Arts critics were once seen as the ‘canaries in the mineshaft’ — now newspapers and magazines are closing down the mines.
By Bill Marx
Let us all pray, long and hard, for the good health of Boston Globe theater critic Don Aucoin.
If Aucoin becomes ill, catches a cold and spends a night sniffling in bed, there are no wing men or women ready to step in. He is the Man — the only Boston Globe Theater Critic. But He is human. He has his limits. For many decades, The Boston Globe (like most major American newspapers) understood that fact, and had on its roster two to three dependable ‘second string’ critics who reviewed what the first stringer had no time for or interest in. (I was one of them, back in the late ‘90s.) And now, alarmingly, when there are more theater productions in the Boston area than ever, our ‘newspaper of record’ has decided to cut back on its reviewers. The insulting message being sent to Boston’s stages and theatergoers: send Aucoin your lucky charms and home remedies. When he is out of commission, Boston theaters are out in the cold.
The silent treatment, judging by the Boston Globe’s past behavior, may not turn out to be uniform. Of course, smaller theaters, such as the Zeitgeist Stage Company, pretty well know they are out of luck. Aucoin was indisposed one weekend, which meant there was no critique in the Boston Globe of ZSC’s provocative show Faceless. “The official policy I heard is that they will no longer use freelancers for theater reviews for companies of any size,” ZSC’s Artistic Director David Miller wrote to me. Of course, prepare for corporate media hypocrisy when a big bucks/big hitter theater demands to be sized-up by the newspaper. “We’ll see what happens if Don’s sick for a Huntington or A.R.T. show,” wonders Miller. Yes – we will see … a review.
Of course, the Boston Globe’s decision to designate Aucoin the be-all and end-all of its stage criticism is an embarrassment, an indisputable sign that the paper’s elimination of reviewers is driven by an indifference to the value of arts coverage as well as to the artistic and economic health of our theater companies. Think about it for a moment. Will there ever be an editorial fiat decreeing one person write all of the newspaper’s political commentary? A demand from the newspaper’s publisher (and Red Sox owner) John Henry that the Globe’s sports chat be limited to the speculations of one man or woman? Somehow, when it comes to the stage, and to the arts in general for that matter, decades of tradition are being obliterated as if there was no reason for criticism in the first place. Why?
Is it the money? The gold dropped into the laps of the greedy back-up critics? Let me testify that, after making a living (?) as a freelance reviewer for two decades plus in Boston, the amount paid to the hired hands at The Boston Globe was (and remains) minimum, strictly poverty-row. So, even given its financial plight, the newspaper should be able to cough up the $150 or so to pay for a review of Faceless and other shows that were stiffed that same weekend, which included an excellent production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. The notion that freelance theater critics are gone in order to save the newspaper money is out-and-out laughable.
Could it be the siren call of branding? The latter, according to an artistic director of a local theater company, is the culprit. “I was told it was about consolidating the newspaper’s voice,” he informed me. “Readers told the paper that they just wanted to read the opinions of the staff theater critic.” Boy, would I love to read that ‘survey’ — release it to the public! The truth is, most readers aren’t familiar with the names of individual critics – they simply know the reviewer (whoever he or she is) writes for a credible media source. As my friend Arthur Friedman memorably told me: “A monkey could write on theater for the Boston Globe and be taken seriously.” The Boston Globe is the brand – Aucoin is just filling the theater critic slot at the moment. Freelancers have done so in the past without incurring any reader backlash I have heard of; in fact, they were reassuring signs that the newspaper took theater (and stage criticism) seriously. Let’s look at this branding argument another way: a parade of the newspaper’s reporters and editorial pundits regularly gab away on Cable TV News shows – all of them represent The Boston Globe. Do you think it would matter to viewers (and power up the brand) if there was just one pontificator?
So, why has this disgraceful decision really been made? I don’t have a satisfactory answer, and neither do the Boston Globe‘s arts editors. I have been thinking about the pruning a lot. In the ‘60s, when American politics entered a crisis that has parallels with what is going on today, arts criticism exploded with energy and ideas, from the writing of Lester Bangs and Susan Sontag to Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. (This week New Yorker movie reviewer Anthony Lane suavely natters on about cinematic reincarnations of Winston Churchill! How daring …) It is weirdly ironic: investigative news stories and political commentary at newspapers and magazines are coming back to glorious life, but arts pages are bereft of incisive criticism and trenchant comment. Trump and his crime wave has energized the news and sports pages — but cultural coverage is enervated.
The now moribund alternative press specialized in cultural analysis. Corporate media could care less: for them, the arts pages are fluff, worthy of consumer-friendly treatment in the mode of Shopper’s World. The upshot is that arts coverage at the Globe and elsewhere isn’t about dissent; it is not asked to explore why culture matters today. Theater writing is innocuous, reassuring; features and reviews are placed there to please the rich (white) people — from donors and board members to foundations — who fund theaters large and small in Boston. Happy news, publicity-fueled testaments that money and time has been well spent, pleases every special interest, from the commercial and the governmental to the philanthropic. The arts are there to be purchased and enjoyed, to generate economic activity — not to be discussed or debated.
