Chicago on the Aisle: Regina Victor
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders.
Regina Victor’s relationship with theater began when they were a young child actor. Victor’s journey went from acting to directing, dramaturgy to criticism and their passion for the art form is clear.
They’ve written for HowlRound, American Theatre Magazine, Windy City Times and a bunch of different theaters around Chicago through their dramaturgy work. In 2017 they co-founded Rescripted, which is an artist-led online publication featuring criticism and essays.
While they don’t anticipate being a critic forever, for the time being it’s another piece to their creative puzzle. Victor sees their role largely as one of mentorship, to pave the way for others to come after and carry on the work that needs to be done.
“I feel like I'm always trying to figure out where my place is in a story and the narrative,” Victor says. “Whether it's directing, acting or producing, I don't need to be at the center of every story that is told in every way, especially not in the same role for a long time. That's also how I view (criticism). This is where I need to be right now and I hope that I can affect the change that I need to and tell this narrative that we do. And then continue it in another way and leave this to people who are really, really, really going to take it forward.
“I tell people all the time, if you don't have young people in your life that are smarter than you, you’re doing it wrong. It just brings me such comfort. We are training people who really are ready and as ready as I was at 19, 20 or 22. That's when I started working. So, why am I gonna sit here and tell you that you can't do the same thing? I think we forget...I think it's important to acknowledge that young people are doing things like this and not in a patronizing way.”
What made you want to start your own outlet?
It’s funny, because I actually had to go back and think about the startup for Rescripted. So often people are like, “oh, yeah, you started it, because the Hedy Weiss crisis” because they were pretty closely aligned. But, in actuality, we started it about three months before that.
I just wanted to make sure that I had my own way to get voices out there, because at the time (in spring 2017), and I still need to completely verify this but I believe it's true, Loy Webb was the only paid critic of color in the city when I moved here.
So right now I feel like there's a couple more folks (but) the list is fewer than 10. But it's still about four times as many than when I moved here...
It has been really great just to be able to pay people and be competitive with the other outlets in town and to let others feel like something they're doing is a profession rather than a hobby, which I think is a huge part of moving everything forward in terms of what we're doing.
When you started Rescripted were you at all surprised or overwhelmed at the reception of your outlet?
I was a little surprised at first. I was surprised at people's responses to the idea because it was really mixed. People in Chicago I was talking to were very excited about it. But nationally, that article (co-written by Victor on cultivating critics of color), received a lot of criticism in a way that I didn't expect. And I always joke (that) I never read the comments now because of that article.
Folks were just like, “I don't understand why it's necessary. Why do we need critics of color? I feel this is enough, nothing is wrong.” Seeing that response of, “the status quo is fine” reaffirmed that we needed to do it (create Rescripted) and that Chicago was the right place to do it. I don't know that this could have happened anywhere else, just in terms of the folks that really care about the way they're represented to the greater community.
I think a lot of that comes from the literal closeness. Obviously California is very spread out. Your community theater is still your community theater, even if the paper doesn't like it, because there's nobody else around, you know? It's just a different culture. Whereas here, my neighbor is going to read this article about the play that I'm working on.
Do you think that your background as an artist, whether that to you means actor, director, dramaturg, or whatever, do you think that that makes you a better critic?
Yes, I do.
“Better” is always a difficult word for me, but I do think that it makes me a better listener to what people are trying to do. I think this is something that we talked about in The Key (Rescripted’s young critics mentorship program). What are people's intentions? What about the story did they think was worth investing that kind of time in with a bunch of strangers for $50? Think (about that) before you tear it apart.
I do think in that regard I can see more of what the intention was, even if the players aren’t executing that and I think, especially with directing, directors get skipped all the time in reviews. The greatest gift I can give The Key students is how to recognize the directors. Because it is one of those things, like being a production manager, where people only notice you if you do it wrong.
It’s kind of instinctual and sometimes translating that can be difficult, because I have to remember, I'm not just talking to other artists. That can sometimes be the biggest challenge. It can sometimes feel like you are speaking to (the) community. And a large part of Rescripted in the way that we write is about accessibility. Anyone could just pick it up and read it. And especially as we started to serve Spanish language communities a little bit more—we've put up some bilingual pieces. I'm just really into complex ideas and simple language, so that everyone can kind of get access to it no matter how old they are or like what their first language is, which is amazing.
It's so easy to leave people behind once you start learning stuff, you know what I mean? And you start theorizing. It's easy to stop applying those theories to your regular life when the words get too big.
