Rescripted Reveal: Arts Writer Emma Couling Will F*ck You Up

Regina Victor of Rescripted asked Emma Couling to sit down and chat with Rescripted about her growth as a writer over the past year, and what ensued was a badass conversation. Emma Couling is a freelance arts writer who contributes to Rescripted, you can read more about her work here.

RESCRIPTED
How did you become a critic?

EMMA COULING
I never actively decided I wanted to be a critic. I didn’t even identify as a writer until two years ago.  That summer, I had this experience where twice in one week, two different strangers groped me while I was going about living my life. And in that same week, The Reader published their exposé on Profiles Theatre Company.

The following Monday, my dear friend Steve gathered all our friends around, and basically insisted that we were going to have a quick and dirty feminist workshop. So we talked about feminism until we closed the bar down–or more accurately, I held court with a whole bunch of men, who regardless of our love for each other, couldn’t really comprehend what people who are not men ((like me) go through. And somewhere in the middle of that conversation we were talking about catcalling, and Steve said, “I wish every time one of my women friends got catcalled, they would post about it or something. Because it’s always so much more often than I think but I have no real way of knowing that.”

And I turned to Steve and explained why it was unfair to ask that of their women-friends, that they need to just trust folks who are not men when we tell them how often we get catcalled; not demand evidence for it.

But then I proceeded to do more or less precisely what Steve requested. I couldn’t post about every catcall, because to do so would have taken too much time. But I posted as often as I could, and by the end of the summer, I was calling myself a writer.

RESCRIPTED
How did you go from social media posts to theatrical criticism?

EMMA COULING
I discovered that my writing had impact.

I had so many women and non-binary folks tell me that my posts and stories of my catcalling experiences had inspired them to shout back at their catcallers, and to write themselves. I remember sort of sitting myself down and facing this sensation that my writing had created more substantive social change than any of the rest of my art had done to my knowledge. People yelling back at catcallers is substantive, measurable, social change. I’ve only ever wanted to do art because I thought it could make things better, but I never knew if any of the plays I had done had ever done anyone any good. But here was my writing–and it was doing enough good that folks were comfortable telling me so.

The next year in the midst of Hedy-gate [read Rescripted’s coverage of Hedy Weiss’ critique scandal here] and the umpteenth casting controversy in Chicago Kevin Greene and I had a beer. We were talking about how to make things better, and I identified writing as a tool for that end. So I challenged him, I said, “If Richard Christiansen can make Chicago Theatre what it is today through his reviews, then you can make it less racist with yours. So what are you doing Kevin?” and he said, “Do you want to write for me?”. I didn’t say yes right away, but three months later I wrote my first review.

RESCRIPTED
How do you write your reviews?

EMMA COULING
I’ve always felt nervous to admit this as a reviewer, but my favorite reviewing tool is that I listen. I usually bring someone with me when I’m reviewing a show, and I’m always sure to ask them for their thoughts before we part ways for the evening. I try to listen in to conversations at the bar afterwards, in case someone is talking about the play. Or in the bathroom. I ask open ended questions–I leave space for hearing experiences and responses to the play that are different than my own so I can consider them while I write my review. Sometimes I need those perspectives to remind me that just because my demographic is not the intended audience, that doesn’t mean the play lacks value. Sometimes I need those perspectives to deepen my understanding of the cultural or racial implications of a play. Sometimes there’s just an aspect of theatricality that’s beyond the scope of my state school theatre degree education. But listening to others is always my most crucial tool for staying accountable with my writing.

RESCRIPTED
How does writing in the digital age affect your theater reviews?

EMMA COULING
Working in the age of information is a beautiful thing–I love the ease with which I can fact check myself and the plays I see. I love being able to go home and learn about the subject matter of a theatre piece I’m reviewing. I love that I can easily chat with friends to compare notes, or ask questions, or get opinions. I love that I can send my writing to my siblings on the west and south coasts, and my parents in Northern Michigan and they can see my work with no hassle to anyone.  On the other hand, working in the digital age means I am, to quote another reviewer, “under constant scrutiny” which is often a good thing, though sometimes tough. I’ve endured no small amount of cyber-bullying, some to the point of harassment, some bad enough that I’ve had to make phone calls to lawyers.

RESCRIPTED
What do you think is a critic’s relationship or responsibility to the community?

EMMA COULING
That it is a critic’s responsibility is to help whatever artform their critiquing to evolve healthfully and positively along with society. To me that means not just critiquing craftsmanship and artistry, but elevating thoughtful, beautiful work that is equitable, diverse and inclusive; and discouraging folks from going to work that dismisses or perpetuates oppressive systems.

RESCRIPTED
Is it possible for a critic to be a member of the community? How does this change criticism itself?

