Chicago on the Aisle: Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Kathleen Enders.
Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel is a young person that is a force to be reckoned with. After graduating from DePaul (in just three years no less) in 2017 she jumped right into the theater scene. Her bylines have been seen in Windy City Times, the Chicago Reader, Rescripted, Scapi Magazine and now Sixty Inches From Center.
The dramaturg, theater journalist and oral historian practically redefines artistic acrobatics. She’s always hustling and is about to embark on a new journey at the University of Austin for her MA/PhD in Performance as Public Practice.
[If you’re interested in helping Mikhaiel fund her upcoming stint at Austin feel free to contribute to or share her GoFundMe]
Mikhaiel is a “fat, queer, femme making and taking space for other folks on the margins.” She’s always hunting for the next great story that furthers her passion for theater as a performance art.
“I love stories that really put bodies on stage,” she said. “I'm also an oral historian [Oral history is a discipline that aims to fill in the gaps of written history through recorded interviews] which is another practice of collecting and preserving stories that don't make the way to the archives. I'm also interested, as a maker and shaker, in putting these stories back into the bodies of people.”
As you know, a lot of programs in undergrad or graduate schools combine dramaturgy and criticism. And you're probably the first person I've spoken with who has a degree in dramaturgy and criticism as a married institution.
So from a dramaturgical perspective, what is it like to be a critic?
Sometimes it just feels exhausting.
A dramaturg is hired usually as someone who is seen as the researcher and a third person or third eye in the room, someone that is supposed to be observing and having eyes on what's happening on stage. [Dramaturgs ask] who are the bodies of onstage and what world are they living in? Does the set support that?
So when it comes to translating that into review, sometimes it feels more niche depending on the detail you go into or if something is historically correct. Does that matter? Was it intentional? You don't have an insider’s view on because you weren’t in the rehearsal room. So, a lot of my perspective is coming from the intention of these artists. What are they trying to do? And then what is the impact of that on stage?
I ultimately think the impact is more important than the intention. How are you going to make people feel by who you put on stage? What does it mean when you pick certain stories over other stories? And then who is your team working on it? I think as a younger person working in theatre, I have an eye on who's making art as well as what I see on the stage because I'm part of those decisions. And if we're trying to go for authentic, contemporary storytelling, why not have the stories on stage match the design team and production team that's working on it?
And I think that's still something that we struggle with as a city, when we barely even get these stories on stage, it's even harder to get the same folks working on all sides of it.
I'm assuming I know what the answer to this question is, but do you think that your dramaturgical work makes you a better critic?
[With] so much of what I see on stage, I'm curious how it's written, what is the text? What does it mean for this specific word to be in this sentence? What does it mean for this section of the play to happen here? And I feel like the strength of a dramaturg is having an eye on the text and the language that is used because so much of theatre starts on the page. But I believe the work and the magic of putting it up is so inherent to the process.
I can't separate that [dramaturgy,] from my criticism.
I don't think there's anything wrong with not being able to separate that part of yourself from your criticism because it's what makes your criticism yours. And that's what makes your perspective so much different than mine or anyone else's.
So, as a as a young person, who has a degree in theater and has observed theater for so long, why enter this bizarre, difficult world of criticism, that's just completely in flux?
I never felt like it was a choice that I made or really wanted to make for myself.
It very much ignited after a piece that I wrote over the summer after I saw, not necessarily a cry for help, but it was some bafflement that happened about a certain theater piece that happened over the summer. In finally writing my thoughts on it, not just on the show, but on criticism itself, I realized that there are a lot of people that are mad about the same things.
It's hard to articulate that and to find solutions. Criticism itself doesn't feel sustainable, as a field in general of what it means to critique something.
So for me to enter and to figure out what theater matters to me, I felt like I needed to see more of it and to write about it—and I can't afford to see any theater. That is my reality. I can't afford to see theater, unless someone else pays for it. And that someone else, through my privilege, has been publications.
After that instance over the summer I started looking into critics’ workshops or something to hone my voice. I have always been a writer, but never really in a critical sense that made me be like, is this art of value? And that's what I always try to break away from criticism that values spending our money there [at that show] or not?
It was through the Rescripted young critics mentorship program that I was able to have the resources of seeing theater every week and having the space to really talk about it amongst my peers. The majority of folks in that room were people of color and those that are working in the same spaces as me. Even within that small cohort, we disagreed on so much from so many different backgrounds. And the discourse I was seeing in that room was not the same discourse that I was seeing in Chicago, from larger publications or even smaller publications.
It's like our voices were still siloed, even though we were doing the same work to hone our craft and get it out there. But through providing those resources I was able to see theater [and] figure out what theater matters to me. And [in that] realizing that theater that is made for folks on the margins falls into the margins itself.
