Friday, September 01, 2006

As I Piss Away My Career

Boy do I hate to do this. But this happened, so I feel compelled to talk about it.

Theatre Building Chicago is an organization here in town that produces new musicals. (For you score-keepers, they used to be called New Tuners Theatre.) Part of their season is a mini-festival of new works produced at the Theatre Building, a 3-house complex run by Theatre Building Chicago, or TBC for short. The festival is called, appropriately enough, Stages. ("Stages 2006" this year, because, yeah.) Shows are mounted in various forms, from sample versions of nascent work to fully-staged readings with script in hand to bare-bones performances. All of which, as Stages points out, are works in development. Not fully-designed, staged, music-directed, subscription evenings, but in this case, eight varying pieces of musical theatre, of various shapes and sizes, all in various stages (ha) of development. For which audiences paid to see and reporters were press-kitted.

Those last two things are the crux of my post tonight. Because, lo and behold, somebody apparently rent asunder a theatrical covenant, spilling blood, guts, and the shattered dreams of a generation of servants of Terpsichore, Phobos and Diemos. Except not.

Hedy Weiss, drama critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and a pretty good one, apparently was press-kitted and shown to her seat(s) for all eight shows at Stages, after which she proceeded to pretty much rip them all apart, in print. It gets better. Not only did she not like any show much, she also apparently left most, if not all, shows early, not bothering to stay for a single final curtain. (Which she admits to at the top of her review.)

Apparently this wasn't enough for the management of TBC, or the Dramatist's Guild, for that matter, both of which hit the ceiling in protest. And here's the tricky part. Seems to me that Weiss committed one offense-taking money to offer legitimate criticism on pieces of theater she didn't completely see to review-but the aggrivied parties seem to see the other end of the spectacle as the more egregious-reviewing, under any circumstances, "works in development." TBC honcho Joan Mazzonelli and Dramatists Guild head John Weidman fired off letters to the Sun-Times, condemning Weiss in the strongest language printable, for her "reckless" and "shocking" conduct.

While I don't appreciate Weiss's going out like a sucker, as Kevin Smith said of film critic Joel Siegel recently, after Siegel loudly flounced out of a screening of Smith's Clerks II forty-five minutes into the flick, I can't share the outrage that some of my brothers and sisters in the theatrical trenches are apparently feeling right now. Stages is a paying evet, tix at $15 a pop or a full pass for $85. Weiss was kitted, and, she says, not told "Thou shalt not review." So she did. TBC apparently thought Weiss knew their drill-specifically, that these pieces are workshops and are not to be touched (which, apparently, they haven't been before, not in the big papers, anyway). But if you're charging money to show them, doesn't that open it up? I mean, if they're not to be touched, don't let anyone touch them. No one. Don't invite the press and send them photos and CDs if they can't use them. Pre-show puffery is one thing, and a useful thing it is, too, but if you attempt to fill a space with customers, and pay your actors, which Stages did when I participated in a reading back in 2001, I can't see the great breach of theatrical etiquette here.

Weidman says that his indignance would be no smaller if she had loved all eight shows. That may very well be, and is not for me to question. But this is where producing organizations and writers get into trouble. They will take a critic's rave of their show and plaster its' pull quotes all over ads to get folks to come see the show, but then hit the roof and yell foul when something like this happens. That smacks of a professional double-standard. And I suppose I get where the Guild and TBC (and their very powerful, very famous allies) are coming from-the "chance to fail" barely exists for theatricians any more; a new playwright has little chance to strike out with one play and come back again with another, because theatre economics, union labor costs, media and real estate have changd so much in the past 50 years or so. This whole thing reminds me of the spring of 1990, when a piece was announced for production at a workshop called, effectively enough, New Musicals. The work-in-progress (first in a planned series, and, as it turned out, the last) was developed and performed (again for audiences) at SUNY-Purchase, a university campus up the Hudson river from Manhattan, obviously to keep it from the prying eyes of Frank Rich, the New York Times and all the New York tastemakers who would be ready to overhype it if they liked it, or shred it to pieces if they didn't. Fine and dandy. But what was the show? Kiss of the Spider Woman, by that up-and coming team of John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally. And directed by an unknown tyro by the name of Harold Prince.

Come on, now. (Full disclosure:NM's version of Spider Woman was thought to be to bloated and didn't go to Broadway until three years later, where it was hailed as one of the great salvage jobs ever done on a musical, won seven Tonys including Best Musical, and is on many short lists as "Best Musical of the 90s.")

Some would say it wouldn't matter if it had been Shakespeare and the Marx Brothers; a new work is a new work and shouldn't be reviewed under any circumstances, lest the nascent work fall prey to critical ridicule, thus jeopardizing its commercial chances. But if it's all about the business of show on one end, it should also be that way on the other end. Critics slam actors and writers all the time. Producers do the same to critics. How do you go on? Dorothy Fields knew how: Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, Start all over again. I bet she got slammed by a few critics in her day.

I don't know if her work was in development, though.


At 10:30 AM, Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Tom, this is a really good piece. Thanks for sharing it.


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