planned to do, we decided to ride our bicycles across the country, from Virginia Beach to Florence, Ore., just under 4,000 miles.

After that, we were in that huge boat of artists up against a wall, in that very familiar situation of trying to put together as many little teaching and writing gigs as we could until we could find some way to keep doing the things we’re dedicated to doing. As theatre started to roll back around, I was able to get back into directing again. I did an As You Like It where everyone wore masks and no one got within six feet of each other, so that was fascinating. I did a production of Three Sisters, and with a company called Tiltyard, took a production of Midsummer to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. So 2022 was actually a pretty busy, wild theatre year. It also taught me a lot about how things might be back, but the ocean is rocky.

Why come back to criticism now?

SARA: The simplest answer is that I really missed writing. As you know, I never knew I was going to be a critic—I didn’t know this was a fork in the road that my life was gonna take, and despite always wanting to also maintain the identity of an artist and to try and figure out how to balance that, I think that my time at the magazine and my time away from the magazine taught me that this is also a huge and really vital bone in my body. I’ve missed talking and thinking about theatre on such a regular basis with a group of amazing peers doing the same thing. That’s the sort of personal artistic answer.

And then there’s also an element of hope that there’s a way that as a writer about theatre I can be of service in a moment this. It feels like such a time of flux and crisis, and also hopefully opportunity, in the arts. I feel a call to try to reflect that back to try and articulate that somehow and to write about that and be part of a conversation trying to process that publicly. There’s a way in which I feel both a desire and a responsibility to be trying to talk about what’s going on with our profession at this time.

Jackson, I talked to Sara about her background when she started at New York. Tell me about yours.

JAKCSON MCHENRY: I grew up in Pasadena and did theatre in school. I went to a theatre camp one summer and got good notices as Renfield in Dracula in eighth grade, crawling around the stage—I’d had a growth spurt, so they were like, “You’ve got really long limbs and can look spider-like.” Then I went to Yale and worked for the Yale Daily News and I was a major in English literature. As part of the English major, you have to take a lot of poetry and spend a lot of time in Shakespeare classes, and you read theatre as well. I ended up working for the arts and living weekend insert section of the newspaper, where we did features and theatre reviews and covered other things going on around campus. I just liked writing about arts and entertainment; it was interesting to talk to people when they were working on projects, and also interesting to try to think critically about them.

Then I worked for Entertainment Weekly as the intern one summer, and it turned out to be a good time because it was one of those moments where they were hiring a lot of people and had opportunities to write. Then I started out at Vulture in 2015, doing the shortest of news blogs about pop culture and what was new on Netflix, and about six months in, I was hired full-time and had the opportunity to do longer stories and pitch things.

I’d always been interested in theatre, and seeing things and talking to people about what they’re making was exciting and interesting. Jesse Green was the critic, and then Sara and then Helen—all these people whose writing I really liked—and I became a go-to person for a lot of our features and interviews and stories about theatre news. I remember one editor’s advice—Lane Brown said something like, “You want to figure out the thing that people are going to talk about after they’ve seen a show—what are they saying as they’re going down the street?” Like, “I’ve never seen that actor before,” or “I’d love to know where that came from.” We did something on The Ferryman and it was about, How do they get the goose onstage? It became an interesting way to think about process and, how do you make something happen in this moment for these people, all the background work that goes into it.

Ann McDonough (Aunt Pat), Peggy the goose, and Eric Mitchell, backstage at The Ferryman. (Illustration by Michael Arthur)

Jesse Green was also writing features for New York when, according to him, Adam Moss basically pressed him into service and said, “Now you’re the critic.” How did you start doing it?

JACKSON: I had done a couple of fill-in reviews and theatre-adjacent stuff, and film and TV as well. I certainly didn’t hold back my opinions. When Helen left, I had a conversation with Chris Bonanos, our editor, about doing this more. It’s a style of writing that takes a different half of your brain but is very rewarding.

To pick up on that, I want to ask both of you about how you switch gears, and more specifically, about where you might feel conflicts of interest—in your case, Jackson, as a reporter and a critic, you’ll be reviewing your sources, and in your case, Sara, as a working artist and a critic, you may be reviewing colleagues or potential colleagues.

JACKSON: I intend to be doing some features and news reporting as well, and it’s the kind of thing you have to negotiate carefully and think about. It’s also something that our TV and film critics do and have to think about. In some cases, perhaps it’s a show that’s transferring that you’ve already reviewed and you’re excited about and you want to dig into deeper and talk to the people involved, and in some cases it might be something you’re taking a more skeptical approach to, or maybe you’re sort of, “Okay, this is something I am too close to and maybe shouldn’t also review.” I think it’s something the two of us can negotiate and talk about together.

A scene from Tiltyard’s “Midsummer.”

Sara, will you continue to work as a theatre artist?

SARA: Always and irrevocably, yes. It’s really a question of who I am rather than a choice about what I do. I just always will be a director and I am a critic too. I understand why this comes up as a question, but there are many people on staff at New York magazine who also write novels or have a creative practice in some way. I feel encouraged by that, in terms what it requires ethically, mentally. Sometimes it might be a very easy question of, someone I know very well wrote a play—so, great, Jackson can review that. Having gone to the Yale School of Drama—or the artist formerly known as the Yale School of Drama—the truth is that I am going to know, or peripherally know, a lot of artists. The other truth, which is a little bit more vulnerable to express in public, is that we all have opinions on each other’s work. So for me the question is not going to be about, Am I gonna be too easy on this? If I’m engaging with work by someone I peripherally know, it’s really just about navigating the delicate space of, how do we speak to each other about work in a way that feels honest and with no punches pulled?

