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Driving Home Your Aesthetic

By Nick Fracaro at 2:47 pm on Friday, March 12, 2010

David Cote in the Guardian theatre blog is primarily distressing over the recent firing of David Rooney, the chief theatre critic at Variety. He laments the fact that Rooney’s job will now be filled by freelance reviewers, but by the end of the post he has widened his lens to describe the the role of the reviewer in general.

We critics, reviewers, consumer reporters are the dung beetles of culture. We consume excrement, enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theatre ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.

Theatre critics might want to graze slightly removed from David’s dunghill duties at Time Out New York and seek out the many theatre artists who are creating work outside the confines of a product aspiring toward a five star listing in a tourist or consumer magazine.

timeout1

David’s observation in his blog post is spot-on as far as the digital information highway glutting the roads with citizen drivers now shouting opinions out of the window of their blogosphere and Facebook vehicles.

pullulating buzz of artists promoting shows, audiences offering their opinion, badly written amateur reviews, friends promoting friends.

He also then correctly predicts a hopeful trend towards finding,

maybe – just maybe – a few informed theatregoing bloggers whom we trust.

But he misidentifies some of these bloggers by labeling them simply as citizen playgoers, while what is emerging is a whole new breed of “dramaturg” who filters and disseminates culture. The historical dyad of Artist and Critic has eroded, hastened along by the digital revolution. The new monad of artist/critic has both a producing and a writing practice. This hybrid practitioner is a stakeholder in an aesthetic; s/he has a theory-in-practice to defend or explain or propagandize. So to coin a new phrase and acronym: theory-in-practice, TIP. The criticism of others’ TIPs will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of one’s personal TIP at its foundation as it defines and delineates borders among varieties of theory-in-practice.

This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the artform itself. An iceberg breaking off from that frozen mass of the larger media culture, creating its distinct identity. The many TIPs then, of that iceberg.

David cynically predicts such a discourse could not maintain itself.

“But guess what? Those citizen critics will be bought out by media companies, or they’ll eventually quit, because they’re not being paid to filter the culture.”

David conflates critic with reviewer with consumer reporter. But the classic critic has more affinity with the artist than with the consumer reporter/reviewer. And the hybrid TIP artist/critic takes h/er mandate one step further. While neither artist nor critic is divorced from that crude modern-day construct called the “theatre consumer,” most are not aspiring to create a product with the kind of broad appeal desirable by big media. Their aim is to create a practice tied to theory or life philosophy, living manifestos that create critical dialogue, for which the blogosphere is an ideal medium.

This new auto-mobile beginning to populate the glutted information highway no doubt will have characteristics destined to be branded “elite.” But the goal would be to make this vehicle less conspicuous and more efficient than a limousine, something to blend in at the fringes and side roads with all the other traffic.

Perhaps it should have a retractable bumper sticker to be used only when traveling in the vicinity of the dung beetles, a warning label of sorts, so that they don’t mistake us for their meal, a consumer product they need to take Time Out to review.

bumperslogan

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Dramaturgy and PR

By Nick Fracaro at 1:06 pm on Monday, June 9, 2008

Plays are part and parcel of their productions. Zeitgeist, site-specific elements and the actor/producer’s explicit talents and ambitions all inform the reality.

Does the “event” of the production have any historical importance to theatre or the world? The “audience” of this event is not something that will be measured at the box office or necessarily in popular success.

Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Chekhov’s The Seagull both premiered in 1896 to disparaging audiences. In most ways contrary to one another, both plays went on to become important seminal works.

Imagine being the dramaturg in 1896 commissioned to champion these plays into historical importance. Your work with the playwright would have nothing to do with “the script” and everything to with the “signature” production and its aftermath. Perhaps that would mean engaging Jarry in his lifestyle of drunken anarchy and talking pataphysics late into the night. Or perhaps, more soberly, coaching Chekhov not to express his loathing for Stanislavski’s performance as Trigorin and encouraging him to consent to the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre as producer of his plays.

Although none of us will likely be involved in such historically significant productions as these two, we need to approach each script and production with an expectation that the event will capture the Zeitgeist of its locality. Same as the local hero is more vital to the community and our lives than any American Idol could ever be, theatre is most potent when striving to be specific and relative to the ambitions of its particular family, kinship, and tribe.

In my practice, being a dramaturg means also being a producer, so I am often collaborating as diligently on PR as I am on analyzing or collaborating with the artists on the script and other production design elements. Finding an audience is not synonymous with achieving a box office. Stardom seeks and produces fan-dom, but theatre seeks a more engaged and critical participation from its audience. So PR should be as centered on the dramaturgy of a new script as the production is. Similarly to how a production might put out a casting call seeking specific actors for specific roles; the audience sought should also possess a particular and detailed character.

SlowLearner and DevilVet have suggested a public production process both as it fits within this realm of promotion and as civil discussion point in the theatrosphere on aesthetics. I am not convinced that we are actually interested enough in each other’s artistic processes that we will closely read one another’s posts and comment in depth, but I have been publishing part of my dramaturg’s protocol and other collaborative aspects of our ensemble’s process at our theatre’s blog in hope of such an interaction from fellow theatre peers.
Design Proposal/Collaboration
The Big Suit
Gestus for characters

In his series of posts DevilVet aptly asks: Is It Worth the Risk – Documenting Creative Process.

The primary risk of course is that any public representation will negatively affect either the process itself or the future relationship between working peers. The secondary risk is that because any documentation necessarily highlights only certain aspects of a production, the reception of the work by critics and audience will be prejudiced by this prior representation.

The new play we commissioned from an Austrian playwright was written for a specific ensemble of four actors. The play has already been performed before an audience in Germany and America, in both languages, but in our October mixed-language production in New York, we have begun exploring the script at a more complex level than previously, deliberately employing certain facets of Brechtian performance and production techniques.

I am especially interested in the dilemma posed by one particular word in the script and production. The N-word from an actor/character on stage reads differently in Germany than America. By “publishing” our ensemble’s deliberation in this, I am perhaps unduly highlighting an element in the script that may have relatively minor significance to the overall production, but could easily generate a controversial debate.

The N-word is probably the most politically potent word in America today. Of course that potency is mostly diffused if its utterance arrives on stage only from within the crippled psychology of a particular character. But it speaks to the power of words in our social relationships, that even within the safe haven of “it’s the character saying it, not me”, Roger as actor has been struggling to spit it out in some “natural” way. If the N-word were taken out the safety box of naturalism and employed as gestus, the whole of the production would need to struggle with its presence.

