Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I've been sort of stewing on this for a couple of days. It actually synced up in my brain with some thoughts I'd been having about this post of Isaac's from a while back. In the comments to Nick's post and in the other conversations that have popped up, the focus is on the O'Neill and their open submissions practice and open submissions in general and not the actual point of the post: theatre runs on gossip. It's a pretty basic truth, so, you know, duh. To paraphrase Jesus, wherever two or three theatre people are gathered, you can bet your ass they're talking about someone else. (Hey, be careful with that gag...it's an antique!) Most shows, especially the small ones, depend on word of mouth to generate an audience and word of mouth is just gossip that benefits you. It's built into the DNA of what we do. But it comes with a pretty bad dark side and something that, I think, is one of the things that keeps us as a bit of an artistic backwater.

In an e-mail exchange a while back, Isaac posed the whole "why don't playwrights review plays" question and my response was that it had a lot to do with profit motive: a review from a playwright couldn't be trusted because either they were trying to curry favor with the theatre or they were trying to drag down a rival. Since most reviews are primarily a tool for generating sales (as you can see, I may not have the best feelings about the state of criticism in this country right now), who would want a rival doing the reviewing?

That sense of mistrust is at the heart of some of my frustration with blogging and theatre in general. It's hard to avoid, even for me. When Theresa Rebeck writes about the lack of solid structure she sees in young playwrights, the conversation revolves around how it's really about why her plays aren't being well-received or something. When Roland Tec(o) accuses the O'Neill of being a rigged game, it's really about jealousy and sour grapes. When the O'Neill responds, it's really about covering their ass. When I write about the representation of black playwrights, it's really just a plea for more attention. Everyone's motives are questionable and we basically believe the absolute worst of each other. I'd say it's just out here in the blogosphere, but we all know how it is when we meet in the lobby, at the bar after the show, three blocks away from the theatre. (And that's even more gossip, isn't it?) The default is to not take anyone at face value. How do we build communities like that?

We talk about the external pressures that we face, but there are the internal things that we do to ourselves. The vicious cycle of secrecy, gossip and mistrust is one of them. It stunts our work and our communities, in no small part, because it perpetuates the zero-sum game we play. In order for me to win, you have to lose. So I have to hold my cards close to my vest, make sure you don't know who I'm talking to or dealing with, what opportunities I have coming my way. I can neither confirm nor deny anything. It all stays in the realm of gossip and rumor.

I know this is probably pretty ironic coming from an anonymous blogger. Funny that. But there it is. It affects other fields, too, I know, and even things that aren't in the arts, but somehow it seems more pernicious in theatre. Gossip, rumor and innuendo pass for information and not just about projects or who's sleeping with who, but artistic intentions and career motivations. Everything is suspect and everything is fair game. Sometimes working in this field feels like one long, unending circular firing squad.


Kent B said...

While I appreciate the sentiment, I feel obliged to offer the counter point. I'm sure this is one shared by many far more eloquent than myself, so forgive me if this is nothing but mere repetition on a point already made.

It's of course true, that a writer speaking on any subject in which he or she has a personal stake invested within it will color these words to suit their own motives. As you pointed out, this can be said of yourself or of me, as I am now writing. However, the gossip and criticism you so adamantly oppose, in my perspective, produces an opposite of the thing you suggest: incite negativity and fury within the theatrical community. On the contrary, when taken in with an objective and open mind set, even the bantering in the theatre blogosphere offers new insight and even excitement into the world of the theatrical community. For many of us outside of NYC, the blogs, reviews, etc. are our only glimpse into the heart of this centralized theatrical world. You mention in the beginning of this post that word of mouth is what draws audiences into smaller theatre's, but I do not believe that it stops there. Rather, it is the strongest marketing tool for all theatres from a box office perspective. From a production standpoint, the community who shares so freely of themselves in terms of information exchanged, also leads to the development and implementation of practices, techniques, and experiences all based upon a wealth of knowledge and people found within these very exchanges. For myself, reading the blogs and newspapers is the same as reading text books written on the subjects, the key difference is that it comes straight from the horse's mouth so to speak, and thus you feel a more direct and personal connection to the author and subject. Rather than hurting this community, I believe the subject in which you speak is the means in which this medium will be elevated, and a free and open discourse should be encouraged rather than shunned.

99 said...

Thanks for the comments, Kent, and counterpoint is always good. I definitely don't want to shun or stifle open conversation or discourse, obviously. But what I'm getting at isn't about the natural flow of ideas and disagreement. It's that motives for personal gain are generally the first place a lot of people jump to when talking about each other. Of course any writer has some stake in what's going on, but it's the automatic distrust of what someone says their motive is, that frustrates me, or is frustrating me right now. The cynicism that can take over conversation. Maybe I'm just being oversensitive to it, but sometimes it feels like, in the blogosphere and in real life, everyone wants to join the dogpile and fewer and fewer people want to have the conversations. I'm very happy to be proven wrong about that.

joshcon80 said...

I wish Theresa Rebeck would shut up already.


Seriously though, it's a little hard to be mature or sincere or non prickish in our industry. Theater is horribly classist, elitist, credential crazy, and full of cronyism. Your success has less to do with talent and more to do with what year you graduated from Yale and whose dick you have in your mouth.

It helps me to think of the American Theater as Dynasty. I'll have to plot and scheme to get what I want. I may never get it, but either way I'm going to push Annie Baker into a pool and ruin her gold evening gown.

(I love Annie Baker. She was the just the first young playwright I thought of.)

99 said...

