When it comes to exploding theater scenes, most people don’t think about Miami. That worries Christine Dolen, who has been a prominent theater writer here for decades.
“I don’t know if it’s that a lot of people in South Florida are New Yorkers or maybe part-time South Florida people and they’re snobs and feel that the only good art is in New York,” she said recently. “But it’s monumentally frustrating.”
Dolen began her career at the Miami Herald in 1976 as an arts editor and music critic. In 1979 she became the theater critic and continued in that role until retiring from the Herald in 2015. Today, she continues to write and review for Artburst Miami, a non-profit organization programmed by Miami-Dade County.
Dolen’s more-than-40-year career as an arts writer stands out in a modern workplace where people jump jobs often and newspapers have mostly transitioned to online publishing.
In 2020, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average tenure of workers 25 to 34 years old was 2.8 years, three times less than the average 9.9 years for workers between 55 and 64. As for arts coverage, The Columbia Journalism Review explained in 2017 that newspaper art sections, especially critics are usually the first to go when cuts are required because of how easy the internet has made it is for anyone to be a critic. This means there’s a smaller audience for criticism. Both phenomena place Dolen among the last of a generation. She is originally from Ohio, and her father performed during the summer in a theater outside Columbus. Dolen spent time backstage and seeing the behind-the-scenes magic impacted her. Those moments left lasting impressions, but she didn’t pursue an acting career herself because of her self-consciousness.
“I just don’t like to be on a stage and have the sensation of people looking at me,” Dolen said. “In high school I discovered I could write, so I thought this was a great way of combining two of my passions.”
When she graduated college, she worked as a pop music critic for the Detroit Free Press. She migrated south when she got a job at the Herald and sometimes considered going back north, but her job at the Herald became too important to her to leave.
“Being a theater critic was like going to a graduate school that never ends,” Dolen said fondly.
But Dolen is more than a theater critic. She is an encyclopedia of all-things-theater in Miami, from the city’s long history of performance arts to its fresh talent. One example is a story she did on Alex Lacamoire, who has won three Tony awards for orchestration and worked with award-winning composer, lyricist and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda on “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.”
The job of a critic is mostly to interest audiences in a subject while also critiquing it. This can best be done through masterful handling of language and ideas. So while she may not consider herself an artist, Dolen recognizes the art in criticism.
“You want the readers to be intrigued by what you’re writing and to want to read it to the end,” Dolen said. “So you don’t want to bore anybody with these big chunky paragraphs of facts and want to keep it flowing.”
Dolen’s editor at ArtBurst Miami, Melina de Rose, followed her stories years before they began working together. She says that Dolen is a masterful reporter and writer, noting that they are not the same thing.
“She has a beautiful way with language,” de Rose said. “She knows what she’s talking about and she cares – and her readers respond to that.”
Dolen’s work is a testament to her expertise in journalism and the arts. She has earned many awards and much recognition; American Theater magazine named her one of a dozen of the country’s most influential theater critics in 2011.
“Christine Dolen is a legend in this community,” said Stuart Meltzer, the founding artistic director of Miami’s Zoetic Stage. “I believe that so much of the strength of this rich, theatrical community is because of her journalism.”
One of the appeals of Miami and South Florida is its diversity of cultures, which is reflected in the theater created here.
“A lot of the artists who have been working in theater the whole time that I’ve been covering it are BiPOC artists –, Latinx artists, because that’s who lives here, that’s who creates here,” said Dolen.
Just a few examples of the diversity here are Miami New Drama’s show “Papa Cuatro,” created by a Venezuelan-Canadian about the Venezuelan string instrument; “Gringolandia,” about a Cuban man that returns to Cuba after 50 years; and M Ensemble Company, the oldest Black professional theater company in Florida.
To Dolen, the special thing about covering theater in one place for so long is the direct impact you can have on the community and its arts. It’s given her a voice in the ongoing artistic conversation. She knows she’ll stop one day, but it won’t be anytime soon.
“Now as I’m closer to the end of my life, I just feel like time in a theater is kind of sacred and precious,” she said.