I put this question of the N-word in front of the private/public list-serv of dramaturgs of LMDA. I have received private email on the dilemma from the listserv but no one has yet answered in front of others. This speaks to the volatility present in any discussion of the subject. (Update: Meanwhile a few ‘turgs have braved comment but the aura of taboo surrounding even the mere discussion of this subject in public remains strong.)

The potential for the theatrosphere is that it not just supplements the criticism, review, documentation, and other theatre-talk of print publication, but supplants and leads toward a new representation of our art that has a more in depth and interactive relationship with our peers and audience. I appreciate the various Chicago bloggers (Paul, Tony, Don, Bob) taking the lead and exploring the most difficult and complex new relationship posed by artists reviewing/commenting on other artist’s work or process. There will be no easy answers or codified rules in this new relationship to our work and our peers.

Crossposted at International Culture Lab.

Filed under: Artist/Critic,Dramaturgy3 Comments »

Latest Preview Review for Justice Jacobs to Review

By Nick Fracaro at 8:11 am on Monday, April 28, 2008

I appreciate Leonard Jacobs’ scrutiny of ethics among his peers, but in threatening my and other bloggers’ independence in writing, he offends. He alienated himself from me when he predicated a lunch date on whether I would or would not tell him what I was going to write after attending a certain Bloggers Night.

San Francisco Bay Area-based theatre critic Chloe Veltman has published a “preview review” of Beckett’s Endgame currently running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She does this at her lies like truth theatre blog, part of the high profile ARTSJOURNAL website.

For this same infraction of writing a preview review, Leonard Jacobs is still throwing little digs at critic/blogger George Hunka. Eight months after the fact! From just last week, here’s Leonard’s short post with the long title .

This Talkinbroadway.com Policy Surely Doesn’t Apply to George Hunka

Read about TalkinBroadway.com’s new policy on certain kinds of posts here.

So we have to expect that Leonard will hype his ethical outrage once more over this latest dastardly deed of a preview review. However, it’s unlikely he will adopt the same Hanging Judge Roy Bean persona with his peer Chloe Veltman that he did against hapless George Hunka.

Beyond being the only “Law West of the Pecos” in the theatrosphere, Leonard is also a journalist and national editor at Back Stage. So an obvious question: is all his hysterical huffing and puffing around this issue in the theatrosphere ever going to amount to an actual article? Doesn’t such an important matter demand a more deliberate journalistic approach?

Leonard and Back Stage would now have to do more than take to task an individual blogger/critic, they would need to challenge the journalistic ethics of ARTSJOURNAL for hosting Chloe’s blog and publishing this preview review. We can only wish for such an exceptional event as having two prominent publishers openly debating the ethics of reviews and criticism of theatre within the new digital realm.

Instead expect the continued attrition of the old rules without any real examination by the journalists most affected. And stay tuned for Judge Jacobs’ next tempest in a teapot as you read here the historic first ever “legitimate” preview review of a major New York performance by a blogger/critic.

What’s Beckett Without The Laughs?

When Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die,” he probably had the plays of Samuel Beckett in the back of his mind.

These words came flooding back to me last night after I experienced a preview performance of Beckett’s Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Director Andrei Belgrader’s production features an all-star cast: the movie actor John Turturro as Hamm, The Sopranos regular Max Casella as Clov, revered stage actor Alvin Epstein (who, among other things, originated the role of Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot) as Nag, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch as Nell. Even though the production had some vivid moments, it lacked one element crucial to the successful staging of Beckett’s full-length plays: humor.

My heart nearly broke during the poignant exchanges between Nag and Nell. Epstein and Stritch cut such frail figures. They act their parts like sighs. There is also a note of terrible sweetness in their eulogizing about the past.

Casella and Turturro are at their best when angry at each other. Casella’s fury is particularly engrossing. He seems utterly worn down and at the very end of his rope with his life as a reluctant caregiver. Clov’s moments of vengeful mischief against Hamm are similarly powerful. I had always assumed that when Clov tells Hamm “there are no more painkillers” he’s telling the truth. But Casella made me think that he was playing another practical joke on his awful boss. Standing, twisted on stage with a small round jar in his hands and a glint of malice in his eye, Casella suggests that he might be telling a lie.

But — at least in preview — the 75-minute production drags and ultimately fails to help me connect with the tragedy at its heart, probably becauseBelgrader doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring the play’s vital streak of vaudeville comedy. The last production of Endgame I witnessed, by Cutting Ball in San Francisco, played up the slapstick elements. This made the audience painfully aware of the cosmic joke that underpins human life as viewed through aBeckettian lens. I only cracked a couple of half-hearted smiles at BAM last night, whereas belly laughs were required.

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Contextualizing, Editing, Censoring

By Nick Fracaro at 7:24 am on Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Playgoer is worried that “Rachel Corrie” Buffered in Beantown may be pointing to a troublesome trend developing in theatre.

He his talking about the “contextualization” of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie by the New Repertory Theatre in a preview report on the production in the Boston Globe.

[New Rep] had originally planned to pair “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” with the one-act “To Pay the Price,” about the late Israeli Army hero Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu. But after the Netanyahu family heard of the plans, it asked that “To Pay the Price” be pulled from the lineup, deeming the two plays incompatible.

Forging ahead, New Rep replaced “Price” with the solo show “Pieces,” written and performed by an Israeli-American, Zohar Tirosh, about her experience serving in the Israeli military in the mid-1990s, when peace seemed like a real possibility. The company is also surrounding the two works – staged in its 90-seat black-box space – with related panel discussions,talkbacks, readings, and films, including the Oscar-nominated documentary “Promises.”

The New Rep’s producing artistic director, Rick Lombardo, says that this mini-festival on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not part of an effort to deflect criticism of “Rachel Corrie,” but is instead the result of nine months of planning and dialogue that he and his staff engaged in with various communities, from the Arab Anti-Defamation League to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Of course this was very similar to the approach that New York Theater Workshop’s artictic director Jim Nicola had wanted to take in presenting the piece. He was roundly criticized and unjustly accused of censorship for postponing the production to accomplish that goal.

Garrett is right-on in his observation that, “Isn’t it funny that this approach has not been advocated for plays on any other issue?” But I think he is off in his concluding observation and fears of a new trend.

But look: we don’t see this approach taken with plays of any other subject, do we? (Or so far, of any other plays!) So obviously we don’t need to worry about this becoming a trend, right? Or do we…

As Jeremy Gerard reported at the time of the controversy, “Rachel Corrie” was not the first play on this issue that was postponed to await “contextalization.” There was nothing new or trend setting in the approach that NYTW was attempting and what is scheduled to happen now in Boston.

