Chicago on the Aisle: Kelsey McGrath
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders.
For 2 ½ years (until taking a job as front of house at Victory Gardens Theater) Kelsey McGrath sat on the aisle. Their work, focused largely on intention and context, can be found on PerformInk and Newcity Stage. With their background in dramaturgy and directing, McGrath used their theatrical experience to fully engage with the work they saw.
After getting a start with criticism in undergrad, McGrath continued to review around Chicago post-graduation. In doing so they were not only able to see some of the best work the Windy City had to offer, but they were also able to hone their own artistic skills. Now pursuing work as an actor, McGrath uses what they know from the stages they’ve observed to grow their theatrical passions.
“I love acting and that's something that I just started in 2017,” they said. “What I loved about reviewing is that I was able to sit in all these master classes of work from these folks who have been doing it for years. And as an actor, that’s really exciting.”
What got you into theatre criticism?
I started reviewing in undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I don't remember the first review I wrote, but there was a lot of things [to see]. There was a great community theater scene in Champaign-Urbana and they do interesting work.
I did an internship with Smile Politely [an online magazine] and it was a theater internship. So I did reviews and I really enjoyed that. I really loved just asking questions of the work.
That’s where my focus is—just asking questions. How can we make this better? What was/what is being said? I remember in undergrad I did a review of Spamalot and, you know, it’s Spamalot. It was fine and so many people got upset. They were really upset that I wasn't raving about it. And I thought that was a really interesting conversation. I just remember my advisor bringing it up in one of our meetings and he was like, “keep doing that, keep asking these questions. Keep being honest.” And then he was like, “it's Spamalot. Obviously it's not going to be this divine work of theater.”
Do you have a background in something other than theater?
I studied theater in undergrad. I studied dramaturgy and directing, but I also studied media. So what I was really interested in is performance studies and the philosophy and sociology behind performance. So it's like definitely coming from an academic sensibility.
Do you miss reviewing?
I totally miss reviewing!
It's such a flight between being a theater person in the theater and working in theater, because I literally don't have time to see shows because I'm working usually in the evenings. There are so many shows that I just can't catch. I miss seeing this work and I miss seeing the actors and the people and seeing their growth. Like with different actors, you see them in a show years ago and then seeing them now. It’s just like being an observer and advocate for their community. And I miss engaging in the discussion around the ideological [and] cultural implications of the work that we're doing.
I really miss having the space to be able to express that.
So, in the time you were reviewing did you learn anything about yourself as an artist or the art form in general?
Oh, absolutely! I particularly learned about just understanding the Chicago theater community.
I’d go see shows and introduce myself. Doing just makes that [understanding] so much easier.
I also wanted more of something that I really love, so when I reached out to PerformInk and asked to review I expressed my values as a reviewer. That's something I never really articulated before. I've continued to keep those values in check. Having integrity of a writer and reviewer is how conversation happens.
Because you brought up Spamalot it made me think of your Little Shop of Horrors review [from last year]. When it comes to shows that feel very much within the “cannon,” they just exist and people do them time and time again, as a critic, did you feel responsible for evaluating them as a piece of art rather than as a piece of Americana?
I have to tell you, I had some baggage with Drury Lane, because I saw their production of Crazy for You, I don't remember when it was, but what blew me away was that there were [seemingly] no folks of color [on stage.]
Where were all the dark or black bodies? It's Crazy for You, race does not play a role in how the story is understood. So it's like, to me, there's an obligation to ensure that casting is inclusive. I just remember seeing that show and being really confused and angry. Excuse me Drury Lane, you have the resources and you're in Chicago. That was just very problematic to me.
So then I saw Joseph there which, was also hella problematic, so entering the space with this baggage, I really had the fuel to talk about this. For me, [in doing that] as a theatre institution or as a production you're truly not showing up for your community. That's a problem. So, I don't really think about it.
So when it came to reviewing, when you took something like Spamalot where folks wanted more, did you get backlash like that with pieces that you wrote? If you did, how did you deal with it?
I feel like I got backlash for Little Shop and I'm super grateful for my PerformInk editors for really being the frontline of that battle. I never personally have ever experienced anyone reaching out to me with backlash or commentary. I feel like that was one of the first reviews where I was like, this is an issue because I usually try to approach the art and meet the art where it's at. I try to talk about it in a way that uplifts the work because I think there's value in doing the work, but then also take into question why this work? Why now? Those are really the two main questions. What is the urgency of what we're creating?
You have to be very intentional with the work that you're doing. With the time, energy and money versus how many audience members are coming in. Just like with the payout you have to be very intentional with it.
It was very interesting to follow [the Little Shop review.] I definitely got some feedback from some of my actor friends, particularly my friends who are actors of color, talking about it. It's just really interesting to see what happens. I don't think I'd ever truly understood the power of criticism before that moment. I was just like, “oh, shit. What we say matters.”
So in the way people are still interested in having that kind of conversation, do you think that criticism has a place in the future?
Oh, my God, absolutely. It's essential. Criticism as a body, as a form, it has its problems and needs to be expanded to be more inclusive. I definitely think it's changing, like the paradigm is changing and I'm all for that. Like this idea of how everyone can be a critic, and everyone should be a critic. Being able to share it, feeling empowered to share that, particularly with our different identities, and how those inform how we understand the work. Being able to talk about that amplifies what I think is really important.
Have you run into any myths or misconceptions about criticism while you were a critic?
Something that I’ve thought about, and I felt like really held me back in the beginning, was this idea of how I would be perceived as a critic. Like by wearing my critic hat and feeling like I have to be a certain way or I can't engage with people a certain way. It's kind of like an illusion of power.
I feel like that has been something that I've had to navigate and have clearly grown from. Inhabiting the space and balancing this weird life of being an artist in the city, but also questioning what we're making.
It's one of the things that I, personally, have come to peace with. If you take this personally, you're not meeting me where I'm at, you know? And if that's the case, and you're being reactive, maybe I don't want to work with you. And I feel comfortable in making that declaration.
Contrary to how artists might feel, the criticism is not for them.
Absolutely. But, I think it could be for the company as well.
There's so much value in the [criticism] work being done and also there's such an interesting contradiction, because my opinion really doesn't matter. You know, it truly doesn't. I'm just over here, telling people how I feel. And if they want to listen, awesome. If they don't, that's awesome too.
But still, having that space, being given the platform, being more equitable and diversified—I think that's where we're moving.
Every critic has had one of those reviews where people come at you and you're like, I didn't deserve this. I'll admit it when I'm wrong, but I was not wrong with this. You can't have a wrong opinion unless it infringes on someone else's rights as a human.
If I didn't jive with it, that's fine.
I'm realizing my own privilege, bias and perspective. We are growing humans. We learn so much and should address that. Then you have a discussion or a dialogue.
We don't learn from one sided conversation.
I just really appreciate it when individuals are open and ready to be like, “oh, my bad here. Here's this new information and here's what I think about the show now.”