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Randy Gener '92 wins prestigious Nathan Award for theatrical criticism

Randy Gener ’92 wins prestigious

Nathan Award for theatrical criticism

The heads of the English departments of Cornell, Princeton, and Yale Universities have chosen Randy Gener ’92 (general studies), senior editor of American Theatre Magazine, to receive the annual George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. The honor is reserved for “the American who has written the best piece of drama criticism during the theatrical year (July 1 to June 30), whether it is an article, an essay, treatise or book.”

The Awards Committee citation for Gener reads, “He has used that venue [America Theatre] and others to draw our attention to largely ignored voices and visions on the international theatrical scene, to the work of Filipino-American playwright Jessica Hagedorn, to a small but lively Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown, and to the future of theatrical criticism itself in essays that wed critical intelligence with a beat reporter’s love of the telling and unruly fact.”

The citation continues, “In one piece, Gener argues that, at its best, criticism is ‘a cultural asset, one of the bases on which democracy and community are built.’ He fulfills that lofty goal by implicitly reminding us of how much that is excellent in theater here and abroad is ignored by a critical fraternity which, during this age of globalization, seems more parochial than ever.”

Jim O’Quinn, editor in chief of American Theatre Magazine, remarked, “Randy Gener has been a tremendous asset to American Theatre ever since he was selected as a Jerome Foundation Affiliated Writer back in 1995–96, and especially since he joined the staff full-time in 2002. His command of any number of theatrical subjects—from international exchange to the vagaries of arts journalism and criticism—is unequalled among his contemporaries.”

Winning the Nathan Award is the most recent accolade in Gener’s distinguished career. In addition to being the senior editor of American Theatre, he is a writer, critic, editor, playwright, and visual artist based in New York City. He is the author of the plays Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Pieces, among other plays, as well as scholarly essays, articles and reviews in The Village Voice, The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Star Ledger, Time Out New York, and other publications.

Additionally, he has worked as an editor of the Arts Institute/Theatre Institute of the Czech Republic’s newspaper Prague Quadrennial Today and as a freelance dramaturg for the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, and Denver Center Theatre Company. His floral installation In the Garden of One World (a collaboration with the Romanian scenic designer Nic Ularu) debuted in 2008 at La MaMa La Galleria.

He has been the recipient of a 1995-96 Jerome Foundation American Theatre/Affiliated Writers Program fellowship, 2003 New York Times critic fellowship at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute; grants from the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Ford Foundation, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding; and a Filipinas Magazine Arts and Culture Prize. A member of the theater alliances NoPassport and Theater Without Borders, he was inducted in 2008 to Via Times of Chicago’s Filipino American Hall of Fame.

The Nathan Award is considered the highest accolade in the U.S. for dramatic criticism. When George Jean Nathan provided for it in his will, he explained that it was his “object and desire to encourage and assist in developing the art of drama criticism and the stimulation of intelligent playgoing.”

The prize for the Nathan Award consists of the annual net income of half of Mr. Nathan’s estate. The annual award now amounts to $10,000, making it the richest as well as one of the most distinguished in the American theater. In addition, the winner receives a trophy symbolic of the award. Ellis Hanson, Chair of the Cornell English Department, presented the award to Gener at a March 9 celebration at the Kalayaan Hall (Freedom Hall) of the Philippine Center near Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Randy answered questions posed by Nevada Silver & Blue in an email exchange:

What were the most memorable moments of your student days? “Moments” is too measly a word to describe the richly memorable experiences I had and transformative friendships I made during my student days. At the height of the first Gulf War, for instance, I belonged to a group of pro-peace student activists and ASUN senators, who took over a meeting-room space inside the Jot Travis Student Union building and called it a War Room. One of our ringleaders was a longhaired vet dropout who had come back to school. We called ourselves “Potluckers for Peace.” Open and available for everybody (no matter the political belief and affiliation), the War Room was a flag- and newspaper-strewn clearinghouse of news, gatherings, information and muddy-looking coffee. Anyone could voice their concerns, anxieties and responses to the first George Bush’s deployment of soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Every day we kept the TV turned on to Middle East news—reality TV, writ large. We had hoped to engage athletes and Greek types, but we attracted a lot of eccentrics, sympathizers and riff-raffs who dropped off their political brochures, anti-war buttons, yellow ribbons, memories of family members who were fighting the war, and, of course, delicious pastries and brownies—you know, engaged citizens.

