Is MJ Kaufman’s ‘Destiny Estimate’ “too personal” to review?

A closed opening

Back in September, Broad Street Review received an invitation to review playwright MJ Kaufman’s world premiere Destiny Estimate. Tonight marks its first and only preview, with an opening night kicking off its 10-day run tomorrow, October 20, 2017. Last week, we received word Kaufman decided not to open the show “to reviews.”

The cast of the play that you can see but I can't talk about. (Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography via destinyestimate.com.)

Destiny Estimate, funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Venturous Theater Fund, and SPACE at Ryder Farm, has its own website, Twitter account, Facebook page, Facebook event, and public-relations representative, Julie Toth.

When asked what spurred this turn of events, Toth replied by email, “It is MJ's decision to request reviews not be written as the play is of a personal nature and is going to be a limited run and not being produced elsewhere.” Conversely, another colleague was instructed that the play is definitely not autobiographical and should not be covered that way.

Too personal? Not personal? Doesn't matter — and not just because the subject of a review doesn't get final approval over what's printed. As of October 17, Kaufman was hyping the show on their own personal Twitter account, where it's neither listed as a reading nor still in development. It’s being produced at the popular theater venue Christ Church Neighborhood House, and there’s a link to tickets, ranging from $15 to $25.

Ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

I’m writing about this before opening night, because I don’t want the quality of the production to be confused with the quality of the ethics of asking media not to review the show. (And, in the interest of full disclosure: both Kaufman and one of the show’s performers, Daniel Park, have written fine essays for BSR in the past.) Also, I hope they'll reconsider.

If you’re producing a piece and inviting the press, you have no obligation to provide comped tickets, but you also don’t get to say what is and isn’t written. The New York Times once ran this note at the end of a 1980 review of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, featuring Mike Nichols and Elaine May (which BSR theater critic Cameron Kelsall discovered): “This Sunday piece came about when [drama editor] Arthur Gelb stormed into the culture department demanding to know why we weren't reviewing this production, which was widely publicized but off-limits to critics. Informed by an underling that Nichols and May had specifically requested no press coverage, Arthur witheringly asked, ‘Well, they're selling tickets, aren't they? Buy one.’”

Playwright MJ Kaufman. (Photo courtesy of MJ Kaufman)
Playwright MJ Kaufman. (Photo courtesy of MJ Kaufman)

Some places and people deal with critics better than others. I’ve been screamed at from the stage in front of a full opening-night audience by a director who was certain I’d hate the show (I didn’t, actually). I’ve been “banned” from several of our area’s finest houses, as have many of my colleagues. (Of course, they can’t ban the press from purchasing a ticket to a show that’s open to the public, so I’m still waiting for any of those bans to go into effect.) I’ve gotten thank-you notes from people involved in shows I’ve panned, and was recently asked to moderate a panel at one company specifically because I panned its production.

News you can use

But lately I’ve run into this new wrinkle more than once: a performer or playwright claiming that a show is too personal or that a review should be removed because it makes them or their loved ones uncomfortable. It’s a disturbing development, for its attitude both toward the press and toward theater.

Playwrights should consider these issues before deciding to put their work onstage. There are ways around it: hold private readings; don’t produce the piece; write a different piece; check with those around you first to be sure they don’t mind being included, or make your peace with the idea that they may be unhappy with you; use a pen name; decide whether or not this is the right career for you.

Theater is a very public discipline. No matter how you approach it, its very core involves you giving and someone else — most likely a stranger — receiving. Danielle Gatto and Makoto Hirano’s 4 Minute Booth didn’t use a single word to convey its meaning, but I can’t think of a more intensely personal staged endeavor.

Good theater criticism provides a different service. Critics act as public witness and public record. We interpret what we’ve seen and try to make sense of a show’s place in the world and in theater itself. We’re not writing for playwrights any more than they ought to be writing for us, but when their work is onstage and asking to be seen, it’s our obligation to be there and to tell you about it.

