June Letters I: Critics vs. producers….

Readers respond about BSR's theater critics symposium, violence against women, priestly sex abuse, the Philadelphia Orchestra's vanishing audience, Charles Dutoit's long goodbye, Mumia and In a Daughter's Eyes, Vigil at the Lantern Theater, Dance Affiliates' A.W.A.R.D. Show, and the Inquirer's review of Miss Saigon.

Critics and producers

     Re “What‘s it all about, theater folks?” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook), and BSR’s recent symposium on theater critics—
     First, I while I did say that I don't read reviews because I don't care what critics say, I most certainly did not say, "I don't think they're a good judge of my work." This is one of the problems we theater makers have with critics: something is misheard, misunderstood or simply misquoted, and when it is published, in print or online, it becomes fact to all who read it. I find that deeply irresponsible; especially considering there is little recourse.
     I found it amusing, and telling, that in his role as moderator, Rottenberg introduced each of the producers with an attribution about their history of critic bashing, while his introductions of the three critics included no such equivalent.
     Finally, I want to set the record straight about a perception of InterAct that Dan Rottenberg insists on perpetuating. It is true that we employ the slogan, "Changing the world...one play at a time." Our intent with this phrase is to suggest that our productions aim to stimulate dialogue and provoke thought about something important in the world; to ask questions without giving answers as a way of improving the discourse around complex and volatile issues.
     I can understand how this phrase can be misinterpreted, but Rottenberg insists that our old standby is "didactic preaching to the audience" (as he stated in his review of our production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity last season). I have no idea how many productions of ours Rottenberg has actually seen, but I can tell you, once and for all, that we never seek to preach to an audience.
     Of course, once in a while a play (usually a new one that didn't turn out how we'd hoped) ends up feeling preachy; and I will be the first to admit that those are our failures. But I challenge Rottenberg or anyone else to argue how most of our plays are preachy.
     In fact, I would argue that when other local theaters produce issue-oriented plays, they are generally more obvious in their sentiment than ours; but because InterAct's mission is explicitly political, we are perceived as a theater with an agenda. I would like to think our critics are sophisticated enough to avoid such superficial judgments.
Seth Rozin
Producing artistic director
InterAct Theatre Co.
Center City/Philadelphia
June 1, 2011


     Dan Rottenberg replies: I stand by my quotation of Seth Rozin's comments at the BSR symposium.

     Just want to correct an error that was tossed around during BSR’s theater critics symposium (May 26), and appears in Jackie Atkins’s follow-up commentary:
     The Inquirer's current theater coverage—not including its coverage of the Live Arts/Fringe Festival— is higher now than ever before. According to Howard Shapiro, in 2000, the staff critics wrote 251 articles on 23 professional companies; last year, with less space and less full-time staff, we wrote 260 articles covering 41 theaters. Add the Live Arts/Fringe and you add another 40 or so reviews and features.
Wendy Rosenfield
Abington, Pa.
May 31, 2011

     Editor’s note:
The writer is a free-lance theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

     Well said, Jackie! Part of the problem, of course, is that the Inquirer's theater critics (except for Howard Shapiro), like its other arts and music critics (full-time and free-lance), are less than Olympian. In fact, quite pedestrian. They sometimes treat their subject areas with sacred cow, suck-up reverence (the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for one). Are they afraid of losing access? And, they can't seem to stop rubbing the scab of the Barnes Foundation controversy. Enough, already.
Richard CarreÓ±o
Center City/ Philadelphia
May 30, 2011


