Bonus Material

Anonymous Essays: Unnecessary

Nathan Pugh

September 14, 2023

Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh (he/him) is a writer, journalist, and culture critic based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is gay, biracial, and Filipino American. Pugh’s writing focuses on identity in performance both on and off the stage (with special attention paid to race, sexuality, gender, and nationality). His bylines include Theatrely, DC Theater Arts, DCist, and NPR’s It’s Been a Minute and Code Switch. In 2021, Pugh graduated from Wesleyan University where he was a theater and English major with a concentration in race/ethnicity; during the spring 2021 semester, he served as an Editor-in-Chief of the Wesleyan Argus. He currently works as a copywriter for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Pugh is available for contact through his website and on Insta/Twitter @nathanpugh_3.

Content Warning: This article contains references to suicide ideation, depression, and self harm.

I. Desperate

In the summer of 2020—when I was still a danger to myself, when every day I went to a hospital for intensive outpatient care—I was told that writing would help me calm my suicidal thoughts. Art could be healing, even.

“Imagine a conversation between you and someone you really care about,” an expressive therapy instructor told my motley crew of self-harmers. “Write down what you want to say to them. Imagine what they would say back. And then we’ll read your lines out loud.”

What my peers and I created was a kind of desperate, messy theater. It took everything in me to turn off the dramaturgical side of my brain, and not critique the scene I wrote. “This scene isn’t art,” I thought. “It’s just a psychological technique to survive yourself.” The whole situation struck me as ironic. Didn't theater make me realize I needed to go to this hospital? Was theater really going to get me out of here?

II. Promise

I remember a time before I craved death, when theater made me feel alive. For years when I imagined an important conversation in my life, it happened on a stage. Before coming out to my family, I rehearsed it in my mind over and over, so that the actual event felt like an actor’s muscle memory. I used to fantasize about slow-dancing with a crush under bright, violet lights. Like a stage manager, I could orchestrate light and sound cues for the maximum emotional impact.

For so long, theater felt like a promise: you can imagine the beauty of belonging, and struggle to make it as real as possible. When I got to college, I tried to deliver on this promise, serving as a deviser and dramaturg for student theater productions. Yet I always found myself returning to theater criticism. My professors and classmates exposed me to writers like Hilton Als, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Jia Tolentino: authors whose incisive culture writing was backed by historical analysis, wit, and personal connection to art. Reading these authors felt like overhearing the heated conversations friends have after seeing a show. The idea of translating those arguments, and my own conflicting thoughts, into a piece of public writing—that act felt just as difficult and vulnerable to me as getting up on a stage. As a person of color, it also felt crucial to expand what conversations were public in the first place.

I started writing arts criticism and journalism for my college’s newspaper. The fall of 2019 marked an inflection point in my creative life; I was promoted to become an editor of the arts section, but I also was becoming rapidly disillusioned with the promise of theater. It was during this time that I discovered shows that rejected the idea of belonging at all, through Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, and Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop. All three shows broke theater for me. These Black playwrights were pushing the medium to the extreme, using theatricality to expose how pathetic, degrading, and regressive the art form could be. These shows were works of criticism that argued against buzz phrases like “emotional catharsis” and “inclusion” as the basis of a healthy life. The playwrights were ambivalent about theater even being a good thing for anybody.

The fall of 2019 cleaved my college experience into two halves. In the first two years, I was chasing acceptance and experimenting in performance. In the second two years, I was trying to just endure the devastation that theater, the pandemic, and my own mind had given me.

For too long, theater had been my reason to keep living. It was the one thing in my life that felt safe. Yet Fairview, Slave Play, and A Strange Loop exposed the dangers of theater that had been hurting me all along: I was fighting to belong in an art form that saw me as unnecessary. “Nobody needs another theater critic,” I kept thinking to myself. “Nobody needs yet another person of color giving yet another critique on how this industry was never made for us. Nobody needs my opinions or my pain. Nobody needs me.”