There’s more: I hung out at the Women’s Center, which at the time was housed in a grey cottage near the chapel on Virginia Street across the parking lot of the ASUN bookstore. Though I belonged to the opposite gender, the center’s welcoming director, Helen Jones, let me participate in her activities. In the evening, the center morphed into a meeting place for the Gay and Lesbian Student Union, which the late Reno City Council member (and University counselor) Pat Hardy Lewis and I helped revive from a long dormancy. One of the last events I programmed as ASUN’s multicultural chair was a gay beauty pageant. The Sagebrush ran a photograph of me walking around the quad during lunchtime wearing a full-body condom suit to promote this AIDS-awareness effort on campus.

Not a morning passed, too, without a visit to the Thompson Building’s Academic Support Services, where I befriended Elaine Steiner, who was then a classified employee, as well as Hazel Ralston, now emerita student development counselor, and Marsha Dupree, assistant director of the McNair Scholars Program. Elaine and I used to feed a family of cats that lived between the main library lawn and the dorms. Hazel and Marsha introduced me to the Black Student Organization. For many years, I was one of BSO’s two non-black-skinned members (the other one was a light-skinned female African-American ASUN senator of mixed-race parentage), and I served one year as a BSO secretary.

In 1990, as the programming chair of the ASUN Minority Student Affairs Committee, I organized the campus’s first-ever Multicultural Awareness Week. Prior to that year, my dear friends at Academic Support Services had set aside one day for multicultural awareness through a sharing of food and fun activities. What I did was expand that idea to encompass a whole week of activities that included an art exhibit, a wheelchair obstacle race, lectures from the Russian and Chinese consulates, a concert by a Japanese rock band, an afternoon of playing games from around the world, screenings of foreign films, and a Multicultural Awareness Day bash that featured food, dancing and international costumes. I was responsible for putting together the schedule, organizing the various events and getting the information out to the campus and the Reno/Sparks community. When it was time for me to graduate, my utopian desire was that UNR would continue to put on a Multicultural Awareness Week every year—how could we make it an annual event? I was young and naïve.

Which faculty inspired you the most/made the most difference in your becoming the successful writer that you are today? Jake Highton. A longtime journalism professor, he is my teacher, friend, adviser—and fellow letter-writer. I took every course he taught, despite his reputation as a tough, pugnacious and fiery taskmaster; he was the guy to avoid if you were looking for an easy A. Jake struck up a conversation with me by stating that he had been avidly reading my movie columns in the Sagebrush and he wondered why I did not sign up to major in print journalism. Fortunately, Jake did not judge my wrong-headed academic choices and encouraged me to learn investigative reporting and editing. His media-law and ethics classes fired my passion for First Amendment absolutism, progressive politics and the Supreme Court; his classes on the history of New York newspapers spurred me to take that first cross-country ride in a Greyhound bus from Reno to New York. I still have a vivid recollection of that May evening when I drove up to Jake’s old apartment in my secondhand Toyota. I showed up at his door to take leave, because I was moving to the East Coast for good.

Jake and I have kept in close contact over the years. He was one of the first people I informed after I received on Thanksgiving Eve a phone call from the chair of the Nathan Award who informed me that this year’s judges selected me as the winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism. A few days later, an envelope appeared in the mail. It contained Jake’s clippings, I assume from the morgue he fastidiously keeps. The articles explained everything about the noted drama critic George Jean Nathan, the journalist-critic H.L. Mencken (whose gleeful barbs Jake quotes by heart), and the two ferociously funny New York magazines they had founded called The Smart Set and The American Mercury.

In class and in his columns, Jake styles himself as anti-establishment voice—a rebel. There are strong political reasons he slapped the titles No! and Wrong on his most recent books. This thorn-on-the-side-of-mainstream attitude harks directly to the first book I read of his, The Spirit That Says No. But let me clue you into a big secret: Jake is actually a guy’s guy with an enormous heart. From the very beginning, Jake pushed me to think bigger—to test my mettle in a bigger pond.

“Discipline, discipline, discipline,” Jake frequently avows. Look, the guy has actually made me the subject of one his Daily Sparks Tribune columns. I think of Jake as a wild cat–dreamer—a closet Romantic. The Jake I know is a spirit who consistently says Yes.

What does it feel like to win the Nathan Award? It feels strange and hallucinatory. On the one hand, I couldn’t be more ecstatic to be rewarded for writing great dramatic criticism—to be recognized by the heads of the English departments of Cornell, Yale and Princeton universities, as well as their theatre department counterparts, that my essays for the 2007-08 theatrical season are the best critical writing published in any medium (books, newspapers, journals, magazine and online).

At the Nathan Award party this past March, Ellis Hanson, the Cornell chair, spoke before a room full of my colleagues, friends and family, stating that the judges have been following my work for quite a while, and that this year I went through the roof.