People don’t like being bored, so the timidity of theater coverage only speeds up the race to extinction. Why read bland stage reviews? So The Boston Globe feels free to remove its freelance theater critics! The contradiction is as glaring as it is patronizing: the political and sports pages attract readers because they welcome controversy by spotlighting hard-hitting reporting and powerful evaluations. They want debate and prickly dialogue. But, for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, theater coverage at The Boston Globe and elsewhere in the mainstream media is amiable to the point of inanity. The corporate edict is to always maintain a smiley face — what is, is right.
This demand for blithe reassurance comes at a price — it ignores reality. (Note the resonances with the Trump-ian branding mentality — arts coverage is a version of ‘fake news.’) You wouldn’t know it from reading The Boston Globe, but theater is in long term trouble; audience demographics for the performing arts are alarmingly narrow, there’s a disgraceful lack of diversity in Boston’s theater boards and audiences, and technology may be serving up a knockout blow, an inexpensive way to experience first-rate theater at home. (Streaming soon on wide screen TVs — a subscription service in which you can watch, at a time of your convenience and from a front-row seat, starry Broadway productions. Why maneuver through traffic and shell out for parking to attend a local production of Hamlet when you can watch Leonardo DiCaprio play the Great Dane at a fraction of the cost at home?) If only for the sake of examining such a problematic future, let alone out of respect for journalistic honesty, arts coverage, particularly reviewing, needs to be more than pablum. Or simply eradicated.
But cheery blandness is what we get. Why have just a solo theater critic at the Boston Globe? Could it be that centralizing opinion in a single source deadens the possibility of lively debate the most efficiently? When it comes to cultivating the monological, the Boston Globe is following the lead of NPR stations such as WBUR and WGBH, whose arts criticism is similarly docile; the reviewers at these influential outlets agree with each other about stage productions with astonshing equanimity. It is a pathetic echo chamber; there’s no passionate disagreement — as in sports or political coverage — to suggest that there’s something more is at stake than generating blurbs for theater box office, the donor class, and grant applications.
Where does this support for critical puerility come from? The top. And not only at The Boston Globe. I was recently part of a discussion, sponsored by Boston University’s Daily Free Press, about arts coverage. Ty Burr, the thoughtful film critic for The Boston Globe, and Amy Gorel, the digital editor of The ARTery at WBUR, were on the panel as well. Gorel is pleasant young woman and is no doubt a good editor, but her background is in International Relations and Journalism. I got the impression she could be put in charge of covering other topics at the station and not care all the much that the arts were in her rear view mirror. Unlike The Boston Globe, WBUR does not have an economic excuse for skimping on hiring experienced and committed arts editors or from backing away from creating an innovative platform for a diversity of reviewing voices. The Barr Foundation has handed the NPR station a one million dollar grant for revving up its cultural coverage. Listeners and readers can decide for themselves if the dollars have been well spent on substantial coverage, rather than advertising. (Don’t expect Boston’s complacent media watchdogs to scrutinize the inevitable conflicts of interest in the arrangement.) I will only insist here that it is evident that the Barr lucre didn’t go to hefting up theater criticism — or arts criticism in general.
The public response to the demolition of freelance theater reviews in The Boston Globe has been muted, to say the least. One reason is that the demolition of freelancers hasn’t been reported on anywhere; neither WGBH or WBUR has had all that much to say about the traumatic cutbacks. Is anyone surprised? These mainstream media outlets play the identical game of minimizing arts criticism. Theater companies are grousing privately, but they are reluctant to speak up with any fervor. Some are fatalistic, figuring that there is nothing to be done, no way to influence the newspaper. Others are fearful, suspecting that The Boston Globe (with an assist from its allies at WBUR and WGBH) will punish uppity stage troupes (no coverage for rabble-rousers!) who dare to question — out loud — the choice to do away with freelance stage critics. Of course, some companies, despite their respecting the value of critics, are only too happy to have reviewers banished — features and interviews tell the kind of stories that sells tickets. But, in the long run, this strategy will not contribute to the health of Boston theater. In fact, it will be detrimental.
The end of freelance critics is not good for the future of Boston theater: not only in terms of their role in generating audiences for the small and medium-sized companies, but artistically. At their best, freelance critics are there to support marginal troupes that do adventurous work, using their platform to bring news about the shock of the new to the theatergoing public. That kind of essential scouting is disappearing, as Aucoin (by necessity) follows WBUR’s and WGBH’s ‘stay on the well-paved highway’ strategy. The Single Theater Critic sticks to the tried and the true, the big and the established. I would claim that this amounts to a form of censorship of the marginal; opportunities to read reviews that might do a service for worthy work are going away, so that the major companies (supported by major moneybags) get their face time.