If I had no place in the theater, the most contrived and artificial of all spaces, I had no place in the world. This was the cruel logic I inflicted onto my body, before my time at the hospital.

III. Lonely

Since graduating college, I’ve sustained an early journalism career through freelance writing and remote internships. I’ve also dedicated my arts writing to continuing the work of Fairview, Slave Play, and A Strange Loop: I negotiate whether theater is a good thing for anybody. In interviews with theater creators, I challenge them on the supposed transformative nature of art. In the rare times that I review theater that’s profound, I’ll champion those artists. In the too many times I review theater that’s troubling or offensive, I’m honest about the frustrating effects these shows can have.

More than anything, my criticism is a process of ruthlessly investigating myself. I criticize my own biases and tastes. I fill in the gaps of my knowledge with thorough research. I hold myself accountable for the same bullshit that I’m calling out.

Writing criticism can be a lonely experience. Here I am, separated from my theater colleagues under the stricture of “journalistic distance,” constantly pitching to editors who I’ve never met in person, working for pay that rarely even covers my transportation to get to the theater.

The loneliness goes deeper, though. Last year I reviewed a production I thought was offensive. The show cheapened traumatic racial experiences (ones I had gone through myself) into a neat parable about empathy. In writing, I used painful memories from my life as evidence of how excruciating that show could be for people of color. White critics who reviewed the same show wrote raves.

Is this the primary function of the critic of color, to bleed onto the page so that artists will see their unintentional oppression? I recently attended a virtual panel on theater criticism, where critics of color theorized their role was to intervene into the white establishment, to be the voice for the voiceless. None of the panelists asked white critics to do better. None of the panelists discussed how seeing so much bad white theater can make you resent the art form you’re supposed to love. None of the panelists discussed how critics of color often write for small digital publications, told to “wait our turn” for legacy media.

We’re waiting on a turn that will never come. When the white male theater critic working for the biggest publication near me retires, I’ve been told by industry veterans that the publication will eliminate paid theater critic positions entirely. Winning a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t even stop you from being canned nowadays—or stop your entire publication from being shut down.

IV. Endless

I also recently attended a different panel on theater criticism, where people my age discussed theater criticism on social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram. But is this the journalism our industry needs? Theater “influencers” often just take screenshots of established media publications and deliver their reactions to the news. Even the most successful theater influencers I’ve found balance criticism with glistening footage of themselves walking into theaters, holding up playbills, and chatting to the camera during intermissions. This sort of journalism tows the delicate line between actual reporting and lifestyle vlogging/“sponsored content.”

What’s new about this dynamic is that theater influencers aren’t held accountable to editors and publications, only to their own channel and the algorithm. There’s less incentive to investigate the self, and more incentive to brand the self. Asking journalists to review shows has long been a part of theater marketing—what’s new is that influencers are marketing both shows and themselves.

The accelerated rush to video journalism also reminds me of the previous rush to audio journalism. Podcasting was once touted as journalism’s future—and now it’s a future that’s crumbling, with employment cuts this year to Spotify, NPR, Pushkin Industries, and more. Couldn’t the same fallout happen with TikTok? We should be wary about investing too deeply in any new form of journalism, especially as both the arts industry and the media industry struggle to make new models tenable.

I’ve come to peace with the fact that I’ll never be paid much for my work as a theater journalist. It’s a blessing and a curse that the media world can’t go back to what it was even a decade ago. The future of theater journalism is a million podcasts and Substack newsletters and TikTok accounts you’ve never heard of before. It’s an endless stream of atomized realities, where diversity flourishes but so does loneliness.

My hope is that we can alleviate some of this loneliness through collaboration. I want the small digital publications I write for to gather their freelancers together in order to discuss coverage and goals collectively. Maybe we could even meet in person every now and then. The most exciting culture podcasts and websites I’ve discovered—even ones that are self-produced—are ones created by teams, where colleagues can investigate each others’ opinions and hold each other accountable.

