“Less of a Title, More of a Responsibility”: Stephanie Fung on Theatre Criticism

Photo of Stephanie Fung. They wear a green jacket and have their arms above their head.
Photo of Stephanie Fung. Photo sourced from Steph’s website.

In early February, I sat down with Stephanie Fung, previous editor of the Kingston Theatre Alliance (KTA)’s Performance Blog to ask what’s up with them?! 

I met Steph in the summer of 2021, and was immediately drawn in by their simultaneously cool and perceptive nature. They were a mentor for me as I was learning more about theatre criticism in Toronto Fringe’s New Young Reviewers (NYR) Program, and we stayed in touch throughout the following year. In the summer of 2022, Steph made the decision to leave the KTA and that August is when I began as editor. 

Since leaving, Steph has completed an internship at Canadian Stage, their third round of mentoring young folks in the NYR Program, participated in Intermission Magazine’s IBPOC Critics’ Lab, and performed in various readings and plays with recent credits including The Dog Play at Factory Theatre and Space Crime Continuum with 6 AM Productions. In January, it was announced that Steph is the 2023 recipient of the Nathan Cohen Award for Outstanding Emerging Critic, winning with their SummerWorks Festival review. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to reconnect with them and find out what’s been up with Steph?!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

As many young folks interested in arts criticism may know, the opportunity for learning about it has been limited in recent years. As much as there are opportunities, there aren’t very many. Steph was at that impasse during their undergrad at Queen’s University until crossing to the other side of the world. Going on exchange to the Netherlands in their third year, Steph participated in an arts criticism class. Coming back to Kingston, they began reflecting on what this looked like in practice and how they could get involved, thus beginning their journey with the KTA. “I feel like the KTA is one of the only resources in Kingston or the Kingston area that is doing a lot of theatre criticism outside newspaper publication. It was also great that the vision, slash, spirit of what the KTA wanted to do with the reviews was also really aligned with what I wanted to explore.”

What did Steph want to explore? “I’m really passionate about artistic literacy and media literacy. I think I have always seen reviews as a blueprint for if someone did not go see a show or see a movie—what do you need to understand what that experience was like? Can the review match the experience of the play itself?”

I was reminded of how I’d heard Steph say many times that theatre criticism is an art form. “I’m sure you’ve been the person or have been [on] the receiving end where you see a movie or something just because the way someone talked about it was so compelling… The review is an extension of the flavour of the show so why should it not mimic that same spirit—I guess it’s like an exponential extension of what that person took away from that experience.” 

In Kingston, where did Steph see theatre criticism heading, keeping this perspective in mind? “I found that there is such a strong sense of community [in Kingston]—online, in person, in theatre, not in theatre—but all of the lore keeping was very oral and you had to kind of be in the city and stay in the city, or really know the people who had been around to understand what the history was like… None of it was really getting recorded and if you weren’t there at that time you wouldn’t know anything about it. 

“I also wanted an opportunity to archive what was happening… But I also really wanted an opportunity where people could push each other to think more critically about what they were doing because as rich and robust as [Kingston’s theatre] history was, not all of it is super great. Primarily, I learned that Kingston has a huge history of minstrelsy and blackface… Getting to use performance to even talk about that performance history would be really neat and it’d be really great if people had a streamlined or dependable place to do that kind of learning.”

Steph continued their thoughts on the impact they hope theatre criticism can have on communities. “People used to riot about reviews… In the 1800s, if people didn’t like a critic’s review of an opera, people would—in masses—protest outside either the critic’s house, or wherever it was published, or theatres and [disagree]. That’s so wild that [they] felt so strongly about what someone said… It’d be really cool if people felt so strongly about the stuff they saw [today] that they felt equally moved and equally encouraged to have a conversation in a less confrontational way.” 

After much exploration about arts criticism’s meaning and its impact on communities, Steph spoke to what it means to them. They described the application process for the Nathan Cohen Award to explain. “I don’t know what the criteria of the panel is but what I hoped they took away [was]… The commitment and the enthusiasm and the interest I had in not only doing theatre criticism, but talking about, and getting my hands dirty, and what that could look like. I think that was really the spirit of me as a critic is that I don’t know what the award is for other people or the organization but for me I really do see it as less of a title and more of a responsibility.”

Ensuring they put ample thoughtfulness into their reviews, Steph engages with many questions throughout and after a show. “What questions do I think the production was trying to pose? What questions were they asking themselves, asking the audience? And then trying to see if that pursuit was clear, or how did they ask those questions? That’s, I think, something that’s changed a lot from me these past years, is that I’m all about the questions and not the answers because I find the answers a little boring.”

But when it comes to writing, Steph needs to find their version of a hideaway. “I find writing actually to be an incredibly lonely process… For me to focus, I have to be alone and I have to kind of shut off.” And then they reemerge. “You just spend so much time talking to yourself, like with yourself, that when you start talking to other people about [a review], there’s almost a protectiveness… But you’ve just been thinking about it the whole time, and actually, you’re writing for other people too so you have to be able to invite that.”

When editing though, Steph feels more like a team player. “We’re co-collaborators, where maybe I’m not doing the writing but I would ideally get to know the person and what—what are they trying to say with this piece? What is their voice? What do they want to achieve? And pushing them to get there.”  

Steph and I could have talked for ages about theatre criticism, it feels, and they always have something exceptional to say. I was especially warmed by their humility in this interview as they always threw questions back to me and were curious about my processes. They have a compelling generosity to them and to that I say, thanks Steph. 

Find more information about Stephanie Fung on their website. Details about the Nathan Cohen Award can be found here. Find future articles from Stephanie at Intermission Magazine and their SummerWorks Festival review here