By Bill Marx
The Boston Theater Critics Association should take action in support of #MeToo. But this will probably be the last year I request that Israel Horovitz’s Elliot Norton Prize be withdrawn.
In 2018 I wrote that I would make this request in The Arts Fuse with each Elliot Norton Awards ceremony — until the Boston Theater 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 ceremony, because of COVID-19 restrictions, was virtual. A hearty congratulations to all the winners.
The 1986 Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence should be withdrawn from Israel Horovitz, given the November 30 2017 New York Times’s report on multiple accusations of sexual harassment, which included references to my 1993 Boston Phoenix articles exposing charges of Horovitz’s despicable behavior. The prize was not removed in 2018. The BTCA told me it was taking “its own good time” considering that action. The next year I asked, again, if a decision had been made. Joyce Kulhawik, president of the Boston Theatre Critics Association, responded that “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 no decision has been made. Perhaps it is because, as I wrote in my 2018 column (posted below) the committee members figure — probably rightly — that the award is decades old. 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 (or to entertainment reporting) is limited to serving as consumer guides who toss a yearly party. It would be pretty easy to withdraw the award to Horovitz — but that would mean taking a stand on #MeToo. And perhaps ruffling some feathers. Better to do nothing … just keep being positive and sell tickets.
I thought that this year the Weinstein guilty verdict might change things. But the do-nothing policy continues, though at this point the reasoning has become pretty ridiculous. I once again asked Joyce Kulhawik how deliberations were going on the question of withdrawing Horovitz’s award. She sent me the following statement:
We are not rescinding the ELLIOT NORTON AWARD to Israel Horovitz at this time.
While we condemn the assaults of which he has been accused, we gave the award to honor his body of work and his legacy as co-founder of Gloucester Stage Company. It clearly does not extend to his personal behavior.
The phrase “at this time” suggests the decision could change in the future. The BTCA awaits new evidence? The rest of the statement is puzzling. Horovitz infused his aberrant “personal behavior” into his professional life. He used his position as artistic director, playwright, producer, and teacher to prey (allegedly) on a number of women over decades. That is an essential part of his “legacy.” Could someone reasonably argue that, because Weinstein produced a notable “body of work,” he should escape condemnation? And what about Horovitz’s “body of work?” The verdict in the real world — based on a Google search — is that his plays are pretty much dead in the water. (L.A Works recently streamed a radio version of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard; there was a September production of My Old Lady at the Twin Lakes Playhouse in Arkansas.) That rejection will most likely continue for a long time to come. For some unfathomable reason, American theater companies (unlike the BTCA) can’t ignore multiple accusations detailing Horovitz’s heinous behavior. Are we losing out on masterpieces? No — but the BTCA obviously disagrees.
But I may stop requesting that Horovitz’s award be withdrawn after this year. My assumption has been that the BTCA is a journalistic organization made up of free-thinking critics, not a gathering of out-and-out boosters. But Joyce Kulhawik has agreed to be a co-host for the Huntington Theatre Company’s Annual Spotlight Spectacular Gala, which will be held on June 15 via YouTube and Facebook Live. I assume Kulhawik is donating her show-biz savvy, but this example of conflict of interest is embarrassingly blatant. Is the president of the Boston Theater Critics Association going to recuse herself from critiquing any upcoming HTC productions? Will she withdraw from voting in categories that HTC have been nominated in? Doesn’t anyone, even in the era of Trump, see a problem with this?
There is a class aspect to this. Why work with the HTC rather than other stages who desperately need funds to make it through the pandemic? Might it be that Kulhawik will be able to hobnob (electronically) at this Gala with a richer breed of theater patron? (“Ticket buyers and sponsors will be given access to a VIP experience including a custom party box and an exclusive Zoom cocktail reception with Huntington artists and guests.”) How might this questionable behavior make sense? If other members of the BTCA also hosted virtual fundraisers for area theaters, medium-sized and small. Is WBUR’s Ed Siegel going to whip up support for Flat Earth Theatre? Is the Boston Globe‘s Don Aucoin planning to Zoom in and raise the roof for the Front Porch Arts Collective? I doubt it — chances are much greater that we see will see a local production of a play by Israel Horovitz.
(Note: There is a germ of a useful idea here. Why can’t the BTCA put together a virtual fundraiser for Boston theaters that have been throttled by the pandemic? The money pulled in could be distributed through StageSource or the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund: that way the funds would not just flow to the wealthier, well-connected companies, such as the HTC or the A.R.T. Those fat cats are not going anywhere. The same cannot be said for a number of other Boston area theaters.)
The demise of the IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Awards a year ago means that there are no independent alternatives to the Norton Awards. StageSource sent out a survey to its membership last June as part of an admirable effort to “create a new system of recognition.” But nothing has come of the proposed “New England Theatre Awards.” I recently e-mailed executive director Dawn Simmons and received this understandable response:
Covid-19 has shifted our priorities for the near-term. We’re focusing on our response to the community via the new Tuesday Newsletter, Covid-19 Resource Page and #WeWillBeBack Community Calls and hoping to be able to share employment opportunities as they come back online.
Hearing that many producers may be postponing seasons till late fall or winter, so not sure of the timing at this point.
Given the COVID-19 emergency, that is as it should be. But I hope StageSource returns to the issue. When theater comes back, it may not be quite as impregnably complacent. As I write this, there are over 40 million unemployed people in this country; food lines are growing longer by the day. Starvation for millions around the globe has become a genuine possibility. There are protests and riots in our major cities, triggered by the murder of a black man by the police. Quality theater should be made for the jobless, the desperate, and the marginalized, not tailored for (and marketed to) the privileged, who see theater as a place for musical-ized escapism or empathic hand-wringing.
It is time for a return to truth and beauty — emphasis on the former. There will be pressure (at the very least from the young) to have our stages reflect reality: shows on the climate emergency, plays from the past that challenge us today, scripts that grapple with the intractability of income inequity, labor issues, systemic injustice, the 1 percent, political corruption, police brutality, and institutionalized racism. And, of course, the absurdity of existence. What’s more, if theaters begin to churn out less commercial mediocrity it could mean that an organization made up of critics, quasi-publicists, and reporters who have rewarded (for too long) this line-of-least-resistance will undergo renovation as well. There may well be a need for an enlightened and diverse New England Theatre Awards in the future.
As it is, it may not be worth all that much to call out the Norton Awards committee on Horovitz. The organization’s own “legacy” is becoming increasingly obvious.
I don’t have anything to add to the column (below) from two years ago. It remains fairly relevant. (Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape.) An updated list of BTCA members are listed at the end — contact them if you agree. Or, if you are part of a theater company, inquire whether he or she will host your troupe’s next fundraiser.
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), the multiple accusations of 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, Nancy Grossman, Joyce Kulhawik, Kilian Melloy, Bob Nesti. and Ed Siegel. — and tell them that the 1986 prize to Horovitz should be rescinded.
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.