How To Fix New York Theatre Critics Awards?

That time I was on television.

Recently I wrote about the dehumanization involved in being a POC who’s a member of critics’ organizations. I was overwhelmed by the warm response you all gave the piece, and for that I thank you. I also would like to point out that every time I write something like that, in which I detail abuse at the hands of xenophobes and racists, I pray that someone out there will tell me I’m being dramatic, blowing things out of proportion. Perhaps I am an isolated case. Instead, I receive countless emails, DMs, texts and calls from strangers and friends alike, who tell me how much my words, and pain, resonated with them.

Misery does not love company. I wish no one ever had to face aggression, and psychological and emotional violence. But knowing I am not alone has inspired me to write what might become a series of columns on my insider’s perspective as a member of a prestigious critics group.

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Drama Desk, where I serve on the board and also on the nominating committee. I want to start by saying this, because you might even have seen me on TV a couple of weeks ago. I represented the organization on the Drama Desk Awards and spoke about the extraordinary situations that led to a streamlined, televised ceremony. 

Awards are what critics organizations are best known for. Three organizations completely composed of critics hand out annual awards in New York, honoring achievements in Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway. These organizations are the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.

I bet you $5, most of the people who won Drama Desk Awards at the most recent ceremony have no idea what the Drama Desk is. In fact, at least year’s ceremony, I overheard an audience member confidently explain to his companion, that the organization was made up of “actors, producers, and Broadway professionals.” He was probably thinking of the Tonys, which (like the Oscars, Emmys and other industry awards) are the opposite of critics awards. For clarity’s sake, this will be the second to last time the Tonys will be mentioned here. 

Year after year, critics’ awards are criticized for the same reasons: the winners are too white, too old, too safe. 

This year, David Gordon who works as Senior Features Reporter for Theatermania and serves as President of the Outer Critics Circle, called out the Drama Desk Awards for rewarding too many Broadway shows, even though Off-Broadway and Off-Off are included in the nominations.

His organization can rarely be accused of the same problem, because their top honors are divided into Broadway and Off-Broadway, therefore saving themselves from the annual embarrassment of making their top selections seem too commercial.

But while Gordon suggests this is an issue of members not being invited to see as many shows as the nominators, the truth is something more simple but much more pervasive: the people voting for these awards are also too white, too old, too safe.

This is why progressive visions like having non-gendered awards seem like a sci-fi concept when voting bodies tend to celebrate nostalgia over risk-taking, money over ideas, and they value the work of men much more than the the work of women. I joke that if NY awards were to dispense of gendered categories, Bryan Cranston would somehow win Best Musical.

As an insider who still holds a little bit of hope about the possibility of change happening within these overly white spaces, I would like to propose some things the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle can do to secure a more diverse membership, who in return will honor shows that defy conventions of what good theatre is, and who gets to make and star in it. Most of these things I’ve suggested to my fellow Drama Desk members in the past. 

Who Gets to Be a Broadway Journalist? 

At the center of the issue lies the notion of what a theatre critic looks like. In late 2018, around the time Mary Poppins Returns was released, Lin-Manuel Miranda broke my heart in one tweet:

If to the most famous and influential Latino in theatre, Broadway press looks like three white, cis-men, what hope do POC journalists have of being acknowledged by him, not to mention by white artists? Dear theatre artists, especially those of you on Broadway, it’s your job to amplify POC journalists as well. Make sure to include POC journalists in your press days and events. Tell your agents and publicists you won’t speak to two white journalists in a row. Take a stand!

How to Become a Theatre Journalist

If you’re a POC you need to start from when you’re little. Become devoted to August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare in pre-school. Start your own theatre company in high school. By freshman year of college you should have a Pulitzer. And right before graduation, you should’ve written two defining texts on criticism and art.

If you’re white, you just need to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe your editor will assign you a review even if you’ve only written about traffic in the past. Maybe a colleague will fall ill and you’ll be asked to take their place that night. Remind me someday to tell you about the offspring of a critic who assumed they would inherit their parent’s position after their death. If you’re white, it’s your birthright.

“I’m Trained! Can I Join Now?

Wait a second. Your education means nothing if you haven’t met the parameters of “objectivity,” “quality,” and “professionalism” these groups demand of you. Those words are often code for “too dark,” or “too loud,” or “too outspoken.”

If you have a blog, forget about it. In critics’ circles being called a “blogger” means you’re at the bottom of the food chain, in fact they might think you’re only good enough to deliver them their food. Watch them look at you wide-eyed and confused when you explain to them their very basic site is also a blog. Blogs are something millennials do, and everyone knows millennials are up to no good. 

Sitting Around the Table

In 2019, I conducted an unofficial demographic survey of the Drama Desk which I presented at our annual membership meeting. Back then I realized, our membership was almost 95% white (I’m the tiny green slice of the pie).

