Fuse Arts Commentary: Freedom of the Web

Some show biz flair-ups are dead debacles walking. Producers sparked a flap in Chicago recently by tossing accusations of foul play at a critic whom they claimed wrote about shows she didn’t have permission to review.

By Bill Marx

Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun Times

Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun Times critiqued an annual festival made up of new musicals that were “in development.” Reviewers are often (but not always) asked by playwrights and producers to stay away from shows that are called “works-in-progress,” even though the productions are open to the public.

The reasoning is that critics shouldn’t have their say until the artists involved are satisfied; also, producers fear that bad notices about shows premiering outside of New York will influence that city’s all-important critics. What neither reviewers nor producers noticed during the fracas, at least as it was reported in the Chicago Reader, is that the Internet makes the tiresome turf battle and its histrionics moot.

“What do playwrights (and their producers) want from the press? Feature stories! And lots of them. What they definitely don’t want are reviews of any play they haven’t declared totally finished. Never mind if the script has already traveled the workshop road and is getting a full production with sets, costumes, professional actors, and ticket sales to the public—if it has the word developmental attached to it, it’s verboten. Dramatists Guild president (and Sondheim collaborator) John Weidman, in town for “Hold the Press,” a forum hosted by the Theatre Building last week, put it this way: “Work in development never should be reviewed. The longer the critics can be kept away, the better.”

The panel—part of Stages 2007, the Theatre Building’s annual festival of new musicals—was a response to the tempest that blew up over Hedy Weiss’s capsule reviews of the festival for the Sun-Times last year. Weiss, admitting up front that she caught mostly just first acts, wrote that the shows were so inferior they made her fear for the future of the genre. She’d been invited to the festival, had reviewed it in the past, and had not been expressly told that she was not to review this time. In fact, as she noted in her own defense later, one of her earlier (more positive) reviews had been cited by the festival in a grant proposal. But the Dramatists Guild, which apparently didn’t have all the facts, rushed into attack mode. Weidman issued a statement calling Weiss’s column a “shocking and irresponsible betrayal” and a “debacle” that could tarnish Chicago’s future as a theater hub. This set off a letter-writing campaign that turned into a virulent national castigation. Everyone came out muddied, but that didn’t end the discussion.”

Sounds like a waste of temper tantrums to me. With the rise of the Internet, producers and playwrights no longer have the power to keep theater critics away. If a show is open to the public, there is nothing to stop bloggers from buying a ticket and seeing the production. Of course, a responsible reviewer will inform readers that his judgments are based on seeing a work “in development.”

Critics on mainstream newspapers and magazines don’t have the freedom to evaluate what producers have deemed to be “verboten.” These reviewers depend on access to artists so they can write puff pieces. Producers use that leverage to garner as much publicity as they can while fending off criticism. Bloggers don’t have to supply puff unless they want to: they can write about whatever they want whenever they want, which will lead, I hope, to more honest and independent criticism of the stage.


  1. mirroruptonature on August 31, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    And even more recentley Playwrights Horizon tried to get bloggers in to write about a show in previews in exchange for a free ticket

    George Hunka of Superfluities obliged, but, as you are pointing out here, it certainly wasn’t puff.

    This has opened a lot of questions of ethics on both sides.

  2. ArtsFuse on September 5, 2007 at 9:05 am

    I agree — a lot of the current discussion about bloggers as theater reviewers revolves around how online writers garner authority.

    But credibility is just as important, and at some point there has to be more talk about the ethics of reviewing, with communities of writers forming around the acceptance of basic rules that address conflicts of interest, full disclosure, etc.

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