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AMERICAN THEATRE | Naveen Kumar Is Wanting Ahead to D.C.

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Naveen Kumar. (Picture by Myles Loftin)

What does it imply to be a nationwide theatre publication? Clearly this can be a query we take into consideration loads at American Theatre. The artwork kind we cowl is inherently place-based, the last word you-had-to-be-there expertise, however it’s also a kind and an business that circulates and replicates everywhere in the nation and the world, with affect properly past its speedy time and area. So it makes a certain quantity of sense for people who cowl theatre to maintain one eye on their native phases and one eye—or a nook of their eye, at the very least—on what’s taking place elsewhere, together with within the theatre’s business capital in New York Metropolis.

That’s the logic, as I perceive it, behind the theatre protection of such main U.S. newspapers as The Los Angeles Occasions, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Publish, the place their lead critics have a mandate to cowl each their respective cities’ homegrown theatre scenes and the foremost fare on Broadway (and typically Off-). Ostensibly their native audiences are as excited about reveals headed for or coming from New York as they’re within the choices at their native regional and storefront theatres (although it ought to be mentioned that plenty of native theatremakers in these cities really feel in any other case). And the critics at these retailers do contribute invaluable perspective not solely to native customers however to a nationwide readership as properly, ideally educating each and elevating an intrinsically native artwork kind right into a broader dialogue.

That has meant plenty of frequent flier miles for Charles McNulty and Chris Jones, respectively, and till just lately plenty of hours on the Acela for Peter Marks, who exited the Publish earlier this yr after 21 years on the job. Final week the Publish introduced that Naveen Kumar, whose main bylines as a critic have been at Selection and The New York Occasions, would be the paper’s new lead theatre critic. Like Marks, he’ll stay primarily based in New York and can proceed his astute protection of choices there, however his core job can be to cowl as a lot as theatre within the DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia) as he can handle.

I spoke yesterday with Naveen about his background on the company facet of the enterprise, what his protection mandate can be in his new job, and his prognosis each for the theatre and for arts journalism (he’ll proceed to function affiliate director of the O’Neill’s Nationwide Critics Institute).


ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congrats, Naveen. You’ve been doing theatre criticism for some time, however is a full-time gig one thing you’ve gotten been searching for?

NAVEEN KUMAR: Theatre criticism has all the time been one thing I’ve been obsessed with since I began in journalism; it was all the time a bit of what I’ve been doing. I don’t suppose I ever assumed that a chance like this is able to come alongside, as a result of, as you realize, theatre journalism is kind of area of interest, and there are solely so many shops that actually need it. So I used to be diversified as a journalist by way of what I coated, as a contributing editor at Them, the place I’ve been writing about TV and movie and queer tradition. I by no means had the belief {that a} full-time critic place can be in my future or given, so it’s an exciting type of shock in that approach.

Once I interviewed Hana Sharif final yr, she mentioned she had particularly dreamt not solely of being a creative director, however of being the inventive director of Enviornment Stage. I’ve typically heard individuals joke that no child goals of rising as much as be a theatre critic. What’s your theatre critic origin story?

I feel in all probability the one cause I didn’t dream about it as a child is that I didn’t comprehend it was the factor you can dream about. I’ve all the time been a theatre lover. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., seeing excursions coming via Detroit. My first few reveals have been the Fiddler on the Roof tour, the Guys and Dolls tour. We might additionally go to Toronto and see the large industrial reveals. I used to be a director in school and I carried out a bit of bit in highschool. I’ve all the time simply liked the shape. However I additionally liked writing, so I studied English in school, which felt like a extra sensible tutorial pursuit, though it was in no way. I liked literary criticism as a lot as something.