[Editor's note: Because there's been a lot of discussion regarding the wording and intention of the production's "no review" request, here's the text of Toth's original email: 
"I wanted to reach out to you because my producers and our playwright have asked that we not have reviews of the show. You are of course welcome to come to the show still with your tickets. We just ask that a review not be written. My apologies for the change. The play is of a personal nature for the playwright and he would prefer not to have reviews. I really hope that you will still join us, as I would love to have you in the audience.
Please let me know if you have any questions and apologies again." You can read Cameron Kelsall's review of
Destiny Estimate here.]

Our readers respond

Sam Henderson

of West Philadelphia, PA on October 21, 2017

Come on, Wendy. This isn’t a wrinkle, it’s a request you don’t intend to honor. You want to review it, do it. What’s stopping you? There are no ethics involved in asking you not to review a play. You just don’t get a comp. This isn’t a ban, it’s a request. I don’t know why you seem threatened by it. It’s not a ban. Banning you would be a ban.

Is it condescending when I say that? That’s how I felt when you suggested I hold a private reading rather than put something personal onstage. Unless they're self-producing, playwrights don’t “stage” or decide much of anything; they submit their work to dozens and dozens of gatekeepers who have gatekeepers who, maybe, just maybe, don’t really want new plays in the first place because they might not sell tickets. We don’t dictate the terms of when or where unless invited to by some sort of hypothetical cultural fund of some kind that puts us at the helm of a project, where we can can make requests that no theater would dare, like, I don’t know, asking critics not to review our project. Any play can enter a development process as a highly personal work and emerge on the other side as something totally different.

Similarly baffling is your Nichols/May anecdote, unless your point is that even when we say no, our producers say yes? That we’re asking for it? If you’re implying that reviews sell tickets in 2017, permit me to blow your critical mind: They don’t. We wish they did.

The idea that I need to check in with you before I “decide” to stage my work is, just to pick a random word out of your article, disturbing. It’s as if you’re deciding what is and isn’t written, like when you suggest I “write a different play." Is it just maybe possible you went way, way outside of your role as a critic on that one?

Theater isn’t a gift that artists give to an audience, and theater is free from the power dynamic that language contains. Theater is a sacrament we administer to each other with no intervening authority. The example of 4 Minute Booth is so right on, because it’s such a pure expression of the theater I experience. Who was the giver and what was the gift in that booth? Who was the other person even? If you want to reference that piece, I need you to think about those questions.

Editor's Response

Thanks for weighing in, Sam. You're right: As an editor, I don't intend to honor that request, and my former Inquirer editor, Rebecca Klock, never would have, either. The state of arts journalism in this city is such that the current (overburdened, understaffed) Inquirer arts editor (and a few others) decided to honor it, which leaves a few more column inches for sports or a puff feature or Annie.

But in journalism, if someone tells you, "Don't look here," you have a duty to immediately look there. This is true whether you're talking about Donald Trump, Pew arts funding, or an independently produced show whose playwright suddenly decides they don't want reviews. And if this playwright is one of Philly's most important (though, I believe they are New York-based now), then it's doubly important that we go on the record with their current production.

You're also ignoring a level of hypocrisy here that needs to be addressed. This show was granted $60,000 in Pew funds, and has been heavily marketed as a public event. They did say they would honor press comps offered before the playwright changed their mind, but would not honor any others. And that's fine, I guess. However, after a month of actively courting critics and claiming they're "excited about the conversation this piece can inspire in others," their reasons for requesting they not be reviewed — as well as your comments — reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of arts journalism and criticism. It has nothing to do with selling tickets or with speaking to the playwright (who, it should be noted, isn't the only person involved in producing a play, and may well be cheating others out of recognition in the press). 

Aside from the spurious reasons they cite — the show "would not be produced elsewhere," the playwright used real names, the playwright has many other shows coming up — and the publicity those behind the show are still generating, the line, "It is a limited run, so reviews would only exist for archival purposes," really galls. So, my stake in this is only personal in that I believe fiercely in the value of my work for the last 20-odd years in this city, and in the efforts of my colleagues who understand the larger importance of cogent criticism and journalism. You want to know how much it matters? Ask Laura Collins-Hughes or any other critic who's made a difference by saying what those they cover don't want to hear.

