CRITICS HAVE ALWAYS been part of the ecosystem of theatre. Ideally, the task of a critic has been to assess work and serve as a mediator between the art and the audience. Historically, theatre critics have influenced what plays get seen and even produced — for a Broadway production, a good review can help ensure a long run for the show, and a bad review can result in quick closure.

While the delivery methods have shifted — from print newspapers to online media — the individuals who write or record theatre criticism hasn’t: The field is dominated by white reviewers with common cultural experiences. But that is starting to change. The best example is the BIPOC Critics Lab founded by cultural critic Jose Solís.

The Honduran-born writer has been covering theatre, film, and the arts for nearly two decades, including for The New York Times and American Theatre. He also co-created the podcast and web series Token Theatre Friends, which brings a person-of-color perspective to the performing arts.

Solís had long wanted to create a critic mentoring program. When he found himself quarantined at home in Brooklyn last March, he launched a Zoom-based class to give aspiring critics the chance to learn the fundamentals of the craft and to engage in dialogues that would help them pursue their best path as critics. A few months after he launched the Critics Lab with eight students, Solís was approached by the Kennedy Center to replicate the program as part of its annual American College Theatre Festival. When Dramatics.org spoke to Solís in a Zoom interview, he was a few weeks into the 10-week Kennedy Center version of the Critics Lab. Solís was generous with his thoughts and time, talking extensively about why he decided to start the Lab and about the state of criticism and why it needs to change. Here’s what he had to say.

Photo of Jose Solís. Photo by Joseph Hernandez and courtesy of Jose Solís.

Let’s start with you. How did you get started down this career path?

SOLÍS: When I was 10 years old, I had this journal that my mom gave to me. I didn’t want a bike like most kids because, Honduras, my home country, was very dangerous. So I spent a lot of time watching American movies and TV shows and writing about them in that journal. I would see the kids in the movies hanging out and think that must be what it’s like. The first time I watched ET, I remember being worried that, when the kids go out on Halloween, they were going to get kidnapped. Every weekend, my dad or grandma would take us to the movies. When I got home, I just started writing in the journal about the things that I’d seen in the movie. There really wasn’t much theatre for me to see so writing about movies that interested me was what I did.

After your graduated from college in Costa Rica, you came the United States. In another interview, you said that when you got to New York, you felt like a brown spot in a sea of white. How did you meet that challenge?

SOLÍS: To begin with, I guess I am what you call a light-skinned Latino. I knew I wasn’t white, but when I moved to New York that became really clear to me. Racism is almost impossible to explain to someone who doesn’t live here. Many times, when people back home ask about my anti-racism mission to bring more BIPOC voices to criticism, they say to me, “but you’re white.” When I was growing up, in the Hollywood movies I watched, the people of color were always the villains. Latinos were the drug dealers, Black guys were thugs, and Middle Eastern guys terrorists. That can make you learn to root against yourself and to cheer for the white heroes and aspire to that kind of whiteness.

Could you talk about why you created the Critics Lab?

SOLÍS: When I was growing up my mentors were basically the critics that I was reading, because I didn’t know any critics in my country. I always wanted someone to ask things, to find out whether I was right or wrong about something. I’ve always felt that it’s really important to have someone who can give you feedback and also engage with you on your own level.

When I got to New York, I was surprised at how many theatre critics there were—it felt like my mecca. But even here most people really didn’t have mentors. If they did, it was through an experience with a college professor.

That lack of mentorship strikes me as one of the many things that has made this field so anti and white. If you can’t find someone who’s willing to take into account your cultural background and who instead just tries to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong because it doesn’t fit into the parameters of what they think it’s should, that’s a problem. It also means that someone who aspires to become a critic may never discover who they can be. That’s why I started talking to friends and doing research, trying to figure out what I could do.

So you created the Lab?

SOLÍS: When I was fresh in New York in 2013, I started working with magazines. I always brought up that there needed to be some sort of mentorship program for critics of color, because it didn’t exist. I went to the National Critics Institute at the O’Neill in 2016 and I think of 14 of us, only two of us were not white. I didn’t want to be the token BIPOC critic all the time. I knew then that the system needs to catch up. As the non-white population in America continues to grow, its criticism should reflect that.

