In Defense of Dr. Rachel Shteir: A Grappler Editorial

gooddoctorBy the Grappler Editorial Board
Graphic by Jose Mogollon

Here are the facts: Rachel Shteir wrote this critical piece on the Shakespeare 400 festival that occurred in Chicago during all of 2016. Artists took the streets, or rather… the social media platforms, to complain and rage about Dr. Shteir once again. See her 2013 piece for further context.

Full Disclosure: Dr. Rachel Shteir is the advisor for The Grappler.

Even Fuller Disclosure: Rachel has no idea we’re writing this.

The Grappler finds that this rage against the Shteir-machine is unjust and, in some cases, undignified. Dr. Shteir’s critical work and staunch opinions are the ideals we try to uphold at The Grappler. We feel that all artists would be better off holding themselves up to these ideals — and respond to Dr. Shteir’s nuanced criticisms with well-thought arguments. It is difficult, but when a critic challenges us to do better then we should meet, or even surpass, that challenge, not rage-quit and publicly shame (complete with some nice ad hominem fallacies) that critic.  

Without further ado, here are 8 Grappler responses to the recent controversy:

  1. A History of the Good Doctor

Dr. Shteir has always written critically about things, whether she likes them or not. Although hard to find, there are articles available online that she wrote in the 90’s for various publications where she was critical of New York City and its theatre scene. These did not create much controversy or response. Or if they did, evidence of that is hard to find. In 2002, only a couple of years after Dr. Shteir moved back to Chicago she published an article about Chicago’s “toddlin’” theatre scene. She was critical of Chicago theatre and fairly compared it New York City theatre, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of both. She continued to be critical of the New York Theatre scene while in Chicago throughout the 2000’s but none of her criticisms generated a backlash.

In 2013, her review of three Chicago-centered books on the New York Times generated backlash and discussion as Chicagoans took offense to her comments. Many, including the mayor of Chicago, hated what she had to say — she had disagreed with the books’ portrayal of Chicago and was critical of the city’s current state. This included its murder rate and people moving elsewhere.

Just because you live in a place it does not mean you have to love everything about it. If you do love everything about it, then having a critical eye about it might make it better.

  1. An Inspiring Teacher

Within the first 6 months of my sophomore year, Rachel Shteir (as both mentor and instructor) has allowed me to completely reroute my critical thinking skills for the better. Before becoming her pupil, I had always unsuccessfully searched for meaning in theatre. Afterwards… Well, let’s hope for everyone’s sake that Rachel never stops teaching.

Because of Rachel’s infectious hunger for intellectual discourse, I learned how to articulate my relationship to theatre and grapple with theatre’s purpose. Because of Rachel’s astute and provocative character, I began to understand that — for good reason — it is impossible to study or produce theatre objectively, and that I don’t need to apologize for having an opinion. Because of Rachel’s unrelenting sense of mission and of urgency, I am newly inspired by theatre.

  1. From Fragile Flower to Badass Critic

One of the first memories I have of Dr. Rachel Shteir is my father sending me the link to her 2013 (rightful) critique of Chicago that set message boards and comment threads on fire once I had been admitted to The Theatre School. I wasn’t fazed by this piece that largely contributes to how my then-future professor would be defined in the public eye. One, because I’m from the suburbs and didn’t have a strong pride for the city I occasionally visited to take pictures of the Bean. Two, because I thought it was cool to have a future advisor who ignited so much controversy by having strong opinions and sticking by them, which I thought was what learning and growing as an artist was all about.

Apparently, some of the critics of Dr. Shteir’s latest piece, which offers a lighter roast compared to her other incendiary pieces, don’t understand that. Being a responsible and thoughtful theatre artist, especially in Chicago where artists like to say they are creating cutting edge theatre, means that difficult questions have to be asked. Dr. Shteir asked the artists of Chicago to hold its artistic outputs to a higher standard, and the artists responded with criticisms more biting than what her article called for. Dr. Rachel Shteir does not shy away from controversy — she integrates it into her craft. When I came to DePaul, I was a fragile flower, afraid of criticism and hesitant to speak my views. Dr. Shteir was the opposite. This initially made me anxious, but after four years of her lessons, I have grown into a more outwardly passionate person who can handle her views with discretion. The Chicago artists up in arms in the comment sections of Dr. Shteir’s article clearly have not experienced this transformation, and remain fragile flowers in how they approach a nuanced reflection on a major Chicago cultural output.

“Godspeed to her students who have to listen on a regular basis.” reads one comment.

I am a better artist, student, and human largely because of Dr. Shteir’s fierce approach to education. Listening to her hasn’t always been a comfortable experience, but it has challenged me to reach for excellence in all areas of life. Some of these commentators could learn a thing or two from such an experience.

  1. #firebobfalls, or the Speed of Ignorance on the Internet

In the vastness of the internet, information appears as quickly as it vanishes. When articles are written in journals or magazines, they are given a greater weight than a sassy intellectual tweet or status. Recently, Dr. Rachel Shteir’s analysis and critique of Shakespeare 400 caused outrage among a generation that is used to taking their theatre quietly. Most complained about the long-form style journalistic approach, criticizing it as too long and wandering.

Some, like Bob Falls (Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre), was among them. He commented on the thread on Chris Jones’ Facebook. Falls called Dr. Shteir’s article “crap” and mistakenly typed the word “appealing” rather than “appalling,” when inserting his half-sense. Freudian slip, perhaps? Who knows.