     I attended the "debate," and have a few observations to add to Jackie Atkins’s astute comments:
     1. Bernard Havard's fervent condemnation of a critic who displeased him nearly 30 years ago was very entertaining, in a car-wreck kind of way. I'm no fan of that critic either (having witnessed him sleeping during a show that he later blessed with a rave review), but the underlying message was that the head of Philadelphia's largest non-profit theater takes critics much too seriously and really holds a grudge. (He probably still hates me for a few reviews I wrote in 1993 and '94.)
     2. Charles McMahon is wildly inaccurate about the Inquirer's current coverage. Though the Inquirer doesn't pay a steady wage or benefits to two of its three theater critics, it reviews more Philadelphia theater than ever before— even though newspapers have been particularly hard hit by the recession. Back when the Lantern started, the Inky was still sending its critics to cover New York shows, and small Philadelphia companies were routinely ignored— not for lack of resources, but from lack of respect.
     Seth Rozin (above) said he doesn't read reviews, but he claimed that bad reviews hurt the future life of new plays. He said that they're not important and that they have a direct effect on funding.
     Hmmm ... I'll bet that he reads reviews late at night under the covers with a flashlight (or, these days, a smart phone).
     Don't worry, Seth, I won't tell!
Mark Cofta
Ridley Park, Pa.
Jun 1, 2011

     Editor’s note:
The writer is theater critic for the Philadelphia City Paper.

     What most struck me in the “debate” between theater directors and critics last week was the difference between the professional and the amateur. Each of the three directors at the debate relies on the theater as his livelihood. The critics who contribute to BSR, on the other hand, review theater in addition to their professional lives in other areas.
     I use the word amateur with great regard– it signifies the person who does something for the love of it, as opposed to making a living from it. The reviews in BSR are thoughtful and contribute to the conversation. But the stakes are different compared with a critic who makes a living doing it.
     This divide was clear in the conversation, mostly because of what these professional directors and amateur critics valued most. The directors emphasized exposure, audience and the future of the play. The critics valued the conversation.
     Speaking as a director, I will say that once I open a play, I don’t really care about the conversation. I am happy one is happening, but if I’ve done my job, my contribution to the conversation is on stage, and I’m moving on to something else.
     A director is not part of a dialogue. As Seth Rozin said, the main value a review has to a director, or a theater, is bringing more people to see the play.
     This was a debate with not much to debate. If I were a critic, I would ask: where is the conflict here? The stakes for the two groups just didn’t match up.
David O'Connor
South Philadelphia
June 2, 2011


     I used to enjoy fighting with critics. On the one hand, my vanity and insecurity couldn’t tolerate being held up to public scrutiny in the press. On the other hand, I sensed a fundamental flaw in the way most aesthetic criticism is delivered in America: It assumes objective standards for art that can be used to pass judgments.
     Yet if art is anything, it is human. I believe it to be the last territory to be defended against the inexorable advance of artificial intelligence. Art defies quantification and therefore technology. One of the insidious trends of our consumer culture is objectification, in which everything, including human beings, must be prepped for sale. Art and artists are the rebel alliance resisting this trend.
     Contemporary criticism, in that it is most often the province of publications, plays into this trend by buying into the notion that art can be commoditized into good and bad products.
     There is no such thing as “good” theater, or “good” art for that matter, and that is one of art’s most precious attributes, and the reason it is ill-suited to the market economy. Even in its beauty, art is yet a celebration of our imperfection, contradiction, messiness and humanity. It is the opposite of commerce.
     Everyone experiences art differently, and everyone is right. And everyone is wrong. Even the producers. Even the critics.
Benjamin Lloyd
Elkins Park, Pa.
June 3, 2011


Violent men, silent women

     SaraKay Smullens’s "Male sex abuse and the silence of women" shares many tangents with points I suggest in my recent piece about sexual abuse by clergy and family members. The causes and effects of this happenstance, (it’s too prevalent to be called a phenomenon) as she states, are highly complex and they won’t begin to be eradicated without open, fearless and frequent public discourse. Her examples were horrific, but by no means the worst. I, and most of my friends, can give dozens of examples.
     The women and children to whom it happens must find the courage to file complaints with the police and think while it is happening how to obtain evidence. The masseuse, for instance, must have had a good DNA case against the guy who left his ejaculate for her on the sheets. They must follow-up by publicly denouncing the perpetrators. It’s the only way to wash off the slimy, sick feeling you are left with— the only way to retain your own dignity.
Merilyn Jackson
South Philadelphia
June 1, 2011