In fact, I would strongly argue that we are already feeling the effects of homogenization on Boston’s theater scene. The programing at our local stages — particularly the large and medium companies — is becoming less and less risky because no one in our corporate media dares to say that everything isn’t a triumph. Critics should raise uncomfortable cultural issues, pose provocative questions about what is being produced on our stages. They dissect the delusions hawked by marketing; they demand there be aesthetic evaluation. When reviewers vanish (and, believe me, extinction is a distinct possibility), publicity will rule the media roost. Perpetuating the illusion of an unending theatrical renaissance will be healthy for the pocketbooks of The Boston Globe, WBUR, WGBH, and Boston’s larger stage companies. Why? Because these organizations have the financial resources to do the most with the advantages leveraged by pricey branding strategies. Smaller stages, like the Boston Globe‘s freelancers, will be kicked to the curb.
There has been some kickback to the extinction notice. Exchanges on Facebook have become salty, with Henry Lussier, publicist for the Lyric Stage Company, suggesting that the editorial-powers-that-be at The Boston Globe might be persuaded to bring back the freelancers. Good luck with those pow-wows. Boston’s major theater critics organizations, the Elliot Norton Awards Committee and The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) have, as far as I can tell, been unconcerned with the pull back in theater reviews. Wouldn’t you think groups of stage critics would be more than a little interested in the future of the craft?(Isn’t criticism about supporting local theater?) But the steamroller triumvirate of WBUR, WGBH, and The Boston Globe dominate the Norton Awards Committee — so it is head-in-the-sand business as usual, no protest or bother. The IRNE clan is too cautious (or is that cowardly?) to raise much of a fuss. Let critics bite the dust, seems to be the mantra for both cozy clubs, as long as there are enough stragglers to hand out the organization’s awards each year.
To its credit, StageSource has started up a committee to come up with responses to the minimization of theater criticism. I am a member, and welcome your ideas. As of this moment, we are spinning our wheels. So I would appreciate suggestions on how the performing arts community and avid theatergoers can turn this shameful situation around. In that spirit, I am going to float a few modest, perhaps quixotic, proposals for the sake of inspiring thought, passion, and concrete action. How can we move forward in a constructive way that will encourage The Boston Globe to resurrect freelance theater reviewing? To respect the role of the evaluation of the arts? Should Boston’s corporate media moguls be allowed to let theater criticism go softly into that good night? Not on my watch … let’s make some noise.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
1) Public demonstration at the Boston Globe Offices: If the city’s stage companies and critics got together at the newspaper’s offices to protest the end of freelance theater criticism it would make theater history. I can’t find any examples in the past when reviewers and theater artists got together for the purpose of fighting for the existence of criticism. Lots of agitation aimed at having objectionable critics removed from their jobs — but no combined efforts demanding that reviewers be put back in place. Let’s turn hundreds of years of acrimony topsy turvy — and work together for the betterment of local theater and the future of quality stage criticism. The large companies may balk (Aucoin will be serving them), but surely the troupes being tossed under the bus will be up for a rowdy display of solidarity. I will be there, and welcome other critics and interested theater mavens. We have nothing to lose but the Aucoin monopoly. Interested parties, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s set a date for the demonstration. I will have the protest video-taped and together we can send it out far and wide via social media.
2) Public Discussion: In the interest of generating ideas for the StageSource committee on the crisis in arts coverage, I will be hosting, on a Monday night in January or February (date and location TBA), an evening at a local theater space. I will discuss the history of Boston stage criticism, and make my case for its value at The Boston Globe, WBUR, WGBH, and elsewhere. Joyce Kulhawik, the President of the Elliot Norton Awards Committee, has told me I need to reexamine my approach to theater criticism. Excellent! (She was probably stung by my Arts Fuse column that questioned the committee’s decision to give an Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence to the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus — the woman who brought Harvey Weinstein to Harvard.) I would love for Joyce and other members of the committee to come and debate the issue, as well as any of the IRNE reviewers. Members of theater companies, actors, directors, theater lovers, come and share your views. Am I making much ado about nothing? Setting off on an insufferable ego trip? Make your voice heard. I will have the presentation video-taped and together we can send it out far and wide via social media. Contact me at email@example.com
3) Have Listeners Will Travel: I am willing to come and address any group in the theater community that is concerned about the future of theater criticism in Boston: local theater boards, audiences, StageSource confabs, acting, dramaturgy classes, etc. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will work out a date and time. One of the problems is that no one is speaking up for the importance of first-rate criticism of the stage. Why is it important to have it? What difference does it make to arts and culture when it goes under?
Perhaps nothing will change. But there is much to be learned in the effort. As Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi wisely observes: Defeats/are what teach us/generosity.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.