In the grand scheme of the Facebook cacophony, the easiest element to challenge was a spelling error. I did just that and the comment disappeared — lost to the void of the internet.

Although critiques of Dr. Shteir’s analysis should not exist in a vacuum, the most commentary on her article was done in conversation with her anti-Chicago essay. In this, it becomes clear that most commenting probably didn’t read the article at all. Rather, they made assumptions and attacked her character and pitied her students.

In a place so volatile as Facebook comment threads, standards of intellectual dialogue have never been a part of the equation.

  1. Criticism in a Patriarch’s World

“Boy, she sounds fun, doesn’t she?” – Austin, Facebook Commenter Extraordinaire

Boy Austin, way to bring a professional criticism back to the likability of a woman. Just in time for International Women’s Day! A woman who expresses any opinion besides one of utmost gratitude and admiration for a white man deemed “brilliant” by history must be despicable in your eyes. A woman who holds multiple degrees from Yale, has taught at Ivy League universities including her alma mater AND Carnegie Mellon, and author of multiple critically acclaimed books. Now, I am not saying that critiques of controversial articles by educated people are not necessary. I am a dramaturgy/criticism major after all. I spend everyday questioning those with the artistic platforms that I do not have yet. However, I cannot help but question your critical intent when you made the decision to comment on first and foremost on the personality traits of Dr. Shteir. Don’t feel singled out Austin, I am not just talking to you. This is an issue as old as good ol’ William Shakespeare himself. You are not the first and will certainly not be the last man to belittle an educated and articulate women. We know this from our current presidency. This is much bigger than you, Austin. This is much bigger than Dr. Shteir herself, as well as her article. I will not lecture you because it has been made clear that you and many others are not fond of women expressing thoughts that are any less than positive. I will, however, leave you with a question: Would you have left the comment “Boy, he sounds fun, doesn’t he?” on an article by Chris Jones?

  1. “Why did she have to keep mentioning Chicago’s homicides? She sounds like Drumpf.”

The immediate rise to defense against Dr. Shteir’s had a tone that was all too familiar to me. Unfortunately, it seems some of our more seasoned theatrical artists seem to have a flag on the name Shakespeare the same way our President has a flag on his campaign.

What appears to me to be happening in this violent thread against Dr. Shteir (and good god, there is some genuine vitriol behind many of these comments) is that we have a series of theatre artists who read this piece and did a very poor text analysis of what she’s saying (perhaps this is why they’re settling for poorly rendered Shakespeare?) If you follow the thread of Dr. Shteir’s piece (while long, and yes, occasionally a little bitter, I found it to more compelling than any other theatrical article I’ve read in the last year) she is not reviewing the shows she saw at all, but instead evaluating the entire experience of the event both through a personal lens and in relation to a larger question about what exactly are we trying to achieve as artists in a climate where tradition is the least helpful thing to initiate actual change? But of course, as artists tend to do, ego gets in the way. Amazing that in such a length piece (as many have noted) that only two paragraphs seemed to be of note to any who were offended. Maybe they all should tweet about it — “Rachel Shteir is a craggy woman who HATES CHICAGO and SPITS on shakespeare! SAD!”

  1. A Counter-Argument to One of Dr. Shteir’s Points (To Show You How It’s Done)

Dr. Rachel Shteir says this about The Gift Theatre’s Richard III in her American Theatre Magazine piece on Shakespeare 400:

“Thornton ignored the possibility that his recovery, saint-like or demonic, would overshadow the role of Richard III. Just watching Thornton is its own inspirational story. The result is that it was difficult to think about the acting, and easy to think about what strange times we live in, when this kind of verisimilitude is in vogue.”

Thorton, an actor living with a disability, played Richard in the production. Dr. Shteir’s comment that it “was difficult to think about the acting and easy to think about what strange times we live in, when this kind of verisimilitude is in vogue” is highly condescending and borderline ableist.

Verisimilitude is a fancy word for authenticity. By calling the casting of Richard, a character with a disability, with an actor who actually has a disability emblematic of the “strange times we live in” in which “[authenticity] is in vogue” – Dr. Shteir demonstrates a deep disconnect with the progressive movements of the 21st century.

The belief that an able-bodied actor is better suited to play Richard is called ableism. The casting of a fantastic actor with a disability to play a character with a disability is called common sense. The suggestion that common sense is in vogue is condescending. But it’s also a sign: we’re winning.  

  1. Acidy Rachel and Chicago’s Legacy

Dr. Rachel Shteir reminds me of the original queen-Chicago-critic Claudia Cassidy (“Acidy Cassidy”) — she cultivates controversy and is often hated by the establishment. It amazes me that a city which deifies Cassidy for her ruthlessness, repeatedly asks Dr. Shteir to “go back to New York.” Dr. Shteir’s journalism demands more from the city for the same reason Cassidy’s did — because she cares about it deeply. In her infamous book review of The Third Coast in 2013, which sent many Chicagoans into a tailspin, she attempts to complicate the boyish-gangster fantasies of the city by celebrating the “cutting-edge women writers in the City of Big Shoulders.” Now in her article about Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Shakespeare 400 Festival, Dr. Shteir pinpoints her general disdain for corporate, “ketchup” theatre, while still paying homage to beautiful moments that took her by surprise. At the very worst, Dr. Rachel Shteir is that person at a party who politically complicates everything enjoyable, down to your best friend’s dress and its nefarious sweatshop origins. But more often than not, she nails exactly why most theatre fails to stay with us longer than 12 hours, in hopes that Chicagoans make better art.

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