Art (Journalism) Talk with Jacqueline E. Lawton

by Victoria Hutter
Jacqueline E. Lawton
Jacqueline E. Lawton. Photo by Jason Hornick
Like many professions, arts journalism has fractured and morphed with the impact of technology. Those who practice arts journalism have also changed and include not only critics and reporters, but artists as well. Jacqueline E. Lawton is a DC-based playwright whose work has been presented at numerous venues including Classical Theatre of Harlem, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Round House Theatre, Theater J, and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company to name a few. Jacqueline is also a dramaturg, research consultant, teaching artist, activist, and blogger. Her writing, although it does not include reviews, seeks to engage an audience in conversation about theater, specifically around issues of race, gender, and class.
We asked Lawton to chat with us about being a playwright who blogs and how the one form of writing influences the other.
NEA: Jacqueline, what are you working on now?
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Well, it’s a busy and exciting time and I'm involved in several projects.
I'm working with Cassie Maedor, the new artistic director of Dance Exchange, on a piece called the Rachel Carson Project that will be part of Dance Place's Modern Moves Festival at the Atlas Theater on January 5. It’s beautiful, reflective, and poignant. Cassie wanted to incorporate text and vocal work from the beginning as she was laying down the choreography. She brought me in as a playwright who uses sound, movement, and imagery in addition to text to tell stories. 
Also, I'm writing a new play called Nom de Guerre as a participant in Arena Stage's Playwright's Arena. I’m one of six local playwrights involved in this new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute. Nom de Guerre is a socio-political and military drama that addresses the ever-changing role of women and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on military veterans and their families. Our showcase will take place March 6t-9t as part of the Kogod Cradle Series. 
Then, Adventure Theatre-Musical Theatre Center has commissioned me to adapt The Wizard of Oz into a stage play for their 2014-2015 season. Finally, I’m serving as dramaturg for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival. I’ll be working on a wonderful play called brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee, under the direction of Meredith McDonough.
NEA: Can you talk to be about your work with Theatre Communications Group (TCG)?
LAWTON: Yes, happily! I'm the diversity and inclusion online curator. I conduct online interviews with theater practitioners on particular themes and report out at TCG’s national events. Most recently, I attended the Fall Forum on Governance, an event that brings together board members, managing directors, and other senior staff from across the nation. We spent the weekend learning how a strong business model rooted in diversity and inclusion and based on a long-term financial plan can better serve a theater company's mission as well as its community. I’ll be capturing this experience on the TCG Circle. 
Additionally, I'm part of TCG's Diversity and Inclusion Institute. This multi-year initiative involves 21 theaters working to establish and strengthen their commitment to diversity as a core value of their organization. What’s wonderful is that each organization comes to this work at various stages and with different needs. It’s inspiring to have a cohort of theaters working together to support and hold each other accountable in the months ahead. The work around diversity and inclusion is challenging and urgent, and it shouldn’t be done alone.
NEA: You started a theater blog last year. What inspired your writing in this form?
LAWTON: When Blake Robison (former artistic director at Round House Theatre and current artistic director at Cincinnati Playhouse) nominated me as a TCG Young Leader of Color, I was launched onto a national platform. I wanted to use that platform to mobilize change toward race and gender parity in the theater. In August 2012, I reached out to a group of women playwrights in DC to interview them for my blog. I didn’t know who would respond but they all said yes! Not only that, they introduced me to other women playwrights. It was such a great feeling to connect with these women, to share our experiences and have these powerful, direct, and intimate conversations. 
NEA: You’ve told us you’re involved in at least two blogging projects. Why do you think a blog is a good forum for having these types of conversations? What are the particular challenges? What does the blog form foster that traditional media platforms do not?
LAWTON: What I love about writing in this form is that I can curate conversations and showcase the great work of many deserving but overlooked artists anytime I want. And I don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission or approval. What’s challenging, however, is that not everyone has time to have these conversations and some don’t feel comfortable expressing their ideas in the written word. Ultimately, my blog has allowed me to share my voice and be an advocate.
NEA: How does writing on your blog about other plays and playwrights influence your playwriting?
LAWTON: Writing for my blog combines my two favorite things. One, I'm curious and a complete social butterfly. I love learning about what other writers are doing in their creative processes, how they integrate the world around them into their work, how they are pushing form, and what issues are of concern to them. Second, blogging allows me to showcase the work of other artists, which is especially significant given that there are so few theater opportunities for women and people of color. 
Interestingly, a friend of mine said to me, "Oh, now you're a critic." That struck me. I'm not a critic in the sense of reviewing a specific artwork, but I am interested in having critical conversations with the theater community. Ultimately, this blog is part of my artistic and social advocacy. With it, I am able to bring awareness to the work of women and artists of color. 
NEA: Has the blog changed the way you actually write your plays? Not the subject matter, but how you put together words.
LAWTON: While it hasn’t changed the way that I write, the blog allows me to speak about my writing process and call attention to the issues that my plays address. Also, I feel that when I’m in conversation with various theater artists that I’m in a master class. DC has some of the smartest, talented, most passionate theater artists working in this country. It is an extraordinary privilege to engage with them. Next up, I’ll be launching the Women Stage Managers of DC, and I want to speak with designers and teaching artists as well. 
