We Interrupt This Program...

For an important news break. 

Everyone's a Critic will continue its important work later today, but in the meantime, an interesting, blog-worthy dustup flared between Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, Sarah Ruhl's agent and the Broad Street Review (BSR), an online publication covering the city's arts and culture.

The Wilma hosted an open reading of a "surprise play," which turned out to be Ruhl's newest, In the Next Room. Several critics attended, and one, Jim Rutter, wrote what I thought was an insightful review, published by the BSR. And therein lies the rub. The Wilma claims the work is unfinished and thus shouldn't be subject to review, but the question is, if a theater promotes a reading as a newsworthy event--and certainly sending out a press release about a "surprise" by a major playwright would make it so--then isn't it a journalist's responsibility to report on that surprise? Perhaps a review is the wrong approach, but surely no one can be shocked by some aspect of the evening showing up in print or online, as Rutter and BSR publisher Dan Rottenberg note in their chain of correspondence. And considering that--Hello!--the play is all about the history of the vibrator, well, who didn't think it would generate a (cue music) throbbing, pulsing, writhing storm of controversy and attention?

It all brings me back to a discussion I had here with The Critical Condition's Mark Blankenship about my call for a review of Les Freres Corbusier's Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). (I know, I know, I promised I was done talking about it, but I can't stop myself!) Mark's position was similar to that of Wilma Artistic Director Blanka Zizka: if a work isn't ready for the public feeding frenzy that sometimes accompanies a review, it shouldn't be reviewed. In DDR's case, I believed (and still do) that if the public is being charged to attend the event, and it's receiving a full-fledged production--I'd say 50 dancers, a crazy Thunderdome set, and a soap-opera-starring leading man qualify it as such--then it's a journalist's duty to inform the theater-loving public about what transpired onstage. In the Wilma's case, I think it's a trickier call, since a staged reading makes no claims about being a fully-realized work. But again, if it's promoted as a newsworthy event, the argument could be made that it ought to covered as one. Additionally, since, as Rutter points out, "news" can be broken at any time by anyone with a Blackberry and an opinion, is it even reasonable for a playwright or theater to assume they can close the floodgates of public opinion when they're the ones who have opened them in the first place?
January 14, 2009 7:58 AM | | Comments (9)



I think that Gwen was actually speaking to me with that last comment, though I can't recall specifically saying anything about Mark Blankenship, nor can I recall any reason why I might have done so.

Mark, if you're reading this, I apologize if something I said discounted your opinion, whatever it may have been.

In any case, Gwen:

I am not trying to reinvent anything in my own image, or anyone else's, but I'd be a liar if I said that I didn't think the industry needed reinvention. Throughout history, I don't think there's anything that hasn't been reinvented. Theater and criticism will change, because that's how it goes. Ultimately, of course, I've got no reason to convince you of what I'm saying. Either I'm right, in which case you'll have to adapt or be left behind (two situations of equal consequence to me), or else I'm wrong, in which case I'd be doing no one any service by convincing you.

However, a couple of notes: a literary pursuit is by no means necessarily a private one. When I say "literary," I mean "it occurs primarily in writing." A critic engages in a public literary pursuit. I suppose a diarist engages in a private literary pursuit, though I'll admit to be hard-pressed to think of a reason to write something down if you didn't one day want someone to read it.

It is true that public events occur to which the press are not invited--however, there is no ethical or legal restriction either preventing the press from attending those events, nor from writing about them and publishing if they so choose.

It's true that what Lessing meant by "dramaturg" then isn't what you mean by "dramaturg" now, but that very difference means that it's possible for the name and nature of the "dramaturg" to change--just because you mean it that way now, doesn't mean it'll continue to mean that next week. Frankly, I do believe that any dramaturg worth their salt ought to be able to expound pages about why any given play is a relevant piece of art, to write tracts supporting and defending the aesthetics of the theaters that they work for, to put together whole books on the subject. I don't see any reason why, should a play be subject to a literary assault (a public one, obviously), the dramaturg should not be called on to defend it.

Perhaps, in your experience, as a dramaturg you were too busy, or else ill-equipped to do such a thing. So? Experience is valuable in relation to conditions. If the conditions change, your experience is irrelevant.

In any case, I don't especially care. Frankly, I think everything should be subject to critical review. As a reader, I am interested in critical analysis of developing work, and as an artist, I am not afraid to defend my work should the situation demand it.

Just a couple of clarifications: I never discounted yours or Mark Blankenship's opinions. I also told Jim Rutter that I didn't believe a review was the right response to the Wilma reading--a short news brief announcing the play and its subject matter, maybe, but not a review. I may not think the BSR did the right thing, but I do think this sort of ethical trouble is going to become more common and that theaters are going to have to be on guard for a different kind of publicity, meaning unauthorized publicity, occurring with more frequency.

