As the saying goes, rumors are as old as God. The first rumor was one that jumped the species barrier. The snake whispered sweet nothings in Eve’s ear, telling her “rumor had it” that the forbidden fruit was ripe with hidden promise. Eve swallowed the story whole. Like all rumors, the serpent’s tale had an element of truth. Knowledge would be the godlike quality in man, but as other scripture reminds us, the flesh is weak. Facts are hard or cruel and truth is often inconvenient. But the half-knowledge of rumor is sexy and seductive. Rumors are whispered intimately with cupped hand into our ear. Serpent, lover, propagator of sweet nothings…we’re your playthings now and forever.
While rumors have been with us throughout human history, in our new world of digital communication, rumors have become ubiquitous and fast spreading as evidenced by the emergence of debunking sites such as snopes.com, urbanlegend.com, and factcheck.org.
False rumors can be especially distressing to institutions. Not only can they inflict real damage, they often resist correction. The O’Neill Center is one of the preeminent theatre institutions in the country, so when I read this post at Extra Criticum discrediting their business practice, I was wondering what their reaction would be, if any.
It is an open secret in the theatre world that of the dozen or so slots available each Summer to new plays at the O’Neill, all but 2 or 3 are pre-determined in backroom deal-making worthy of Tammany Hall.
No affiliated print journalist would have been allowed to make such a potentially libelous statement without an authoritative source confirming this “open secret” as something other than just gossip. On the other hand, if the rumor were true, this would be a great story and scandal; i.e., “It would sell a lot of newspapers.”
We read about print publication shrinking daily. Along with this decline in the medium, old-school objective art journalism is also disappearing. We are entering a new era of personal, subjective theatre “talk-writing.” This new genre of “journalism” doesn’t appear to have inherited the same protocol and/or ethical standards of its predecessor.
In the TalkWrite establishing itself in blogs, the distinction among fact, hyperbole, rumor, and opinion is a fluid one. Although there are a handful of critics, most of the theatre bloggers identify themselves as artists, with the largest percentage being playwrights. So as this genre of writing becomes more pervasive, it will be interesting to note how the historical dyad of Artist/Critic will suffer the changes.
A couple days after his blog post, Rolando Teco (aka Roland Tec, playwright and Director of Membership at the Dramatists Guild) repeated his allegation of this “open secret” in the Dramatists Guild’s September 25th e-Newsletter. He expands the charge to suggest that scripts are being selected for commercial potential rather than artistic merit and further claims that commercial interests have hijacked the O’Neill’s mission and that the open submission process is a charade to get grants.
Although in the newsletter post he edits out the hyperboles of his Extra Criticum post comparing the O’Neill process to “Tammany Hall” and “the government of Myanmar,” he inserts a fresh embellishment suggesting that his “open secret” rumor is based on some reality and has caught traction.
This year, however, something seems to have changed. Or so it seemed to the countless playwrights who spontaneously erupted into a cyber chorus of complaint heard on theatre blogs here, there and everywhere.
A blog search shows that a total of three blogs linked to Roland(o)’s “open secret” post. Three sites render his claim of “theatre blogs here, there, and everywhere’” technically just an exaggeration, not an outright lie. Except that one of these blogs, THE LOOP, simply prints Roland(o)’s Dramatist Guild newsletter post verbatim as an article. Oddly, without a byline.
THE LOOP claims to be a community of playwrights, lyricists, librettists, and composers. The Senior Editor of THE LOOP is Gary Garrison, who is also one of the writers at the Extra Criticum blog where Roland(o) first spread the “open secret” rumor. Gary Garrison is also Director for Creative Affairs of the Dramatists Guild.
Regardless whether the “cyber chorus of complaint” by “countless playwrights” on “theatre blogs here, there, and everywhere” is hyperbole or fabrication, the whole of this characterizes a new form of theatre TalkWrite with as many similarities to gossipmongerism as to journalism. Much closer to the “true story,” perhaps the only story here, is more venial and everyday: Two playwrights on the Dramatists Guild staff attempted to propagate an unsubstantiated rumor about the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference on their blogs and through their Guild newsletter.
So if there were to be a real journalistic inquiry here, it would be how knowledgeable the Dramatists Guild Council is of the actions of its two staff members. Are Tec and Garrison rogue agents in spreading this malicious piece of gossip, or was it with the approval of their employer?
