Hey, here's some cool stuff
Last week on News and Notes, there was some mention that Paula Vogel's Broadway play, Indecent was canceled, effective June 25. Well, you can forget about that. After her recent Tweetstorm blaming the all-male New York Times critics for the play's untimely demise, ticket sales suddenly shot up, and the play has been un-canceled. Who says that complaining never gets you anything?
Many a time have I referenced the Kilroys list. If you somehow haven't noticed me doing that after all these years, let me remind you that it is a useful tool for finding the year's most interesting unproduced plays by female and trans playwrights in America. This year's list just came out, and it goes the extra mile by focusing on writers of color. Take a spin through it, pick a play and produce it. May I suggest my favorite title, If Pretty Hurts Then Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka?
The Minnesota Theater Alliance is bringing their statewide theater conference back for 2017, and this time it will be in the Twin Cities. Information about speakers, programming and early bird registration is available now.
Hedy and the angry mob
Last week on News and Notes we discussed the controversy in Chicago over Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss. In an otherwise positive review of Steppenwolf's Pass Over the critic made some comments that I would describe charitably as "racially tone-deaf". In response, a Change.org petition sprung up to encourage Chicago theaters to no loner invite Weiss to review their shows. Well, it's another week, and the controversy continues, so let's see who's saying what about it.
Steppenwolf released a statement about Weiss' review that was just as incensed as the Change.org petition, but, curiously, they did not take the next step of saying that they would not invite Weiss to review their shows. I'm not surprised by this. Whatever they think of Weiss, they probably know at this point that if she writes a negative review of one of their shows, they can spin it into controversial gold. For example, see her 2015 review of This Is Modern Art,in which she described the main characters (young graffiti artists of color) as "urban terrorists". Steppenwolf was able to capitalize on that to get plenty of young butts in seats. Nothing sells tickets better than controversy.
In the meantime, other Chicago theaters have jumped on the bandwagon to ban Weiss, but other publications are not so quick to judge. The Columbia Journalism Review, though acknowledging Weiss' history of problematic language, concluded its coverage of the incident with "Theater is of course a highly public endeavor, and the world outside is a big bad place, with lions and tigers and critics who have opinions. If its practitioners want safety, they should practice their craft behind closed doors." The editorial board at the Sun-Times' major competitor, the Chicago Tribune, released the antithesis of the CJR's rather measured response, a snarky, sneering rebuke to Steppenwolf that I really wouldn't expect from the professional editors of a major, respected print publication and which really doesn't help things (except maybe to drive ticket sales further).
Chris Jones, the actual theater critic from the Tribune, also supported Weiss, but with a much less confrontational tone:
"I support the Chicago theater community's right to vigorously debate Hedy's reviews and every theater can invite, or not invite, whomever it chooses to invite. Similarly, as a competitor but also a fellow journalist, I support Hedy's right, as a long-serving professional in this field, to express her opinion, even though it may be contrary, as in this case, to the prevailing point of view and even offensive to some. In my experience, engagement with different points of view is always preferable to trying to shut them down or ban their free expression."
In a move I didn't expect, the Chicago Reader, one of the more free-wheeling, left-of-center alternatives to the major publications (somewhere in the same neighborhood as our City Pages here in the Twin Cities), took offense at the deluge of personal attacks on Weiss that were flooding in over the internets and also defended Weiss' review:
"As far as I know, Weiss has never bothered with political correctness. If a chorus line breaks with tradition by incorporating a variety of body types, she notices—as does everyone in the audience. If a play for young audiences glorifies vandalism in the form of graffiti, she objects. I'd argue that's her greatest strength as a critic: she's taking on the subject matter of the work, as any critic worth his or her salt should, and she's not afraid to go out on a limb. You might not share her perspective, and that can make her a lightning rod, but it doesn't automatically make her a bigot."
And, of course, Weiss' own paper defended her. However, in another twist that I did not see coming (boy, I'm really not seeing a whole lot of things coming these days), the Sun-Times actually sat down with representatives from Steppenwolf for a frank and honest discussion of the incident and came to this conclusion:
"What’s clear is that more and more terrific work by young playwrights of color is being showcased in Chicago theaters. This is an excellent development for a vibrant industry that seeks to remain relevant with new and more diverse audiences. Equally clear is that news organizations, including the Sun-Times, must do a better job of finding journalists of color to cover this work and all the arts."
If they mean that, it's a good thing. If it's all just words meant to paper over the current controversy until it fades into the background behind whatever stupid thing our President tweets this week, then we'll all be back to having this same argument again next year. And the next. And the next. And so on. You know, like normal.
I've been struggling to figure out what I think about this whole thing. I agree that Weiss has the freedom to say whatever she damn well pleases, and, as long as the Sun-Times wants to keep publishing her, then so be it. I also agree that no one is required to give her free tickets to their shows, and definitely no one is required to invite her to review their shows. As I've said before in this column, I have a very narrow definition of what qualifies as censorship, and revoking a special privilege that is not available to the entire public (i.e. invites and free tickets for a reviewer) does not meet that qualification, no matter how many of Weiss' defenders cry "censorship".
