January Letters: ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ theatrical readings…

Readers respond about A Streetcar Named Desire, to Beeri Moalem on classical music, to Dan Rottenberg on theatrical readings and O Captain, to Alan Richman on the restaurant revolution, to Dan Coren and Dan Rottenberg on the old and new Philadelphia Orchestra, Malcom Gladwell, great local events since 1908, and Chris Satullo at WHYY, to Jim Rutter on local theater, to Beeri Moalem on West Philadelphia, Tom Purdom on local music entrepreneurs, to Lynn Hoffman's review of Fuji Japanese Restaurant, to Rottenberg on Denyce Graves, to Gresham Riley on the Barnes Foundation's move, to Robert Zaller on Frost/Nixon and Spring Awakening, and to Steve Cohen on Sarah Palin's role model.

A Streetcar Named Desire

     Your review of A Streetcar Named Desire is perceptive, sensitive and caring, capturing the vulnerabilities that people have and the needs that emanate from them. I have always believed that true genius in writers authentically reflects and captures the complexities of the human struggle. Then, the challenge is to find directors and actors who know how to capture and articulate this essence.
     Along these lines, I recently heard an interview with Glenn Close, in which she talks about how upset she was when she had to shoot a new ending for Fatal Attraction. In the initial version, she suicided, but in audience testing, viewers didn’t like this ending. And so, another was shot (Close resisted at first but realized that the film wouldn’t be released if she didn’t acquiesce). In the new version, Close's character attempts to kill Anne Archer, who, in a bloody struggle, kills Close.
     Close believed that this latter chosen ending was inauthentic to her character. When I saw the film with this ending, as well as the scene that many saw as Close stalking a child, I found them utterly inauthentic too. Close's character, so damaged in childhood (as of course was Tennessee Williams, but wouldn't it be a better world if everyone who has been deeply hurt could find relief in artistry, both creating and appreciating!), wanted to be that child. She didn’t want to destroy her; her obsessive behavior and subsequent rage when rejected were birthed by her longing for someone stable and reliable to love her; she was desperate for a safe family; and killing the bunny was pure Hollywood theatrics.
     From your review, it seems that the Walnut actors do justice to the purity of Williams's genius. Aren't we fortunate that theater in Philadelphia is so diversified and extraordinary?
     As for what you saw for the first time in this production of Streetcar: Perhaps this is the test of brilliant theater— each time we see a play reflecting genius, we learn something new, not only about the characters but also about ourselves. This quality of theater is rare, eternal, ever relevant, never dated.
SaraKay Smullens
Center City
January 23, 2009


     Your therapist is an idiot. I suggest you go see someone who does not believe that Adolph-Eva is the ideal relationship.
     Of course, such philosophizing about Streetcar misses the whole thrust of the play: desire. Not relationships, but desires. That's what drives us: our desires.
Armen Pandola
Center City
January 24, 2009


Clint Eastwood

     Re: “Clint Eastwood, mellowing archetype,” by Robert Zaller—
     Once again, Robert Zaller has brought his extraordinary combination of learning and sensitivity to Clint Eastwood's latest movie. Thank you, Robert.
Michelle Osborn
Haverford, PA
January 21, 2009


New blood in classical music


     In his review of our January 14th concert, Beeri Moalem exhorts readers to “stop pretending the last 100 years didn’t happen” and speaks of the need to “inject new blood into the classical music world.” While I am a bit perplexed as to why someone who “might be starting to tire of the standard repertoire” would review a concert of Brahms, Dvorak and Mozart, we appreciate that Mr. Moalem recognized the Chamber Music Society’s part in also providing new works.
     For the record, this season alone, PCMS will present more than 60 pieces from the 20th and 21st Centuries, including five world-premieres and nine other local premieres. PCMS presents all-new music concerts as well as performances combining works from various periods, as we believe that both have artistic merit and justification. We do not include classic works to avoid challenging the “fragile ears” of our audiences, but because these are worthy of being heard and also provide context for newer works.
     Also, I can say with confidence that all the musicians on our January 14 concert perform challenging new works and are exceptionally talented at doing so (on our series last season, for example, pianist Jeremy Denk performed by memory a program of Ives' Concord Sonata, and sonatas by Elliott Carter and Leon Kirchner).
     I would take issue also with Mr. Moalem’s claim that “most to blame” for new music not being more often performed “are the academic composers” for their “smug assertion that incomprehensible music somehow makes them smarter and therefore worthy of university positions and grant money.” It is ironic that composers whose music is infrequently played are nevertheless still blamed for being opportunistic.
     PCMS has presented many pieces by composers who also work hard training new generations of young musicians, and I have not found any of these works to be “incomprehensible.” Further, perpetuating this tired stereotype of “academic composers” seems contrary to Mr. Moalem’s larger point—that more innovation and less predictability are needed in performances today.
     Like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PCMS is an organization that enables great art from all periods to be experienced. We will continue to offer a rich diversity of works and styles, and to encourage broad participation. Just as we enjoy seeing older audiences at new music events, we urge young audiences to experience the incredible masterworks of our shared cultural heritage.
Philip Maneval
Executive Director
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Center City
January 21, 2009


     Beeri Moalem replies: I think there are ways to create new original music without turning off audiences and performers. By "academic composers," I don't mean composers who teach. Essentially I mean composers who care more about conceptual music theory than what the piece will sound like and what its effect will be on the listener.
     I'm not merely advocating new music. I’m advocating a new music that will connect with audiences as well as challenge them. Music that will be meaningful, emotional, enjoyable— not just "interesting.”
     I recognize that PCMS is better than most classical music organizations about presenting new music. I was just railing in general about this phenomenon of a huge artistic community focused so heavily on the 18th & 19th Centuries, as exemplified by this concert— not PCMS specifically.

