Three years ago, Sarah Ruhl and Julia Jordan convened a group of theatremakers at New Dramatists in New York City. The conversation landed on a familiar topic: theatre criticism. The critics at major publications were consistently white men and the group sensed a bias—particularly when it came to reviewing plays by women and people of color.
“There was a growing sense of—is despair the right word?” asks Ruhl. “[And] a growing desire to have an alternative publication that had a more diverse array of critics. And also a more diverse array of criticism.
“It wasn’t just about the diversity of the people writing,” says Ruhl, “it was also about how people were writing.” What does theatre criticism look like, they asked one another, if the perspective is that of a poet, a fiction or nonfiction writer, or even that of another playwright?
As a collective (now known as the Founders Circle), they conceived of a new kind of critical conversation. Looking to models like The New York Review of Books, the goal was to move away from the current structure, where one or two staff theatre critics, at a single publication, review everything. And, as Ruhl says, “To think outside the box and to think about who would be the appropriate person to write for a particular show.”
The cohort’s discussions led to 3Views on Theater, a publication where three voices—each bringing a unique perspective—could write about a single theatrical production. “A multiplicity [was] built right into the form itself,” says Ruhl. “The empty space between the viewpoints was where the play resided.”
Following a Kickstarter campaign in 2019, 3Views, co-founded by Ruhl and Jordan under the umbrella of the Lillys (where Jordan is a co-founder and the executive director), was preparing to launch in 2020. A number of writers had already been recruited to write; writer and essayist Roxane Gay, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, fiction and autobiographical writer Alexander Chee, playwright John Guare, journalist and activist Gloria Steinem, and novelist Zadie Smith, among them. Then, the world changed.
3viewstheater.com launched in May—not as the critical journal it had originally set out to be—but as a digital archive, dedicated to highlighting canceled and waylaid productions in the wake of the pandemic, and as an online space for theatre voices to speak to the current moment. Among the first contributors were Larissa Fasthorse, whose Prayer for Theater urges readers to listen intently to their communities during the public health crisis (“We get out of the way of our own desires to create or be seen and remember that lives were lost”) and Paula Vogel, who, in her essay Aging in the Time of COVID, recalls painting her hair white at age 20 to perform a song from the class musical she’d written (“I was born to be an old woman, and I knew it then.”)
Speaking to the current moment has, undoubtedly, taken on new meaning since May. In the days immediately following George Floyd’s murder, and as the global spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement intensified, 3Views pivoted again. Instead of publishing the reflections originally scheduled for June 1, the team chose to share excerpts by Black artists Charly Evon Simpson, Jireh Breon Holder, Jonathan Payne, Jillian Walker, and Cheryl West.
“We welcome more prayers, poems, rants, elegies and reflections in response to the state-sanctioned violence and trauma enacted on Black bodies in the United States,” reads an Instagram post from 3Views on June 1. In the weeks since, the publication has continued to uplift and amplify the voices of Black theatre artists through play excerpts and reflections, and used its social media channels to highlight anti-racist initiatives like the We See You White American Theater campaign and The Movement Theatre Company’s Resilience, among many others.
3Views’ social media, and much of the site, is run by Editor Melissa Crespo. “It’s hard to keep up with, in a really great way,” says Crespo, who fields and coordinates a lot of what gets published. Outside of 3Views, she is a playwright and director. “It’s been a great gift,” says the artist. “As a director I’m used to being in rehearsal and with people all the time. This has prevented me from the loneliness that I think I would have had, and I’ve made a lot of new connections.”
Each week, 3Views continues to showcase three productions from across the country that were either postponed, suspended, or closed early due to COVID-19. This part of the site features text excerpts, interviews, design elements, photos, and video from rehearsals.
“I’ve tried, and will keep trying to feature a mix of big and small theatres,” says Crespo. “The emphasis is on new work… [But] in the cases where we have theatres that don’t have the luxury of having a premiere, we put emphasis on the production—the director’s vision, the design. Because those artists were also affected.”
Currently highlighting 12 productions, the digital archive is not just a virtual hub for shows to re-emerge, but serves as a record of what the American theatre could have been, and a record of how we, as a community, document this historic moment.
As COVID continues to impact communities across the globe, there is no telling when theatres—and the full scope of dramatic criticism—will return in the U.S. The plan is to continue to commission writers and highlight productions throughout the crisis. But, when theatres do reopen, Ruhl no longer plans to spearhead the original concept of 3Views. The labor required, and more importantly the funding needed, is outside her scope—but could potentially continue on without her, or inspire others.
“It was an education," says the playwright. "[But] if 3Views seeds ideas in the community about how to do the thing, if someone wants to imitate the model—I feel very open and happy to pass that along."
For now, Ruhl is content with what they've created. With letting 3Views exist as it is. “In the theatre, normally our impulse would be to gather to mourn the people we’re losing, to mourn the productions we’re losing but we can’t do that," says the playwright. “I think having a place to read and write about those losses…if that can be cathartic, if there can be some kindness and connection in the community around those losses, then I feel very happy about what we’re doing.”
3Views is a free platform providing access to theatre content. If you are so inclined to make a donation, the platform will use the funds to pay writers and for The Lillys Direct Covid Grants, which help individual theatre artists survive during this time.
The publication's interim editors were Michelle Memran (The Rest I Make Up) and professor Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon. Graphic design is by Jenny Scales and the web design is by Lauren Zeftel. Check out the full team here.