The take on this whole fiasco that I have been most drawn to comes from Kris Vire at Time Out Chicago. He acknowledges that both sides of this controversy are "right" in their own way, but comes to the conclusion that the real problem is not "racism" or "censorship", but rather that old-school critics like Weiss (and, indeed, much of current theater criticism) approach the craft from the traditional 20th-century model, where a gatekeeper grants an opinion from on high and the audience has no opportunity to respond. The modes of communication of the 21st century, however, demand an actual conversation that travels two ways; and whether you generally agree or disagree with Weiss, she has been pretty piss-poor at the "conversation" part of that equation. As Vire concludes in his article:
"Some of my colleagues will tell you… that our first responsibility as critics is to our readers. I don’t disagree with that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have a responsibility to the art and the artists who make it. Where we have the opportunity to examine structural inequities in the field, it’s worth doing. Where we can help encourage theater to be more inclusive and accessible and to reflect the city in which it’s made, that’s worth doing. When we’re given opportunities to examine our own prejudices, that’s worth doing, too. Criticism that meets its subject with openness, respect, curiosity and intellectual rigor best serves both readers and the art. There will still be bad reviews. But all involved can trust they’re written in good faith."
We're not there yet
In an article about the Weiss situation from Poynter.org, Harvey Young, a dramatist and scholar in theater and African-American Studies at Northwestern University, said:
"August Wilson was the most produced playwright on regional stages last year. Ayad Akhtar was the most produced playwright in the previous year. Lauren Yee was the most recommended playwright for this year’s Kilroy’s list… The body of theater critics is not diversifying at the same pace — and, unfortunately, the overall numbers of major newspaper theater critics are decreasing as newspapers cut funding to the arts."
These are all true statements, and the general trend of diversity on American stages is moving upward. Here in Minnesota, we're becoming more conscious and adept at this, and that's a good thing. However, as a recent study by Actors' Equity discovered, opportunities in theater are still better for white men. They still pull down a disproportionate number of roles and generally get paid better for them than any of their counterparts.
As a mostly white man, I guess this is good for me personally. Who doesn't like getting more opportunities to get paid more money for doing the exact same job? However, I can't shake the sneaking suspicion that this can't be terribly good for our industry as a whole, especially considering that right now women are the biggest patrons of theater (not to mention the biggest moviegoers) and that it won't be too long before white people are no longer the absolute majority in the country.
Who would Shakespeare vote for?
Speaking of white males who enjoy a completely unearned position of privilege: Donald Trump is still a thing. Two weeks ago on News and Notes we talked about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar, which dressed up the titular character as the Orange One. Predictably, conservative media went batshit insane, because that's their entire business model. Now that the play has closed, have we learned anything? Probably not, but I still have some column space left to fill, so let's soldier on. That's my business model.
Vulture ran a piece from Corey Stoll, who played Brutus in the production, about the surreal experience of being in a theater piece that people actually paid attention to. He made some statements about being proud to be an artist and that exploring nuance and depth was a brave and commendable act, but the most interesting moment to me was when he described the night when two protestors interrupted the show: "a man in the audience started shouting. He called us “Goebbels,” but I swear I thought he said 'gerbils.'" On the exact opposite side of the fence, the New Yorker interviewed one of those protestors (exactly three hours after she claimed she would not be granting any interviews). As it turns out, she was was a former protege of James O'Keefe, the jackass "political operative" who made his name through deceptively edited "sting" videos that destroyed ACORN and other borderline illegal activities. In the interview, she seems to be chiefly concerned with how much attention she's getting for herself. Go figure.
Over at the LA Times, Charles McNulty makes the case that, while Caesar is actually a bad analogue for Trump, Richard II is probably a much better choice. At Bitter Gertrude, she makes the case that, no, Caesar is a pretty damn good allegory, and that's scary as hell.
And, as usual whenever a particular production of a Shakespeare play seems to strike a political chord, people are wondering wonder what Shakespeare's actual politics were. (As I've pointed out before, some of his works, especially the history plays, were craven rewrites of history to gain favor with the ruling monarchy.) More than four centuries removed from the socio-political realities that the playwright actually existed in, it's difficult to tell; but an article at The American Interest took a decent stab at it. That examination determined that Shakespeare was a believer in the order established by the "proper" hereditary monarchy and that the wisdom of the crowd was to be distrusted. Today, we might call that "authoritarian tendencies."
Considering that he lived long before The Enlightenment and basically had no concept of Democracy, though, this shouldn't be surprising. That's why the title of this section is extremely silly; Bill wouldn't even know what that question means. "Vote?" he might say, "What dost thou imply by this odd notion? 'Tis but the muttering of faerie folk." Then he might doff a flagon of ale and stop in for a quick peek at the bear-baiting before considering whether he might bathe this month. Everyone is trapped in a prison of their own era. I suspect that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson might have written a different Second Amendment had they ever experienced gatling guns and depleted uranium shells. It's a fool's errand to ask what a centuries-dead person would think of modern events, since they would spend most of their time being scared shitless by the loud, metal contraptions screaming through the air above their heads and the terrifying phantoms that dance about on glowing rectangles nearly everywhere they turn.
However, the article does conclude: "It is tempting to sum up by saying that, in today’s terms, Shakespeare is a skeptical conservative. But that misses the point: both his skepticism and his conservatism reflect a distrust of ungoverned power."
I hope that, at least, is a universal principle.