Priestly sex abuse

     In “When the shepherd blames the sheep,” Merilyn Jackson seems to think that if the celibacy requirements were lifted for Catholic Latin Rite priests— in the Eastern Catholic Rites married priests are the norm— this green light would provide satisfactory sexual outlets for potential abusers and deter them from preying on young teenage flesh. Funny, but I always thought that marriage to an adult (a peer) didn’t quite do it for men who liked really young, pretty things. After all, one can be married or otherwise hooked up in a respectable adult union and still lust after what one cannot have.
     While there might be other sound reasons to eventually lift the Church’s celibacy requirements, to do it solely as a safeguard against child sex abuse would be naÓ¯ve.
     A careful reading of Jackson’s piece—“for those imprisoned in religious vocations,” “Many priests and nuns simply left the Church for the satisfactions of intimate relationships”—suggests that for many clergy their vocations were existentially bogus from the very beginning and that their deconstruction was based solely on the shifting sands of cultural mores.
     No church or religion is obligated to change its dogma or beliefs simply because the temper of the times “demands it.”
Thom Nickels
Fishtown/ Philadelphia
May 26, 2011


     Merilyn Jackson replies: While my original text did call for further study on the actual agenda of celibacy, it didn’t call for any lifting of celibacy, because frankly I don't give a flying f--k if priests get laid or not. My only concern is that they don't get their rocks off on vulnerable children. My point is that the cause is neither celibacy nor the '60s sexual revolution, but the utter hubris of the men in the church hierarchy, who have repeatedly put their own comfort over the safety of their children. My other concern is the Catholics who continue to defend a church that has criminally shielded these vile rapists and pedophiles and placed their children in harm's way. They disgust me as much as the perpetrators.

     Sexual repression and exploitation go hand in hand, and abuse is thus an entailed consequence of the Catholic Church’s claim to delimit the bounds of sexual conduct. Where any authority controls the definition of what is licit and illicit, it gains a privileged monopoly of the latter. Cops smoke the dope they confiscate. Priests perform the acts they condemn. It doesn’t matter that some feel guilt about it; the power they exercise over others expresses the institutional power of the Church itself.
     It is idle to expect self-correction or reform, which would be tantamount to giving up the power that defines the Church’s position toward the laity—sexually, socially and dogmatically. The Catholic laity must liberate itself, or suffer in the future what it has suffered in the past. Nothing could demonstrate this more clearly than the report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on which Merilyn Jackson comments so eloquently.
     I’m a nonpracticing Jew myself. Nothing ever offended me more than Vatican II’s condescending apology to Jews for 1,500 years of persecution (combined, of course, with a reassertion of the doctrinal supremacy of the Church). I think of that “apology” when I think of the contorted efforts of the Church today to explain its abuse of Catholic children, and to frame contrition in the context of a renewed assertion of authority. Power knows only one argument in the end: the circular one that leads back to itself.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
May 23, 2011


Orchestra’s vanishing audience

     Re “The Orchestra’s vanishing audience,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     Dan Rottenberg is completely right about his analysis of the Philadelphia Orchestra's decline in audience numbers. However, I think we have already had a taste of the strength of Yannick's shoulders. The audience was clamoring for tickets to the few concerts he has conducted; he connected with the audience by staying after the concert and giving autographs; and there was a great deal of excitement about his presence in Philadelphia. All that on top of great performances.
     Let's also remember that all the excellent groups Rottenberg cites as alternatives to the Orchestra are partially made up of Orchestra members, or depend on Orchestra members as guest artists. What would the local chamber music scene look like if those fine musicians from the Orchestra were in other cities?
Julian Rodescu
Center City/ Philadelphia
May 29, 2011

     Editor’s note:
The writer is artistic director of Astral Artists and teaches voice at Westminster Choir College.

