Directors vs. critics vs. the audience

When Jesse met Jimmy, or: Would Dick Cheney love these guys?

When a professional tells you to shush, is he unprofessional?
When a professional tells you to shush, is he unprofessional?

Which is worse— a theater director who tries to intimidate critics from writing about his show, or a theater critic who tries to intimidate actors from performing?

I'm scratching my head over this conundrum after reading our contributor Jim Rutter's recent account of his post-curtain confrontation with Jesse Cline, artistic director of the Media Theatre For the Performing Arts. (See "Blaming the critics.")

As Rutter describes it, he tagged along to the opening night of Media's Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical with his friend and fellow critic Wendy Rosenfield, who free-lances for the Inquirer. According to Rutter, at the closing curtain calls Cline took the stage to announce that a critic in the audience (presumably Rosenfield) was "probably going to trash the show." Therefore Cline urged everyone who liked the show to tell their friends. (Cline neglected to suggest a suitable course of action for those who disliked the show.) Then Cline walked into the audience and berated both Rosenfield and Rutter for their past reviews of his company.

What behavior, you ask, could be more bizarre?

And now the answer: In his subsequent review for BSR, Rutter invoked his right as a critic and/or audience member to say whatever he pleases about shows he sees. Then he added: "I freely admit to writing articles— not to mention sending private correspondence to directors— designed to convince certain performers either to improve their craft or find another line of work."

The urge to shush

Long story short: Cline and Rutter are two peas in a pod. Both of them work in communications but want to prevent other people from communicating. Cline wants to silence unfriendly critics. Rutter wants to silence actors who fail to meet his exacting standards. Both possess the courage to pursue their craft in public but want to discourage others from doing the same. Do these two guys deserve each other, or what?

Here's my advice to both Cline and Rutter: You can't prevent theatergoers— whether critics or anyone else— from communicating. Nor can you prevent actors from performing. If this is your approach to the craft of dramatic expression, you should find another line of work.

I have invited Cline to avail himself of BSR's open forum, as Rutter has often done, and I hope he may yet do so. As an author whose extensively researched books have sometimes been airily dismissed by snotty critics who aren't fit to lick my boots, I can well appreciate what it must be like to invest your heart and soul in a theatrical production, only to have it trashed in print by someone who could never make a living in show biz himself.

On the other hand, one of the first rules of the communications business is: Never blame your audience. If I can't attract appreciative readers, that's my fault— not theirs.

Fear of retribution

Rutter's review generated some half-dozen letters from actors who claimed to have suffered under Cline but who were unwilling to go on the record by signing their names. (At BSR, our rule is: You can say whatever you like, as long as you let people know who you are.)

"Not that I would worry about ever wanting to work there again," explained one correspondent, "but the last thing anyone needs is a vindictive Jesse Cline."

Which raises another question: Why do actors go into the theater, if not to express themselves? How is it that someone with the guts to stand on a stage in front of an audience lacks the guts to exercise the right of the mousiest private citizen to say what's on his mind?

What's a professional?

Many responses to Rutter's article accused either Cline or Rutter of unprofessional behavior. (See Letters.) Rutter, for his part, hasn't claimed to be a professional; instead, he seems to have happily availed himself of BSR's admittedly murky experiment in blurring the lines between critics, audience members and consultants, all roles Rutter seems to relish simultaneously.

But let's define our terms, please: In the law, medicine, accounting, even journalism, a professional is a trained practitioner who gives her clients the benefit of her best independent judgment, even at the risk of alienating the client. In the theater, the client is the audience— the paying customers who buy tickets in exchange for a fulfilling, challenging or at least entertaining evening and the opportunity to read about it and discuss it freely afterward.

After one of his rare defeats, the great Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne was confronted outside the stadium by a drunk who taunted, "Hey, Rock, your guys really stunk today!"

Rockne, it's said, wheeled angrily and demanded, "Did you pay for your ticket?"

The drunk pulled out a clutch of ticket stubs and tossed them in the air. "Did I pay for my ticket?" he moaned. "Did I pay for my ticket?"

Rockne smiled and threw his arm around the drunk. "You're right, pal," he replied. "We stunk up the joint. Let me buy you a drink."

In Cline's opening-night confrontation with the two critics, according to Rutter's recollection, Cline gestured toward the stage and asked rhetorically, "Why would you want to harm them?" Had he asked that question of me, I like to think I would have gestured toward the audience and asked, "Why would you want to harm them?"♦

To read responses, click here.

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