Unfortunately, we're often at odds with artists, but that's probably a sign that we're doing something right. Journalism isn't about making friends or being nice, and at times like this it is awfully unpleasant; so many people whose work I respect are probably upset about this column. But that's how it goes. Sometimes you get a "thank you," and sometimes you get a "fuck you." Either way, I'll keep doing my job and call attention to issues that arise within Philly's arts and culture scene every chance I get.

Howver, you're dead right about 4 Minute Booth. Excellent points.

Cameron Kelsall

of Haddon Township, NJ on October 21, 2017

This has nothing to do with comps. This has nothing to do with ego. It's insulting that people who know even less about this situation than we do are acting like Wendy's just throwing a big tantrum. But actual arts journalism has been severely lacking in Philadelphia for a while, so I can see why it's ruffled some feathers that someone didn't quietly acquiesce to a request that many find suspicious, problematic and hypocritical.

Also, it's worth noting that it wasn't until after Wendy ran her essay that the production's rep even expounded upon the reasons behind this request. That should tell you that quality independent arts journalism still has a role to play. And there are still a lot of unanswered questions here — like whether or not the cast were aware of this ahead of time. I have reason to believe that at least some of them weren't.

It's also worth noting what critics and arts journalists have at stake here, too. If we choose to file a review of this show, we're jeopardizing our relationship with the press agent, who may not work with us again. Or maybe artists who are friends with the playwright will try to "ban" us in the future. That's fine for someone with major institutional backing, but for us independent folks, it could mean the loss of our careers. So please don't act like this is something to be taken lightly — "just a request." And really, if you want to talk about condescending: "Have you ever, just briefly, checked in with the possibility that, if you’ve been banned from more than two theaters, then maybe, just maybe, the problem might be you?"

Sam Henderson

of Philadelphia, PA on October 21, 2017

Being at odds shouldn't be a problem for an artist. And yes, I totally get and affirm your role: You're a journalist with responsibilities and ethics. But you're not investigating, interviewing, researching, or fact-checking a three part exposé here; you're casting aspersions at a playwright in an opinion piece, and now in a comments section. You reveal that Pew spent $60k of their hard earned endowment dollars on this project. Why?

What are you saying? Should it be less? More? You tell us you “believe” the writer's not a Real Philly writer. Maybe you should check first? I know it's the comments section, but come on. This was supposed to be your premeditated defense of something you felt justified in doing later this weekend, so why throw all this shade in all these directions? What is this level of hypocrisy I'm missing? I read what you wrote, I don't get it.

You and Cameron clearly see this request as something wrong and dangerous; it's like it's set off some Critical Ontological Crisis and, in Cameron's case, is a threat to their livelihoods. (I would like to hear more about the danger of crossing a press agent. Do they really have that much power over you? I honestly don't know how it works.) It seems like you're taking this request as a rejection of the importance or necessity of your work, and I'm not sure that anyone but you sees it that way. You both bemoan the state of arts journalism, but I'm not sure why you both mention it in response to my response, because at no point reading your piece was I thinking, “What would Rebecca Klock do?”

The three of us are probably on the same cocktail napkin about the state of arts journalism; but I don't think this article is helping yet. I still don't get this piece and I don't think this should end here. Don't reiterate your creed and don't demean artists. I'm an artist and I know your rights. What do you think my rights are? Do I have the right to disinvite you to my show? If not, why? If you're not interested in the answers, why? That Big River letter was messed up. I hope the take-away is that no one, anywhere is going to do Big River.

Editor's Response

I wrote an opinion piece not to "cast aspersions," but to highlight a real issue that is clearly not an issue for you, but is an important issue for many of our readers, as evidenced by the responses (some public, some private) and traffic we've received. I mention Pew because it's of interest to our readers. I mentioned the playwright's New York presence because it was mentioned to me when I was working on a project regarding Philadelphia playwrights, and though I hate this fact, the move probably means there's increased interest in this production. That's not shade, it's journalism. Editorial journalism, but still. You, Sam Henderson, as much as I value your input —and I honestly do — are not our only reader.