     Editor's note: To read another viewpoint by Tom Purdom, click here.

Whitman’s Lincoln

     Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of O Captain, My Captain at the Walnut Independence Studio—
     I attended this one-man show and it was an enjoyable evening, as are most of the productions at this intimate venue. The fact that we sat in comfortable period chairs and sofas was a nice bonus, as those customary folding chairs can get a little stiff after an hour or so. Mr. Van Horn gave a convincing and warm (at times) performance, and the setting was perfect. It was a pleasant change-up from the usual fare of stage and audience.
John F. Smith
Westville, N.J.
January 24, 2009


Are theater readings necessary?

     Re “Are theatrical readings necessary?“, by Dan Rottenberg—
     The Dramatists Guild of America– our country’s national organization of playwrights, lyricists, composers and librettists -- would like to contribute to BSR’s conversation regarding the premature reviewing of dramatic work by offering this extraction from a statement we’ve made regarding two very similar incidents.
     â€œIn the early stages of a dramatic work's life, writers do not need critical judgments rendered in print; they need to see their work on its feet, eliciting an honest emotional response from a real theater audience. A premature critique, whether positive or negative, whether well intentioned or malicious, whether well informed or blithely ignorant, can be destructive to the development of both the writer and the work.
     â€œAt this early stage, a writer doesn't need to hear a critical response from one voice, but from a cacophony of voices, all laughing (or not laughing), all crying (or not crying), in the dark, in the same place, at the same time. That is the way a writer can really know what works and what does not. And most theater critics understand that and respect this process. By violating this standard, all a critic succeeds in doing is filling his column inches and entertaining his readership, without concern for the baby he may have smothered in its crib.
     â€œAt the end of the day, this is not an issue about who is to blame or should apologize. This is about stopping the continuing erosion of safe habitats for that most endangered of species … the American dramatist.
Gary Garrison
Executive Director
Dramatists Guild of America
New York, N.Y.
January 21, 2009


     Editor's note: To read a response by Jim Rutter, click here. To read another response, click here.

     It's perfectly all right to read one's poems to fellow poets or to have one's plays read before fellow playwrights to get criticism and advice in a private or semiprivate setting (i.e., open to an interested public but not commercially advertised or ticketed); I've done both. It's fine, too, that theater groups like EgoPo offer staged readings of classic modern works as an alternative or supplement to full productions (the cost of which has been killing live theater for as long as I can remember). But, as your commentary notes, there are two serious problems with the kind of readings the Wilma Theater has been doing.
     They should not be product testing either for authors or producers. When an author (composer, dancer, etc.) offers a work to the public in a professional setting, it ought to be a finished composition that’s as good as its creator can make it, and thus open to criticism. When a producer offers such a work, it ought to be on the same terms.
     What the Wilma has done with Sarah Ruhl is, in effect, to workshop a play its author apparently regards as a finished product, not however in a private setting but a public one. This has long been common practice in the movies, and many a film ending has been changed (usually for the worse) in response to previews, or fears of audience reaction even without them. Alfred Hitchcock ruined Suspicion that way. If Hollywood values take over the theater, though, it will lose its reason for being.
     Consider the slippery slope the Wilma's practice could lead to. If the audience response were to suggest the desirability of a different ending, might we see one version of Ruhl's play in Philadelphia and another in New York or Washington? Should Hamlet be a tragedy in one venue and a comedy in another? And what kind of pressures does that put on the playwright?
     The root of the evil is money. Just as Hollywood studios don't want to risk their millions on a film that may not return them, so theaters, generally living hand-to-mouth with subscribers and corporate patrons, are also risk-averse.
     The Wilma's production values are among the best in the city, if not the best, and that is expensive. The younger Wilma, in its days at the Adrienne, made do with much less, and was edgier. Some established theaters deal with this problem through second-stage productions that cost less and dare more. But readings that ask the public to do the producer's job of making choices serve no one.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
January 21, 2009

     You nailed it when you point out the frailties of consumer marketing. Even within the so-called expertise of the science of marketing, it is very rare (in my opinion) that the audience/consumer actually provides valuable feedback to those seeking it.
     The structured feedback process is often way too skewed and designed to get a specific response. (Let alone the fact that most people, when asked if they have an opinion or a preference, feel compelled to have one, simply because they were asked).
     Blanka Zizka was reading from the wrong script if she was indeed delving into marketing research.
Mike Hayden
Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Technology 

Vox Ama Deus
Gladwyne, Pa.
January 21, 2009


     To be fair, Wilma never charged for its readings; so the financial comment is misleading.
     Otherwise, I have no quarrel with your article. I should, however, point out that I have spent enough working weeks in Yaddo to know that writers and even composers like to see what responses they get from works in progress. Of course, the audience there is made up of fellow artists.
Gerald Weales
University City
January 21, 2009

     Editor’s note:
The writer is a drama critic and a retired English professor at Penn. To read another reply, click here.