In the U.S. this season, an off-Broadway company, the New York Theatre Workshop — probably best known as the group that developed “Rent” as well as TonyKushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” — was to have presented “Rachel Corrie.” But artistic director James Nicola announced last week that the production was being “delayed” while the group considered the best way to “contextualize” the play. Translation: People are complaining that presenting this work gives a bullhorn to Israel’s enemies, and that makes us very nervous. So we’re going to see if we can render “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” toothless or, barring that, postpone it and pray really hard that the problem eventually just goes away.

Papp’s `Storytellers’

That’s what Joe Papp also may have hoped when something similar happened to the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and overseer of the Public Theater. In the summer of 1989,Papp abruptly canceled an appearance by a touring Palestinian theater troupe. El-Hakawati (“The Storytellers”) was slated to perform “The Story of Kufur Shamma ,” the tale of a Palestinian refugee’s return to his long-deserted village 40 years after the birth of the modern state of Israel.

As with “Rachel Corrie,” protests erupted. Somewhat more transparent than Nicola, Papp simply announced that he’d had second thoughts. Since he had never presented a pro-Israeli play, he told the press, “it just seemed inappropriate” to produce “Kufur Shamma” as his first statement on such a hand grenade of an issue. Thinking he could buy time as well as support, he promised to present the play within a year. In fact,Papp, already dying from cancer, never did produce “Kufur Shamma.”

`Contextualizing’ the Play

When it opened later that summer under a different producer’s banner, no protests ensued, and the review by a third-string New York Times critic referred only obliquely to the earlier controversy, thoughtfully leaving Papp’s name, and that of his theater, completely out of it.

Interesting that Garrett points to Wally Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, a controversial play which premiered at The Public also in the late ’80’s, as evidence of a play that didn’t need to run for cover when confronting the unpleasant.

So by running for cover behind as many “diverse views” as possible, we deprive the theatre of that special frisson that can only come from confronting the unpleasant. Even if it is “wrong.” Think of that ending from Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, for instance, where the heroine leaves us with an atrocious monologue justifying Kissingerian ethics on warcrimes, assassination, and such. Now imagine someone coming out after the show having to explain to you, “Now boys and girls, that was justa play. We don’t really think that.”

However, as Jeff Jones points out in his smart essay On Geezer Theatre, although Aunt Dan and Lemon did not exactly run for cover, its author Wallace Shawn did invent his own special species of buffering or contextalizing to frame the play.

The really curious thing about Shawn’s play-and the best evidence of the theatre’s provinciality in these matters-is that the author felt it necessary to add both prologue and epilogue explaining at length how one could write (and read) a play which didn’t unambiguously reflect the beliefs of the playwright.

The epilogue that Jeff Jones references is an essay that Wally Shawn wrote as addendum to the published text of the play. The prologue refers to a peculiar act of contextalization by the playwright who was also an actor in the original ensemble.

At the original production of this play at The Public in 1986, there was reportedly such a vocal and disturbed response from some in the audience that Shawn wrote an essay “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Night at the Theater,” and handed it out to the audience.

Garrett found it a preposterous notion that someone would need to explain Aunt Dan and Lemon with a statement like “Now boys and girls, that was just a play. We don’t really think that.” But in reading the “written prologue” passed out to the audience, the playwright Shawn seems to be accentuating exactly that very simple reality of “it’s just a play” to his audience, so as to guide them into the correct reception of the play and afterthoughts of the experience.

A play represents a self-enclosed little world for the audience to examine. It’s an opportunity to look objectively at a group of people, to assess them, to react to them, and to measure oneself against them, to ask, “Am I like that?”

The politics of reception are complicated. Both playwright Shawn and artistic director Nicola were similarly attempting to manipulate audience reception. Nicola’s action like Shawn’s should be labeled production dramaturgy, or perhaps even public relations, but not censorship. To do so trivializes the fact that real and dangerous forces of censorship do exist in the world. Jeremy Gerard does exactly that when he suggests that even threats of violence should not give producers pause.

Another person Nicola might turn to for guidance is Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club. When Meadow announced plans to offer “Corpus Christi,” a TerrenceMcNally play suggesting that Jesus might have been gay, she faced demonstrations and threats of violence. So she and executive producer Barry Grove canceled the production, briefly suffering the very public indignity of an artists’ boycott of her theater. Ultimately the play went up, uncontextualized. The protests and threats came and left, life went on, Christendom endured.

The more apropos play and production which Jeremy Gerard doesn’t cite in his article is one with which both he and I had an unique relationship. He was working for the theatre section of the New York Times in 1987 when our theatre sent out our press release on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Trash, The City and Death. Jeremy Gerard was the first journalist to contact us. He then called and talked to me as director probably every third day in the final weeks of our rehearsal. He insisted up until the production opening that he was writing an article for the Times. The last word I heard from him was laden with the frustration of a writer suffering under censorship or self-censorship in some way and yet still emphatically insisting, “I will write something. I don’t know what. But I promise that I will write something.”

Fassbinder’s Trash, The City and Death had a history of failed attempts at productions as well as volumes of critical debate on its merits. Branded anti-Semitic by some, consensus was that the play was unproduceable for that reason. Fassbinder’s piece was speaking to real estate speculation exploiting the city of Frankfurt; our production found parallels in mid ‘80’s Lower East Side on New York. (Fassbinder had stipulated that the play’s premiere had to be in either Frankfurt or New York.) After rehearsing the play for nine months with an ensemble of twenty-five, we produced its premiere in the celebrated artists’ squat ABC No Rio.

Happenstance had one third of the ensemble members Jewish, which would be odd in any American city other than New York. At the time, and probably still true today, there were more Jews in NYC than any other city in the world, including TelAviv. The issue that this play scrutinized was our issue. The issue of our ensemble and our city. Whatever bravado the ensemble assumed or projected in the face of the censorship and threats was eclipsed by the mostly unacknowledged grace that the art form itself provided us. Theatre is still that near sanctified space where we come face to face with the vulnerability of our humanness.

As someone who was in constant contact with me, Jeremy Gerard was well aware of the layers of covert and overt censorship surrounding our production. Ten days prior to our opening, the Anti-Defamation League of the influential Jewish B’nai B’rith organization spread warnings on the play, calling it a “catalyst for antisemitic and racist reactions.” A few days later we received a tacit death threat on our phone machine, this at a time when the violent Jewish Defense League was still active in the city.