So in the five years since then, I had this conversation with lots of people who always said that a mentor program for BIPOC critics sounds like a great idea. But then nothing ever happened, it never moved past a meeting or an email exchange. I just wanted a place for people like me to go. I had designed the program in my mind years ago, so when I was quarantined at home in March, I decided to do a primitive version and run it on my own and see what happens. I launched it last June, putting out the call on Twitter. I gave the first slot to the very first person who responded.

Did you really have the course worked out before you started?

SOLÍS: I had the curriculum in mind for years and I knew exactly how I wanted to structure it. But I did have help. My mother’s undergrad degree was in pedagogy and she was an elementary school teacher when I was growing up. So when I explained to her what I was doing, she told me what I wanted to do was disruptive education. That made sense to me — I am not one for anarchy, but disruption needs to happen to change things. I loved knowing that I was doing something that could challenge the status quo.

How did you choose participants for the first class?

SOLÍS: Basically, it was pretty much first-come, first-served. When people saw that what I was doing was for real, I started hearing from more and more people who wanted to be part of it. At first, I was going to take five and then it became six, then seven. I finally settled on eight because I thought that would be manageable. The application I used was the same one I’m using at the Kennedy Center. I asked them for two things. The first was a résumé, but not like you submit for a job or something, and I didn’t care where they went to school. I specified that I wanted this to be a résumé of your proudest moments. I also asked for a cover letter, but that was different too. They could submit the letter in whatever medium they wanted. So I got video submissions, along with written letters. I wanted to learn more about who they were as people and not like, you know, beings in a society where only certain things are considered important.

Could you give some examples of what is included in the curriculum?

SOLÍS: Some of the course focuses on basic things every critic needs to know, like how to engage with publicists and press reps and work with editors. And I talk about how to make a pitch for a story — simple but important things like that. For BIPOC critics, this can be particularly challenging because you are trying to preserve your soul and dignity while working within a system that really doesn’t want you.

How do you begin the discussion about criticism itself?

SOLÍS: I explain that there is a history that we don’t know and highlight the fact that what we know about criticism are things that were decided a very long time ago by dead white men that we haven’t really challenged. Even now this is true. Critics are expected to meet standards that should have been evolving along with the field. No one expects billboards to be powered by gas lamps, right? We’re OK with electricity. So why should we still try to meet standards of criticism that were cool in the 19th century?

Photo of Jose Solís. Photo by Dan Fortune and courtesy of Jose Solís.

How did the opportunity to run the program under the sponsorship of the Kennedy Center come about?

SOLÍS: When they contacted me, I thought at first it was a prank. I didn’t know anyone at the Kennedy Center. They said we see what you’re doing and we want to make it part of our upcoming American College Theatre Festival. My pilot ended in late October, so I started planning it out right after that.

It’s the same curriculum but I have more students — 17 — and guest artists to help me. The only limitation for applicants is they needed to be at least 18. The class includes everything from a freshman in college to parents who are getting their PhD. And I think we have something like 40 percent men and 60 percent women. Every session has a different BIPOC instructor. They’re all given the same guidelines, but I don’t give a manual that tells them exactly how to teach in my lab. I just say, based on a given subject, share what you know about this specific thing before you became a professional.

How do you measure your students’ success and engagement?

SOLÍS: I guess the way in which I measure success is whether they show up or not and are participating. I do have assignments for every session, but it’s up to them if they want to do the work, and if they want feedback or not. I don’t want to force them into anything because I know they have a life — either school, a job, or both. This isn’t really a reverse psychology thing — I want the Lab to be an experience more than a program.

Recently, one of the Kennedy Center Lab critics said on Twitter that instead of doing their college homework right now, they were doing the assignments that I left them. I think that says something powerful about the program.

The one thing I really enforce is maintaining a Zoom gallery view for the entire class period. My visual box or that of my guest instructor’s box shouldn’t take precedence or be more important than anyone else’s. I want all of us — critic and teachers alike — to be on the same footing. The idea is that we’re literally in the same space and time right now, the same way we would be in a classroom. I think it’s important that we acknowledge everyone in the room by reacting together in any given moment because I believe that’s the best way for us to learn from each other.