EMMA COULING
I absolutely think it’s possible for a critic to be a member of the community of artists they are critiquing and I would even go so far as to argue that those who are a member of that community are better critics than those who are not. This goes back to my comment earlier about how listening is a vital part of my process. Being a member of the community means that I know and understand how complex the artistic community’s response was to, say, “Guards at the Taj” at Steppenwolf this year. Being a part of the community means that I’m able to identify when actors are safe onstage. Being a part of the community means that I’m able to listen to the community.

Previously the idea of fraternizing with the artists you critique has been frowned upon via some misguided idea that to do so would affect the critics’ ability to do their job. For my money, if you’re not able to separate your love of someone as a person from your critical view of their work, then you need to find another profession. And vice versa, if my friends in the community cannot separate their affection for me from their response to my writing, then we’re likely not actually friends. The only exception to this belief, for me, is in cases of abuse. I do not believe you can separate the artist from the art when the artist has been revealed to be an abuser–and I include critics as artists in that assertion.

As far as changing criticism itself, I think it just ups the challenge–and re-asserts the reminder that any one critic’s experience or point of view is not universal, and that universality itself is a western/colonized construct. Critics can’t ignore the community anymore. And they shouldn’t want to–the theatre community is a beautiful thing to be a part of.

RESCRIPTED
Do you think being of a younger generation (there’s got to be a better way to put that) affects the way your criticism is received? Or rather, the way people interact with it, especially older artists?

EMMA COULING
I do think my gender and my apparent age play a role in how my writing is perceived, yes. I wrote a controversial review of a production of “Joseph” here in town a few months back, and though several of my male peers wrote similar things, I was subject to gendered and age-based slurs and cyber-bullying and they were not. It could be because I was harsher. Or it could be because I’m a proud millennial woman.

I’m accustomed to gender and age-based discrimination. It never ceases to sting, but it never stops me from pushing forward or doing what I think is right.

RESCRIPTED
Do you think the market/theatre industry can sustain itself off of freelance writers versus a few voices at bastion publications with full time jobs? Why or why not?

EMMA COULING
Yes.

Listen.

Yes.

Theatre is not going anywhere. We have been panicking about the death of theatre since the invention of the radio. But it’s too old a tradition–it’s too tightly woven into the fabric of society. There are two things you can always count on children to do when they play; they are either going to find some kind of ball and turn it into some kind of game, or they are going to play pretend. Theatre is how we learn and explore. Theatre is how we teach and question. Maybe we won’t be able to charge for it, maybe it will stop being a capitalist venture but it isn’t going to die. It’s going to evolve.

If the death of arts journalism, and thereby the death of theatre, is an actual concern for you, then my best advice is this–support the new guard of arts journalists and become a subscriber for one of your favorite theatre companies. The old guard is struggling with this evolution, and expending all your energy on trying to save them when they refuse to save themselves is a waste of your time.

And not for nothing, but even if I did believe that the elimination of full-time arts journalists I would result in the death of theatre I would rather that than to allow folks like Hedy Weiss to continue to spread racism, bigotry and hatred. When folks started to get up in arms about the death of arts journalism when she lost her job I just started asking, “Exactly how much money is the health and safety of the artists of color who work for you worth to you? Give me numbers. Let’s talk about how we can replace that revenue so you can put more energy into caring about your people.”

RESCRIPTED
What is the biggest reward of your job? The biggest challenge?

EMMA COULING
I ran into a designer friend of mine after a play a few months ago and he thanked me for a mention I gave him in a review. The play he’d worked on was intended to be feminist, but only spoke to the white woman experience and greatly dismissed the queer experience so I didn’t like it much, but his design was beautiful and I said so. We got to talking and he told me that reading my review had helped him to be more selective in the productions he agrees to design.

To me, that’s the ultimate reward of my job. If I can write something that can help artists and audience members alike think a little harder about the implications of the art we consume and put forth, then I’m doing what I set out to do.

There are many very real challenges for me. I have anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD, and I am extroverted in such a way that being alone exacerbates my mental illness and makes it nearly impossible to be productive in any way. Which is a real bummer when you consider how solitary writing is as a profession. My mental illness is also exacerbated by the amount of cyber-bullying that often comes along after I publish. But that’s okay–that’s the social contract I entered into when I decided to write what I write. I want to say that isn’t true, but when you’re a woman and you’re intentionally making a career of challenging oppressive systems, cyber-bullying is going to happen.

RESCRIPTED
Where do you hope to see theatre criticism in five years? Where do you see yourself in five years?

EMMA COULING
I think theatre criticism is moving away from blogs and personal websites while simultaneously moving away from bastion publications. I think the middle-ground publications are the ones that will be leading the industry in five years–Newcity, Rescripted, Scapi, Chicago Theatre Now. These little organizations built by a person with a vision and staffed with diverse writers and varying perspectives–they are the ones that are going to still be kicking when The Tribune cuts their arts and culture section.

As for me, who knows? I fell in to being a writer. I could very easily fall out. And Trump is president, so nothing is certain. All I can do is focus on the here and now, and keep doing my best to promote a diverse, equitable, and inclusive theatre community in Chicago.

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