At the risk of having the same conversation across different comment threads, I totally hear you and that's largely how it operates, but in a field where community connection is all, that kind of behavior is antithetical to the building or maintaining of community. Is there any way to have theatre without rampant inequality and unfairness leading to jealousy and bitterness leading to more unfairness? Or nice playwrights getting throw into pools?

joshcon80 said...

@99 God, I hope so. From your mouth to God's ear. Or from your keyboard to God's inbox, as the case may be.

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, I'm glad to see that you at least partially perceive that your anonymity is, perforce, antithetical to the "community" you claim to hope to build. And in a way, isn't everything that is said by someone anonymously basically gossip or rumor?

Ian Thal said...

Interesting question about playwrights not reviewing plays. Scholars review works of other scholars, poets review poetry, novelists often review novels. (I'm inclined to suspect that most music critics are also musicians.)

What is it specifically about theatre that makes playwrights automatically suspect when they review plays? Somehow these other sorts of writers are expected to be able to put aside hidden agendas when they play the role of reviewers-- and if they can't, it can be a minor scandal.

Having once been more heavily involved in the poetry world, I do remember seeing reviewers who, perhaps out of fear of making an enemy, always ended each review with "highly recommended." I also remember that if I wrote a critical review, I was often treated to angry, even abusive rants.

As far as Teresa Rebeck: It's entirely possible that she has no other motive other than stating her aesthetic judgement. Maybe she's become an aesthetic conservative; maybe she's correct-- I don't know enough to form my own judgement.

99 said...

@Thomas Garvey: *Sigh* My anonymity, as much as it galls you, Thomas, isn't really the issue here. I wish you could learn to draw a distinction between opinion and journalism. It might actually make your commentary worthwhile.

Now, if I went about telling lots and lots tales out of school about other people, not scrubbing names and identifying references (as best I can), that would be much more gossip and rumor. But I don't. I walk try to walk a fine line of talking about what I know and I've experienced, while protecting myself in an environment that is antithetical to that kind of honesty. I don't think anonymity, by itself, equals gossip. It's the quality of the information itself.

You know where the cynicism kicks in? In weasel words like "claim." I "claim" to want to build a community, as though I don't really want to, I'm just lying about it, in order to...what? Garner sympathy? Attract readers? I'm not sure what you mean by the insinuation. But that's exactly the kind of undermining I'm talking about. I hate to rise to the bait from such a troll as yourself, but you really piss me off.

@Ian: I may someday get around to doing a full post on this (maybe later), but I think that part of the reason there aren't more reviews by working playwrights or theatre artists (many reviewers have some experience, though most aren't really plying the trade anymore) is that it's about advertising, really. They're not criticism; it's consumer reports. You wouldn't want a competitor doing a consumer report on your product. The business side, and its historical reach, of this field is something that I think we gloss over all too often.

Ian Thal said...

Why do we always have to see artists working in the same medium as "competitors?" I realize that with the limited availability of venues for new plays, playwrights are going to have a major struggle getting their work produced, but outside of a few companies with specialized repertoire, how many companies are going to program a whole season of the same playwright, especially if they specialize in living playwrights?

Painters also have a limited number of venues where they can present work (and there are more of them than there are playwrights,) but the idea that slagging each other's work either in print, in .html or in gossip is really going to advance their own careers as artists.

Besides: despite how much I dislike the work of Stephan Adly Guirgis, his work is going to keep being produced because actors, directors, and audiences like it (in fact, a friend of mine on the west coast is excited to be in rehearsal for the very play that arouses my ire.) I even understand why they like the work.

99 said...

I don't think that the idea of competition originates from the writers (though I think many of us either buy or get sucked into it); I think it comes from the producers and the producing organizations. Ultimately, they have more power of who reviews what than the artists. I think the artists can and would be more fair than producers think they'll be, but it would still be a gamble. Jealousy is a powerful emotion and a strong temptation. When you add into it that, no matter what, your motives will be questioned, in addition to putting yourself at risk with producers, you've got a pretty toxic environment for artists to work as reviewers.

Ian Thal said...

And the question still is one of why are playwright/reviewers more suspect than novelist/reviewers, scholar/reviwers, or poet/reviewers?

Sure, I'm jealous of certain playwrights-- but that's because I admire their writing, and it would be foolish for me to pretend that I don't admire them!

99 said...

You know, in a way, I think you've hit on it: we're theatre people, therefore (in the eyes of most people) we're catty, back-stabbing and ambitious. If I'm asked to review Tarell McCraney's new play, I'm more likely than a dispassionate reviewer to give him a bad review because I'm jealous. Or more likely to give him a good reviewer because we're friendly (Disclaimer: I don't know TAMcC at all.) Our emotions and our personal motivations will trump all. And then, most devestatingly for the producers, people can't trust the reviews and then don't come to the show. I really feel like fear of hurting a property is what drive this.

Tony Adams said...

I think that's something we need to get over. In most fields the best commentary comes from people with actual experience in that field. (most sports are a good analogy.)

But also I think that motive begins to be less suspect with more transparency. The more we talk the easier it is to suss out who we want to listen to and who to disregard.

Thomas Garvey said...

I piss you off because I've got you pinned. Your anonymity doesn't "gall" me, I simply appreciate that it undercuts your pseudo-idealistic bombast. The best you can say is that you want to build a community in which you don't have to be honest. That's not much of a community. You really have to look in the mirror sometime, pal. If you still have a reflection, that is.

99 said...

@Thomas: Ba-zing! Yeah, Thomas, you really "pinned" me. With your awesome powers of perception. I'm going to go cry myself to sleep now. Or awake. Or something.

@Tony: I wholeheartedly agree. The more we can move from a business-based model for criticism and reviewing, the more voices we can get involved and the stronger the art grows.