Welcome to Critical I, The Clyde Fitch Report’s interview series with cultural critics.
Our fourth Q&A is with Wendy Rosenfield, theatre critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a former blogger for ArtsJournal.com, and a well-regarded contributor to many other digital and print outlets. We became acquainted with Rosenfield principally through the American Theatre Critics Association, and from the start one couldn’t help but notice her depth of knowledge but also, equally important, her fundamental decency as one who evaluates and interprets the work of artists. Maybe this is because, as she reveals in this interview with the CFR, she has a highly personal view of what it means to be an artist — and, indeed, what a precious commodity art and artists are to the world.
When we’re not in the same city, which is most of the time, we track each other via Facebook and Twitter — she’s a master of the tweet. She’s also keenly aware that arts criticism is still very much a man’s game, and what ridiculous nonsense that is in the 21st century. We proudly showcase her as part of Critical I.
And a word about this series. We live in a time in which it is fashionable to debate and assail the role of criticism in our culture. More and more this debate encompasses dueling, inexact and contradictory versions of what criticism is; who is and who is not a “critic”; who the audience is or ought to be for criticism; and what proper standards for comportment in a critic ought to be. Our view is that, whoever they are, critics must not be sidelined from these discussions. Our idea to ask critics — paid or not, full-time or freelance, traditional or new media — for their stories, and their views.
Which critic would you like to see profiled? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.
Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words. Please begin your statement with the following: “Wendy Rosenfield is…” In your statement, you can list credits, talk about your personal life, wax philosophical—anything you wish. Think of it like this: If someone met you for the first time, this is what you would want them to know.
Wendy Rosenfield is a freelance writer and has been a theater critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 2006. She also contributes a monthly column on arts criticism for the Broad Street Review and serves on the Executive Committee of the American Theatre Critics Association. She was a participant in the Bennington Writer’s Workshop, an NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and is a frequent guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She was also theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly, was publications editor for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and chauffeuring her children.
What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where is your favorite place on Earth?
I live in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, about five minutes away from where I grew up, though I spent a number of years living in downtown Philly and miss it all the time.
My favorite place on Earth (besides Philly) is Leadville, Colorado, because Colorado is great for many reasons, but also Leadville is a weird old mining town 10,000 feet above sea level, and when you spend so much time sitting, thinking and writing, there’s nothing better than leaving the house and dealing directly with nature, whether that means spending the day climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, soaking at a hot springs, snowshoeing to dinner in a yurt, or just sitting around gasping for air. But if I can’t get out there, I’ll go to Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley any season, any day.
As a critic, what do your consider your main area(s) of expertise? How did you acquire your expertise?
I really get into fringe and experimental work. When I was a kid, we used to go to Broadway, so I grew up on Annie and A Chorus Line, but my dad was my culture curator and he had pretty unusual taste for a straight businessman. He loved Bob Fosse, took me to see Karen Finley perform, took me to both The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (my parents brought rice, toilet paper, all of it). He took me to see Liquid Sky, introduced me to Kurosawa and Fellini, and was probably one of John Waters’ most enthusiastic fans.
Once I got to Bennington College, I was surrounded by so many creative, exciting students and teachers making challenging theater—Justin Theroux, Peter Dinklage, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Nicholas Martin, Peter Hedges, Brooks Ashmanskas, to name just few and just in the drama department, and just the fellas; the full list of arts- and literature-related boldface names from those years is really jaw-dropping. And I was introduced to Beckett there. In one of my lit classes our collective final paper was a film of his short story “First Love,” directed and acted by us. After that I was convinced I didn’t want/deserve to be onstage, but loved analyzing and writing about the work I was seeing, and at Bennington, there was plenty of work to see.
In what year was your first professional review published and what was the venue for that review?
The earliest one I found in my old manila folder labeled “Philadelphia Weekly 1996 Reviews” was McCarter Theater’s A Doll’s House, directed by Emily Mann and featuring Cynthia Nixon as Nora. Nothing like jumping in head first.
Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but would consider trying? Why?