Do happy musicians play better?

     Re: “Do happy musicians play better?“, Dan Coren’s rejoinder to Dan Rottenberg—
     Seems to me that any human activity that inspires, uplifts and transforms those who come into contact with it, does benefit best when personal passion and enjoyment are present. After all, cannot a computer learn to synthesize all the notes of a Mozart piece, and would we find it sorely lacking though technically correct?
     There is more to the performance arts than meets the eye. Live music (like live acting) brings with it a confluence of subtle energies (real ones that is, ones that someday may be measurable by quantum physic technologies) that weave a direct harmonious (or disharmonious) link between player and audience. It is this intangible aspect that many say makes all the difference.
     There is also the aspect of expectation and belief. If a performer got on stage and told me before the show that he hated the work and was doing it anyway, I think I’d feel very differently about what came next!
Mike Hayden
Director of PR, Marketing and Technology
Vox Ama Deus
Gladwyne, Pa.
January 21, 2009


Free speech, creativity and the Wilma

     Re “Free speech vs. creativity at the Wilma”—
     As a past newspaper editor, current playwright and artistic director of a new works and development company here in Philadelphia for the last 16 years, I can't help but find it surprising that anyone in professional theater would ask that discussion of a play— whether in its development stage or completed and fully staged— should be stifled. We learn about the public's response from hearing from the public. Most of the time that comes directly from the critics. That's why we invite them to hear the work ahead of time. If we don't want response, we should not invite people to come.
     And come on— a play is changing every night of its run. A play is a collaborative beast, very much reliant on the audience— and each night there is a different and unrehearsed audience. That's the excitement and beauty of live theater over film. So the “creativity” plea just doesn't cut it for me either.
     If a play reading is opened to the public for feedback, then the chance has been taken that someone "important" will be there as part of the public. Obviously, any review of a work in progress should note that the work is in progress. I prefer reviews to say what night (opening, closing, middle Tuesday) was reviewed, because as a professional artist, I know that the second night of a performance is usually a dud, Saturday matinees are frequently tombstone crowds, and of course a reading is a pale shadow of a final production.
     If there was no announcement to the audience that by sitting to hear the play they agreed not to talk about it, then Blanka Zizka (whose work I adore, by the way) is lucky that Broad Street Review has thoughtful editors. Absolutely the review should have been posted. It was very kind of you to yank it on the artist's behalf. Plus, it's more exciting this way, isn't it? The idea of whether the review should have been posted is creating controversy and Ms. Ruhl, the Wilma and Ms. Zizka are all getting lots of page space! Wahoo! How thrilling!
Aileen McCulloch
Executive Director
Vagabond Acting Troupe
Young Audiences of Eastern Pennsylvania
Morgantown, Pa.
January 14, 2009


     All of your contributors to this discussion have some valid points. Some writers are more fragile than others; some welcome criticism, others shun it; etc.
     I believe the simple answer (too late now, of course) would have been for the Wilma to invite a specific audience rather than just anyone who heard of it (and as a former Wilma subscriber, I received an e-mail notification, so it was not a limited universe of potential audience members.) In such an invitation, the "no discussion rule" could have been enunciated. If one chose to attend, be he critic or not, the terms of the invitation would be implicitly acknowledged and accepted.
     But when you issue a blanket public invitation without preconditions, there is no reason to expect people to refrain from comment, public or otherwise.
John A. Miller
Center City
January 14, 2009


     I fully agree that Jim Rutter's review should have been posted, for many of the reasons stated (and I'm not sure I understand the reason the review was taken down, except maybe as a favor, since blog entries could have clarified the posting).
Barbara Barnes
Center City
January 14, 2009


     As a visual artist, I would say that Rutter's article might have been titled not so much a review of the play but rather a thoughtful analysis of the Wilma's approach to producing a play. When I present a work-in-progress to a group of artists for their reaction, I would be upset if someone "reviewed" it as if completed. It seems to me that the format is what is in question here, not whether Rutter could or should write about his reactions to what he heard that night.
     I do agree that Blanka Zizka should have made it clear that there was a tacit agreement with the agent that she hoped would be honored by the audience. I think you were right to cooperate with her in the interest of nurturing the process and that she was remiss in her responsibilities. I know it can be an issue of free speech but frankly I don't think it falls into that category.
     To Rutter: There is so much in this whole area to write about that is ready for your analysis. To Dan: I think you made the right decision and I appreciate your presentation of the whole issue to the readers of BSR.
Joan Myerson Shrager
Elkins Park, Pa.
January 14, 2009


