Can a Playwright Be a Critic? Eliza Bent Says Yes

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Eliza Bent in performance mode. Photo: Peter Bellamy.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. The debate questions what criticism is, who is and is not a critic, challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be and to think about proper critical comportment. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In Critical I, on occasional series on the CFR, critics tell their own stories and offer their own views of criticism. Our latest interview in this series is with playwright and arts writer Eliza Bent.

Who is Eliza Bent?

I was a staff member at American Theatre magazine for nearly nine years, and continue to publish there, for TDF Stages and several additional outlets, and my own plays. I hesitate to call myself an arts critic, frankly. I would prefer arts journalist or arts writer or somebody who writes about the arts. I have been a MacDowell Colony fellow, a Bay Area Playwrights Finalist, a New Georges affiliated artist and the recipient of a US Embassy grant for my work in Iceland. I am a founding company member of Half Straddle and producer of the Real Talk / Kip Talk event series.

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What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I live in Brooklyn, and grew up in Brookline, MA. My parents live in Milton now, a suburb. I still love Brookline. I love the island of Elba. You’re in the Mediterranean, the colors are really beautiful, and I welcome any chance to speak Italian.

As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

I love writing about downtown or experimental theater. I feel most confident writing about those forms and artists. I also really love getting to write about international work. I got a BA in philosophy from Boston College (while performing in shows at MIT), and an MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College. When I was at Brooklyn College we had a big, ongoing conversation in our workshops about how we talk about plays. If the language doesn’t exist, sometimes you have to invent it or play around with it.

I’ve learned a great deal about the range of roles that I can play at the Great Plains Theater Conference. I went initially as a journalist for American Theatre to cover the conference. I had been accepted to Brooklyn College as a playwright and didn’t want to tell anyone. I don’t want to cross any boundaries. But when they found out I was a writer and performer they wanted to have me back. The following year I was there as an actor, and have been a guest artist over the years. They had me direct a reading this past year, which was a very surprising and pleasurable experience. It’s been nice to draw on my journalism experience in being a moderator for a talkback or a panel discussion. It all fits together. It is a place that celebrates people that have hyphenate interests.

In what year was your first professional review published? What was the publication?

It was probably American Theatre in 2006, a preview of some kind. I’d started working there as an editorial assistant and was there until early 2015. I remember doing more traditional theater reviews for The Village Voice in 2007 and 2008. It just got too sad to continue. You go wanting to fall in love with a production and that is so rare. I wanted to be smart and reasonable in my writing, to steer people towards the truth, and also had a lot of empathy for artists. I knew pretty soon formal criticism wasn’t for me.

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Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

I’ve never written about TV or about movies. My gold standard is The New Yorker: long features, doing an in-depth profile, getting to follow somebody, have multiple meetings with them. It would be fascinating to write an article about magic, the world of illusionists.

I get a lot of satisfaction from arts writing, but I take more delight in making the art.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

Editors can have a very narrow idea of what’s kosher to be published and by whom. I think one thing we often talked about at Brooklyn College was that, as playwrights, we are all writers and we should all do more arts writing. I always had a half-dream that we would start some website of our own.

The writing must be good. There’s such a glut of blogs about theater. It’s terrific that everybody can be a critic and write about theater or live performance. I find, in a lot of the blog review reporting, that the writing is terrible. Why mince words? The writing really stinks. It’s wonderful that somebody is writing about a show, and it’s even better when they liked it. But it’s really a tricky thing.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

I always get a kick out of a Hilton Als review. His writing is compelling and clear. I have a sense of his perspective and he’s up front about what his lens is. I find it refreshing, because so often we’re trying to be objective in our writing. I find objectivity in his subjectivity — because it is so clearly rooted in the personal, I don’t feel like I’m reading a lie. I have a sense of who the person is, how it’s being filtered through him.

Charles Isherwood reviews can be nasty, and I have wondered: does this person even like theater? But I also think people get really riled up about him because they don’t want to admit that a lot of what he writes is true.

I love Helen Shaw’s writing. I consider her reviews more compelling than other writers because they’re really smart, you know?

And Emily Nussbaum. I have a very clear sense of who she is and what she values in a piece of art. She’s funny, self-deprecating, and I feel like I’m hanging out with my friend’s older sister when I read her reviews. For me there’s something very familiar about her writing.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

I should be far more familiar with journalist and critic Rebecca West than I am. And philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin.

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Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

I had just read Als’ book White Girls and was deeply delighted and inspired when I was assigned to write about a panel conversation at a Theatre Communications Group conference. I misapplied certain tonal aspects from Als in my own writing. I was buzzing with vibrations of that book. But in my writing I was off-base and missed major contextual clues. I was attempting to fry bigger fish than the context of one piece of arts writing could handle. And I was going after people that didn’t need to be gone after.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

I think I would be a philosopher.

What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

There is such an orthodoxy to who is allowed to write arts criticism. It’s a problem if people writing about the arts have never personally been involved in the arts. It’s also a huge problem that editors are singularly focused and narrow-minded about who is allowed to write what.

Two articles for American Theatre really meant a lot to me, yet were pieces that in some circles might be considered a conflict of interest. One was about the playwright Sibyl Kempson and the other was about [playwright] Mac Wellman, my teacher at Brooklyn College. People in my community read those pieces and talked to me about what they got out them. It would be cool to write for a local paper about local artists, people that I knew. I like writing national things and I like reaching out to people in Denver and Seattle, but it gets so diffuse. In the case of Sibyl and Mac, I have personal relationships with both of them and it made it such a nice experience. I was able to ask them better questions.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

There’s so much of it. People are in control of their own work. As Eliza Bent, random playwright, who wanted to make arts criticism about my own work, I could do that under another name and most people wouldn’t know. And frankly a lot of people wouldn’t care. Whether or not that’s being a huckster is entirely up for debate. But I think that there’s something nice about the fact that there’s so much access and there’s so much opportunity for people to be writing arts journalism and arts criticism.

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Martha Steketee
Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with playwrights and authors on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and League of Professional Theatre Women. Contributor to a range of theater publications including HowlRound, TDF Stages, Theater Pizzazz, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Her site Urban Excavations focuses on live and filmed performance. Steketee lives in New York City.