A pariah who bounced back: The education of Toby Zinman

The education of Toby Zinman

8 minute read
Zinman at work: 'My skin was certainly too thin.'
Zinman at work: 'My skin was certainly too thin.'
The walls of Toby Zinman's office at the University of the Arts are plastered with innumerable posters and photographs— a sundry collection of places, languages and events, all testifying to the singularity of the woman before me.

Zinman has written drama criticism for Broad Street Review, City Paper, Variety, The New York Times, the London Times, American Theater Magazine and— her current position— the Philadelphia Inquirer. She has lectured on drama in multiple countries over several continents, written four books (with a fifth on the way), and was a Fulbright professor of theater at Tel Aviv University. American Theater Magazine recently named her one of the nation's 12 most influential theater critics. Even so, she's above all an academic, as a professor at the University of the Arts, where she was awarded the prize for Distinguished Teaching. (Full disclosure: She's my teacher.)

For our interview, Zinman chooses to sit in front of her desk, instead of behind it, so all that stands between us are a few feet of empty floor space. I can tell that this conversation won't be inhibited by the oft-perceived need for exaggerated professionalism and distance between subject and writer.

Opportunity knocks

Nathan Skethway:
So. Why theater?

Toby Zinman: I've always gone to the theater. I was taken to the theater by my parents, and I've always thought that going to the theater was something that you did. But my interest in theater professionally came much later, because my graduate work was all in fiction. It was one of those things where one thing led to another. There was a guy here [at the University of the Arts] who was teaching modern drama. It was the only course in the Liberal Arts Department that was about plays.

He was a playwright. During one department meeting, he got really mad, threw a fit, and quit. They needed somebody to teach that course. So they hired me.

Not only had I never taught such a course; I had never taken such a course. But I figured, if it's written in words, I can probably cope with it and learn it. I did learn it, and one course led to another, and it was fun.

"'Who are you?'

Then I applied to be in a National Endowment for the Humanities postdoc program at Columbia, in American Drama. Howard Stein, a beloved professor who recently died, took a chance on me— I was the only non-theater person.

During this seminar at Columbia, the Café La Mama [an experimental theater in New York] was doing a big Sam Shepard festival. The guy directing it was at Columbia, so I had an in.

American Theater Magazine was new then, so I just sort of called them and said, "Do you want an article on this festival?" And they said, "Who are you?"

I said, "Well, I'm sort of nobody, but I'm kind of a Sam Shepard freak." And they said they'd take the right of first refusal. Done. So I wrote it, and they used it for their cover story.

Then a colleague of mine had been second-banana critic at the City Paper and was leaving to move away, and said, "You know, you'd probably really like it there." So I applied. One thing led to another, and years later, I suddenly found myself a person who gives lectures internationally on drama. And I thought, "How did that happen?" But you never know what corner you're going to turn. That's part of the fun of it.

Hurt feelings

Skethway: You don't exactly have the most beloved of jobs. Many people get pretty angry at critics, and you're definitely no exception. Why is it so important that you continue to do what you do?

Zinman: For me, things either have to be important, or they have to be fun— ideally, both. And writing about theater is both important and fun. There's no question that it's fun to go to the theater several times a week. And it's also fun to have some people who want to know what you thought of it. Everybody wants to talk about the play they just saw when they walk out of the theater. I get to talk to thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands.

That's a responsibility. Sometimes it's daunting, because people get their feelings hurt and whatnot.

Sometimes, the theater community is under the delusion that I am writing for them. This is untrue. There are— what?— 400 people in Philadelphia's theater community? As opposed to 400 thousand who read the Inquirer. I'm not a cheerleader. I'm a cheerleader for the art form, but if I don't stick up for the art form— if I don't, in some way, hold it to standards I think are important— then you're just left with whatever's popular. And whatever is popular is often easy access. If that becomes the standard, the whole art form is diminished.

Birth of a nickname

Skethway: You do happen to have a nickname.

Zinman: "The Bitch of Broad Street."

Skethway: How exactly did that come about?

Zinman: I gave a negative review to a show at Act II Playhouse. I didn't realize — why should I have?— that the music director's wife was in the show. He took my review as a personal affront. And he had to defend his wife.

[The show in question was the musical Closer Than Ever. Zinman criticized the plot, direction, lighting, staging and most incitingly, the talent of the cast. "All this wouldn't even matter so much if they had really great voices," she wrote. "But they don't. You could go into the University of the Arts musical theater program and with your eyes shut point out five people who can sing the socks off this cast."]

So he got together with two other directors, and they made a huge campaign out of hating me. They went to the Inquirer and asked that I be fired. They took out ads that said, "If you hate Toby Zinman, you'll love this show!" Stuff like that.

This was a very unpleasant experience, which was made more unpleasant by the fact that a writer from Philadelphia Magazine got hold of this as a story. I said that I didn't want to get involved in it.

Picking on a woman

But this woman was so persistent; she interviewed the three men, and then called me again and said, "We're going to run the story, whether you talk or not." And I said, all right, I guess I should respond because otherwise, they'd have the only word. So I did. She included all my responses, most of which said a lot of what I've already said to you. Also that I try not to take myself so seriously, as those guys seemed to.

It's interesting, though…. as another critic in the city wrote in my defense, it's very unlikely that they would have ganged up on another man.

I mean, I spent weeks walking around the house weeping. I threatened to quit. I said, "This isn't worth it." It was so mean. It was so malicious, personally. But I thought, "No. If I quit, they'll have won." And I didn't.

And that's how I became the Bitch of Broad Street. If you Google my name, that damned article comes up every single time. It will never go away.

Fortunately, although it brings up a lot of painful memories, part of what it did teach me was that I don't understand how actors can have such thick skins. Because my skin was certainly too thin to tolerate all of that. Every time an actor goes to an audition, if you don't get the role, you get rejected. That would kill me. But you have to know your limitations.

Holding back

Skethway: Since that episode, do you ever hold back in a review?

Zinman: I don't think I do. What I do emphasize, usually, is the script. I'm interested in dramatic literature. Some people review in a completely different way— they're interested in the acting and the staging. I try to include all of that, but if I emphasize the script, not only is it more interesting to me (and also gives readers a sense of what the play might be about, so they know if it appeals to them), but it also means that mostly, the playwrights are not around to read the review and have their feelings hurt.

I never, ever write ad hominem criticism. I will never say, as some critics have famously done, "She's too fat for that role." That's just wrong and mean. In that way, I do try not to hurt people's feelings, if that could be called "holding back."

But there are just some critics where I read the whole review, and I think, "I don't know whether he liked the show or not!" I don't think anybody ever wonders that about my reviews.

Good journalism never tiptoes. And I try to be a good journalist.♦

To read responses, click here.
To read a follow-up commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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