NEA: The definition of an arts critic and/or arts journalist is no longer a simple “gets paid to write about the arts.” What do you think the word critic means in the 21st century? How is that the same or different than previously?
LAWTON: Well, I think the role of an arts critic/journalist is to cover the field and provide a perspective on the quality, relevance, and impact of the work. I don’t think that has changed. However, our aesthetic values have changed, as they do with each generation. Styles, genres, and themes that were funny, hip, popular, edgy, blasphemous, and taboo a hundred years ago just aren’t any more. Also, our critical perspective has shifted, which is largely due to the fact that those who are allowed to create art has widened. We’re in a society that is shifting away from being a multicultural society that merely acknowledges and tolerates difference to an inclusive society that cultivates and thrives on difference. We’re not all there yet, but we are seeing this reflected more and more in our art. Taste is subjective, but I hold critics socially responsible. I need them to maintain a high level of cultural literacy and awareness. 
NEA: What do you think confers a "professional critic" status these days?
LAWTON: That’s a hard one. Everyone’s a critic and always has been. Only now, because of social media, word of mouth travels faster than it takes a review to be published in a newspaper or blog. It’s no longer just three or four people giving their thoughts and impressions, it’s possibly hundreds of people. When I was interviewing the Women Critics of DC for my blog, I came across a quote from former Denver Post Theater Critic John Moore: 
“There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.” 
This resonates with me and it’s the kind of writing I appreciate most. But not everyone, even professional writers subscribe to this purview, and some who may wish to write critically don’t know how. A failure I blame on the education system, which values standardized testing over critical analysis and personal expression. 
NEA: How can arts journalism enhance the theater experience? To what should it aspire?
LAWTON: I feel that arts journalism should capture the rich, complex, and diverse culture of a city. When I read about the local arts scene in a newspaper or online outlet, I should be able to gauge the vibrancy and passion of that city's culture. I want to know what makes a play relevant to its community and its time. I believe that artists and critics should be conscious of the work we create and know how to frame it within a contemporary, historical, socio-economic, political, racial/ethnic, and geographical context. Why this play? Why now? What is the social, cultural, historical context from which a play emerges? How does it serve, challenge, inform the community?
NEA: For plays that engage issues of social justice, do you think those works should be written about or reviewed differently from plays that aren’t issue-based? Should artistic elements and theme be considered separately?
LAWTON: I don’t think so, but if the form is different, then that should be taken into consideration. As far as content, I don’t think it should be written about differently. When I write about social justice, I write about it from a personal place. Meaning, the issue is the driving force of the central character(s) and the world of the play. 
NEA: With theater work ever more diverse in structure, theme, presentation, how can a journalist come to understand and respect work that is so different from what they know? 
LAWTON: Aside from the obvious things a journalist can do, such as reading materials about the play that the theater produces,like program notes and study guides, a journalist should read the play and interviews that the playwright has given. And if the playwright is local, talk to them. The other part is that artists need to learn how to discuss their work, and with social media we have so many more ways to do that. When Theater J produced the world premiere of my play The Hampton Years last season, I talked and talked about that play. I knew I had to learn how to shape the language I would use about this play. 
You know, it's a three-part world. It's the critic coming into conversation with the piece. It's the theater marketing the piece, and it's the playwright who wrote the piece and all those people need to be working together to get out the message of the play. I don't see critics as the enemies of theater. I see critics working in tandem with others to share a passion for theater. 
NEA: What is your sense of the state of arts journalism/writing as far as diversity is concerned? 
LAWTON: My initial reaction is that the field is not sufficiently diverse and yet when you look at the numbers maybe it is. Year after year, research shows that approximately 17 percent of all plays produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are written by women. The numbers are even less by people of color. Having so few critics of color, maybe arts journalism is sufficiently diverse given who has the opportunity to participate in theater itself. It's hard to say. But it's not a great situation. And let’s face it, art is inextricably linked to commerce and as such, the relationship between the artist and the critics is a troubled one. The weight of a review is measured in dollar signs and its merit is based on how well or poorly an artist can trade their efforts on audience attendance, grants, and donations. For a woman playwright of color, America's longstanding issues with race and gender can certainly factor into how my work is reviewed.  
NEA: Are you worried about the dearth of good conversations about theater whether on social media or in traditional media?
LAWTON: With traditional media maybe, but that depends on the region. With TCG’s amazing work on the blog and in American Theatre online; Howlround’s online journal, livestreaming TV network, and convenings; and 2AMT’s many curated conversations, social media allows discussions about race, class, and gender to happen in powerful and prevalent ways. I do worry when I see a total lack of social awareness and racial consciousness in a review. There are instances where I’ve been baffled, disgusted, and outright offended by what I’ve read. But I don’t read reviews to determine whether or not I’ll see a play or watch a film or attend an exhibit or read a book. I read reviews to check the temperature for where we are with criticism in the arts; it’s a telling factor for where we are with race relations in this country. 
NEA: What does "art works" mean to you?
LAWTON: I think of art work as social activism. I live as an artist in the world to tell the stories of people who live on the margins. Our work as artists is to evoke emotion and inspire thought, whether it's a direct call to action or simply seeing the person next to you who you might have ignored before because they are so different from you.