This world premiere production of Trash, The City and Death was an international news story. Press from four different countries in Europe came to film the opening. This “uncontextualized” controversial play and production received every type of press coverage imaginable, locally in New York and throughout Europe, but Jeremy Gerard’s promised story never appeared. I never asked him why and he never told me. Most of us in the ensemble assumed his editors at The Times had nixed it. If I asked Jeremy Gerard now, he might not even remember the story he was trying write. I know that my own two-decade old memory of facts is as they say, convenient, so I would imagine his memory to be the same. It’s a memory that edits and contextualizes. It’s a memory that censors the story until it fits into the truth we want to believe and recite.

CORRECTION: I had not talked to Jeremy Gerard in twenty years or followed his journalism in that time. Turns out that he has been a longtime advocate for artistic freedom. He pointed me to this feature in New York magazine that gives a fuller look at his journalism on the Manhattan Theatre Club controversy ten years ago. As this excerpt proves Jeremy obviously never minimized the threats of violence or any other attempts at censorship against the producers. The article shows his sincere attempt to differentiate the various concerns involved in this complex issue. I had suggested something different above. My bad.

In fact, they had good reason to be fearful. After reports about the play appeared in the New York Post, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called on elected officials to cut off the company’s public funding and attacked the play — or at least the idea of the play, since clearly no one at the league had read it — as “despicable” and “sick beyond words.” And lest anyone not share that view, the league promised to “wage a war that no one will forget” against anyone foolhardy enough to present Corpus Christi.

Suddenly, the theater was getting telephone threats addressed to “Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you, we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground . . . Death to the Jews worldwide.” Those threats, Meadow and Grove insisted, led to their decision to delay the production until they could ensure adequate security

(Crossposted at International Culture Lab blog.)

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Ubu Speaks the Truth on How Theater Failed America

By Nick Fracaro at 9:48 am on Saturday, March 1, 2008

ubu speaks the truth 2

ubu speaks the truth 1

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State of the Union

By Nick Fracaro at 4:26 pm on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blogger’s Block is much different than Writer’s Block. It’s more like “biting your tongue.”

I have been working as dramaturg on a project and traveling a great deal with it in recent months. I have been writing non-stop during my sabbatical from Rat Sass, sometimes posting in the comment section of other domains, but I have refrained from “publishing” proper because I have been overwhelmed of late by the enormity of the act.

After this two-month absence from blogging, I feel almost obliged to enter back into the fray with a theatrosphere State of the Union address. I am compelled to this in large part because of George Hunka’s recent Where Do We Live post, in part a review of the New York blogosphere. Until he recently unsubscribed, George and I both belonged to the same twenty-some member group and private Yahoo listserv of NYC theatre bloggers. So when George posted his State of the Union, some members in that Yahoo group felt it as a personal attack. There was a call to refuse the bait and collectively ignore George’s post.

Censorship is like Blackballing is like Blogger’s Block, but Different

I nixed such a notion with an email to the group. I oppose blackballing out of principle, but the reason I cited was that the whole issue as framed within George’s psychology was so high school in its pettiness, and any call for collective non-action was equally as petty. George was doing nothing more than listing the blogger kids who will and will not be sitting at his lunchroom table in the future. But along the way he made some ignorant and contradictory statements about the State of the Union that I thought warranted some kind of answer. As a middle ground, someone in the bloggers group suggested making use of the comment forum at SuperfluitiesRedux. George had reactivited the comment section after previously stating he was eliminating it at his new blog.

So I was totally surprised when George denied my response. At his old Superfluities blog, he prided himself on blocking only self-promotional comments. He definitely had never insulated himself from criticism of his opinions before. Superfluities Redux was obviously in flux, especially in its relationship to the reader.

I was stuck between a rock and hard place. I could either elevate George’s reseating of himself in the high school cafeteria into a post, my first blog post in months, or just forget about it. Instead I sent the comment George rejected to the listserv of NYC bloggers. But that felt a bit chickenshit, almost like doing nothing.

Comment sections function as more than just a complement to the blog posts proper. In some ways, the blogosphere’s collective comment section is the meat and potatoes of this new form of communication. The most effective bloggers participate as both readers and writers, from their own domains and from others’. The “Letter to the Editor” now has an authority equal to or even greater than the primary text. But by editing or denying comments at Superfluities Redux, George can run but he can’t hide from the critique of the reader.

The psychology of George going into self-exile and insulating himself from the New York and American theatrosphere is obvious to all who have watched or been involved. Just before he went on his month-long hiatus in September, George felt the necessity to give a negative review of a preview production of 100 Saints That You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons.

The newest NYC print reviewer entering the blogosphere is Back Stage editor Leonard Jacobs. He seemed to be perceiving a certain critical mass in the relationship of theatre productions’ PR to the blogosphere when he went on his September rampage against George Hunka. Leonard’s dogged pursuit of George and then “the issue” became a miniseries of blog posts.

George Hunka Gives Ethics the Middle Finger, Then He Wags It
More Hunka Fallout
Even More Hunka Fallout
The Apologists Defend George Hunka
A Critic Beyond Reproach?

What began as a scolding of George’s journalistic conduct transformed into a one-man lobbying effort to have bloggers held to the same standards and protocols in the reviewing of theatre productions that critics are. Leonard was “moving on” with his campaign, complete with Roman numerals to help the reader in his navigation.

Moving On
Why Do Bloggers Endorse and Embrace “Separate But Unequal”?
A Good Example of the Blogger-Critic Problem
Moving On II
Moving On III
Moving On IV
Moving On V
Moving On VI
Thank you, Tom Garvey

It was under this barrage of criticism from Leonard and others (an angry Chicagoan even offerred a punch in the face), that George slunk off to his sabbatical from the blogosphere. The only real defense of George came from his blogger friends outside American shores, most predictably from his theatrosphere tag-team partner Aussie Alison. Little doubt George’s self-exile from the New York theatrosphere and badmouthing of American critics as well as his current brownnosing of British and Australian critics is because no one here defended his action as blogger/critic when the he left a preview of the 100 Saints production at intermission and still reviewied it.

The New Georges of the Theatrosphere

Going into self-exile from the New York and American theatrosphere George has also gone into self-deceit in believing that the blogosphere theatre talk is of higher quality in other parts of the English-speaking world. When he inexplicably sees the UK Guardian blog exemplifying the seriousness of the blogging form, any inside reader understands his blatant psychology and rationalization at work.

“That there are no New York theatre bloggers writing for them says something about the quality of our work, I’m afraid, and especially the seriousness with which we take the form.”