So, what are your rights? If your work is in development, if it's a reading, if it's a private event with only invited guests, you can certainly keep me out. If you're promoting the show everywhere you can, posting a Twitter review from an adoring audience member, and selling tickets to the public, it seems pretty hypocritical and disingenuous to say, "I don't want there to be any record of this." And, as I said, now I'm obliged to make sure there's a record of it. You absolutely have the right to disinvite me from your (open to the public) show, but you don't have the right to control the dialogue around that, and you can't stop me from buying a ticket and reviewing anyway. It's the same reason there was a river of ink (or broadband) spilled when David Mamet banned talkbacks after Oleanna. I hope that answers some of your questions.

Susanne Collins

of Philadelphia, PA on October 22, 2017

MJ is clearly asking a favor. If you don't intend to honor it, don't, and move on. Making this about a war on the press (or a war on you) is honestly pretty weird. What do you think is happening here? Do you think "too personal" is a front for a bad or offensive show? What are you expecting to uncover? If it's nothing, then... why? Why start a fight about it? Your need to write whatever you want so-help-you-God seems to be trumping your desire to be a compassionate human being here.

I get that the state of journalism in this country has everyone on edge. But taking that out on artists who are asking a favor of you is very different than taking it out on a government trying to censor you, and I know you're smart enough to know the difference.

You're right in your comment to Sam about artists being at odds with critics. I don't think you're right that that's a good thing, at least in this town. We're not Mamet here. If you can't catch the difference between the smaller, intimate, often risky theater-making happening here and Oleanna... I'm not sure what to tell you. Sweeping statements about the duty of the critic show that you maybe don't understand the nuances of power that you have. Aim your bow and arrow up, Wendy. Take down Mamet.

But creating brouhahas for suburbanites to grab their pitchforks at the expense of smaller theater companies (often failing to talk about the actual work onstage and the design team's work as well) is the reason you and a lot of other critics in this town are at odds with us. Plenty of people will memorialize this production through Facebook posts and private discussions. Plenty of people whose opinions and thoughts are important and valid and interesting (in my opinion, 1000% more interesting and nuanced than anything I've read here) but whose lives didn't pan out in a way where they have a column in the BSR will write about this and every piece. To be honest, the best theater criticism I've seen in the past decade has consistently comes from active conversations on Facebook and blogs.

Aside from Bonaly (who I think are churning out the most interesting and important theater criticism around), I've read one published review that I found illuminating in the past five years, and it came out of New York City. Maybe the reason people are at odds with critics is because the critics aren't all that good, and we as a culture are starting to understand that getting the same three people's opinions on all the theatrer happening in a town isn't the most productive or exciting way to be hearing about or talking about the arts any more. If you want to defend good theater criticism, I would recommend starting to write good theater criticism.

Editor's Response

I'll ignore the personal insults here and just say that if the Mamet issue were happening in Philly, I'd cover it. To answer your question, I think "too personal" is a ridiculous reason to ask critics to silence their keyboards, because the context here is a highly publicized production that's open to the public. We cover Philly arts, and when an artist asks critics in Philly to do them a favor and compromise our professional integrity because, what? Because everyone in the audience should have a say on the production except critics? That's a problem, and it's especially a problem for BSR, a site that almost exclusively posts review and opinion that hundreds of thousands of people read every year.

I get that you feel defensive for your friend, and aside from their obvious importance to the U.S. theater landscape, all my direct interactions with them have shown them to be a pretty fierce and principled human being. But if you don't understand why this is a larger issue, you're being willfully obtuse.

Also, you're right, you're not Mamet. The "smaller, intimate, often risky theater-making happening here" deserves way more attention, which is exactly why I believe it matters and why I wrote what I wrote.