You’ve said you want the critics to come away with a sense of humanity from the program. What do you mean by that?

SOLÍS: I used to be embarrassed saying I was a critic because people immediately have all these connotations that they relate to the word, like it’s not a good thing to be critical. Some reviews and pieces of criticism are popular because they trash a piece of art that someone and maybe a team has spent years putting together. The trouble is, there are so many critics in every field that are doing this kind of writing but not actually interacting with readers and with their audience. That’s what I mean by gaining a sense of humanity.

Most of the time, the public only calls for critic accountability when they make factual mistakes or they say something that’s sexist, racist, or homophobic. And that shouldn’t be the case. If critics are part of the ecosystem of art, we should be available all the time to everyone, not just through our reviews.

Do you think the pandemic will change how and what theatre is produced in this country and perhaps in schools?

SOLÍS: One of the pros about the pandemic, at least when it comes to the arts, is that many works that were previously inaccessible to people became available all over the country and much of the world. The Lab is an example of that—we have a critic who is in India and one in Liverpool. I think this globalization that has given audiences access to theatrical works that were previously reserved for a much smaller population will help expand the cannon of plays produced.

For school theatre, we know the cannon of plays represents a particular challenge. To begin, the voices of BIPOC theatre makers need to be heard. It’s also about teaching white kids that their voice can also be a Black person or Latino. What I mean by that is you need to be open to someone’s voice who doesn’t share your cultural background and knows truths that you should be open to.

What would you say to a young BIPOC student interested in becoming a theatre critic?

SOLÍS: If you are not getting the encouragement and access to the resources you need, find and communicate with those who can help you. If I was talking to them directly, the first question I would ask is, “What’s your favorite piece of art and why do you love it?” I would also tell them it’s important to remain true to who they are; that there is nothing wrong with them and that it’s not their fault that the system doesn’t want to include them. Students need to learn how to protect the most sacred part of themselves, their essence, so long as it doesn’t involve something that is factually wrong or is causing harm to others.

How would you expect a BIPOC critic to review a classic American play?

SOLÍS: The first thing you do is to ask yourself is, why is something a classic? Why is it valued? Is it because someone else said so? For any piece of art that is considered a classic and widely respected, we want to get to why that is. What happens in this exercise is that we often end up realizing that these are truths that were accepted as the absolute truth, rather than the truth for someone during a specific time in history. Nothing is sacred, really, when it comes to art, other than the fact that it is meant to be dissected and to be interpreted, whether by BIPOC or white critics. All critics look at a piece of art differently, whether it’s theatre or something else. Our processes are the same, but our results are not. With the field of criticism so white, those opinions are going to be taken as truth because these people all have a similar cultural and educational background. A BIPOC’s critic’s perspective is always going to be disruptive and different because we haven’t made room for them to communicate.

You talked earlier about criticism being a sort of town hall opportunity to engage in a dialogue. Could you talk a bit more about that?

SOLÍS: I cannot think of anything more exciting than talking to people about something that you love. If you get an exchange going, maybe someone will tell you that something you loved was the worst thing that they’ve ever experienced and why. And then you create a flow. I feel like so much criticism right now is like a stagnant pond in a museum. The criticism that I dream of is a river flowing, always flowing, with a constant back and forth exchange. It’s in that exchange where the beauty is. I’ve always felt that way. Even when I was a kid writing really bad reviews in my journal, what I wanted was to know was what someone else thought about the same thing I was writing about.

Does the profession of criticism need to be totally rethought?

SOLÍS: It doesn’t need to be rethought. It just needs to open up to the possibilities and accept that a truth cannot be the absolute truth for everyone. Writing criticism and reading it should continue, but we need to acknowledge that it comes in different forms. I mean, even Twitter is written criticism.

What I am saying is that we don’t need to go to same place about same show over and over again. The thing that frustrates me the most is that we, as critics, are constantly demanding that works of art give us something that we’re not willing to give them—the possibility of evolving.

 Interested in writing and theatre criticism? Learn tips and advice in Jose Solís’ workshop at Thespian Nation Live, January 29-31. Learn more and sign up online.

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