Once I got here out of school, I labored within the theatre Business on the company facet. I spent about seven years working at expertise companies, first at a smaller company for actors, plenty of whom are huge Broadway stars now, after they have been getting their begin about 20 years in the past. Then I labored at CAA within the theatre division, and my boss represented playwrights and administrators. So I obtained to know plenty of how issues work behind the scenes, how reveals come collectively—all of the ins and outs of how new work will get made. That was actually eye-opening. Nevertheless it simply wasn’t a path I wished to pursue, so I left and went to grad college for English literature once more, simply eager to get again into my head and again on the web page. Once I completed that program, a buddy of a buddy wanted somebody to jot down about theatre for Towleroad, a queer information and leisure website. I did that for 10 years, virtually, and I might actually type of write no matter I wished. It was an incredible platform for me to simply work out write about theatre and what my voice was. That was type of a moonlighting factor I’d do by myself time, whereas I additionally labored as a duplicate editor and as an editor in digital media, and finally went freelance full-time, doing principally writing but additionally some enhancing.

That company background is fascinating. There’s a notion you’ll hear that critics can be higher or extra reliable if they’d some background as practitioners within the area they cowl, which I don’t suppose is true as a rule or a great, although I’m not against people crossing over. Having a background on the company facet is an entire different factor. How does that have an effect on your criticism?

I take a look at it as an Business. I see who’s getting paid for what, which novels are within the public area—that’s why we’re getting all these Nice Gatsbys. I see which producers are working with which huge expertise. If you happen to see big-name stars, administrators, and playwrights all on the identical reveals, you’re like: Oh, they’re all repped by the identical brokers. I simply type of take note of the patterns. I’m nonetheless pleasant with individuals from that point; I’m not tremendous up-to-date on it, but it surely’s positively very fascinating to take a look at it from the enterprise facet, and to see how that intersects with what we wind up with onstage artistically.

I imply, it’s simple to wring your palms and say, “Why is all of this present IP onstage?” and to think about there’s some type of inventive god who’s giving or not supplying you with what you need. However there are such a lot of forces which can be shaping what we’re getting, and plenty of it on this nation is a industrial crucial—the selections which can be made behind the scenes for what we find yourself with onstage, plenty of them don’t have anything to do with artwork. That’s simply one thing that I’m conscious of in plenty of completely different contexts, together with what nonprofits are programming—like, are they programming this as a result of they’ve a relationship with this playwright they usually’re all the time gonna do his performs? Are they all the time going to do one thing that brings in crowds, after which subsequent do one thing that’s extra experimental? I’m all the time taking a look at it from that perspective. It’s pure to me.

Because you talked about nonprofits, that’s a great segue to ask you about Washington, D.C., particularly, the place there’s a smattering of business theatre however the place the lion’s share of theatre is at nonprofits of all sizes. What’s your protection mandate on the Publish, and what kind of ratio of New York vs. DMV stuff will you be overlaying?

I’m very delicate and attentive to the truth that Washington, D.C., readers and theatres, the group, actually desire a native critic. I’m attentive to that; I take that very critically. They need somebody who’s engaged and current and seeing these reveals and responding to them. That’s a very essential a part of the job that I’m not taking evenly, that I’m going to make a core a part of what I’m doing. I feel there are additionally no illusions about the truth that New York is the middle of business theatre within the nation, and performs which can be on Broadway find yourself going out to the areas and vice versa; there’s a relationship that’s ongoing and goes in each instructions. So New York protection is all the time going to be an essential a part of any nationwide theatre part, and I’m well-situated and well-versed to handle that a part of it. Since I haven’t began but, we’re going to really feel out how a lot I’ll be touring and overlaying reveals across the nation and in London. However I feel, once more, the first obligations can be fulfilling that native critic duty in D.C., after which additionally overlaying the middle of the theatre business. We’ll see what I’ve the bandwidth for.

When new inventive leaders come right into a theatre or a city they don’t know properly, they typically discuss doing a type of listening tour to listen to what’s on individuals’s minds. Do you intend one thing related in D.C.?

I’m positively open to assembly individuals and connecting with inventive leaders, attending to know them and listening to their issues and what they need from protection. It’s thrilling for me to get to know a brand new metropolis and a brand new scene. I feel there are some individuals who, as I mentioned, would have wished somebody inside D.C. who is aware of the scene. I hear that, and I feel it additionally may be thrilling to have a recent perspective in your scene. I definitely discover it personally and professionally thrilling, and I hope the group can see it in the identical approach—that somebody coming in with a beneficiant, open, curious thoughts about what the scene is can cowl it with a type of vigor and freshness that may assist everybody have a brand new perspective.

