BIPOC Critics Lab

BIPOC Critics Lab - Mission 

Jose Solís

When I was 10 years old I told everyone I would become a critic. Not a director, not an actor, not a playwright, but a critic. As I filled notebook after notebook with my thoughts on the art I encountered (mostly films, which I devoured daily growing up in Honduras) I never really stopped to ponder what made me want to be a critic. I lived in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and arts journalism wasn’t particularly popular, or even visible.

Although most adults assumed my writing was a hobby, I had one mission. Instead of following the advice of those who suggested I became a doctor or a lawyer, and wrote on the side, by age 16 I had started my own film criticism website. When I was 21 and about to finish school in Costa Rica I started contributing reviews to a local paper, and by the age of 24, I was conducting Skype interviews from my college apartment in San José with celebrities in the US for an American website.

Even though I was never able to find a kindred spirit in either country, I knew that despite the lack of representation, there must’ve been at least someone else like me who dreamed of becoming the link between the art and the audience.

Upon moving to New York City in my late 20s I made a heartbreaking discovery — although there were more aspiring critics here, not very many of them shared my cultural, ethnic, or racial heritage. In fact, I always stuck out like a brown spot in a sea of white.

As I transitioned from focusing on film to exploring theatre, it became clear to me that what I had encountered was a problem of representation. You need to see it to be it, otherwise, how can you become something you don’t even know you’re allowed to dream of becoming?

As my career progressed — I began my NYC journey writing nonstop for a small startup where I did marketing, but also found time to write about theatre and edit film reviews I commissioned from new writers — and suddenly I was writing for iconic newspapers and magazines, the ones that always get quoted in advertising and press releases. Once I knew I could achieve it, I knew that although the road was hard to travel, it was necessary to let BIPOC dream the dream.

I began pursuing alliances with critics organizations, private funders, artists, friends, and trusted colleagues, in order to create a workshop for people like me. I got constant pats on the back and too many “we’re happy to have the conversation”s to count, but my vision of a training program never materialized.

In the summer of 2020, the combination of being alone in quarantine, heartbreak over social unrest and oppression at the hands of the status quo, and my recent foray into launching an independent publication, reminded me there were some things I’d simply have to do myself.

I created the outline of what I call the BIPOC Critics Lab, a program consisting of 10 masterclasses in which BIPOC future critics, will learn what nobody taught me or other BIPOC critics in school. Although there are some training programs for performance arts critics, none of them are based in NYC, and most of them are geared towards critics who find themselves mid-career. But how can you get to be mid-career in a country where systematic racism doesn’t let you even be pre-career?

My vision is to launch a full program in which BIPOC instructors design and impart their own masterclasses, based on a humanistic structure with the intent of decolonizing the way in which we talk about art. But without funding, organizational support, and anyone to partner with (I would never ask anyone to work for free) I came to the conclusion that it was essential to create and execute a pilot program in order to conduct research on what BIPOC future critics are craving to learn.

On Twitter, I recruited 8 people from all over the United States (although during the pandemic, the invitation was certainly open to everyone and anyone regardless of location) who have embarked with me on a ten-session journey, over approximately three months, where they will learn the basics of criticism, pitching, reviewing (in several mediums), fine-tuning their unique voice, going through the process of polishing a piece with an editor, and eventually being published and paid for their work.

Most training programs provide invaluable knowledge but rarely conclude with something tangible, sending trainees out into a world where arts journalism positions continue disappearing. Even for the purpose of a research program, I found it necessary for moral and ethical reasons to make sure the eight cohort members received the same opportunity those in the full program will. So I partnered with eight theatre companies and outlets throughout the country to ensure each future critic will be able to publish a piece on their website, newsletter, bulletin, or wherever each organization deems fit.

Granted, for obvious reasons they will not be reviewing the works of those companies, but today, a critic needs to be versed in feature writing, creating listicles, building artist profiles, and developing essays in which they can tie specific pieces to the larger cultural conversation. By inviting theatre companies to work with me, it also reminds them that critics are an essential part of the ecosystem. Critics are not antagonists but messengers of the many ways in which a single work of art can be examined through various lenses, sometimes even uncovering layers the artists themselves weren’t aware they were including.

By inviting theatre companies to join me on this, and making sure each critic is remunerated fairly, they are being asked to nurture the voices of tomorrow so that we no longer have to listen to the excuse “we didn’t know who to invite.”

The mission of a critic was never to be a judge, since objectivity by default can not exist when it comes to taste. Instead in the BIPOC Critics Lab, future critics are encouraged to become mediators between the works and the audience, although the word “mediator” doesn’t do justice to their purpose either.

My purpose instead is that they leave the program as cheerleaders, ready to express their opinions with authority, sense of humor, sociopolitical awareness, and confidence in knowing that just because criticism hasn’t set a place at the table for them, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve one. Above all, I want them to leave the program with a sense of humanity that goes beyond the perverse thirst for power some critics exert as they prefer to trash a work of art, before engaging with it at its level. Before remembering that art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and politics, culture, and sociological phenomena can’t help but influence how a work is perceived. Critics who deny their audience members with the space for debate, because acknowledging that whiteness isn’t universal or the lens by which every work should be measured is too uncomfortable, are why we're perceived as the mustache-twirling villains.

The future critics in the BIPOC Critics Lab will be given the tools to remember that their taste is precisely what will make others reach out to them and engage with their work. If currently there’s an administration creating policy on social media, why not counteract their disregard for compassion, by having open-hearted, respectful conversations with those who wish to engage with them?

The longer the critic sits atop an untouchable pedestal, the longer should we try to knock them down, because the work of a critic doesn’t end with the publication of a piece, instead it’s there where it truly begins. Rather than absolute sentencing, a piece of criticism should feel like a town hall, an invitation to engage in dialogue. A space safe enough where critics too can sometimes accept that they don't have the answers and that their positions are only inflexible because they're never challenged. This is all so that others are finally allowed to dream the dream, and to wake up in a world where they can turn it into reality.

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  • Taylor Reynolds 
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  • Paula Vogel 
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Organizer

Miriam Felton-Dansky 
Organizer
Rhinebeck, NY
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