Theater Commentary: The Boston Theater Critics Association — Still Evaluating?

By Bill Marx

The Boston Theatre Critics Association should take action in support of #MeToo.

Last year I wrote that I would make this request in The Arts Fuse before each Elliot Norton Awards ceremony — until the Boston Theatre Critics Association does the right thing. I am making good on that promise, though I assume some will see it as a futile gesture. This year’s party is on May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Huntington Avenue Theater.

The 1986 Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence should be withdrawn from Israel Horovitz, given the November 30 2017 New York Times’s report on Horovitz’s sexual harassment activities, which included references to my 1993 Boston Phoenix articles exposing his despicable behavior. The prize was not removed last year; the BTCA told me it was taking “its own good time” considering the action. Late this April, I asked if anything had changed. The response from Joyce Kulhawik, president of the Boston Theatre Critics Association, was “we continually evaluate and have decided to leave [it] as is for now.”

Why the paralysis? The BTCA has never given a reason for why it is leaving things as is. Perhaps it is because, as I wrote in last year’s column (posted below) the committee members figure — probably rightly — that the award is decades old and that people will forget the damage that was done to the Boston theater community. That is unfortunate. Our reviewers accept, all too easily, the notion that their responsibility to theater criticism (as well as entertainment reporting) is limited to serving as consumer guides and tossing a yearly party. It would be relatively easy to withdraw the award  to Horovitz — but that would mean taking a stand regarding #MeToo. And perhaps ruffle some feathers. Better to do nothing … just keep being positive.

As long as The Arts Fuse is up and running I will call the committee out. I don’t have anything to add to last year’s column, which remains relevant. The names of the BTCA members are listed at the end — contact them if you agree.

Ignorance is no excuse. The Boston Theatre Critics Association can’t be unaware of what is happening in the era of #MeToo. As I write this column, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has just been brought on trial for rape charges in New York, Bill Cosby has had a number of honorary degrees from major universities rescinded, including one from Boston College. Recent charges of sexual harassment made against actor Morgan Freeman are generating possible action from SAG.

What’s more, Joyce Kulhawik, President of the BTCA, referred to #MeToo in her PR huzzah for the May 21 2108 awards show (“This has been a tumultuous year socially and politically. Time’s Up! #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, students marching for their lives — people are finding their voices, challenging the status quo and fueling change”). Despite the reference, the BTCA appears to want to back away from this ‘tumultuous’ spirit of change, at least regarding #MeToo. There was no press release issued before the awards ceremony quietly indicating Horovitz’s prize had been withdrawn. That would have been an easy step to take — if the BTCA cared seriously about the issue.

Does the BTCA give a damn? Leading up to Elliot Norton Awards, I asked, via e-mail, whether the organization is considering rescinding the prize to Horovitz. Here is the official response:

The Boston Theater Critics Association will handle all matters relating to the Elliot Norton Awards in its own good time.

This reads like a crisply arrogant, back-of-the-hand response, but it is actually pretty revealing. What does “in its own good time” mean? In terms of Horovitz’s behavior, it took over two decades before the New York Times article made a crucial difference, forcing the Gloucester Stage Company to take significant action. Will we have to wait 20 years for the BTCA to work up the gumption to rescind the award to Horovitz? Exactly what does “in its own good time” mean? That action will be taken only when it is convenient and/or expedient for the committee? If this is the case, here are some recommended hashtags for the BTCA: #MeTooGiveMeTime, #MeTooNotYet

Let me speculate about what “in its own good time” really amounts to. As with the Trump Administration, the BTCA has its leakers, and my sources tell me that rescinding the award was discussed at a BTCA meeting. No action was taken because it was noted the prize had been given over thirty years ago — and 1986 is ancient history. Better to keep silent about the matter and hope no one objects. Just the way the status quo goes about its inert business. The argument’s weakness is obvious: Horovitz served as GSC artistic director well beyond 1986 and when he left that position his scripts were still regularly produced by the Gloucester Stage Company, which fundraised off the glittery presence of Horovitz, who was routinely celebrated by The Boston Globe, local NPR stations, etc. Meanwhile, as reported by the New York Times, accusations of sexual harassment involving Horovitz continued well beyond 2000. Over the decades GSC’s presentations, as well as those of its favorite dramatist’s plays (the last staged as recently as 2016), were eligible for Norton Awards consideration. Is there a statute that limits public recognition of the harm Horovitz’s actions did to the theater community? An “in its own good time” loophole?

Why should we wait for the current BTCA’s “good time”? I didn’t know Elliot Norton well, but near the end of his life I got to spend some time with the celebrated critic. He was nothing if not an old-fashioned gentleman, punctiliously proper. I don’t believe for a moment he would accept that an award in his name would stay with Horovitz after the recent revelations.

Regarding some of the other Norton Awards judges I served with when I was on the BTCA (I left in 2006), I’d bet my life savings Skip Ascheim would have quit the group had the award not been rescinded; I have no doubt Arthur Friedman and former BTCA President Caldwell Titcomb would have been horrified as well. For some reason, the current membership is willing to move on without a word, aside from taking “its own good time.” Might the reluctance be credited to BTCA’s graying line-up of critics and entertainment reporters? Women and men in their twenties and thirties are deeply concerned about this issue. I am confident they would move with alacrity — not check their watches.

So why the wait? My best guess is that the BTCA’s passivity is symptomatic of Gore Vidal’s notion of the “United States of Amnesia.” The organization is taking “its own good time” because it is banking on the fact that as each year passes people will forget the New York Times article (as they did my 1993 Boston Phoenix pieces), Horovitz’s aberrant behavior, and the embarrassing response from the mainstream media and the GSC. Could it be that the risk-adverse BTCA is hesitating because somewhere, somehow, someone objects to rescinding Horovitz’s award? Or are the critics and entertainment reporters afraid someone (powerful?) will object. Why take a chance when it will all fade away?

If your principle critical mission is to bolster the theater community by hyper-blurbing stage productions and tossing an annual party dedicated to handing out awards, then anything that raises serious questions must be brushed aside for the sake of purveying positive vibes. But, if your goal as a critic is to contribute to the long term health of the theater community, then there’s a responsibility to acknowledge grievous injustice and injury. The “good time” for that is now — not later.

Note: If you agree with me, please contact the members of the BTCA Don Aucoin, Jared Bowen, Terry Byrne, Carolyn Clay, Christopher Ehlers, Iris Fanger, Joyce Kulhawik, Kilian Melloy, Bob Nesti and Ed Siegel — and tell them that the 1986 prize to Horovitz should be rescinded. I intend to make this point in The Arts Fuse before each upcoming Elliot Norton Awards ceremony — until the BTCA does the right thing.

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.

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