     Ms. Zizka was attempting to conduct a marketing research study in the same manner as many consumer product companies do. The difference was in the full disclosure that the marketing industry has learned is fully required, including having their “audience” either sign a non-disclosure and/or have the specifics of the product creator withheld from them (in this case, no one would know it was Ms. Ruhl’s play).
     Even for the arts, this is a time of paying attention to market share and tight economics. I applaud the Wilma Theater for attempting to take the lessons from the business sector into the world of art. But it is a common mistake to grab pieces from other disciplines and yet miss some of the essential key elements that make that knowledge successful in the real world.
     As you pointed out, without letting everyone in on the “special rules of attendance”, these artists really have no reason to feel that folks can’t speak freely to whomever and wherever they choose. I think, though, that you did the right thing in helping out someone who made a mistake in what she was doing. From a business perspective, you helped the Wilma keep its intellectual property secret until it is ready to market, and for that I applaud you. Many others would have simply gotten caught up in debating the “rules” of free speech only, and not have withdrawn the piece.
Mike Hayden
Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Technology
Vox Ama Deus
Gladwyne, Pa.
January 14, 2009


     I absolutely agree with Blanka Zizka's request and your ultimate action to remove the critique.
     Blogs are a disaster for free speech because, outside a narrow circle, readers have no idea of the professionalism, potential hidden agendas, or use by headline writers to damage a work in progress, let alone a need to get facts right.
Craig Schelter
Chestnut Hill
January 14, 2009

     Editor’s comment:
Similar criticism was expressed when Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th Century, i.e., it would stir up the masses and lead to an outpouring of pornography. The Internet and the practice of blogging are still very much in their infancy.

     Brava to Blanka Zizka! Brava! That is all I think needed to be added to this conversation!
Richard M. Parison, Jr.
Berkshires, Mass.
January 14, 2009


     You say, "I want to erase the line between critics and other members of the audience and create a forum where anyone with insight or a viewpoint can be heard, just as if he or she were a professional critic." However, I would propose that contributors to Broad Street Review are not perceived as just audience members with a point of view, but actually as critics. The Wilma, the Arden, and Philadelphia Theatre Company all post quotes from BSR on their website, right next to all the other major critical publications.
     A critic is a major figure in theater, as prominent as a writer, producer, or director. There is an understood and appropriate behavior of critics. They will give their thoughtful, educated and above all honest opinion about a piece. But they will wait until a piece is ready, and that moment in theater is opening night.
     I applaud Jim Rutter’s effort to educate himself for a future production of this play by attending an early reading. I hope all critics continue to become more actively engaged in the process the community goes through to select and produce its work. But reviewing and commenting on it at this stage is premature on several levels. It is not helpful to the playwright, who probably does not care to have her play tasted and reviewed before it is done cooking. It is not helpful to the theater where this play will receive its world premiere (Berkeley Repertory) to have its audience search on the web and find a review of an unfinished version of the play. It is not helpful for any of us to begin to wonder, when we see our friends, the critics, at events that are obviously not intended for review, whether they can be trusted to honor the concept of opening night.
     Like it or not, your opinion and the way it is posted carries more weight than those of other audience members, who on this sight could only post a letter like I am, which may or may not get posted. I ask the Broad Street Review contributors, who I understand are invited to shows as critics, complete with complimentary tickets and press packets: Are you just regular audience members or critics? As a member of the Philadelphia theatre community, who has been reviewed multiple times by this publication, I can safely say that you are perceived as critics.
     If you are critics, please remember it is important to honor the trust between artists, critics and audience. I do not see how you can have it both ways.
David O'Connor
South Philadelphia
January 14, 2009

     I was rather surprised to see a review of a staged reading here, and I
completely agree with Blanka. Considering the Wilma was withholding the title and author's name from the marketing that I saw, it was clear that this was a special situation that could be easily disrupted.
     As a director, actor and occasional playwright, I would assume the above as common sense, to the point where I wouldn't think it necessary to ask reviewers to respect the infancy of a new work. "But you didn't specifically tell me not to!" didn't work when we were kids, and it doesn't fly now.
     Regarding the ability of any other audience member to put their opinions out in the world, that's true, but there's a difference: BSR is edited and archived, and articles are considered rather than automatically accepted. Because of that, most people would probably give BSR more weight than some random audience member with a blog or a big mouth. If BSR's goal is truly to "erase the line between critics and other members of the audience," then remove the filter, fire the editor and let any idiot with a ticket stub upload his own thoughts directly to the site. Bad idea, right? Any amount of quality control is drawing a line, not erasing one.
     I can't imagine anyone who claims to be supportive of new plays (or the creative process in general) could think publishing reviews of readings is a good idea. Claiming that critics and audience members are the same, and asserting that the burden should be on theaters to ban critics from such events are total cop-outs.
Liam Castellan
Center City
January 14, 2009

     I agree with you that reviewing a work in progress, whether it is in the visual arts or literature, is not only a useless exercise and a waste of the reader's time, but also it could have an adverse effect on the creative process of the artist. He or she must be free to initiate and develop the work without any outside directives.
     A play's reading seems akin to the custom in 19th -Century Paris of visiting artists' studios to keep abreast of their progress but never to write about the work as if it were a completed piece. As fervently as I support the First Amendment, I don’t expect a professional critic to review a work in progress. It is not that which will be presented to the public for posterity.
Anne R. Fabbri
Wayne, Pa.
January 14, 2009


     I completely agree with Blanka Zizka in her request to ask that Jim Rutter’s commentary be removed from BSR. I think the critics and commentators need to draw a firm line between a work in progress, a staged reading and a performance opened to the paying public (even free). It's as if Jim Rutter got a glimpse of the gooey chick inside the egg, wrote about how ugly it is and didn't wait for it to hatch to see the beauty it is, or he watched Margot Fonteyn fall several times in an open ballet rehearsal and decided to print that she stunk.
Patrick Ward
The Media Theatre
Media, Pa.
January 14, 2009


