Feminist Theater Critic Jill Dolan Faces the World

Jill Dolan
Jill S. Dolan, Princeton University, Dean of the College. Image provided by Jill S. Dolan.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. For better or for worse, this debate questions what criticism is, further questions who is and is not a “critic,” challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be, and further challenges us to think about proper critical comportment.

We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In Critical I, we ask critics to tell their own stories and provide their own views of criticism.

Our latest interview in this series is with Jill Dolan of The Feminist Spectator.

Which critic would you like to see profiled? Email us at publisher@clydefitch.com and let us know.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words starting with: Jill Dolan is…

…a writer, professor, administrator and primarily a theater lover, who’s lucky enough to ply her trade in an academic community that gives her a living wage and a platform for her ideas. She’s an idealist, who believes that theater can participate in social change; that universities and colleges can promote a utopian, performatively oriented discourse for the future; and that social justice is a project worth pursuing.

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

I live in Princeton, NJ, which I love because of its quiet quality, the farmland that surrounds its “downtown,” and its proximity to NYC. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, when it was a steel town, and have lived in Boston, NYC, Seattle, Madison, Wisconsin, Tallahassee, Florida, Washington DC and Austin. My favorite place on earth: the beach; any beach. And of course the theater.

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

I’m a feminist critic. And a critic of contemporary theater and performance (performance art, experimental theater, ensemble theater, etc.). I’m self-taught as a feminist critic. When I started, in 1980, there was no such field. I stitched it together by teaching myself feminist film theory, French feminist (post-structuralist) theory, and by training myself to observe theater, film and other kinds of culture from a feminist political perspective. My PhD and MA are from NYU Performance Studies, where I learned from Michael Kirby the structure of experimental and avant-garde performance; from Richard Schechner the deep history of political theater; from Brooks McNamara the history of popular entertainments; from Marcia Siegel, the art of good criticism; and from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett performance theory and folklore.

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

1977, in Boston University’s Daily Free Press (well, if a college publication is “professional”). It was a review of Rita May Brown’s lesbian classic Rubyfruit Jungle. After I moved to NYC in 1981, I wrote for the New York Native, a gay paper, and other downtown rags.

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

I’ve written about theater, performance art, books, films, TV shows, but never dance or music, per se. I’ve also never written restaurant reviews. Although I do believe that cultural critics should know a lot about all forms of culture, at the same time, expertise is important. I don’t think I could write about dance as anything but an amateur. Writing about food requires a certain kind of taste palette, and an ability to translate taste into words (which is what theater writing also involves, but with different senses).

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

In the age of “citizen critics,” this is a good question. Yes, anyone can be a critic. But it takes time, effort, training and commitment to be a good critic. A good critic, for instance, is someone who understands how art works, and truly cares about the work and the larger project of culture making, not just about their own power and influence. I don’t believe, for instance, in simply taste-making. I believe in culture as a social justice and social change project, which requires not just looking at how “good” a performance is, but at what it does in the world. Does it make us think differently about social relations? Does it make us reconsider how we feel about inequality and injustice? Does it give us hope for a better future? Does it teach us something about how to be ethical citizens of the world? I don’t think that pleasure and pedagogy, when it comes to criticism, are contradictions in terms. Good art should be pleasurable and teach us things about ourselves and others. And about beauty, aesthetics, and creativity.

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

Emily Nussbaum, because as the TV critic for The New Yorker she takes art-making seriously in a field that’s often disparaged as lowbrow; A.O. Scott, because he’s smart and a feminist, and considers film in the context of broader cultural issues; Wesley Morris, because he’s terrific on race and culture broadly construed, and a very good writer; B. Ruby Rich, because she was one of the first feminist film critics and her work was a model for my own writing; Laurie Stone, when she wrote across the arts for The Village Voice; Alisa Solomon, because she’s a polymath who’s as smart about politics as she is about theater, and blends her insights into both together seamlessly.

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

Molly Haskell, since she was one of the first women to write about film and consciously consider women as figures on the screen and in the audience; Pauline Kael, for her salty insights.

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

I think “wrong” is a relative term. Did I hate something and other people really liked it? Yes, often, especially in the case of popular culture and films (The Social Network, especially, which I despised and others loved, and despised me for hating). I reviewed Tanya Barfield’s latest play, Bright Half Life, rather tepidly, and others really liked it. I was probably wrong about that, as it was a sweet, charming production.

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

See The Social Network, above. And early in my career, Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, which I and other feminist critics thought was a woman-hating text and other critics loved (it won a Pulitzer, in fact). That play and the critical response to it became the basis for one of the chapters in my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic.

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

A rabbi. Partly because I think the impulse comes from the same place. To have a soapbox of sorts to talk to a larger community; to build community around faith and belief (which I feel for theater, rather than for religion); and because there’s something about being a critic that challenges you (or at least me) to find words for the ineffable, which I imagine rabbis, too, must do regularly.

What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

It’s shallow and consumer-driven, instead of thoughtful and committed to the broader project of building a more equitable national culture. We should have a deeper, ongoing, democratic discourse about what the arts mean in American culture. Instead, it’s nowhere on the radar of the national election debates, and most likely won’t be. Only Frank Rich and Alisa Solomon, and to a certain extent A.O. Scott, see the connections between politics and art/theater, and draw them out with creative and important social insights. Elections or not, we should all be doing more of that. Art and society aren’t separate; art is part of the fabric of what makes us human and should be engaged that way by all critics.

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What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

It amazes me that even the most mainstream critics are now paying more attention to the margins. Work by women and people of color should be reviewed more regularly; better still, it should be produced in more visible, influential forums in New York and across the country. But I now read many more reviews about people and styles and forms who/which 30 years ago would have been far off the critical radar, and for that, I’m grateful. I hope it opens spectators’ (and funders’) minds to the wide range of styles and genres, contents and preoccupations that are embodied, addressed, and witnessed in art.

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.

Well, sometimes I think I lead from the heart, and my heart often bleeds a little. I imagine there are those who would say, in other words, that I’m just a bleeding heart, that I have no critical acumen, that I’m “soft” and “female” and an “amateur.” (I’ve been called all these things, disparagingly, as a critic.) But my tone and my style, hopefully, offer a different model for engaging with work — not from above, but from beside, with an eye toward how it makes me feel as well as what it makes me think, with a commitment to what it does as well as how it looks or moves or works. I’m a critic who wants the reader to experience the work with me, to feel the joy I feel in front of it, or the anger and frustration it inspires. I want to share what I’ve seen and thought, in an invitation to readers to a dialogue with me and with the work.

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.

I’m a feminist critic with deep commitments to social change and theater’s ability to bring it closer to happening.