And if social media must be a part of the equation, let’s encourage journalists to create videos and posts on the subjects they’re covering. NPR’s Jack Corbett and the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz both produce in-depth reporting for their publications and have robust internet followings for explaining tricky concepts in funny ways. I’d love to see theater journalists and critics do the same. Social media posts should drive viewers to engage with our journalism—the posts shouldn’t always be the journalism itself.

What still lingers with me, and disappoints me, is that the question “Is theater a good thing for anybody?” seems increasingly lost in arts journalism. In a world where theater productions, festivals, and companies are shuttering, there’s an unspoken pressure for theater critics to play it nice, to praise the herculean task of creating theater, to bite our tongues, and be an unabashed advocate for the arts.

V. Pressure

A few years ago, I wrote an article expressing the acute discomfort of watching a play about homophobic violence. In my article, I was frank about my queerness and about the violence I can imagine inflicting on myself. I discussed how the production, though attempting to be sensitive, failed to take into account an audience member with my history; I questioned if gay lives still had to be in danger on the stage to matter.

When actors from the production sent an email to me, I initially thought they might be apologizing that I had such an intense theater-going experience. Instead, they told me that they were offended by my writing. They didn’t intend for their show to cause harm, and why couldn’t I honor that? Why did I have to cause them harm?

I weirdly sympathize with the “brush off the haters” and “fuck the critics” sentiment amongst theater creators. I know firsthand how frustrating it is to be perceived in ways you don’t expect. I know how weeks of work can be consumed and discarded by audiences in a few minutes.

Yet within this email, I sensed something more insidious than anti-critic sentiment. They were applying a pressure (onto me and themselves) that art must be healing. It’s the idea that any theater dealing with difficult subject matter should seal the wounds inflicted by the world. And if you don’t leave the theater feeling mended, if you have a mediocre or painful time watching a show, then maybe you’re not watching it correctly. This is the same pressure that my expressive therapy instructor told me in the hospital: theater should facilitate your darkest thoughts, and set you free.

VI. Forward

After discovering Fairview, Slave Play, and A Strange Loop, I’d often listen to “Memory Song” over and over again, and reread Keisha and Kaneisha’s scathing monologues until their words felt seared into my wrists. Late one night, I finally understood why. These plays’ endings were similar to the suicide notes I had started and never finished.

There’s an ugliness to this realization. But it’s refreshing to admit that theater is ugly. Instead of asking whether theater can be a good thing for anybody, maybe these playwrights posit that the art form is an actively bad thing for anyone to be involved in. For these shows’ Black protagonists, theater isn’t reparative, or an escape, or even a salvo. Theater simply clarifies what people are going through, without judgment or hope, and sends them on their way. There is no healing, just a continual stumbling forward.

I wish more theater creators and critics would take this approach to their craft. I know, I know: “The only way out is through,” and the theater industry will only change if we apply pressure to it and change it ourselves. Yet it’s unfair to say the art form that harms us will also heal us. We don’t have to reclaim everything. And the idea that theater must be healing too often sidelines the pain required to create, watch, and write about the art form at all.

Somedays, theater can be a thing I love without expecting healing or love in return. But I don’t have to continue that love every day.

VII. Justification

The playwrights of Fairview, Slave Play, and A Strange Loop have no justification for why they should keep making theater. Their shows explicitly say that theater has caused irreparable damage to their lives. They keep making theater, anyway.

I have no justification for why I should keep writing. Even when I articulate my pain in a clarifying way, it doesn’t relieve me, and may make readers also feel pain. I keep writing, anyway.

I have no justification for why I should keep on living. The most painful experiences in my life—the ones I can’t even write down—tell me that it’s not worth it. Sometimes my life still feels unnecessary. I keep living, anyway.

Nowadays, I don’t imagine important conversations in my life as if they’re on a stage. I no longer dream for the theater; I’m finding better techniques for surviving myself.

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