     Dan, I agree with you and Rutter about closing the critic's mouth. You can't put this toothpaste back into the tube. But in the future, the theater can control the publicity. It's easy.
     Blanka can establish a contract with the witness/audience. That is, create the conditions for the invitation, via paid ticket, to witness the reading: no cameras, no tape recorders and no public comments. Just plain old boilerplate, like downloading software.
Reed Stevens
Campbell, Calif.
January 14, 2009


     Readings have become endemic in the theater today. We should examine why this has happened and what good – if any – it has accomplished.
     There can be many good reasons for holding a staged reading. Hearing her play performed can help an author make the changes necessary for an actual performance, or a reading can generate advance publicity for the play. But is audience input a valid reason?
     Most theater audiences don’t know why they like or dislike a play— that’s what the professionals are for. Working with a dramaturge or taking advice from experienced professionals is always a good idea. On the other hand, many fine plays are marred by years of re-writings based on well-intentioned audience suggestions.
     Would any director allow an audience – even of theater insiders— to criticize how she staged a play in rehearsal and suggest changes? Actors, directors and stage designers are not asked to subject themselves to criticism of this kind, so why playwrights?
     As for the value of having professional critics pre-determining what is or isn’t a good play, I don’t think anyone wants to give critics the power to decide which plays are produced.
     For a playwright, it is tough enough to convince theater professionals to give a new play a chance, let alone a limited audience of self-made critics at a reading.
Armen Pandola
Center City
January 14, 2009

     Editor’s comment: The writer is a playwright and director.

     I held off writing my own review of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, which I'd seen in a preview, until I could see it during regular performance. I can understand the reason for that, and also for refraining from a review of the reading of an unstaged work. Not every director may feel this way, but it's Blanka's privilege to wish only a final product to be critiqued.
     On the other hand, as you point out, a theatrical event made available to a general audience is a fully public event. People will talk about it in and out of the theater, and, with Internet availability, they will blog and e-mail about it. Critics may be silent, but it's a little odd they should be the only ones with a gag order.
     What I don't understand is why a director should need a public reading to decide whether a play is worth producing. If the theater is going to go in for product testing, it's not likely the public will be challenged very often.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
January 15, 2009


     As someone who has experienced theater as a playwright, academic, producer and aspiring theater manager, I find it affirming to see such a lively dialogue attempting to define public readings of plays as phenomenon and function.
     What I would love to see explored further are issues of theater as a business, rather than ethical or aesthetic concerns.
     â€”How do current political and economic factors affect the task of selecting and presenting material for the Wilma?
     â€” What are the challenges for the Wilma as it balances demands of artistic talent, audiences, funders and the media?
     â€” What tensions among these factors are indicated by Blanka Zizka’s
behavior and statements?
     â€”Whom does the Wilma as an institution answer to at the end of the day?
     I encourage anyone with an idea about answers to respond to these questions, but they are less the point of this post. Thank you, Broad Street Review, for recognizing the private conversations that comprise “The Wilma Papers” as something worth sharing. Let’s keep talking!
Liz Zimmerman
Fishtown
January 14, 2009

     Editor’s note:
The writer holds a BFA in playwriting and is working toward a degree in nonprofit administration.

     As a playwright, artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company (where I have shepherded many a new play in development) and founding member of the National New Play Network, I am very sensitive to the issues being debated.
     InterAct abandoned, for the most part, public readings of plays-in-progress several years ago, primarily because the audience response often proved unhelpful, misleading or damaging. In my experience, audience responses at play readings tend to be either overly positive (forgiving much of what doesn't work) or overly negative (lacking the imagination to see how the play would work in a full production). More often it was the former, leading the playwright to resist rewrites.
     If you are going to host a public reading, and also invite critics, you need to be clear about the role of the audience in the process, as well as come to an agreement with the critics in advance about whether or not they should publish any response to the play. I would think most critics would honor this agreement if made in advance.
     That said, I am continually struck by the arrogance and indulgence of journalists in this extraordinary information age, who believe that the public has a right to know about everything and that they are, in fact, writing reviews of plays-in-progress as a community service. It certainly could be of value to the public if (1) critics, in general, were engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their readers about the value of new plays, and the challenges of writing and producing new plays, and (2) critics, in general, were knowledgeable and responsible. And I do believe some critics are.
     But on the whole, critics in this region are not terribly supportive of new work, and don’t make an effort, for instance, to understand what a playwright is trying to do; but rather, tell the public what he/she thinks the playwright ought to have done. So often it seems as if critics are merely exercising their right to hear their own voice. That is not a community service.
     Furthermore, while I recognize that critics are "right" some of time, they are not right so reliably that any of us who develop and produce new plays invite them into the process to get their feedback. For every play that critics raise out of the morass, there is a gem that they leave behind. I can think of dozens of examples of plays that were successful all around the country, then received snarky, dismissive reviews here; and others that struggled to gain critical support here, but somehow managed to be embraced by critics in other regions.
     Ultimately, I think playwrights and theaters need to be extremely thoughtful and responsible in their public new play activities, but critics need to exercise the same degree of thoughtfulness and responsibility.
Seth Rozin
Center City
January 16, 2009