George doesn’t explain how these brief, newsy, faux articles, which would never have been given ink by the Guardian in the past, are now so significant as blog posts, or how this style satisfies his call for, “longer-form dramatic criticism and essays” in the blogosphere. The Guardian blog is fashioned after the newsprint model and is neither blog nor online article but some fangled hybrid. This most prosaic of theatre talk is an attempt by the Guardian to create a new product for its Average Joe reader and theatergoer, nothing more and nothing less. So when George claimed these wannabe newspaper filler articles have a “growing prominence” somewhere, it was hard to imagine why he was praising them. There ostensibly was no self-promotion at work other than in the compliment he pays his longtime theatrosphere tag team partner Alison. However, when a few days later George himself began writing for the Guardian blog, the self-promotion angle became clear.

One of the more unpleasant mannerisms in the theatrosphere is the unctuous way in which bloggers often link with one another. This gesture when exchanged among peers is nauseating enough, but when practiced by underlings it becomes almost too humiliating to watch. George is the definition of brownnose in his current post about Guardian reviewer Michael Billington. The sycophant’s willingness to give a distorted representation of the American critical landscape in order to ingratiate himself to his new blog team captain punishes severely any credibility George once had as an independent writer and reviewer.

I wrote about the Guardian’s theatre blog debut and more generally about print publication’s venture into the blogosphere last November. In the comments section four months later at this Rat Sass post, the editor of the Guardian blog claimed to me that, “the Guardian arts blog has progressed in terms of the writers’ willingness to engage with the readers’ comments, and the way theatre is written about.”

No doubt. Newspapers with their steadily dwindling circulation numbers are constantly researching and developing new products for the digital realm. So this NewsChat genre of writing for the arts will likely continue to progress, but don’t expect it to evolve out of its product mandate of Art and Entertainment. The Guardian and other newspapers have no ambition to become a serious forum for artistic peers debating theatre ideas. Such niche markets are commercially not worth developing. So any theatre talk at these newspaper sites will be completely divorced from both the practice and theory of theatre, irrelevant as yesterday’s news.

The two mediums, print and online, stand in front of the same mirror, as distinct and as alike as two supermodels. Fashioned in one another’s image and dressed by the same designers, they walk together down the same runway now. Bloggers have always dressed for other bloggers as much or more than readers. In our new communication the reader is becoming the writer, the oral is becoming the written, brouhaha ha ha … the hysterical is becoming the historical. Vice versa. The New Georges of the Theatrosphere are voguing for one another nonstop 24/7. Hunka, hunka, burnin’ love.

george hunka hunka burning loveleonard as elvis

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Leonard and David sitting in a tree, b-l-o-g-g-i-n-g

By Nick Fracaro at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I seem to be mistaken about the theatre editors having any regrets over what they have made public. Neither appears particularly flustered by the attention to their private beliefs and lives. In fact both seem to have flourished somewhat under the scrutiny. And the private/public rift that has developed between them has all the drama and scandal potential of a Rosie/Donald episode. For theatre’s sake, let’s hope they exploit the opportunity. I kid the critics.david's emblem

David wants his pathology to be read like a book. The masthead emblem of his blog is the lone player standing on stage with a defiant fuck-you gesture thrust at the hostiles in the audience. That actor would be David. In recent days he has constructed his makeshift platform and has gathered the hostiles for his performance. Catechism on a hot tin roof His latest post begins with an address to the offended public.

In response to the righteous indignation that my posts and reviews have ignited here, here, here and here.

The title of David’s blog, Histriomastix, has a wikipedia link to explain it:

Histriomastix represents the culmination of the Puritan attack on the English Renaissance theatre.

David obviously imagines that this 400-year-old antagonistic Puritanical audience is alive and well, and still in onslaught against his beloved theatre. Going a considerable step further, he has conflated the Puritans with all “people of faith,” suggesting that the Us v. Them divide is much larger than most of us working in theatre ever imagined. So the Chosen Ones of theatre in David’s eyes are those who have sworn off all religion.

Statements such as “Religion is bad theatre for stupid people,” inappropriately placed in a theatre review, are sure to draw a crowd of hostiles. But the critic/actor maintains his haughty position on stage, daring the public to drag him to the pillory.

I admire David’s honesty and refusal to stand down from his beliefs. This stance is not likely to further his career as a mainstream theatre editor and reviewer. As reader, I never would have caught the offending line in his review if it weren’t for the brouhaha that developed around his diatribe against THEM in the Mike Daisey incident. Having seen Young Jean Lee’s Church, I was waiting anticipatively for his review on that particular piece in light of his exposed prejudices. I’m sure other bloggers were doing the same.

I find both David and Leonard’s personal blogs refreshing, especially when contrasting them with their “official” blogs at TimeOut and BackStage. Leonard is genuinely endearing with his backstage gossip and rants. But again, one wonders how well all this honesty and transparency will serve a mainstream career. We should wish them both the best of luck. We will all be better off if it does.

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Criticizing the Critics

By Nick Fracaro at 9:11 am on Monday, May 14, 2007

More update than correction, New York Magazine’s Vulture “fixed” the misrepresentation quoted in my last post. It now reads like this:

And debate still rages over the Mike Daisey affair! Nick from Rat Sass thinks Mike faked his outrage over a mass walkout from his show, eager for publicity.

This new form of “publication” coming out of mainstream press is very strange. Nothing ever really needs to be retracted, just tweaked in an updated edition. I wonder if I got all pissy again, whether they would fine-tune the “representation of my representation” another notch. I think Mike hyped his outrage more than faked it. Our Reverend Al Sharpton often does a similar turn when issues concerning race become news.

The Mike Daisey scandal has segued into a new fracas. Bloggers have been criticizing the critics for their anti-Christian bigotry. Critic and editor and backpedal expert Leonard Jacobs recently broke ranks with his anti-Christian colleague, critic and editor David Cote. David had gone too far even for Leonard with his, “Religion is bad theatre for stupid people” line from his review of Young Jean Lee’s Church. (Update: Did someone say Meooooow!) Bloggers Scott, Isaac, Rob, Mark, and nick have also questioned the fitness of the Cote line.

My guess is that both David and Leonard regret the flaunting of their biases. Editors parading their peculiar prejudices are not likely to enhance the credibility of theatre reviews appearing in TimeOut and Back Stage. Most readers still expect objectivity, or at least the pretence of such, from their consumer reports on theatre.