It would ordinarily be deemed unseemly for a respected institution like the O’Neill to kowtow to false rumors, even if the gossipmongers generating such rumors were the staff members of an equally respected institution. But that’s exactly what they did. In the October 9 Guild newsletter, Gary Garrison tells of having had several phone calls with Wendy Goldberg (National Playwrights Conference’s Artistic Director) and Preston Whiteway (O’Neill Theater Center’s Executive Director), inviting them to respond to the allegations. Their response is the same one now on the NPC web site titled “Open Submissions Process Description”.
Each year, NPC solicits scripts from the field for consideration in its summer landmark event, and takes this solicitation and selection process very seriously. The O’Neill typically receives 800 scripts during this month-long window. The plays are then sent to readers across the country-the work is read blindly and narrowed down into a semi finalist pool and then a finalist pool. This process is maintained by our on-site literary office and is monitored carefully.
The majority of selected plays come from this Open Submission process. Each year, there might be one or two invitations for a prominent playwright to participate, and this policy has been in place since the inception of the Conference, under Lloyd Richards. For example, in 2009, seven plays were developed, five of which came directly from the Open Submissions process, one from our international Irish project, and one from an invitation. In 2007 and 2008, eight plays were developed, five from Open Submissions, one from the Irish Project, one from a collaboration with the Goodman Theatre, and one an invitation.
The O’Neill takes its mission for the discovery of new work and artists to heart. The leadership team at the O’Neill and the National Playwrights Conference is committed to the Open Submissions policy. This means that the majority of plays developed will be drawn from this pool each summer. Any other characterizations are false. Invitations or collaborations will be in the minority, but will always be a part of the mix, as they help launch conversations with a larger national field.
Note the O’Neill’s bold text in the above process description, not once, but twice, to emphasize that the “majority” of selected plays come from this Open Submission process. This is obviously a direct response to the Tec/Garrison cyber-rumor that there is “an open secret in the theatre world that of the dozen or so slots … all but two or three are spoken for long before the first $35 check has cleared.”
In the October 9 Guild e-newsletter Garrison decided he should reclassify Roland(o)’s post in the previous e-newsletter as an Op Ed. This is a dodge and simply reclassifying the post from “news” to “opinion” will likely not appease all the dues-paying dramatists complaining that their Director of Membership was sending out misinformation, perhaps even disinformation, in their newsletter.
Gary titles this Guild e-newsletter post “Old Eyes and New.” He offers no facts or evidence for why the O’Neill open submission process should be questioned. But he does imply that the “open secret” rumor should be reexamined… that perhaps the O’Neill no longer beats its wife. As “senior editor” of the Roland(o) post, that’s probably as close to a “retraction” Gary could get without actually confessing to spreading gossip, but he does have another uneasy confession to his fellow dramatists. He discloses that it is not just old eyes v. new eyes fueling his perception, but also the green eyes of jealousy of those peers who were accepted into probably the most prestigious playwright development program in the country.
Rejecting 800 playwrights each year will always create a rich environment for rumors about how the open submission at the National Playwrights Conference is administered. So transparency and facts alone will never completely counter rumor/opinion-based blog and e-newsletter posts. But this type of conversation once belonged almost exclusively to the informal chat of dinner parties. Now it has thoroughly permeated our written, public record. From the early theatre listservs to the blogosphere, our digital correspondence is ushering in a new generation of TalkWrite, and with it a new ethic of behavior in theatre as well.
No doubt some playwrights are celebrating Tec/Garrison for forcing the O’Neill into “accountability” despite their method. In fact, if they suffer neither social nor professional consequences for spreading this false rumor, it’s probably safe to assume that their behavior is acceptable to a significant percentage of the Dramatists Guild membership that these two staffers represent, not to mention the theatrosphere hosting this new TalkWrite.
Who in culture has custody over truth in language more than writers? Playwrights, poets, novelists and other wordsmiths are entrusted with this obligation, more so than even journalists. So it’s discouraging to know that this was not the first time that playwrights representing the Dramatists Guild have published their “op-ed” in service of an untrue rumor.