Not sure why the personal vitriol, but no, it's not my intention remake the field in my image--but thanks for insinuating that I have that much influence on international theater criticism. I do, however, believe there are plenty of thorny and unexplored issues emerging about as fast as the technology used to create the problems.

And yes, thanks for the invitation--I'm already member of ATCA.

Wendy, you may think that, but it's simply not in keeping with the conventions of our field. It just isn't. It's as wildly wrong as thinking that an email someone sent you is yours to publish, when copyright law says otherwise, meaning that Broad Street Review is not wildly wrong on not one but TWO counts as publishing Zizka's email without her consent is not just unethical but illegal. Broad Street Review can tell themselves and you can accept that they are just reinventing conventions, but what they are in fact doing is pissing all over everyone else in the name of originality. If I were Zizka, I'd have my lawyer write a cease-and-desist letter about her emails by now.

Why do you think audiences don't know the difference between a finished work and a work-in-progress? Do you see it as your job to teach the benighted masses? I've attended many invited dresses and have never found one iota of confusion among audience members. And I don't see respectability going out the window-- yes, some papers are cutting back, but I have seen no disrespect whatsoever out there. YMMV of course, but just because you say that the internet is sooooo different etc. doesn't make it actually true-- it's clear that Broad Street Review has vested interests in claiming that, because they want it to allow them to take ethical license and do whatever the hell they want. That alone should make it suspect.

Of course, people speak to groups all the time when the message is not intended for the press. Alumni associations, clubs, even conventions do not always invite press, but allow in the paying public.

It's not a question of whether Rutter's review is harsh or positive, and the suggestion is deeply insulting to Zizka, Ruhl, her agent and everyone else involved. There is most certainly a difference between a review and a blog post-- one is by an accredited member of the press, and one is an unofficial statement of subjectivity by a member of the public. Similarly, nobody could stop audience members from posting blog responses to a preview, but that does not "justify" a member of the press fro showing up unannounced and reviewing a work that is just gaining its feet.

Yes, I know all about dramaturgs, thanks. I was literary manager at City Theatre and at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and worked very closely with playwrights. I also ran public readings, and sometimes critics attended and participated in the feedback. But if they wrote about what they saw, they did not write "reviews," just reports, and there's a difference-- the difference between a feature and a review, and usually a critic doesn't do both. My job was not to run interference with the press or "defend" the work. I don't know any American dramaturgs who define the position as "in-house" critic, do you? That Lessing defined it that way doesn't mean thats its function HERE. Now I am a member of the press, and write for the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others. I find Broad Street's Actions indefensible, and your defense

Earlier you talked about a critic having a duty to inform, now you talk about criticism as a literary pursuit, as if it's a private function. Which is it? A critic is a member of the press, employed by the press, and has a function within the theatre community. I would strongly encourage you to join ATCA (American Theatre Critics Association), if you haven't already, and air these opinions there. I believe you would not find one working critic, whether in San Jose or Miami or New York, who sees things your way, and it's not a question of age, but knowledge. You've already discounted Mark Blankenship and me; would you discount everyone else? Is it your intention to reinvent the field in your own image?

Getting "critical input" is not the same as "publishing" a review, Missy. As Wendy stated before, though she seems to be backing off from it now with her description of criticism as a literary activity, a review is news, it's for the public-- not for the playwright. Since the work is in progress, not to mention about to have its official premiere at Berkeley Rep (and a premiere has monetary value not to be taken lightly) there is no justification whatsoever for publishing a review of a reading that is not open to review-- other than sheer misunderstanding, for which an apology and retraction is in order, not a defense of the wrong that was done.

The "review" served nobody but Rutter and Broad Street's ego. The public doesn't need or want a record of a one-night showing of a work in progress. This ethical storm as well serves their vanity, which is why I'm bowing out now.


While I'm perfectly happy to engage you on this issue, I'd appreciate you refraining from the implicit aspersions against me.

In the first place, I think that there's a substantial difference between a public reading and a private reading. Private readings are, in many ways, ideally suited for soliciting feedback--you can more effectively choose demographics to test the play against, and you can much more easily control what kind of information comes out of it.

A public reading is vulnerable to public criticism. There's no two ways about this; it fits the two essential journalistic qualifiers of "is it true?" and "is it newsworthy?" It is something of interest to the public. And there is not, nor do I believe there should ever be, any circumstance under which any piece of literature should be invulnerable to critical review. If it's a work in progress, then the critic can say it's a work in progress--it's about time audiences started learning the difference anyway.

Your analogy here is mistaken, I think; a person who has asked to be off the record is not also speaking in public. A politician cannot make a speech to his constituency and ask that it be "off the record." If it's done in public, then it is subject to public to review, because there is no expectation of privacy.

