A revolution behind the curtain

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Forty years ago, Jesse Green, then a recent college graduate with degrees in English and Theater, was Assistant General at the Williamstown Theater Festival. He made waffles, cleaned toilets, and did other jobs, all unpaid and “partly unsafe and partially demeaning,” he later wrote.

The festival introduced a young Mr. Green to the excitement of professional theater, but it came with a caveat. “To be worthy of the great art form, we also had to be subdued,” he said.

Now, in a series of essays entitled The Reformation, Mr. Green, chief critic of The New York Times, examines the long-held notion that actors and others working in the theater must suffer for their art. The four essays, all written by Mr. Green, explore the consequences of the American theater industry’s long-overdue acknowledgment that bullying, poor pay, hazardous working conditions and the mistreatment and exclusion of artists of color cannot be excused as ostensible costs of great art, he said. Through the mix of reporting and criticism, he seeks to understand how calls for change in each of these areas will transform the industry and the work it produces.

Mr. Green began developing the series during the summer of 2020 during the blackout marquee and Black Lives Matter protests. Criticism of the industry had grown into a 29-page statement of demands from the coalition known as We See You, White American Theater expanded, which included proposals to rename half of all Broadway theaters, impose term limits on industry leaders, and require at least half of the casting and creative teams to be people of color.

“That was kind of a catch: Here’s a really well-formulated list of grievances, suggestions and demands,” said Mr. Green. “I started thinking, what are theaters going to do about it? And besides, what am I going to do about it?”

He brought the idea to Nicole Herrington, the Times theater editor, who agreed the moment was worth documenting. “Who knows if maybe in 10 or 15 years we look back and this was a defining moment or not?” she said. “But we wanted to take stock.”

The essays appear once a month throughout the summer, connecting the end of the last theater season with the start of the next.

The first essay in the series, published days before the Tony Awards in June, examined the abusive practices of some of American theater’s founders, directors and choreographers. The second looked at demands for equal pay in theater and the third, appearing in Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, looks at the physical and emotional demands placed on theater performers. The fourth episode, due out later this summer, will look at diversity and equity in theatre.

The assignment is a change from Mr. Green, who often writes reviews of new shows as quickly as overnight. He called the interviewing, thinking, and preparing for The Reformation “the huge part of the iceberg under the water.” Writing the 2,500- to 3,500-word essays, the first drafts of which can take a few days or more, is “the tiny little tip that sticks above the water,” he said.

His months-long research process included interviews with nearly 30 people, most of whom are not celebrated stars.

He spoke to a Midwestern costume designer who makes less than $20,000 a year, an assistant director of literature who was fired in the depths of the 2020 pandemic, and a dramaturge who took a second job as a communications consultant — all for those of the second essay in the series about the harsh financial realities of a theatrical life.

It’s difficult to reflect such weighty subjects in artwork, said Felicia Vasquez, the arts and prints editor who designed the series. She knew Deena So’Oteh, an illustrator whose Halloween cover for the New York Times Book Review featured five pairs of bloodshot eyes rolling back into a spooky character’s head, could handle the job.

“My work is generally a bit moody,” admitted Ms. So’Oteh, who sketches multiple concepts for each illustration on her iPad. In most of them, large objects appear on top of smaller ones, casting long shadows across the page: “There’s this juxtaposition of an individual and this huge system,” she said.

Mr. Green believes the system has reached a tipping point and that his art can evolve in ways that are both exciting and provocative to the old guard.

He welcomes the opportunities. “The theater needs to change,” he said. “It has to take into account the demands and desires of people who have come out quite bravely over the past few years to say what’s wrong and allow the form to become what it becomes next.”

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