As a working artist, I don't feel supported in the way I would like to by the critical community and I think that's changing. I think we've changed so much in two and a half years, it's kind of mind boggling. There are a lot of people who have been doing the work who are really galvanized now in a way that I find really exciting too.
Also acknowledging that being radically hospitable probably means it's going to drastically have to change because so much of the form of criticism now is is based on gate keeping. It's hard to break those patterns.
Finding people and opening doors for them is really what the radical hospitality is. How can I get you in here, get you paid and make it worth your time? It may not be the thing you do forever, but it gives you a different appreciation. It lets you know, as an artist, what that relationship is supposed to be so that you can demand it of your critics. That's been a thing that has been terrifying for me, but I love the level of access people have to me.
One of the things that I’ve found is misconceptions about critics. The biggest one I've come against is this idea that we hate theatre when it's really the polar opposite. And that's where that complication comes in. I love it so much, I just want to talk about gobos. But nobody (audience members) knows what they are.
I think there is a misconception, but also I do feel that way about some of the current critics. It's like they really don't want to be there and I find that very puzzling. I get some of it is about the volume of things that you're seeing. But that said, Michael and Mona Heath (active Chicago theatre patrons and donors) have seen more shows than any critic in Chicago and they're always in the front row with a smile on their face. It's not an excuse. But yeah, it is a job and if the job stops making you happy, you have to stop going.
I have the privilege of reviewing, (but) I personally only review about two to three shows a month to be honest. I'm not out there all day, every day like I was when we first started. But now it's been more about giving space to people. Because of the way we're structured like I'm salaried, so I just write as much as I can. I just edit everything and try to move back through writing. So it varies.
I do find the biggest misconception for me, as somebody who's in the community, is the idea that we aren't part of the community. I come up against that more than the idea that we don't like theater. It’s that we don't want to hang out or be around folks. I remember one time I was at an opening and there was an after party. It was a show that I knew a bunch of people in and I actually like to stay at those things. I like to hear what people are saying. I never speak on the show. I say things that I mean, like “congratulations on your work,” which is true. But I like to know what people are thinking because I think it's really easy to walk out of a play and have your own idea of what it was and what you did or didn't get.
I think it's really awkward, because I'm in the community all the time in the trenches at any other moment. Then when I'm writing there's this weird separation that kind of has to happen and I don't totally understand that.
Because you started your own brand and mentor young people, obviously, you have a sense that criticism will exist in some form in the future. Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth investing in. So, in your ideal world, what would that criticism look like?
It’s funny, because, you know, Tyrone (Phillips of Definition Theatre Company) and I talk about this all the time. We both have started companies where, to quote him, “if we achieve our mission, we're no longer relevant.” The reason I immediately started training young people is because I really believe in a lack of object permanence.
I feel as though I should be able to walk away from this field at any time and it would be fine. I do see criticism in the future. But I see it being significantly more crowd sourced because initially, the idea for Rescripted was more like what we did with Dutch Masters where we would have various writers, or even audience members, giving takes on the same show. I just love the idea of the community having a deeper conversation. Because I think a lot of times we really think our audience is so much dumber than they are.
I do talkbacks, basically, for a living across the city and (audiences) are picking up on a lot more than we think they are. They engage with reviews in a different way than we think they do. I've had several people talk back to me like, “so what did this person mean in their review when they were talking about this? Because I didn't see it in the show.” It's amazing. I want people to have the same ownership of theatre that they feel about Avengers.
I feel as though nobody should be a critic forever and maybe that's controversial. But I say that because I do think that it's such a cultural thing in our industry to get stuck in a rut, especially if you're a multidisciplinary artist of any kind. And I consider writing an art form, obviously. It’s good, I think, to break out and be like, “actually, I'm going to take a break for a few years and do this other thing.”
I don't have any illusion that I'm going to end up with a job at, like, the Times or whatever.
And also I’d like to eliminate fear—there's a lot of fear. You know, with the piece that I wrote about Doubt, one of the comments actually is from IAmScaredToLeaveMyName@gmail.com. I actually cried when I read that, because it's really sad to me. It is really sad to me how many people told me that that piece is going to end my career...I don't think any of that actually turned out to be true, there definitely have been some bumps.
At the same time, the fact that that's what people believe, is really worrisome to me. Just because I'm not seeing it, it's not like it comes from somewhere and I think that is what I'm trying to break apart. No person should really have that kind of influence and power. And it's not about who that person is. It's just about the structure.