     All this hullabaloo has piqued my curiosity! I now want to read the censored article. And moreover, I want to see the play!
Beeri Moalem
Macungie, Pa.
January 16, 2009


     I have to say this to Blanka Zizka: If you weren't ready, honey, you shouldn't have done it.
Evelyn Clinton Dunbar
Lynchburg, Va.
January 16, 2009


     I attended that reading at the Wilma, and in fact, it was mentioned at the very beginning that this was a work in progress. Perhaps Jim Rutter missed that part. I found it unprofessional of him to review it at this point. He will get his free ticket opening night as a critic, after the work has been done, and then he can express his views in print.
Gillian Wakely
University City
January 20, 2009


     Editor’s comment: Let me correct some misperceptions about BSR in the letters above. We have no staff, nor do we assign articles, nor do we have designated contributors. Every article or review we post is unsolicited, and we make no distinction between established critics and other audience members (even if theater companies do make such distinctions when they provide complimentary press tickets). We pay our contributors a token fee primarily to establish the principle that we feel their writing is worth paying for. We exist not to serve the arts community or arts audiences, but simply to provide a forum for ourselves and anyone who cares to communicate with us. This isn’t necessarily the best way to approach the arts or journalism, but we see it as an interesting alternative to existing approaches.
     Contrary to the impression held by some of the above letter-writers, BSR’s identity isn’t engraved in stone. A publication or website is a living human organism that evolves in unpredictable directions. I see BSR as an experiment in discovering, through trial and error, a middle ground between formal institutional media and instant personal blogging, and between public pronouncements and private conversation. In that respect, we claim the same right to experiment that an innovative theater company like the Wilma would claim.

     Editor's Note: For a further comment from me, click here.

Philadelphia Orchestra, old vs. New

     Re “The ‘old’ Orchestra and the new,” by Dan Rottenberg—
     How nice to have someone else notice the energy and emotion of this young cellist, Yumi Kendall. I have watched her since her arrival in Philadelphia and am also delighted with her responses.
     Several years ago, when Andre Watts was here to perform a piano concerto, by chance she occupied the first chair. Her very emotional rendition of the cello part led Andre to acknowledge her and ask her to stand with him in responding to the audience’s applause.
     As you can tell, I prefer the "new."
Myrna L. Bair
Wilmington Del.
January 19, 2009


Restaurant revolution

     Re “Steve Poses and his informal restaurant revolution,” by Alan Richman—
     While Steve Poses is indisputably a key figure in the so-called "Philadelphia Restaurant Revolution," I agree with that wonderful writer and food critic Jim Quinn, whose thesis has been that the cooks of South Street were the backbone of the PRR.
Bob Ingram
Burleigh, N.J.
January 7, 2009

     Alan Richman replies:
Naming a street, rather than an individual, as the most influential food figure in Philadelphia history strikes me as a bit of a stretch. And if that were the case, I'd opt for Passyunk Avenue.

Blinking at Malcolm Gladwell

     Re “Blinking at Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook )—
     I'm so glad to read your skewering of that world-class bullshit artist, as my cousin's husband dubbed Gladwell. He fooled me for a bunch of articles, but only until his first book.
Bob Liss
San Francisco, Calif.
January 7, 2009


     Damn, I laughed out loud! More, Dan.
Reed Stevens
Campbell, Calif.
January 7, 2009


     I think when someone has nothing to say, they write a book about their nothing— and Gladwell does it well.
Evelyn Dunbar
Lynchburg Va.
January 12, 2009


Momentous events since 1908

   Re “Momentous local events since 1908,” by Dan Rottenberg—
   That was the most intelligent walk down Memory Lane in a long time. Thank you...even though it made me homesick now that I live in Seattle!
Mary Mitchell
Seattle, Wash.
December 31, 2008


   Thank you for noting Leopold Stokowski's important gift to Philadelphia. He put its orchestra "on the map" and created the first great virtuoso orchestra, which Rachmaninoff in 1929 called "the greatest orchestra the world has ever heard." Ormandy's main achievement was preserving the Stokowski Sound.
Mary Sue Welsh
Chestnut Hill
January 2, 2009


   Interesting that you include John Bennett and the New Era Foundation in light of Bernard Madoff’s new Ponzi scheme. I’m not sure if anyone even remembers how bad New Era was and how many churches and major universities were hit.
Felice Pandola
Voorhees, N.J.
December 31, 2008


   I haven't read Philadelphia Magazine since your gang was kicking ass way back when. (I did get the copy when I was included as one of 76 People to Watch in 1976, as well as the issue that had a story I wrote on the legendary Blue Horizon.)
   Making the cheese steak the kingpin is more or less what I would have expected, and even including the beating Pete Dexter and Tex Cobb took is equally weird.
   I thought your list was cool. One quibble: The Real Paper and the Phoenix were rocking in Boston well before Philly had its two alties.
Bob Ingram
Burleigh, NJ
December 31, 2008

   Editor’s comment:
True. But they weren’t making money, which the Welcomat and City Paper were both doing by the end of the ‘80s, a time when no other city supported more than one profitable alternative weekly.

