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.

Farewell, IRNE, after 23 years.

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.


  1. Nancy Curran Willis on June 9, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you Bill. Very well said.
    Nancy Curran Willis

  2. Mike Hoban, Editor, Theater Mirror on June 10, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    Responding to this line from the story: “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.”

    Although we cannot speak for the organizations that make up the Norton Awards, most of the IRNE members are either contributors to newspaper organizations (where they do not have a say in the hiring decisions (and include Becker, Grossman, Reedy, Israel, and Barth) or single person blog operators (Munitz, Fahey, Craib, Creasey, and Mulford). The rest (Hoban, Markarian, Cox, Stark) are under the Theater Mirror banner. We have been adding writers and contributors since revamping Theater Mirror in 2017, including 3 POC Linda Chin (Chinese-American), Deanna Dement Myers (Filipina) Nicholas Whittaker (African American) and will continue our mission of covering Greater Boston theater from the fringe to the large stages.

  3. Bill Marx on June 13, 2019 at 5:47 pm

    Those who question the contention in my commentary on the demise of the IRNE Awards that theater coverage in The Boston Globe has become antiseptic, self-protective to the point of absurdity, should check out Terry Byrne’s short piece in STAGES — IRNE dissovles. A high school newspaper could do better.

  4. A. Nora Long on June 14, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    Bill, with all due respect to you, I must confess I am disappointed by this article. You identify the letter as “childish” without any follow-up or explanation. Is the fact that the letter was written by women justification enough to demean it so, or do you have specific examples of items in the letter that you find objectionable? Since you don’t elaborate, it is easy to draw the former conclusion.

    Instead of engaging with the terms of the letter, you focus on what you identify as one of the many distractions from the conversation, and then move further away from it by asking “What about the Nortons?” To suggest the real problem is the timing of the letter, or that it was made public, or that the IRNEs are not big enough to merit the conversation in the first place, are all means to discredit what I read as a generous and respectful call for transparency and inclusion in an event that strives to represent the community.

    The “Open Letter” is only the most recent of the many public and private conversations that have raged about the IRNEs for years. While I am sad the IRNEs have decided to disband, I find it more troubling that they are not only content to attribute their demise to this letter, but that any change to be more inclusive or transparent was considered “impossible.” I hope we all use this opportunity to reflect on our contributions to the community at large, regardless of size, and interrogate if we are truly living the values we espouse.

    Finally, to part on a bright spot, WBUR has partnered with The Front Porch Arts Collective to build a young critics program and provide a platform and mentorship for young critics of color. This program is one of many models more of us could replicate to practice what we preach, and better reflect our city.

    • Bill Marx on June 14, 2019 at 2:27 pm

      Sorry you were disappointed by my commentary. I have heard a variety of responses, many positive. My focus wasn’t on the content of the “Open Letter” — that would have been another article, though, as I wrote, I agree with a lot of it. I wanted to focus on the fallout, and what the letter left out. I don’t think anyone at the IRNEs blames the “Open Letter” alone for the demise of the group. (At least, I haven’t read anyone from the organization quoted charging that.) The complaint about the “Open Letter,” which you don’t respond to, is that the timing of the missive wasn’t helpful in terms of creating a dialogue with the organization, which was bound to feel defensive, at least at first. Some high ranking IRNE members tell me they had not been approached about the issues by the signees. If they are wrong, someone set the record straight.

      The size of an organization doesn’t exempt it from meeting valuable goals of diversity. I don’t see where I indicate that. I do suggest that it is easier to pick on some organizations than others — taking on those with power and connections call for more courage, because there is more at stake.

      And that brings us to the “living the values we espouse.” If you believe in diversity, than you have the responsibility to be even-handed in your criticism. By leaving out the Nortons, the “Open Letter” writers invited charges of selectivity and hypocrisy. Why should one critics organization be fairly challenged and not the other (even more influential), which is guilty of the same sins? Unless the “Open Letter” writers believe that the Nortons have no need for improvement. I asked the signees why they left out the Norton Awards. Their answer could have been a celebration of the Nortons and their inspiring movement toward diversity. But I did not get a response. You don’t deal with the sticky issue either, I note. You hint that it is my way to let the IRNEs off the hook.

      But that is not true. I am living by the values I treasure: consistency and fairness. Why mention the Nortons? Because the big media that the members of the Norton awards committee work for have the resources — right now — to meet at least some of the demands of the “Open Letter.” Along with the IRNEs (I am not exempting them), why not put some pressure on the fat cats? What were the “Open Letter” writers afraid of? The answer — in lieu of any other — is that goodies (awards, features, etc) were at stake.

      Regarding WBUR’s partnership with The Front Porch Arts Collective, it is an exciting project. Though let’s see what is produced: will it be genuine criticism (judgement with analysis)? Or the same old same old PR-ish features, interviews, listicles, etc? Regardless, my point in the article stands: WBUR (along with The Boston Globe and WGBH) has the resources to hire theater critics of color, millennials, etc. But our major media don’t. Why not? How about demanding some transparency? Would that not be worth an “Open Letter”? Or do you think that is “impossible.” It isn’t — if you have the nerve to fight for what you believe.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. Diversity is an important issue, along with the fate of theater criticism itself in today’s increasingly market-driven media. The “Open Letter” usefully asks for more dialogue — now an organization or a group needs to help set those conversations up.

  5. Thomas Garvey on June 25, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    For what it’s worth, the Norton Awards HAVE been parsed with almost surgical precision to “under-served” groups of late. The problem is that there are so very few Norton Awards served – at least in comparison to IRNE Awards. Last year there were maybe 5 Norton Awards given to small or fringe companies, while the IRNEs routinely dispersed four or even five times that number. Every year fringe and small theatres received IRNE awards for best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best direction, best production, best ensemble, best new play, best set design, best lighting design, best costume design, best musical, best musical direction, best lead actor in a musical, best lead actress in a musical . . . you get the idea; those awards meetings lasted HOURS. So now the fringe is looking at tooth-and-claw competition for maybe four or five awards instead of 20 or 25. Sure, sure, the Norton Awards are now committed to seeing more fringe theatre – uh-huh; if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge here at an incredibly low price just for you. Oh btw, since commenter A. Nora Long treasures transparency so highly, I think it’s worth noting that she won a Norton Award this year (as did Melinda Lopez, one of the writers of the “open letter” to the IRNEs). And I can’t believe that Long isn’t aware of the long history of bullying that the IRNE critics have endured from various local companies; that “open letter” wasn’t so much a cause as a last straw.

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