Susanne Collins

of Philadelphia, PA on October 22, 2017

Well, yes — precisely because hundreds of thousands of people read it is why it makes sense to ask a production not to be reviewed. There's a difference between an audience of Facebook friends and a publication. No one is silencing you. No one is covering your keyboard. No one (except for me, I suppose) is insulting your integrity. And to think that an artist asking a favor to not be reviewed (for any variety of reasons, personal or not) is a silencing attack on journalism shows how far removed you are from artists. Write a Facebook post. Email your friends. Write in your diary. No one is stopping you, and no one is stopping you from publishing a review. Who are you serving by publishing a review of a show that will run a week and has asked to not be reviewed? Whatever answer you have to that question, is it really more important to you than respecting somebody's personal request?

Editor's Response

I think you answered your own question when you said it's not a silencing attack on journalism/go write in your diary. 

Cameron Kelsall

of Haddon Township, NJ on October 22, 2017

“Who are you serving by publishing a review of a show that will run a week and has asked to not be reviewed?“ A comment like this shows a real misunderstanding of the purpose of theater criticism. It also betrays a common misconception among some (not all) people in the Philadelphia theater scene, which is that we write for you. We don’t write for you.

Jessica Foley

of South Philadelphia, PA on October 22, 2017

Art, by its very definition, is always personal, but if MJ Kaufman requested that I not review the show, I wouldn't. (But that's just me.) There are other shows to write about. Yet if other writers wanted to cover Destiny Estimate, I would firmly support their right to do so. (Because you know the freedom of the press is still a thing in this country, right? )

As a theater critic myself who has found it difficult to carve out a "career" with just my blog, Foley Got Comped, since 2012— because my editor at Philadelphia Weekly was let go along with J Cooper Robb, the theater critic, and CityPaper shut down in 2015, because the Inquirer declared bankruptcy in 2009— this discussion breaks my heart.

Sam, you say to Cameron: "You're not investigating, interviewing, researching, or fact-checking a three-part exposé here; you're casting aspersions at a playwright in an opinion piece, and now in a comments section. You reveal that Pew spent $60k of their hard earned endowment dollars on this project. Why?" As arts journalists, we often fact-check, investigate, and research before we sit down to write reviews, or previews, or interviews. And why shouldn't Cameron reveal that Pew spent $60k of its hard earned endowment dollars on this project in the comments section? He didn't write the above piece. What is he suppose to do to make his opinion valuable to you? Get a job at a newspaper, as a theater critic with his writing in print? If the job existed, Cameron would be employed, but the job does not exist any more.

This is an issue that no one cares about, it seems. We write for the love of it. I've accepted that. I do not write for money, because there is no well-paying work, I've accepted that. I can take the hate mail that I receive often along with the thank-you notes, but I cannot just sit here and watch Wendy defend the existence or the value of arts journalism alone. The fact that she has to is deplorable. Arts criticism, like art, is a form of expression that needs to be protected under Trump.

Sam Henderson

of Philadelphia, PA on October 23, 2017

Jess, actually Wendy brought up the $60k in the third(?) post. I'm not sure what Cameron's getting out of this, but last I heard of him, he didn't want to elaborate on the press agent thing. Anyway, Mike Kiley and I were going back and forth on this, and he really got me thinking about public vs. private funds funding public work, and whether the nature of the money you use to make art changes your responsibility to the public.

I don't think it does. But what if it does? So I actually ran up against an idea that I have to apply some critical thought to fully understand. How often does that happen on the internet? Don't answer.

Another thing: Before this, I didn't appreciate how unsafe it must feel to be an American journalist in 2017. The devaluation of criticism with the decline of print, and an authoritarian regime organizing itself around the suppression of a free press and art itself, basically.

I think most of Wendy's piece and at least half of the subsequent digital yelling at me to get off various critical lawns is reactive nonsense. But the bitchy tone of levity I took was a mistake, because the shit that came back at me was coming from a raw, real place that has to be acknowledged. Maybe the playwright of Destiny Estimate lives in a similar state of uncertainty? It was kinda the theme of the play, last I heard, but maybe we should all go see it. Good to hear from you Jess.