Additionally, practically speaking, there is little difference between a review and a blog post these days; the only essential difference is the implicit respectability that being employed by a newspaper confers. And, as newspapers are gradually and quietly ditching their theater critics--or just plain folding in the face of immanent economic collapse--that respectability is going right out the window.

Secondly, the position of dramaturg and literary manager has always been a complex one. As I'm sure you know, the word was first used in the Hamburg Dramaturgies, where Lessing, in his position as dramaturg, was functioning precisely as an in-house critic.

If you don't think dramaturgs should be doing that, fine, but that doesn't change the fact that the theater has the means and responsibility to defend its work. Theater criticism is fundamentally a literary pursuit, and it's the dramaturg that ought to be in the best position to make that defense.

Finally: it is precisely by an act of will that the BSR can reinvent the conventions of our field. The conventions were never anything more than an aggregate of the preceding wills in the first place; they are not inscribed in some kind of rule book, they are not the product of divine mandate. They are subject to change and reinvention all the time, but most especially when technology so drastically changes the nature of mass communication.

Furthermore, as the e-mail exchange between Mme Zizka, and M's Rottenberg and Rutter illustrates, it was the Wilma that dropped the ball by not making it clear that the play in question was a work in progress--had the BSR realized that, they wouldn't have sent a reviewer in the first place.

(PS: In point of fact, Rutter's review was not harsh at all but, indeed, highly complimentary. I believe he suggested that a reading at the Wilma was more entertaining than a full production in some other places.)

I agree that the thing creates a real shitstorm of ethical controversy--less so, to my mind, in the case of DDR, but of course, that's open to debate as well. When Rutter initially asked my thoughts on the matter, I was against posting a review. Certainly the Inquirer wouldn't review a reading, and as Rutter notes, Inqy critic Toby Zinman was there (and I would have been there too if I didn't have to ferry my kids somewhere or other), but her readers haven't heard boo about it. That said, the BSR is a different kind of publication, and everyone, journalists, playwrights, audiences, are going to have to get used to having their dirty laundry aired online, because it's a wide open internet out there.

I also want to say that the point of a public reading is NOT to draw public attention but to see how an audience responds to a work, when it's being considered for production. This is pretty common knowledge in theatre, it surprises me that anybody weighing in would not know that.

"That's what dramaturgs are for"-- are you kidding? Dramaturgs are not there to argue with the press, for pity's sake, they do a lot of things, work with the playwright, research the work, etc.

The downside to journalists thinking they are doing something useful in "reporting" when expressly asked not to is that they will be barred from public readings, that there will be no more public readings, and that works will have fewer opportunities to be tested with an audience. Everybody loses.

Sorry, but this is just wrong. Just because something is open to the public does NOT mean it's open for review-- any professional critic knows that is not the convention in our field. If it were, there would be no such thing as "press nights," and critics, like paying audience members, could go on the first preview and write about it.

But this is NOT done. Because theatre needs an audience to GET ready, it simply isn't the same as publishing a book or releasing an album or opening a restaurant.

The Wilma is not angry that the review is harsh but that there was a review at all. Just because the public is invited does not make something open to review. Often press can attend but not write about it.

Mark Blankenship is absolutely right about the Wilma (and about the dance piece as well).

There's a difference between a blog post, people talking and sharing feedback, and a REVIEW. And DDR t BSR cannot simply with an act of will reinvent the conventions of our field-- and be welcome to participate in it.

The notion that it's a journalist's duty to break the conventions of the people in the field is wrong. It's as wrong as naming a source who asks to be anonymous or quoting someone after they've said "this is off the record." In fact, it's very LIKE quoting someone who's asked to be off the record. It's a betrayal and a misuse of power.

In practice, I'm not sure what the Wilma thought they were doing. The whole point of a public reading of a surprise play is to draw public attention. Even if BSR had never published Rutter's review, he's got a website for crying out loud--he could have put it up on his own and no one could stop him.

Except, that's the whole point of doing a reading that's open to the public--that people WILL see it, and WILL review it, and WILL put their comments up on the website, because that's how good words get around.

If they're concerned that Rutter's review was too harsh, I think that's why they just need someone in their own camp to champion the work. That's what dramaturgs are for, right? To function as in-house critics? If you can't defend your work, you shouldn't open it up to attack.

I'm with you. I mean, as long as the writer made perfectly clear what stage the production was in (i.e. this is a reading, it will be changed, etc), it seems like this is the best time for a show to get critical input - when there's the biggest chance things that aren't working can be changed, etc. Add the way it was promoted and I feel these guys have a pretty weak argument.

I can't even see a thin justification for the DDR situation.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.