Coincidentally, theatre critics are under added scrutiny across the ocean as well. The director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, opened the debate by alleging that veteran reviewers are “dead white men” unable to review female directors without bias. Thea Sharrock, Michael Billington and Lynn Gardner all weigh in on the subject at the Guardian Arts blog.

the critic by herbert cole
The Critic Herbert Cole, fl. 1900
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The Contra-Review and the New TheatreTalk

By Nick Fracaro at 9:53 am on Tuesday, November 28, 2006

As difficult as it is today to differentiate the alternative from the mainstream in theatre culture, so too is the difficulty in attempting to classify the various modes of writing being used to represent theatre now that the blogosphere has brought the internet into a new age.

George Hunka misdirected his fellow theatre bloggers with the abstract he selected from Eric Bentley’s Thalia Prize speech in his post titled “No Critics, No Directors Either”. As a result Isaac Butler, MattJ, and the other theatre bloggers who posted comments on the subject have either not read, are deliberately ignoring, or are totally dismissing Bentley’s main premise and question:

Let’s simply agree that consumer guiding is not proper drama criticism. What is?

I am with Bentley in classifying the “theatre review” model as a worthless vehicle for drama criticism.contra

Of course theatre bloggers can disregard Bentley’s premise if they do not consider their theatre-talk as a species of drama criticism. And in fact the current trend does appear to be devolving the review model even further away from drama criticism. The blogosphere even seems to be inventing its own bizarre theatre-talk model: the contra-review.

Consider both the motivation and subject of “blogger’s night” as conceived by Isaac Butler at Parabasis.

I want to use the bloggers nights to create an alternate constiuency to subscribers and mainstream critics…. The first one of these we did was for Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm at The Roundabout, and was specifically done as an answer to Charles Isherwood’s dismissive (and, I felt, unfair) take down.

Obscene Jester, Jason Grote, Playgoer, Adam Szymkowicz, Mr. Excitement News, and MattJ all show up in varying degrees of advocacy for Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist and in varying degrees of protest or agreement to Charles Isherwood’s review. When Isaac then reviews these reviews of the mainstream review it becomes obvious how far away from drama criticism this theatre-talk has moved.

Similarly Alison Croggon at her blog theatre notes is not writing drama criticism but is writing a contra-review in her theatre-talk about Melbourne’s “paper of record” review of a local theatre production. Interestingly, unlike the “blogger’s night” attempt to counter a mainstream reviewer’s dismissiveness, Alison Croggon is trying here to counter a mainstream reviewer’s rave.

Eric Bentley restates his main premise and question later in his speech:

If the purpose of daily theater journalism is to guide the consumer toward or away from a show, what is the purpose of the broader theater criticism I respect and try to emulate?

The most directly Bentley answers his own question is in the “distinguished names” of criticism he provides: Stark Young, George Jean Nathan, Irving Wardle, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff, Richard Gilman. And he does partially withdraw his earlier dismissal of theatre reviews, his own and by extension others’, by suggesting that they are also part and parcel of a “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.”

Although in this speech he is accepting an award for criticism, Eric Bentley sees himself not as a critic but more generally as a “theatre person” (reviewer, essayist, translator, adapter, playwright). His more “sacred pronouncements” on theatre were not in his reviews or essays but were saved for his plays. Most of the “cybercritics” creating the new theatre-talk in the blogosphere also probably reserve their more sacred pronouncements on theatre for artistic ambitions outside their blogs. Many like Bentley also realize that the theatre work they wish to pursue “would have no place in a totally commercialized culture–as Broadway and Hollywood often seem to be.” These contra-reviews of the mainstream and status quo by artists can be seen as first attempts at finding the theatre-talk that will be needed to represent their work and that of their peers.

So although these contra-reviews should not be considered drama criticism per se, the various new species of theatre-talk by theatre people with blogs will likely become a very significant part of the discussion within the “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.” And if a new species of drama criticism is to emerge expect it to be born from among similar artist/critics who practice art as well as write about it.

If an artist has a practice, he has an aesthetic stake to defend or explain or propagandize. His criticism of others’ work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. He is able to speak from this specific base of aesthetic knowledge– to define and delineate borders between his practice and others’. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself. This is exactly the discourse that the artist/critic Eric Bentley and others have defined as drama criticism.

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Cap’n Beady Eyes in the Blogosphere

By Nick Fracaro at 1:11 am on Friday, November 10, 2006

criticThe patronizing advice that Lyn Gardner dispenses to young theatre companies in her Guardian post could be better applied as a directive to her own writing. She needs to “think harder and be more self-critical” about her writing as it moves from print into the blogosphere.

Apparently oblivious even of the venue in which she is writing, she totes out that old print publishing truism that “reviewing space comes at a premium” when cautioning young theatre companies from inviting her “beady eyes” and her possible ire.

“Shiver me timbers! Stand fast me hearties! The ire of the reviewer is upon us!”

The Guardian in promoting its recent move into the blogosphere says that it’s

shiny new Arts & Entertainment blog is a new space for debate on, um, everything in arts and entertainment…. it’ll feature a host of Guardian writers and critics, plus, we hope, a range of new voices.

Even the words, um, and phrasing, um, of this promotion suggests the level of debate the Guardian expects from this “range of new voices.” Of course there is no obligation for the esteemed writers and critics of the Guardian to engage the vulgar herd in this debate, so they won’t. Their duty is merely to initiate the arguments with their posts.

So far comments are rare; the debate non-existent. But the Guardian Theatre Blog has certainly increased “the talk” about theatre from writers and critics, if by talk we mean that one way broadcast typical of print publication. Its theatre blog webfeed will send the reader on average two of these articles every day. Actually the Guardian is classifying these blog entries as “posts” but displays them as articles complete with “Editors’ picks”, leaving it to the reader to classify the actual nature and quality of “the talk” contained within them.

Dave Cote announced yesterday that TimeOut New York has also launched a magazine-wide blog this week. Cote is reviewer and editor of the theatre section of the magazine and only a few months ago launched his own personal blog Histriomastix. His initial entries indicate that he will probably direct the TONY theatre blog in the manner of his personal blog. The chatty and newsy content connects well with a common denominator of other theater blogs already on the scene. Unlike the Guardian’s blog there are no comments allowed at the TONY theatre blog so there are also no pretenses about creating a forum for a “range of new voices.”critic finger

Reviewers with a history of writing for print have been schooled within a certain mode of production. The strict time demands and space constraints necessary for print publication have induced an overall condition of abridged thinking in the field. Concision is a desired trait and brevity is sometimes a critical choice but the “theatre review” model has evolved (devolved) effectively into this “thumbs up/thumbs down” consumer report. The theatre audience reduced to just one more target audience within the horde of harried shoppers out there.