The Nathan Award, which is celebrating its 50th year, puts my name in the august company of some of the greatest American dramatic critics, like Harold Clurman, Walter Kerr, Eric Bentley, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jan Kott, Robert Brustein and John Lahr. Several Nathan winners, all former colleagues of mine at the Village Voice, are my friends. I had dinner with Eric Bentley in his Upper West Side apartment on the evening before the New York Post’s Broadway columnist Michael Riedel broke the story of my win in his Friday gossip column. Then The New York Times followed suit in its “Arts, Briefly” column.

Since then, I have received an avalanche of press coverage, kudos, invitations to speak or be a judge of international festivals, requests for interviews, and several offers to write books. For example, in early June, I have been invited to deliver a 30-minute keynote speech on “theatre criticism, the media and the world” at the 2009 Swedish Theatre Biennial. So winning the Nathan is simply extraordinary, because for years I couldn’t get arrested for my writings, and in terms of employment the gatekeepers of newspapers and magazines like The New York Times, The New Yorker and Newsweek have treated me like a beggar in a house of plenty.

But on the other hand, the Nathan has come my way at a scary and toxic time: when print journalism itself is on life-support—and when the forecast for the kind of criticism I practice, in this age of bloggers, is extreme inclemency. The avant-garde playwright Richard Foreman has written an Expressionist play that perfectly captures my sense of bedevilment. In Foreman’s nightmarish Samuel’s Major Problems, Samuel arrives at a millennial bash only to discover that the party is over. Two other guests remain, a man and a woman, but this ominous couple proceeds to torment Samuel. At times violence erupts. The woman brings out a birthday cake and tells Samuel that there is poison in it. Naturally, Samuel has second thoughts about eating it. Samuel’s Major Problems expresses my ontological conundrum in a nutshell. I wake up every morning feeling the charge of promise and possibility. But I am also humbled by the distortions that surface when a writer is locked in a dance with death. So even as this couple, named Doom and Gloom, lurk around, seeming ready to pounce, I feel invigorated by the very notion that there are educated readers out there who believe, as I do, that dramatic criticism is a cultural asset. My critical essays represent a passionate effort to move the theatre back to the center of the broader U.S. conversations about politics, society, culture, identity and globalization. I think of what I write as signals to a market-driven democracy that has allowed art, criticism and intellectual dissent to languish and deteriorate. I hope that my writing shows, rather than tells, how dramatic criticism can play a significant role in achieving our country.

And anything else you might care to tell me? May I add that I loved appearing every week in the pages of Sagebrush? Beginning in my freshman year up until the day I graduated, I contributed movie criticism to the student newspaper. The first Sagebrush editor who truly appreciated my writing was John Trent. The guy even promoted my work by putting out ads, claming that I was the best film critic in town—which was not difficult to trumpet since I had served as the chief movie critic for the Reno Gazette-Journal and the only local competition was Harold Rosenberg, a popular teacher whose main outlet consisted of several minutes in a chit-chatty TV newscast of a local CBS station (as opposed to print). Although I moved later on to writing feature stories, news pieces and op-ed columns for Sagebrush, I focused immoderately on movies, because my theatre reviews of UNR student productions frequently got me into the worst trouble with my actor-friends—not to mention the directors and designers who were invariably professors who graded my own academic work in the speech-and-theatre department.

Hollywood movies were a safe target for my perorations. As a critic, I confess to being a formidable elitist with esoteric tastes. My annual year-end roundup always begged for a fight, because my ten-best lists were littered with foreign-sounding titles by filmmakers whose names few had ever heard of (I was a champion of a Spanish director called Almodovar), and my ten-worst lists were made up of Hollywood blockbusters everyone had actually seen in Reno. Without fail, I would fume and inveigh against the annual Academy Awards ceremony, penning such statements as “The excitement of the Oscars has waned for me.” Truth be told, I had styled myself after James Agee who had composed short, pithier reviews for Time Magazine (just as I did at the Reno Gazette-Journal) but who saved his lengthier insights for The Nation. Writing for Sagebrush was a joy; I wrote for it as if my view of the world had been fully formed. I hope Sagebrush readers benefited from those intemperate reviews. There were folks at UNR, the Nevada Film Commission and some Hollywood studios that respected my film commentaries enough to invite me to press junkets and film screenings, usually in the Bay Area. When I graduated from UNR, my editors told me I couldn’t simply disappear from the pages of Sagebrush with nary a word. My last column was entitled “A critic’s farewell.”

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