     I was a loyal Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber for ten years. When it moved from the Academy to the Kimmel, our seating location was downgraded to accommodate new subscribers obviously enamored with the new hall.
     I told them to stick their subscription and enjoyed witnessing karma play havoc with the acoustics at Kimmel the few times I visited.
     It’s just another example of a shortsighted opportunistic Philly approach ruining a world-class gem. Just like the Barnes.
Ronald Martin
Andalusia/ Philadelphia
May 25, 2011


     There are so many performances of classical music now that it is easy to ignore the Orchestra except for special occasions. Why spend the money to go to Verizon Hall and take a chance on a seat where the sound might be muffled? I wish there were a web site that listed "seats to avoid."
     So many of the other organizations also offer unfamiliar music compared to the Orchestra. This is not to denigrate the excellence of the Philadelphians, but when a choice has to be made, it is easy to choose elsewhere. The Philadelphia Orchestra has not been the only game in town for long enough to allow me to develop other habits.
     Long ago, when I was in high school, and later when I worked in town, going to the Academy of Music was magical. Going to the Kimmel, not so much.
     Internal problems, including the failure to fully support Dutoit, cannot have helped. Neither has the shameful decision to declare bankruptcy. With multiple problems like these, none of which were caused by the musicians, the organization has a most difficult task before it. It would be very sad if they fail to restore the experience of going to the Orchestra to its former glory.
Arthur Waddington
Wynnewood, Pa.
May 29, 2011

     It’s quite true that the Philadelphia Orchestra's board made a horrific mess both over the firing and replacement of Christoph Eschenbach (at the least, Charles Dutoit could have been given a caretaker appointment as music director instead of an insulting lesser title— since when has an army been led by a colonel?). It's also true that the recent marketing of the Orchestra has been an insult to the human intelligence.
     There's a broader factor in the Orchestra's difficulties, though, which is the decline in musical education at the elementary and secondary level, and of general cultural exposure to classical music.
     The Kimmel Center didn't give the Orchestra a bounce because it was an architectural disaster and an acoustical disappointment. Philadelphians who want to know how good their Orchestra is still need to go to Carnegie Hall.
     I'm skeptical that much can be done with Verizon Hall. The many attempts to fix the acoustical disaster of New York's Avery Fisher Hall haven't accomplished more than mediocrity.
     I don't think the Orchestra board had any idea of the worldwide PR disaster it would create by a bankruptcy filing, or the contempt it showed for its "wonderful" musicians (all five of whom on the board voted against it). It's a perfect example of the corporate mindset that regards a great cultural patrimony as a fungible asset.
     Meanwhile, I wonder how Yannick Nézet-Séguin feels about inheriting this mess. Maybe the other candidates for music director who quietly dropped out or found their existing commitments too pressing had a better sense of where things were heading. It was insult enough to find the Orchestra omitted from a list of the world's top 20 ensembles, absurd as that was. But it will have a long way to go to repair the perception of decline the filing has created.
     Canceling most of the Orchestra's Mann season won't help. And what does it say when a second-chair cellist thinks Seattle's orchestra may be a better bet for his future than Philadelphia's?
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
May 25, 2011


     Dan Rottenberg raised important issues pertaining to the precipitous decline of Philadelphia Orchestra audiences, but regarding his point about conductors' failures to connect with audiences, I have a different impression.
     I can't remember attending any Eschenbach concert that was not warmly received by the audience. Most of Eschenbach's concerts elicited standing ovations. Was Dan's experience so different from mine?
     Differing perceptions aside, of certain matters we can be sure: Classical music, in general, has never been sufficiently appreciated in Philadelphia for its potential as a shaping influence in people’s lives. Nor has the Kimmel Center been sufficiently understood to be a field of dreams. Maybe it’s time for that to change.
Karl Middleman
Merion, Pa.
June 1, 2011

     Editor’s note:
The writer is artistic director of the Philadelphia Classical Symphony.