Recently I was reading the biography of E.M. Forster, who’s my favorite non-theatre writer, and there was this part near the end where he began a correspondence with this younger writer. It was quite long-lasting and really lovely, and they would send each other stuff back and forth, and they were brutal. They’d be like, “Yes, I read this. Thank you for sending it. I think it’s really terrible, and here are the three parts that you should completely change.” It was so wonderful to read; it was so full of actual enthusiasm for what the other person was offering, and so completely not gentle at all.

I’m sorry, but I’m gonna say it: I think this is yet another place where capitalism has really ruined something. In this case, our ability to talk critically to each other, because what we’re navigating here isn’t just a sort of pure space between thinkers, where it’s like, “I respect what you do, and I have a huge problem with this.” We’re all navigating a space of commerce, where people feel like, “God, if you say something negative, I might not be able to pay rent,” and that’s a sad state of things for art and criticism. One thing I’m always trying to do is push back against this—yes, we’re all inside that box, but how can we write in a way that is nuanced enough and sensitive enough and enthusiastic enough that even when there is serious critique involved, it feels supportive of the form as a whole?

JACKSON: We were talking earlier this week, and you were pointing out one of the nice things about writing for New York mag and Vulture is that you can go long and have reviews that are trying to contain a lot of complexity and not just landing on a recommendation to buy a ticket or not. Hopefully we can sort of provide a framework for our thinking in public and use that to explain where exactly we’re coming from and what an artist is doing.

SARA: It’s one of the things I love about this. It feels like such a haven for that long-form type of writing, and there are no stars or numbers attached to the reviews; it’s not quantitative. Of course, again, we exist in a reality where there are gonna be snippets pulled out of our pieces that are used to mean good or not. But we have the opportunity with the breadth of the space we’re given to dig into something.

There seem to be freshly urgent questions about the state of theatre, especially nonprofit theatre, in these post-reopening times. I imagine the spate of theatre closures, layoffs, and contractions we’re reading about are on your mind too.

JACKSON: I mean, it’s really grim. Hopefully having two of us will give us more breadth to look more deeply in the city and try to find people that are coming up with solutions, or at least trying to do something new and different and interesting. If you’re one person on the beat, you’re constrained to, what are the the big-ticket things that you need to know about. But hopefully having two of us is a way to weather this terrible thunderstorm-slash-fire-slash-whatever, and try to pinpoint, what is interesting, what is new? It’s tough, because you’re reviewing piece by piece. But hopefully there will be more space for us to do broader-reaching pieces with more of a bird’s eye view.

SARA: It’s an incredibly frightening time. Every day it feels like we see more layoffs, more cancellations, more talent leaving the field. There’s so much exhaustion and there’s so much really justified fear. Also, after the sort of reckoning, quote-unquote, of 2020, it feels like there’s a lot of frustration about the question of, are we in fact keeping up with the values that we started to really sort of lean into more? Can we even afford to keep up with those values? I don’t think that theatre with a capital T will ever die, but I do think that our industry is taking huge blows and is bleeding. And like Jackson said, there’s something about the role of the critic to be casting a wide net and trying to see, what is going on out there? How are people addressing this moment in interesting ways? That’s huge.

The other thing I would say is that I feel interested in the role of the critic at this time as a way to talk about what theatre uniquely is and can do. Frankly, I’ve been a little bit surprised to see that, as things have kind of clawed their way back to the sunlight, we’ve seen a lot of programming that looks pretty much like programming looked in 2019: Here are some new plays that are politically conscious and some classics that we’ve made relevant somehow. We know that audiences got very used to never leaving their houses and to wearing their sweatpants. TV is powerful in this age, not just because we all spent three years sort of stuck in front of it, but also because there’s a lot of really good TV that actually is leaning into and embracing what makes it special as a form. I want theatre to do the same thing; I want to write about instances where I see theatre leaning into and embracing and sharing with audiences what makes it special and necessary as a form. What is the actual necessity of having you get up, leave your house, and come to this room? As critics, I think that pointing out places where that’s working, and talking about places where maybe it’s not working, is really vital right now. I mean, would that art didn’t constantly have to justify itself, but at this moment, it has to justify the need for you to be present.

JACKSON: Our enthusiasm is hopefully very valuable. We want to be excited about things, and hopefully that means our readers will be excited about them too.

In the past few years, I saw some folks in the theatre field express the view that, since theatre was struggling, critics should only play a supportive role—essentially that they should follow the “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything” rule. Of course, I don’t think that hagiography and puff are real support. I wonder if you’ve seen that perspective.

SARA: The idea that for an art form to survive, all it needs is positivity is like saying, for a person to survive, all they need is positivity. I don’t think so. I do think about theatre in terms of raising a human being—how much of a miracle it is when somebody actually ends up vaguely okay. That’s how hard it is to make a play. It’s a miracle when some of them end up as good as they can be. And so yes, that needs to be celebrated. But also, the life of this thing is so complex and so vital and so worthy of analysis—why would we not honor that in a way?

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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