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A colloquy: Playwrights and their criticsBY: Dan Rottenberg 03.07.2009
In an exchange of e-mails, director/designer David O’Connor chastises Dan Rottenberg for heavy-handed editing and for his critics’ “unprofessional and inappropriate” behavior. Dan Rottenberg responds: Why should theater people monopolize the right to free expression and the right to be different?
Playwrights, critics and the Internet—
In my e-mail recently, from the director and designer David O’Connor, of South Philadelphia:
David O’Connor to Dan Rottenberg, February 25:
Thank you for posting my letters on Broad Street Review. The entire debate around staged readings, critics and the nature of criticism, as well as the identity of the Broad Street Review, is a complicated and fascinating topic. I hope it continues.
I wanted to express my dismay at how a couple of letters that I submitted have been edited. I feel you removed some important ideas from them, which diluted the particular impact I was hoping to communicate, and diluted the scope of the letters in a way I found disappointing. In particular, they are points that protested inappropriate or unjust statements made by you or other contributors, statements that deserve to have their protests noted.
I put a great deal of thought into the letters I write, as I walk a tenuous line as an artist who is often reviewed by this publication, and a concerned and interested member of the theater community. To have them changed and posted without my consent is disappointing at least.
Broad Street Review has become an important voice in the theater community and, as such, trust in its integrity is vital. When fellow theater artists approach me about the things I have posted, I have found myself expressing to them my frustration in these edits, and realize I should instead try and talk it through with you and try and understand your side of this issue.
Can you describe your philosophy behind these edits? I would like to understand what kind of thing is not permitted or what is discouraged so I may craft my statements to effectively communicate all the ideas I am hoping to put forth.
I appreciate your time and attention. Thank you for all the work you do, and your support of the arts in Philadelphia. I hope the experiment of Broad Street Review continues to expand the conversation of arts and ideas in our community.
Dan Rottenberg to David O’Connor, February 25:
I appreciate your intelligent and insightful letters and hope to encourage you to submit more.
I screen and edit letters in the hope of creating an enlightened conversation. When I edit letters, I usually do so either for clarity, for length, or to avoid points already made in other letters. My goal is a letters section that people will read and respond to. Generally speaking, the longer the letter, the smaller the audience, so my aim is to keep letters brief and to the point. Yours have generally run longer than most, and you should consider it a compliment that I’ve kept them that way.
I’m attaching a copy of our writers’ guidelines for your perusal. Perhaps you’d consider submitting a piece for us about anything on your mind. The life of a playwright or director, perhaps? For such pieces you can write at greater length (although here too, shorter is better). We’ll even pay you a token fee for your work.
In any case, thanks for your interest and participation.
David O’Connor to Dan Rottenberg, March 6:
Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your writers’ guidelines have provided some helpful clarity on the idea of BSR. I hope that can somehow be made clearer to the public, so they can temper their views of the publication accordingly. The fact that it is intended more like a blog and less like a journal is useful to understand— the biggest difference being lack of editorial check.
Daniel Schorr, the veteran NPR reporter and commentator, when asked about the biggest problem of bloggers as reporters was the lack of editorial check. People are able to put out whatever they want, accountable to no one.
More and more, blogs are being taken as serious sources of information, just like the Broad Street Review. And Broad Street Review, in this case, has set an example of behavior by reviewers that is completely unprofessional and inappropriate— and instead of squelching the matter, has put it out to debate, elevating the behavior from a mistake or an anomaly to something that sounds possibly defensible.
I think the reason we have not heard from more of the professional theater community on this matter is because the question is just so preposterous— like Creationism to a scientist. To have the debate is to give credence to the question. But I feel responsible to respond, because the ideas that are out should not go unchallenged.
Who is to be held accountable for the unprofessional behavior of the critic? The critic, or BSR? With equal parts concern and curiosity,
Dan Rottenberg to David O’Connor, March 7:
You are quite right to describe Broad Street Review as an experiment, and quite mistaken to describe it as a blog. I have little use for blogs, which strike me as a waste of my time precisely because they lack any sort of standards or controls. As the late Wall Street Journal editor Vermont Royster used to tell young reporters like me, “You can get opinions from any cab driver. What matters is the insight you bring to the reader.”
On the other hand, I have little use either for professional critics, who are often so preoccupied with their institutional roles as cultural high priests that you can’t find out what they really think of a given performance (unless you can engage them in a private conversation).
So Broad Street Review represents an attempt to find a middle ground. It’s born of my observation that personal letters and e-mails are often more candid, insightful and interesting than the pompous and posturing material that’s written for public consumption. We’re the equivalent of an Internet salon, where anyone with insight— whether professional critic or not— can share it with me and anyone else who cares to listen.
I’m eager to encourage you and others to join this conversation; but as the host of this salon, I do indeed exercise some control over it. Anyone turned off by my admittedly idiosyncratic management style is free to join another conversation— of which, God knows, you can find thousands on the Internet. But no one is entitled to interrupt our conversation.
You chastise Broad Street Review for “behavior by reviewers that is completely unprofessional and inappropriate.” I hope I’ve made it amply clear over the past three years that ours is an experimental process, that we don’t really know what we’re doing, and that nobody should trust us implicitly. But as I’ve discovered in my long career in alternative media, the more you warn people not to trust you— the more they trust you. The more you urge people to think for themselves— the more they demand that you think for them. The more you tell people you’re not an authority figure or a high priest— the more they insist that you be one.
Many theater people who’ve joined BSR’s recent dialogue about the role of critics acknowledge this. They perceive that Broad Street Review, like the best theater, is really about two things: free expression and the right to be different. What dismays me is that some theater people who demand these rights for themselves— the right, say, to experiment with nudity or profanity or sex on stage— are the first to demand conformity to traditional rules for everyone else.
Our whole dialogue about the role of critics began because Jim Rutter attended a reading of a work-in-progress at the Wilma Theater and wrote a review of it for BSR. When I learned that the play in question was unfinished, I withdrew Jim’s post— not as a favor to the Wilma, but because reading a review of an unfinished work struck me as a waste of my time and, presumably, of every other reader’s. But if Jim, after attending such a reading, had some useful insights about the experience, I wouldn’t hesitate to share them with others by posting them on BSR.
My first priority, you see, is not: “What’s good for the theater community?” It’s “What can I learn from the arts, and how can I share that with others?” But ultimately the bottom line is the same: Unfettered free expression— for everyone, not just theater people— is the theater community’s best friend. It’s no accident that, in all of human history prior to the rise of democracy, great theater communities flourished in only two relatively open societies: Elizabethan England and ancient Greece under Pericles.
Blogs are maybe five years old, yet you and many other commentators talk as if the concept is already carved in stone. So let me make a sweeping observation: The Internet will revolutionize human communication in ways none of us can imagine. We live today at the beginning of history, not the end. We are entering a constantly shifting world in which, for better or worse, everyone can be a critic— a world in which, ideally, a critic’s authority will rise or fall on the strength of his or her insights, not the size of his newspaper’s circulation; a world in which, instead of half a dozen high priests passing judgment on your play, hundreds or even thousands will debate its merits.
I look forward to that brave new world and am trying to figure out just how it will work. Theater people like you should welcome it as well. But whether we embrace this revolution or resist it is really irrelevant. It’s here already.
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