   I like your list better than Philadelphia Magazine’s.
Joe DiStefano
Talleyville, Del.
January 1, 2009


   Didn't Peter von Starck employ both Georges Perrier and Steve Poses?
Gregory M. Harvey
Center City
December 31, 2008


     You didn't mention that the City of Brotherly Love was the only town in the country to have bombed itself— more specifically, the only one whose mayor destroyed an entire community to enforce a pest control ordinance.
     The MOVE bombing may well be the event for which Philadelphia's last hundred years will be best remembered, and it is of course salt on the wound that Wilson Goode could have recently been honored as citizen of the year. Just how much does a guy have to do to get permanently disgraced around here?
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd
January 7, 2009

     Dan Rottenberg replies:
Not to worry. My list only mentioned events that Philadelphia Magazine overlooked. The MOVE bombing ranked #2 on the magazine's list, second only to the invention of the cheese steak.

     I thought your including the Harry Karafin story in the top 100 was a nice thought. I passed it along to Gaeton Fonzi, who co-wrote that piece in Philadelphia Magazine.
     An even bigger story was Gaeton's piece on Arlen Specter and the JFK assassination, which was one of the first serious challenges to the Warren Commission. That piece led to Gaeton working for Senator Schweiker and then the House Sub-committee on Assassinations. That experience led to Gaeton's book, The Last Investigation, which appeared after more magazine articles, in 1994. It has just been republished, and is cited in virtually every important work on the subject.
     Better than anyone, Gaeton tied the CIA into Oswald and the extensive cover up of the crime. And it all began at Philadelphia Magazine.
Bernard McCormick
Palm Beach, Fla.
January 14, 2009

     Editor’s note:
The writer is a former senior editor of Philadelphia Magazine.

Rutter on local theater

     I enjoyed Jim Rutter’s review of the reading of In the Next Room at the Wilma. However, I take exception to Jim’s first paragraph:
     "Quick question to the Philadelphia theater community: How does a staged reading at the Wilma offer a better night of theater than most of the full productions I’ve seen this season." It belittles the excellent work in the many productions that the theater community in Philadelphia presents almost year-round.
     I wonder what productions you have been attending. For instance, did you attend Expecting Isabel or Damn Yankees at Temple Theaters this past fall? As chair of the Theater Department at Temple University, I am proud of the work that we do, and I know that it is just a small part of the really outstanding work done in Philadelphia.
     So, please, Jim, continue writing your interesting reviews, but refrain from comparing a staged reading to a full production (they are different forms). And let's celebrate the theater in Philadelphia rather than denigrate it.
Roberta Sloan, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Temple University Theater Department
North Philadelphia
January 9, 2009


Frost/Nixon/Palin

     Robert Zaller's piece on Frost/Nixon is very nicely done and a sad commentary on America and the presidents who "served" in my lifetime. Nixon likely is the most significant, for good and ill, largely ill. He was doomed from the time he sold his soul, quite literally, to his party in the early ’50s. It must have been horrible for him to live the rest of his life trying to convince himself that he was a significant and, later, real person.
     Looking back on Steve Cohen's “Sarah Palin as the new Nixon,” it's hard to tell what might be meant by a "most effective running mate," but that's not to say Cohen wasn't right in several regards. Nixon was awful, and the miracle is that presumably kindred, awful Americans continued to vote for him for decades after '52. As for Palin, she is dangerous; it's not only Republicans who find her "hot": Her support, as amazing as Nixon's was, is all over the Internet. She's real, she's dumb, and she may not be conquered by an African-American saddled four years earlier by a trillion-dollar deficit.
Rick Soisson
East Falls
January 10, 2009


Satullo and WHYY

     Re “Chris Satullo at WHYY,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     Chris Satullo is a “man of the middle” who has a very clear vision of the entire spectrum of any given issue. As we Americans have observed over the past two decades of nonstop partisan attacks, the noise from the extreme ends of the spectrum may be exciting or entertaining, but the solutions always lie in the middle ground.
     As a moderator at several of the citizen forums initiated by Chris, I was always impressed by both his desire to receive ideas from participants and also his ability to clearly maintain the focus and leadership of the group.
     Chris is a man who believes in productive, processed decisions based on stakeholder engagement and input. Those skills will provide needed solutions at WHYY.
Louisa Abney-Babcock
Perkiomenville, Pa.
January 9, 2009


     Editor’s note: To read other responses, click here.


West Philly rediscovered


     Re “West Philly rediscovered,” by Beeri Moalem—
     I lived in West Philly in 1944 when I was first married, and I can assure you it was not a dung heap at that time. I remember the older women in South Philly every day at 6 a.m. scrubbing the white stone steps in front of brick apartment buildings. Years later when we took our middle daughter to see the Liberty Bell it was a different story. I was appalled at the change.
     I have so many good memories of the three years I lived there. Big bands at The Earl Theatre downtown, concerts in the park, air shows over Fairmount Park, parades every other day or so that started early in the morning. The police would let some traffic through, then some parade.
     While I have visited friends, and my granddaughter was married in Pennsylvania, I have not been back to Philly since.
Evelyn Clinton Dunbar
Lynchburg, Va.
January 8, 2009

     Editor’s comment:
That’s probably just as well. It’s kind of boring now.