One other factor your predecessor, Peter Marks, and different main critics have been doing is to combine evaluations with reported items. I do know from writing you’ve finished, together with for us, that these expertise are in your wheelhouse too. Will you be mixing it up that approach on the Publish?

I positively plan to jot down greater than evaluations: essays, commentary, reporting. I feel it’s extensive open for what I discover thrilling and fascinating, and in what route I need to lead the part.

I’ve principally learn your theatre evaluations of particular person reveals (and by the way in which, thanks for being one of many few Cabaret followers, as am I), so I don’t know your bigger tackle the well being of the American theatre on the whole. How do you suppose the business is faring general, some years after the Covid lockdown and We See You, White American Theater?

I’ve coated the Business in disaster at completely different phases of it, and I used to be paying very shut consideration through the shutdown, after which all of the panicking and existentialism of the second we reopened. There’s been plenty of deep pondering and listening that has gone on over the past 4 or 5 years, and we’re nonetheless seeing the place that’s main. I feel everybody has the perfect of intentions proper now, and that bringing the urgency of the survival of the Business to the fore in the way in which that the final a number of years have finished has been very productive by way of our fascinated by, who’s theatre for? Who’re we serving? Who’s onstage, and who’s making the selections about who’s onstage? That has gotten plenty of thought-about consideration, and plenty of adjustments have been made. We’re in such early phases and we’re nonetheless seeing how that’s taking part in out.

Definitely on Broadway this season, there was such quite a lot of issues that I feel it’s a testomony to a very broad and assorted urge for food amongst customers and traders and producers about what they need to be placing on. And I feel that vibrancy of selection—that you can go see a really critical, prickly drama or a very enjoyable, foolish musical—is what individuals need. Audiences are advanced, and I feel we’re all the time going to be figuring ourselves out. It’s not an business that’s going to simply discover a solution sooner or later, and suppose, Oh, phew, we’ve obtained it now. I feel asking actually huge questions is troublesome, and there aren’t simple solutions, however asking them is step one, and plenty of sensible individuals have been doing that and making use of themselves to reply them. I feel there’s plenty of potential there to see what they provide you with.

Naveen Kumar, left, with attendees on the 2023 O’Neill Nationwide Critics Institute.

The opposite Business I need to ask you about is our personal. As an affiliate director on the O’Neill critics institute, you mentor plenty of younger critics. What do you inform them in regards to the area they hope to enter?

One the explanations I’m very honored and humbled to have this place is that I by no means assumed it will be attainable. Ever since I’ve been a theatre journalist, we’ve been asking this query of who’s studying it? What’s it for? What’s subsequent? The angle I’ve from working on the O’Neill and the good writers now we have each summer time is that there’s such an urge for food for writing in regards to the arts, for pondering deeply about theatre and media and for partaking with it critically, and for serving to readers perceive and dig into it. That is maybe idealistic, however I feel there’ll all the time be a necessity and a need to dig into the tales in our tradition. Tales that we’re being instructed throughout each media have which means, they mirror who we’re and our deepest needs and fears, and there’s all the time going to be a necessity for us to know that and to be in dialog with that. Even a passive client of media who’s zoning out to a TV present, that TV present nonetheless has a narrative it’s telling you, that’s seeping into your bloodstream and your consciousness, and it’s shaping individuals. So I feel there’s a robust and protracted want for what we’re doing.

The shape it takes is clearly altering, and it must—it wants to satisfy readers the place they’re, and reply to the artwork types as they alter and to expertise. I feel the concept criticism all the time has to look the identical or have the identical which means, that it may possibly open or shut a present or get individuals to purchase tickets—now we have to consider all these issues as malleable. There’s no proper approach for it to be. Life is change, and in case you’re continually holding onto the way in which issues was, you’re going to convey your self plenty of struggling. That’s to not say it isn’t troublesome proper now. We’re asking troublesome questions in the identical approach that theatre business is, however I feel the actual fact plenty of good persons are asking the identical questions and making use of ourselves to them means there’s potential there for determining a approach ahead.

So are we going to see you on TikTok, Naveen?

That will be one other studying curve for me.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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