What can I do to amplify that? I feel like I'm trying to fill in the gaps of those publications and be like, “hey, these are shows that are happening right now.” There's a theater company that's been here for 50 years and they're still on some weird blacklist where they can't get anyone to cover their shows. So what happens when we self publish these things and pitch and pitch and become relentless in our coverage and be like, they're still here, we're still here, this coverage matters!
It is disheartening, when pushed up against budgets and the unsustainability of our field, when none of us are paid enough. We're all still expected to do the same quality work of someone who is salaried like it's our only job when it's not. All of my colleagues are balancing seven to 10 projects at any given time. It’s so harmful to us and to our field and the work that we can produce. There's so many different criticisms that I feel I'm sitting on. But I'm stuck in this reviewing cycle and I can't write these full essays I need to happen.
And I don't know what to do with that. I don't have the capacity just to self publish, I don't have the resources. And it sometimes feels like I'm screaming into the void. One thing that I really appreciate is that, with finally putting my words on the page, I can see discourse happening around my writing sometimes in comments. Sometimes people talking about criticism around me and I realized they're talking about my piece that's so wild. And it's really great.
One way to make the field more sustainable is just to keep reading us and following us the stories—the stories of critics and the stories of folks that just you don't see that often.
So it's safe to say that you you view criticism as, in an ideal world, more of an advocacy than a means of the route the Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs up or go spend your money here. It's more about the discourse and the advocacy and evaluating the piece as a piece rather than as a price.
Yeah, I would say advocacy and posterity.
Theater is so ephemeral. And what's left over at the end of it is usually just a pile of set that is also unsustainable.
So, finding ways to make this last forever through documenting how you felt, how it looked, how the artists looked, how the artists felt, how it was directed. What was in that space? Was there a dramaturgy display? Was there a land acknowledgement? What are other radical ways that our theater companies are pushing against what has always been done and and what is accepted?
Is there anything you want to dispel about criticism, like any myths or misconceptions or things that you have come up against?
I think since I am so early in my career, I kind of look at what has happened in the past and tradition and I go, “okay, that's cool. I'm still gonna write the way I'm gonna write.”
Something I'm discovering that's been disheartening is, although critics have a lot of -I don't want to use the word power-, but sometimes it feels like if this is your singular voice, and you're making an opinion, you're trying to make an opinion that you think a lot of other people would have. But it can so easily be misconstrued or changed depending on how your piece gets cut or what your headline is.
And I think different levels of critics at different publications only have so much control over word count, and their headlines and how much you put in a review, specifically, like [if] some language gets changed. And even if you approve a change sometimes it's just difficult to keep.
It’s figuring out the ethics of like, Do I want my name on this? Is this something that I'm proud of? But I also don't want to be a slave to the paycheck. I think I found it more easy to navigate in my dramaturgy, where I can easily say “no” to working on a show that I know is super racist and problematic and does not do a service to our Chicago Community.
Whereas, in order to keep up my credibility as a critic, I still have to go see these shows and write about them in a way that is fair to the ensemble. And fair to the team working on it, even if I think it's a show that does not need to be done right now. And how to negotiate that with a bias already being so ingrained in the text, knowing that there's nothing that can be done with the show that will make it a good, necessary piece of theatre. But it is here in Chicago, it is up right now and I have to cover it.
Is there anything else you want to add that you want people to know about you as a critic or just about anything related to criticism?
I grew up in a household of a single mom and I have one younger sister. So I always grew up with very strong femmes around me and also just women on their hustle.
So I've always had the balance. What does it mean to take care of myself?
There are very high demands right now for people of color that are writing and creating about how we're supposed to talk or how we're supposed to write and also how we're supposed to take care of ourselves and look like we're always on the go and busy. A lot of my friends and peers see me as someone who loves to be busy. And I feel like that's just such a toxic word.
I can't even say it’s my lifestyle because it doesn't feel like a lifestyle. It's just survival at this point of making sure that I can make ends meet. And the difference between writing one piece of criticism versus two pieces means my utilities get paid or not and how real that is. Every piece makes a difference. And to have that constant framework of knowing what it means to survive and to keep going and to keep pushing is something that I feel I need to find more sustainable ways from myself to work. But it's hard when the field itself is unsustainable.
So whatever folks can do to share these articles and amplify these voices. Throw money at Venmos or GoFundMe or any other things. You see folks working so hard every single day, in some circumstances alone at a computer in front of a blank page, hoping that they can hit their word count by deadline, and that that piece will actually go to print and they'll get paid for it.
Whatever you can do—amplify these voices.