Theater Commentary: An Open Letter — to the “Open Letter”
By Bill Marx
The media big boys should be part of the discussion, if only because they have the resources to change the situation for the better.
What we have here is a conflict between two relatively powerless elements in Boston’s theater community. Calling for more diverse voices in criticism, a gathering of performers and dramatists (many of them women) posted an “open letter” to one of the two major theater critic organizations in the area — IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England). The group was embarrassed when confronted publicly on those issues, and for good reason: the document is childish in parts, yet it makes some valuable points. But, at the moment, discussion is being pushed aside by controversy regarding the timing of the communiqué’s appearance (right before the latest IRNE Awards ceremony). Here is a statement from IRNE’s Michael Hoban:
There was no effort made by any the letter signers to contact Beverly Creasey, myself or any of the other IRNE members with their concerns prior to posting the letter. And I don’t understand how anyone could think that launching a letter on the internet the day of our ceremony could be perceived as an honest effort to initiate a dialogue to effect change. The claim that the timing of the launch was merely coincidental, that ‘We were rushing to craft and edit the letter balancing the chaotic schedules of thirteen writers’ (as the second letter states) requires a suspension of disbelief.
Unfortunately, the ‘open letter ‘came at a very vulnerable period for IRNE: the group has now disbanded, perhaps to return in another form. If the writers were hoping to strengthen the critical ecosystem, they have ended up accelerating the Global Warming that has been decimating Boston theater reviewing for many years. It is the shrinking of theater criticism — and the forces behind it — that is the real issue. At least that crisis has to be examined along with the vital issue of diversity. So, let’s look at the real culprits: Boston’s media power brokers.
The Arts Fuse sent a question to the signees that was not responded to in the group’s latest posting. Why wasn’t the ‘open letter’ also aimed at the Elliot Norton Awards Committee? Those satraps are vulnerable to the same charges leveled at IRNE, including issues of diversity and transparency. The Norton Awards is by far the more influential of the two groups. To me, the silence reeks of selective (or is that strategic?) outrage. The Elliot Norton Awards Committee is filled with theater writers/critics from the city’s mainstream media — not the ad hoc collection of bloggers and reviewers that made up the now defunct IRNE. There is less danger of getting on the wrong side of the right people when sniping (albeit fairly) at the latter. To publicly quiz the Elliot Norton Awards Committee means raising uncomfortable — but completely reasonable — questions about the selectivity and lack of diversity in the theater coverage at the major newspapers and radio stations represented by the members of the committee: WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe, etc. The ‘open letter’ signees were afraid to raise the hackles of the Norton Award éminence grise, perhaps because they work for publications/radio stations that wealthy people pay attention to. Hell, if the ‘open letter’ took on our major media players (which, take it from me, don’t react well to criticism) chances are the ‘open letter’ wouldn’t get much coverage.
But the media big boys should be part of the discussion, if only because they have the resources to change the situation for the better. Instead, they are content to sit back and emit concerned (and hypocritical) reportorial noises. What action could the editorial powers at The Boston Globe, WBUR, and WGBH take? Expand theater review coverage. (WBUR received at least a million dollars from the Barr Foundation to rev up its arts journalism. Where is all this money going, particularly in terms of local coverage? A question that a first rate arts reporter would ask. Don’t hold your breath.) Why is more funding for reviewers necessary? Because theater criticism is undergoing an awkward generational change. The stage reviewers that populate IRNE and the Elliot Norton Awards Committee are generally aging white males and females. (Note: I am a white senior citizen.) We need multicultural reinforcements.
Where is the platform for new critical voices, the opportunities for them to be trained by professionals? Where are our ambitious replacements? The reviewers of color? Millennials? Isn’t this the new blood we desperately need to critique, challenge, and honor Boston theater? There was a time when the Boston Globe had two or three theater review stringers (I was one of them), who learned the craft of criticism while they covered the range of Boston theater. As of now, this system has vanished — the media stupidly decided to junk it. The Boston Globe has whittled its theater reviewers down to one aging white critic; stage reviewing at WGBH and WBUR is no less scanty and problematic. Why put theater criticism on a starvation diet? Could it be that the powers-that-be are afraid of giving newbies a chance? Perhaps because iconoclastic critics might interrupt comfy business as usual?
Let’s look at what has elbowed theater reviews aside. Previews, interviews, listicles, and features that are informative (at their best), but never ever ever skeptical. All the ‘newsy’ coverage reflects the marketing game plan of heavyweight media, foundations, and large theater companies — the aim is to generate ticket sales, online click totals, and branding visibility. The media zealously protects its kingmaking power: they favor stage coverage that affirms the tastes of target demographics and pleases deep pocket donors. That inevitably means the most moneyed, plugged-in companies receive the bulk of the attention. The rest are generally left out in the cold. (The rich get richer — and they really like to hang out together.)
But puffery cannot replace criticism, because the latter articulates the value of the arts through judgement. And that is not always positive. If the ‘open letter’ writers are interested in improving theater award organizations, then they should agitate for more (and more diverse) critical membership at our major outlets, reviewers with the knowledge and independence to bestow credible honors on local theater. (Unless Boston theater moves to an Academy Awards like set-up, with the community voting for the season’s ‘best.’) In addition, both theater critic organizations — the Norton Awards and IRNE — have neglected their duty to nurture new voices — to offer mentorships and scholarships to writers who will rejuvenate the groups’ antique make-up. Theater criticism is being shoved aside for many reasons — technology, social media, philistinism, and dying arts sections. But critics themselves are partly to blame: they have not been concerned with the future of the craft. If they aren’t, it seems, no one else will be.
Where I am in this discussion? I welcome it, as long as questions are directed at the fat cats, WBUR and its fellow journalist travelers in performance pablum. With forceful criticism sidelined, theater coverage has become increasingly bland, tidily corporate: provocations are rare, as are demands for original stage work that challenges rather than placates. For anyone who loves serious theater, who cares about talking about the stage in language other than PR, who would like criticism to go beyond the chatter of consumer advice, it has been a very depressing time. I long for new voices, to kick at me and at the current alarming status quo, a time when the arts are being primarily valued — even by some artists! — as gas for the state’s economic engine.
Young critics of color, voices from everywhere, anyone of any (reasonable) age who is interested in dissent rather than white bread contentment, you are welcome at The Arts Fuse. I am a slim cat, but would love to work with you to help make your views ring with the power they should. Or do what I did and start your own publication. My advice is to pen stage criticism that follows the sage advice of British critic Kenneth Tynan — write your reviews as if there is something at stake.
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.