In a high-profile incident in 2006, Guild President John Weidman and 22 other Council members published Op-Ed letters of outrage surrounding the alleged behavior of the Chicago Sun-Times theatre reviewer Hedy Weiss. Prominent American playwrights like Kushner, Albee, Durang, Hwang, Shanley, and seventeen Council members, described Hedy Weiss’ behavior with such frenzied adjectives as “scary”, “shocking”, “destructive”, “outrageous”, “obscene.” These playwrights so vehemently attacked the critic in response to an allegation that Weiss had explicitly been asked not to review workshop productions in a festival and had done so anyway. This “rumor” proved to be false. The theatre producer had actually encouraged the press to attend and Weiss had reviewed the same festival in the past without objection.
The official “Guild Statement” to the debacle is from President John Weidman in the form of a letter to the Sun-Times editor coupled with a comment from Guild’s executive director Ralph Sevush. Together they read more like a repositioned fresh attack on the hapless Hedy Weiss than an apology, likewise this equivocal characterization of the statement within the statement.
A number of DG members were also upset by the possible inaccuracy of the Guild’s position in this matter. So, in light of the new information, Mr. Weidman wrote a follow-up letter to the Sun-Times, in which he stated, “to the extent that I criticized Hedy Weiss inaccurately, I was unfair and I regret it.” However, he also made the further point that “writers must be allowed to evaluate their work in a environment protected from critical appraisal, and professional critics should be expected to review an entire work, not just a few minutes of one.”
Note the phrases “possible inaccuracy” and “in the light of new information” as being cause for the John Weidman letter. Even when in the below comment executive director Ralph Sevush finally does have the Dramatist Guild take ownership and responsibility for the false rumor about Weiss’ behavior, he attempts to mitigate liability by saying she was nevertheless guilty of some crime(s) deserving criticism.
And the Dramatists Guild bears some responsibility here too, for not first double-checking with other sources regarding the accuracy of the Theater Building’s allegedly unequivocal statements about Ms. Weiss’s conduct. But, as Mr. Weidman said in his letter, “what I regret most deeply is that that inaccuracy may undermine the valid criticism of what she wrote about these eight teams of authors.”
Within the pseudo-apologies put forth on this page is a link to the earlier John Weidman letter to the Sun-Times editor and the original Guild Statement contextualizing it. Which means that the false rumor about Hedy Weiss’ behavior that incited the whole brouhaha still sits there.
The review was written by theater critic Hedy Weiss, against the expressed wishes of the festival, which had asked Ms. Weiss not to review any of the works since they were still in the developmental stage.
As striking as it is to see this now confessed piece of libel still published without an amendment next to it, the sentence below is even more remarkable in highlighting how the TalkWrite in theatre is shepherding in new ethics in behavior as well.
You can also read the messages of twenty two Guild Council members who wrote in support of the Guild’s position and to voice their individual concerns about the irresponsible behavior of the critic and the newspaper.
Of course you can no longer link to these once public statements. In lieu of individual public retractions or apologies to Weiss, the 22 letters from the Guild Council dramatists were simply “de-published” from the Dramatists Guild web site.
The hope is there was never any consensus among the 22 Council dramatists on what to do with their collective individual statements. The hope is that at least one or more of the most respected writers in American theatre would object to retreating so meekly and unceremoniously from their words.
Throughout history society has devised various ways for individuals to correct or atone for their wrong words. Sometimes the price has been stiff. Wrong words in the form of heresy or treason might even demand a death sentence. Our American founding fathers fought duels over the dishonor wrought by wrong words.
Today, wrong words about another individual generally demand no more than an apology. Or if the wrong words are placed in the public realm, then a public retraction or apology is offered. But is it now acceptable behavior to simply “de-publish” false words without assuming any responsibility for their wrongdoing?
In the new TalkWrite, rumor apparently no longer need make concessions to fact. In this particular instance, the Tec/Garrison post has been neither amended nor even “de-published.” Such rumor-based posts bluster briefly in their false bravado. With a shelf life too short to warrant intervention, they quickly fade back into their natural state of irrelevant gossip. This blog post now sits at the LOOP in its most accomplished and essential form… a story without a byline. Much like the “open secret” rumor it highlights, the tale has no author or identifiable owner to take responsibility for its existence.