Cameron Kelsall

of Haddon Township, NJ on October 23, 2017

Sam, I think you answered your own question when you asked what I'm "getting" out of this. I'm a theater critic/journalist; this issue concerns theater criticism/journalism — it doesn't take a genius. (Also, spoiler alert, I'm reviewing the play). And I thought I made my points clear in my original post regarding how a critic's decision in a situation like this could affect their relationships with press agents and other professionals, and what the potential downstream effects can be.

As for the funding question: Wendy brings it up because many grants (public and private) include a stipulation that some or all portion of the funded project must be made available for public consumption. Is it fair to ask whether it's the best decision to use funds that come with such a stipulation to create a personal work that you allegedly want no archival record of? Or whether it was proper for the playwright to create a work for public consumption that uses the names and “assumed medical histories” of real people? Food for thought indeed.

Gwen Orel

of Millburn, NJ on October 24, 2017

Full disclosure: I'm a critic, Outer Critics Circle voter, and have a day job as an editor in a New Jersey paper. Wendy is absolutely right. Remember when they didn't want critics to review Spiderman? It was on Broadway and tickets were selling for hundreds of dollars, but the producers knew the show was a disaster and didn't invite critics. Meanwhile, "citizen journalists" were writing their opinions up on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere.

Basically, what this does is cede the right of people who are not journalists to create the public record. If you don't want there to be a record of what people think about your show, then don't invite the public, don't sell tickets. Admittedly, tat times  it might not be worth it to go. But in this case, when a lot of money has been spent on the production and a lot of time has already been given to quoting the press, it's insulting and irritating for producers and plauywrights to suddenly worry about it being personal.

Now, I recently received a request not to review a show that is opening, because it has been optioned for a bigger production with the condition that the smaller theater gets the rights to do it. That, of course, is very different from the playwright getting cold feet, and I will honor it.

I do not think Wendy should have just taken this lying down and moved on. How would the public know? Isn't that just contributing to this production making money off the fact that people with a background and insight into theater are barred from writing about it? All producers can do is refuse comps; they cannot ban any member of the public from buying a ticket and writing about it. Free speech: it's a thing.

Joseph Paprzycki

of North Truro, MA on October 25, 2017

I have been writing plays for over 25 years and I have had over 30 productions in my career so far. I have also been reviewed many times for my own plays as well as my work as a director and the founding producing artistic director of South Camden Theatre Company. This action, to me, represents how theater is changing for all of the wrong reasons. To claim something is "too personal" to review says to me that this writer is not a true playwright prepared to bare their soul on stage. If that is not the case, then this publicity stunt does have me writing you and paying some sort of attention to the work without the risk of a review by professional critics.

If you are not ready to have a piece of work seen by critics, write away. But then, if you do and put it out into the world, don't take money from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Venturous Theater Fund, and SPACE at Ryder Farm to produce it. Arts funding is already too scarce.

If the point of this piece was to get attention without opening the writer up to critical response, then congratulations. The stunt has all of us talking. But... that's Fringe material, not a work of a serious playwright.

Author's Response

Hi Joe, we did review it anyway, but sadly, we were the only Philadelphia critics to do so. Please check out Cameron Kelsall's piece here.

Gary L. Day

of Philadelphia, PA on October 25, 2017

The issue of "banning" critics brings to mind certain memories from when I was a producer/director. A couple of Inquirer critics constantly savaged my work, sometimes unfairly so. In those days, Inquirer reviews really did have an impact on attendance, and those critics were seriously hampering our efforts to build our audience. As such, there was much discussion in-house as to what, if anything, we could do.

It should be noted that we were not the only company that had problems with these critics. There were several well-publicized feuds that included attempts to ban these critics.

Our decision was simply not to invite those critics to our shows. To do more struck us as appearing petulant, childish and unprofessional — and it was very important that people saw that, while we may have been small, we were grown-up professionals.

Bottom line is: If your work is open to the public, you have to be prepared for a public response — and that includes critics, welcome or not. You can decline to invite them, but you can't stop them from coming and doing their job, nor should you try to.

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