Dutoit's long goodbye

     Re Tom Purdom’s review of The Damnation of Faust—
     Mr. Purdom is mistaken in his characterization of last weekend's concerts as the final ones of Charles Dutoit's chief conductorship. Maestro Dutoit will continue his musical leadership of the Philadelphia Orchestra in his role as chief conductor through the 2011-12 season. The coming season will be a celebration of Maestro Dutoit's 30 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the season offerings include many concerts to showcase and celebrate his talents and achievements here in Philadelphia.
Stacy Dutton
Villanova, Pa.
June 1, 2011

     Editor’s note:
The writer is a member of the Orchestra’s board.

     A quick look at the 2011-12 Philadelphia Orchestra program confirms that Maestro Dutoit remains chief conductor for another year. His tenure concludes with what will no doubt be a sensational concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra.
John McFadden
Fairmount/Philadelphia
June 1, 2011


Mumia and In a Daughter’s Eyes

     Re your review of In a Daughter’s Eyes—
     Mumia Abu-Jamal has given his side of the shooting of Officer Faulkner in 1981. The full affidavit given in 2001, whose second numbered paragraph (of 34) I quoted from in my review, can be found in J. Patrick O'Connor, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which also contains the text of an affidavit by Mumia's brother Wesley (Billy), also given in 2001.
     Billy stated that Mumia was unarmed, and, although he didn't see the shooting, that Kenneth Freeman, who was riding with him, did have a gun and later claimed to have shot Faulkner. (Freeman was killed execution-style on the night of the MOVE bombing n 1985. His death was ruled a "suicide.")
     Your review and mine both reach the same conclusion: that the crucial question is not who is or isn't a martyr here, but how Faulkner (and Mumia) got shot, and by whom. I didn't expect the play to answer these questions, and I thought the premise of two daughters interacting was intriguing. Too bad A. Zell Williams didn't know how to handle his material, though I think he has some talent.
     I don't know whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or not, though they were certainly railroaded. It may be too late to ever establish the truth of that case. But a real inquest (or better, a real trial) is still possible for Mumia. Unfortunately, the stage is now the only courtroom he may ever get.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
June 4, 2011


Vigil and older audiences

     Re Christopher Munden’s review of Vigil at the Lantern Theater—
     Sorry you had to see Vigil with such a stuffy audience. The night I went, the theater was full and the most raucous laughter came from older folk. Rather than putting forth a whole theory about theater audiences in Philadelphia, perhaps you should just chalk this up to one bad night.
Shirley Smith
Center City/ Philadelphia
June 1, 2011


Dance Affiliates’ A.W.A.R.D. Show

     Re Jonathan M. Stein’s review of Dance Affiliates’ A.W.A.R.D. Show:
     Right on. Thanks Jonathan.
Randy Dalton
Germantown/ Philadelphia
May 27, 2011


Zinman and Miss Saigon

     Toby Zinman's attempt, in her May 27 review of Miss Saigon in the Inquirer, to pit her own silly opinion against the creative genius of Cameron Mackintosh, Alain Boublil and Michel Schoenberg is a grave injustice to her readers and the city’s theater-going public. The only thing that captured Zinman’s attention is the helicopter that blew on her face. Perhaps she should review theme parks instead of breakthrough theater.
     I am personally saddened that a respected newspaper such as the Inquirer will give vent to a reviewer who can only appreciate the “catfight” between two women as a pivotal event among the too many to count confrontations among the beautiful cast and their explosive characters. Miss Saigon will far outlive Zinman and her lack of introspect.
Regina G. Madonna
Schwenksville, Pa.
May 29, 2011

     Editor’s comment:
When a critic expresses her honest opinion instead of reflecting everyone else’s, that’s not a “grave injustice”— that’s doing her job.