The role of the reviewer has steadily been condensed to that of market arbiter of What-To-See and What-Not-To-See. Although the reviewer may afford some small talk about the art form, his main function is to provide clear directions to the reader through the good, the bad, and the ugly to that holy land. The best bang for the buck.

These slick superficial renderings often say more about the writer than about the subject being reviewed. In this way the review has become its own genre of writing, as much entertainment as criticism. If the writer finds a production he cannot recommend (most often the case) he still needs to talk about it, which is to say, entertain. The partisan crowd might even grow to enjoy the laudations less than the witty ridicule and humiliations of enemy camps. In history, the obit of the reviewer may read:

“Who didn’t know that he became a circus act, really? But the real question is this: Sometimes I wondered what it might have been like if he’d actually become a force for good; coercive as Ken Tynan or inspirational like Clurman or rigorous like Rich…… I guess I thought that it’s gotta be a grueling job, and there’s so much falsity and meretricious bullshit you have to see, that it would finally take a saint not to turn into a bit of a brittle vulgarian, as he did. The theatre needs geniuses to criticize it; it needs passionate advocates and firebrands, not to mention writers of gorgeous prose. He, instead, opted for parlor tricks and reruns.”

Now that the critics can review at any length anything they wish and publish it whenever they wish in blogs (their own personal ones or the more official “Guardian” blogs of cultural taste), it is due time they reassess both their subject and audience as well as the mode and manner in which they write, post, critique, review, small talk, gossip… and make some discerning choices.

One choice might be to attempt to elevate the discourse in the realm of ChatNews instead of further propagating it. But then again, what’s the fun in that? And besides, isn’t John Simon and ilk, even with their sometimes vicious appraisals of performers’ physical appearances, also part of “the talk”, also part of that rough beast slouching?

“Arrrgh !! I be Cap’n Beady Eyes Lyn Gardner! Be that a peg leg, or arrr ye just happy to cast yer eyes upon me?”

digital media
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Criticism versus Reviews

By Nick Fracaro at 6:13 am on Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The distinction between reviews and criticism, reviewer and critic, should be made.

Reviewers have both space and time pressures imposed upon them. The reviewer has a “job” job. More often than not the subject/work is an assignment not a choice. The job also entails that something needs to be written even when nothing warrants it.

The critic is not on assignment but begins with the subject/work that intrigues and excites, “something that needs to be written about.” The critic is often a freelance writer who needs to sell not just his own writing to an editor, but also the story itself. The critic creates his “job.”

Here another distinction can be made between editors of newspapers and magazines at one end and editors of journals and books at the other. The relationship and collaboration level between the writer and editor will be different in each form of publication.

Also there is always a gap between the readership of the publication and the audience of the theatre work. Reviews attend the contemporary audience; criticism serves the historical audience, although each aspires for relevance in the other’s domain.

The mission at HotReview.org as described by editor Jonathan Kalb highlights this problem.

…space pressure has fomented a pandemic of abbreviated thinking in today’s magazines and newspapers. By the same token, our assumption that every article should determine its own length also means that we happily consider shorter pieces–provided their brevity clearly derives from critical choice, not glibness or facile partisanship.

On-line publishing such as HotReview offers a brand new playing field where editors and writers can forge and invent new relationships and collaborations. The very nature of the blogsphere itself, with its links from one blog to the next and to the many, is more a network of editors than it is a network of writers.

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Artist/Critic Controversy circa 1996

By Nick Fracaro at 11:52 am on Monday, September 11, 2006

AMERICAN
THEATRE
presents
Weigh In on Cultural Power

The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Debate
Moderated by Anna Deavere Smith
**************************************************

John Weidman and the Guild should have taken lessons from August Wilson and TCG before they tried to pick a fight with a critic. In a very methodical manner, TCG along with its magazine American Theatre, engendered and nurtured the smoldering feud between the playwright and the critic into a convoluted but interesting cultural polemic. The apotheosis was a public debate that sold out Town Hall’s 1,500 seats at $20 a piece.

Six months in the making, after gallons of press ink, much anticipation and a last-minute crush for entry more typical of rock concerts than high-minded debates, “On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion” certainly was one of the more left-field events of the winter theater season. Variety, January 29, 1997

Responding to the hype we posted the above cartoon late in the year in1996 on the ratconference web site. Ten years ago there was no Google and many different search engines were competing with one another. They would become some of the brightest stars in the Internet investing frenzy of the late ’90’s. If memory serves, altavista and LookSmart were the most popular search engines then. What I do remember for sure was that this Wilson/Brustein cartoon was generating an enormous amount of “traffic” to the ratconference site. No doubt this was not due to the cartoon itself, but to the actual sustained promotional campaign that the cartoon was parodying.

Despite the hype, or maybe because of it, the culture did partially engage Wilson and Brustein in their debate. As response Henry Louis Gates expanded the discussion by writing an informative essay in The New Yorker titled The Chitlin Circuit. The ratconference and many others in theatre connected to the playwright and the critic in their debate.

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The Hollow Men

By Nick Fracaro at 9:20 am on Sunday, September 10, 2006

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

And the Hedy Weiss spectacle in Chicago ends in the way it began. Not with a bang but a whimper. Its only accomplishment was the denigration of both theatre and criticism.

Theatre as an art form is more than just the manufacturer of a consumer product subject to the whim of a newspaper review. Audience is something other than the Wal-Mart shopper. Yet playwrights will often cast the press as scapegoat for the culture’s lack of attention to theatre and their lack of a career.

We whisper together “If only Hedy Weiss were gone, Chicago would be a great theatre town.”

The 22 Dramatists Guild letters now sit in their vault, quiet and meaningless.

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The Dramatists Apologize

By Nick Fracaro at 5:54 pm on Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Dramatists Guild’s president John Weidman apologizes to Hedy Weiss in a Sun-Times’ Letter to the Editor. Well, not really. As we predicted, the public inquisition of the critic proceeds in the words of The Guild’s executive director Ralph Sevush “without pause and without apology.”

So who is the “reliable source” that presented El Presidente with the faulty intelligence that instigated this whole letter writing campaign?

 

Before writing the letter, I confirmed with what I believed to be an entirely reliable source that Weiss had been told by the producers of Stages 2006 that they did not want these presentations to be reviewed. This is not something I deduced. It is something I was told, directly and unequivocally. It now turns out that what I was told was untrue.

We can assume that the other 22 Guild Council playwrights who attacked Hedy Weiss also know/knew the identity of this Deep Throat. The need of these other 22 playwrights to cover their assess in the spectacle is one likely motivator of the Weidman non-apology.