I’ve occasionally reviewed film and enjoyed it, but I used to want to be a visual arts critic because when I was younger, I was probably more qualified for that. I was a visual art minor in college, and for a while I sort of labored over the decision to go into ceramics or writing, but started working right away as a copy editor and freelance writer, so the decision seemed pretty clear.
Can any person be a critic? Why or why not?
Not everyone can write well, bring the overview needed to put a work into historical and sociopolitical context, come at it with a background in and passion for whatever particular art form they’re critiquing, do so with a clearly subjective point of view and overarching philosophy, and still leave room for surprises and an understanding that something might work even if it doesn’t work for you. To me, that’s the difference between a critic and someone with an opinion.
Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I do like Isherwood at the Times; Inga Saffron, the architecture critic at the Inquirer, is fantastic—can’t believe she hasn’t won a Pulitzer yet; and Manohla Dargis for film. I used to love reading Jay McInerney’s wine reviews, too. He had one in which he compared different wines to different Beatles. I thought that was brilliant and always use it when I teach. Also, I don’t know any of these critics personally. I know some wonderful critics, but would feel guilty naming names and playing favorites.
Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I know Peter Marks said it was too trendy for him to name Dorothy Parker and Ken Tynan, but I adore them both. Parker is so much fun to read, and Tynan was such a mess in his personal life, but you can feel his passion for theater jump right off the page. Plus, he had it right on Beckett before anyone else, so for that reason alone, he deserves the top spot on anyone’s list.
In hindsight, name one review in which you were dead wrong.
It’s not exactly a review, but when I was in my 20’s the Philadelphia Weekly published a discussion between an older critic and me about Rent (he hated it, I didn’t). He professed his adoration for Sondheim and I responded with typical 20-something hubris: “I just find Sondheim boring.” He was horrified and rightly so.
In hindsight, name one case in which many critics were wrong and you were right.
There was a children’s show here a few years ago that everyone loved. It was nominated for several Barrymore Awards, was written by an artist I truly respect, and involved lots of other talented Philly artists. I saw it with one of my kids and was horrified. It took a Jewish story, The Golem (a mercurial clay monster created by a rabbi to protect Jewish shtetls from marauding pogroms), which my children learned in Hebrew school, and repurposed it for the other side. That is, a Christian village had their revenge on the Golem and the church-avoiding witch who controlled it. No one else saw that this was really problematic, and I think that speaks to the idea that if you’re going to reference another culture or religion, you might want to check with knowledgeable representatives from that culture beforehand. Any rabbi could have told this writer, “Hey, terrible idea.” Some time has passed, and I don’t believe it was intentionally anti-Semitic, but that’s not really the point. Unwitting racism is still racism and lazy dramaturgy is still lazy.
If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
There are about 10,000 other things I’d be, but I haven’t chosen any of them, not even considering the terrible pay I make doing this, so I guess I picked the right field. I have a very good idea for a theater-related biography, so I wouldn’t mind being an author (publishers, hmu!). And someday not too soon I’d like to be a grandmother and maybe living in Aspen.
What is right with contemporary cultural criticism?
The Internet has opened up the field to so many more think pieces and underrepresented voices. Sometimes it’s hard to get working on my own writing, because there’s just so much good reading out there.
What is wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?
The voices with the most credibility, the largest following and a paycheck are largely the same old voices. I do believe that is changing, but it’s changing incrementally, and that’s very frustrating. Of course, I respect the experience of the old guard and love seeing certain classics, but in order to assure that we’re not stuck with the same old shows about the same old things, critics must advocate for wider representation among us and in the work we see. There need to be more opportunities for a diversity of critics to make a living at this, because the wider the conversation, the more vital it becomes.
The downgrading of newspapers as the gatekeeper for culture criticism is both good and bad. It will create a void that can be filled by anyone with skill and a computer (and it has), but unless there’s money coming in, I fear the field of professional arts criticism outside academia will also die. I wish I had that solution.
In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.
I can’t even do this. Like many of my colleagues, I’m my own harshest critic, so I wouldn’t have anything nice to say, and it would toss me into a cycle of self-loathing every time I read this. Let the commenters have their way with me. I’m totally fine with that and it’s only fair.