Overlooked music entrepreneurs

   Re “Let us now praise musical entrepreneurs,” by Tom Purdom—
   While I applaud Mr. Purdom's desire to recognize the entrepreneurs of our local music scene, there is at least one glaring omission from his list. The Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum is frequently the granting organization behind the new music performed by the ensembles and artists mentioned in the article. In recent years, ACF Philadelphia has taken on the role of presenting organization as well, including our 2008 series of free concerts in the Plaza at the Kimmel Center, and recent concerts and master classes at Temple by world-renowned bassoonist Pascal Gallois. ACF Philadelphia is also responsible for creating the New Music Philadelphia website, which includes a 24/7/365 webcast of original music by Philadelphia-area composers (including performances by many of the ensembles and artists mentioned in the article).
   James Falconi, ACF Philadelphia's chapter director for the past year, certainly deserves some mention in your article. And if you're not familiar with James (you should be!), then former chapter director and current ACF board member Jim Jordan would have also been a great choice. Every artist and ensemble you mentioned is familiar with both of these gentlemen, and will attest to their vision and dedication to new music in Philadelphia.
Chuck Butler
President, Executive Board
ACF Philadelphia
Center City
December 31, 2008


   I applaud your praise for three particular music groups that have ascended in the past half-decade, but wondered how you could have missed one of the most impressive groups to have prospered during this period: Donald Nally's professional choral ensemble, The Crossing.
   This group of two dozen mostly young professional choral singers achieves unparalleled beauty in their mostly-straight-tone singing of repertoire drawn mostly from the last decade. Their performances are stunning. Under Donald Nally's direction, these singers shape each and every note, and above all, create awe-inspiring music.
   Their performances are not to be missed.
Larry Passmore
Havertown, Pa.
December 31, 2008


   If you want to talk about "music entrepreneurs," then please check out the website of my exciting, New York-based chamber music society, America's Dream Chamber Artists (ADCA), (of which Mimi Stillman is an artist member). I co-founded ADCA with my flutist wife, Eveline Kuhn, just a few years ago. We started with absolutely nothing (a true
grassroots organization)— just huge ideas and dreams— and we do all the work ourselves, with no help at all, save for our manager, who books our concerts. Our mission, in brief: to change the face of chamber music, making it approachable and enjoyable to all kinds of audiences.
Arash Amini
New York
January 6, 2009


Fuji Japanese Restaurant

   Re Lynn Hoffman’s review of Fuji Japanese Restaurant—
   Oh boy, I'm ready to move back to my old house on Brandywine Street just to get to the Fuji in Haddonfield. Can you see me drooling all the way out here in California?
   We do grow those tiny, darling, salty kumamoto oysters, but I haven't found any place that serves the rest of that menu.
   Good review! I'll be looking for Hoffman's next one!
Reed Stevens
Campbell, Calif.
December 31, 2008


   This review made my mouth water!
Joan Adler
Mount Airy
December 27, 2008


Denyce Graves

   Re “My problem with Denyce Graves,” by Dan Rottenberg—
   To appreciate the full power of Ms. Graves, one must hearken back to the Oklahoma City tragedy, circa 1997, when she was a guest of President Clinton and her singing heightened the spirits of every living soul who attended and the millions (like me) who caught the event on television.
   I don't care how many earrings she drops or how many times her flowing gowns get caught up in musical instruments— that was the power of an artist inspired!
Nick Morris
Winnipeg, Canada
January 2, 2009


Barnes on the Parkway (continued)

   Re “Better times for the Barnes, at last,” by Gresham Riley—
   What concerns me about Mr. Riley's advocacy for this Barnes move is that, in order to justify the move, its proponents have to minimize the integral importance of one of Philadelphia's artistic fathers, Philadelphia's architect, Paul Cret.
   Cret's design of the Ben Franklin Bridge is a great symbol of Philadelphia, but proponents of the move barely mention the connection between Cret's Barnes Merion mansion and Cret's Flanders Field Memorial Chapel in Belgium.
   To me it is a selective disregard of a large part of Philadelphia’s true artistic history.
Richard Feudale
Mount Carmel, Pa.
January 1, 2009


   Gresham Riley replies: I fail to understand Richard Feudale’s assumed connection between my support for the move of the Barnes Foundation collection to the Parkway and a failure to recognize the importance of Paul Cret as an architect. Quite frankly, to suggest that to relocate the collection in some way diminishes Paul Cret’s status in the history of architecture is rather insulting to Cret. The impressive body of work for which he was responsible should be sufficient testimony to his artistry.
   Richard Feudale replies: Cret's body of work is glorified, not insulted, by the special relation of his architecture to the magnificent artwork that his Merion mansion houses.

Spring Awakening

   Re Robert Zaller’s review of EgoPo’s Spring Awakening (March 2007)—
   I am very impressed by ANY reviewer who refers to "the theater of Oskar Panizza," a revolutionary playwright (1853-1921) whom most people have never heard of. For more on this close friend of Spring Awakening author Frank Wedekind, click here.
Peter D.G. Brown
New Paltz, N.Y.
January 4, 2009

   Robert Zaller replies:
Panizza did write a play in 1893 that is more avant-garde than anything on the stage today. I'm just as impressed that someone in New Paltz knows about him as Brown is that someone in Philadelphia does.