A number of rank and flle members are supposedly upset by the lie at the core of this “Public Policy of the Dramatists Guild of America,” but apparently not upset enough to say so publicly. The link to the Guild’s discussion board on the controversy shows only support of the original Weiss attack.

Executive director Ralph Sevush says, “we are busy flagellating ourselves” just before he extends the public pseudo-apology by the Guild into a renewed attack on the unfortunate critic.

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Pound the Critic

By Nick Fracaro at 2:12 pm on Friday, September 1, 2006

Ezra Pound had the reputation of being the most well-read in literature amongst all his contemporaries. Remarkably, he once said “You don’t need to read an entire book in order to speak intelligently about it.” I am not sure if that “confession” made me think more or less of Pound as an arbitrator of literature.

No doubt that Jeremy and Melissa have picked Ms Weiss’ winning offense. A perfect example of the hubris of the Critic, not to see the performance in its entirety, but still believe you can speak intelligently about it.

It’s now understood Hedy Weiss was essentially invited to review. But the fact she left at intermission will become the red herring so that none of the Guild writers will necessarily feel the burden to apologize for their campaign. As with all witch-hunts, the venial sin will suffice when the mortal sin is absent. Of course the adjectives and characterizations the writers invented may no longer be applicable. “obscene” “scary” “shocking” “destructive ” “appalling” “outrage” “act of vandalism” The petty crime will need new words. But this should not be too difficult a task for our most brilliant writers in theatre.

However, the hope would be that at least one of these 22 Guild writers is able to examine their own culpability in this spectacle and is inspired to write less self-righteously and more elegantly on the Artist/Critic relationship.

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The Editor’s Axe

By Nick Fracaro at 12:22 am on Friday, September 1, 2006

Thoughts and ideas can become dangerous so I always begin writing to the great metaphysical abyss with the salutation “Dear Editor.” It keeps me on my toes.

The greatest fiction writer of the 20th century was of course Vladimir Lenin. The Editor especially enjoyed his pamphlet State and Revolution. In 1940 Leon Trotsky was in the study of his heavily guarded house near Mexico City writing the History of the Russian Revolution when The Editor embedded an alpine climbing axe into his skull.

The Chicago Sun-Times editor is somewhat more pedestrian god but Hedy gives an impassioned defense of herself. I am with her. The Guild writers acted too rashly.

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Nodding Off at Theatre

By Nick Fracaro at 3:46 pm on Thursday, August 31, 2006

I will often fall asleep at the theatre. My own snoring sometimes wakes me. Other times one of my companions might elbow me awake. I may then leave at intermission so as not to embarrass my unfortunate theatre companions further.

“The performance put me to sleep.” “I left at intermission before I feel asleep again.” For me to claim anything else would be unethical. Whether or not that is an authoritative judgement depends solely on who does or doesn’t believe in the authority of my opinion.

Chicago invented the thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation. So I think the only ethical action for the Chicago Sun-Times at this juncture is to replace Hedy with Nick. Nick Nodding Off or Nick Not Nodding Off should be the new authoritative judgement on theatre in town.

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History of Hedy Weiss Controversy

By Nick Fracaro at 1:34 am on Thursday, August 31, 2006

The NY Times article points toward how/where this controversy began.

“The review came to the attention of a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Jeffrey Sweet, who alerted other guild members.”

What’s not so well known is that Jeffrey Sweet had an agenda here. As playwright he does not like the way Hedy Weiss reviews his plays. So Jeff has been trying to pick a public fight with Hedy for sometime now. Here’s his Letter to the Editor from six months ago trying to instigate that debate.

Also being a critic, Jeff has access to the media, including writing for The Dramatists (published by The Dramatists’ Guild). So no surprise the scandal should begin here with their letter. He also writes the blog for Back Stage where he did this little piece of investigative journalism.

“I spoke to Joan Mazzonelli, the executive director, and she confirmed to me that Ms. Weiss was explicitly told that these presentations were not for review.”

Joan Mazzonelli told the New York Times something much different.

“Ms. Mazzonelli has distanced herself from the Dramatists Guild, acknowledging that she had not made the festival’s policy clear to Ms. Weiss, whom she had encouraged to attend, along with other members of the press.”

As with many scandals, this may also come down to “he said/she said.” Either Jeffrey Sweet or Joan Mazzonelli is not being honest here.

The celebrity this scandal provokes will of course serve Jeffrey Sweet in many ways. Just by instigating the controversy he already achieved much of his primary agenda of a public debate with Hedy Weiss. But scandals tend to be double-edged sword. If I were a playwright in the Dramatists’ Guild I think I would be annoyed by the exploitative use of their collective authority for such a transparent personal agenda. I might even write a letter.

“Irresponsible” – Edward Albee.

“Ignorant” – Stephen Schwartz.

“Incapable of understanding standards of professional and ethical conduct” – Tony Kushner.

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THE EUNUCH WITH THE BITING TONGUE

By Nick Fracaro at 1:14 pm on Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Years ago Ross Wetzsteon, the theatre editor of the Village Voice, solicited a series of essays on the subject of the artist/critic relationship. He was asking for not just critics but also artists in the community to reply. I think I remember him titling the series “Crritic!!” after a Beckett quote from Waiting for Godot.

VLADIMIR: Moron!
ESTRAGON: Vermin!
VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: Curate!
VLADIMIR: Cretin!
ESTRAGON: (with finality): Crritic!
VLADIMIR: Oh!
(He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.)

Along with the Critic/Artist allegory I wrote telling him about our theatre’s experiences with the press in 1987 while producing the world premiere of Fassbinder’s controversial play Trash, the City and Death. Specifically I highlighted the unethical actions of two prominent critics in their relationship to the production. Without naming names or going into details here, I spelled out to him how these two critics (dramaturgs) had betrayed our private and personal communication with them.

My letter to Ross Wetzsteon was as raw as my emotions were at that time so I never really expected a response from him. But he may have answered me in his own way, first by sending me a check for the article, and then by his atypical editorial choice in the Voice issue in which it was published. At that time the Voice rarely had any articles in the theatre section other than reviews or features of New York productions but in this issue there was the out-of-place article about an obscure theatre production in France. Byline belonging to one of the critics I had ranted about! I believe this was the only time this critic was published in the Voice during Wetzsteon’s tenure so the editing seemed clearly an inside joke. The publication layout was such that the backside of my one-time Voice clipping has his name on it and vice versa.

So two sides of the same coin. Critic and artist.

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