When a member stood up defiantly and asked me how dare I say that, I merely invited them to look around the room we were in. Unless you’re working for the current presidential administration, it’s hard to deny facts when you can see them with your own eyes.

Encouraged by Drama Desk President Charles Wright, in whom I’ve found an exemplary ally, (every time I think I’ll say the thing that will finally get me booted from the organization, the lovely Charles offers me a smile and tells me to go ahead). So the Drama Desk will be conducting a more thorough demographics study within this calendar year. How can we change if we don’t know who we are? And so, while we work on that, I’d like to invite every theatre organization in the city to do the same: show us what you’re lacking, not out of fear of being “cancelled,” but out of a desire to change it.

How Many Seats Are at the Table?

Since the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle are the two largest organizations in town, it’s important to clarify the difference between the two. The former is made up entirely by New York journalists, the latter includes New York journalists but also press who write for publications in other cities. Why then are there so many members that overlap in both organizations? Why are some of the members in both boards? How many seats do you need to take up? Is your voice really twice as important as someone else’s?

In 2018, when Gordon became president of the OCC and reached out to me to ask if I had any interest in joining, I replied that I wanted to learn more about why he thought I belonged in both organizations. Honestly, I find it slightly immoral to be in both, especially if you’re white and might be filling up a space that a POC or underrepresented journalist might occupy. I never heard back from him.

The Membership Process Is a Mystery

Neither organization has an open application process, meaning if you go to their websites, you can see who their members are, who they awarded that year, but zilch on how to join the organization. As a Drama Desk member, I can only speak for how our process works. Once a year for a few weeks, a select few people receive a link to submit their application and clips. The process is never available online for everyone to see—the invitations to apply comes straight from our membership department. I call it the Brigadoon application.

What does this mean? That unless you know someone who’s already inside, there’s no way you’ll ever get that link. This makes it extra hard for POC to join, because if a membership is almost 95% white, what are the chances their social circles include POC? 

Even when you know someone, this doesn’t mean they think you’re worthy of the precious link. During my years working at StageBuddy where I interviewed Broadway artists and reviewed shows, I shared an office from time to time with a Drama Desk member who year after year flat out refused to even let me know about this link, because in his words, I “wasn’t ready to join the group.”

I ended up receiving the elusive invitation when a Drama Desk member came to visit my class at the 2016 National Critics Institute. Being my usual loud-mouthed self, I asked them in public how diverse the organization was. I had an invitation by the end of the week.

Outreach to Members of Underrepresented Communities

If there are so few POC inside, how will we ever reach out to more? If you’ve followed me on social media, you know that for the past two years, I’ve offered mentorship and help to POC writers who want to join the Drama Desk (Diep’s Ed Note: That’s how I got into the Drama Desk because even though I had a full-time job as the editor at a national theatre magazine, until Jose, no Drama Desk member had ever invited me to join). But when there’s only one person doing the work of an entire organization, that person often ends up burnt out. 

Some ideas I’ve proposed in my organization is for us to become involved in the training of young critics of color, who might then become Drama Desk members. It’s crazy to think that New York City still doesn’t have a training program for young critics in the style of Rescripted’s The Key in Chicago, or the film criticism bootcamp that happens every year parallel to the New York Film Festival. If anyone has money and wants to make this happen with me, hit me up, I have an outline and syllabus ready.

I’m Finally a Member! Tell Me About the Awards

Great question! Unlike the Tonys (I told you there’d be one more mention), which specify their guidelines and how voting and nominating works, neither the OCC or the DD have public guidelines and rules. The nominating processes are more mysterious than electing a new Pope and I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for breaking what elderly members said was a sacred process, when all I tried to do was advocate for transparency. How can we claim to represent quality if people don’t know how we’re defining quality? Transparency above it all. And you guessed it, I’m working on creating those public guidelines for the Drama Desk as well. How else will I know how long do I stay on the nominating committee, or whether writing a piece like this is the thing that gets me kicked out?

So you see, in order for to prevent commercial works from obliterating independent, more adventurous pieces, theatre companies and producers don’t need to send out more invitations. They just need to send them out to different people. Fellow colleagues in every critics group, how are you helping our field achieve this equity?

2 thoughts

  1. What’s the amount of money you need for a bootcamp? As someone invested in having critics with a broad range of backgrounds (read: beyond white able-bodied cis-male) I’d like to support this endeavor. I don’t personally have the fiscal resources, but if I have a sense of the number, I’m open to going around with my hat out asking for money from people who want to support this endeavor. It’s important. Now, I don’t happen to think it’s a pipeline issue; there are great and really strong bipoc/trans/women writers, some of whom are critics, so, is there also a way to support the trajectory of those who are stuck in place, or writing in other disciplines, who would be great theater critics but only rarely review? Please reach out to me via email, I’m willing to go out hat in hand and ask for support for the mission, I just need an amount (and probably your syllabus-to-be to be able to talk up the plan!)

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