Free speech vs. creativity at the Wilma

The ‘Wilma Papers': Free speech vs. the creative process

Zizka: In defense of 'private' public readings.
Zizka: In defense of 'private' public readings.

     On January 5 the Wilma Theater performed a free reading of what its website advertised as a "surprise play" by an unidentified author, directed by Blanka Zizka, the Wilma's co-artistic director. His curiosity thus aroused, Jim Rutter attended the reading and discovered that the play in question was In the Next Room, by Sarah Ruhl. Rutter set down his impression of the work and submitted it to Broad Street Review, where it was posted the next day.

     Three days later I received an anguished phone call from Blanka Zizka, asking me to withdraw Rutter's post from our site. The script that was read that night, she said, was merely a work-in-progress; the reading was solely designed to solicit input from a live audience. Our posting of Rutter's review, she said, had jeopardized Wilma's relationship with Ruhl's agent and consequently jeopardized Wilma's hope of staging the play.

     The hairs on my neck generally rise when anyone tries to prevent me from speaking to or listening to whomever I damn please. Nevertheless, after some reflection I acceded to Zizka's request and withdrew Rutter's post. But I'm still not sure that I did the right thing. A larger issue seems to be at stake here: Does a theater's need to maximize its creative expression trump an audience's right to free expression?

     Thanks to e-mail, virtually all the communication on this matter— among Rutter, Zizka and myself— is instantly available, so I'm reprinting it here, only slightly edited for clarity and to avoid redundancy. What Blanka Zizka says to her audience, I say to you: Your feedback is appreciated.

Dan Rottenberg to Blanka Zizka, January 9:

     After some reflection, I've concluded that your objection to Jim Rutter's post about Wilma's Sarah Ruhl reading— that he was reviewing a work in progress that wasn't ready for public discussion— is valid, and I've removed his post from our site.

     I hesitated to do so only because, just as you've been trying to redefine theater, I've been trying, with Broad Street Review, to redefine conventional notions about commentary and discussion. Specifically, 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. If you are going to open an event to the public, you can't and shouldn't try to prevent those present from discussing it with whomever they please, no matter what they do for a living.

     BSR functions as a laboratory where writers can and do edit their pieces after they've been posted, much in the way you provide a laboratory for Sarah Ruhl and other playwrights. I do think it ill behooves anyone in the arts to try to stifle discussion of any sort, and I doubt very much that Ruhl or her play will be harmed by Rutter's commentary.

     That said, I acknowledge that she and you may feel differently, and I will respect the conditions under which you say her agent allowed you to present the reading. In such cases in the future, I do hope you'll make it clear to the audience that the work is not yet ready for public discussion. I'm sorry for any distress this episode has caused you.

Jim Rutter to Dan Rottenberg, January 10, 2009:

     I agree with your decision and am glad that you filled Blanka in on the function of BSR (not to mention her inability to censor every one of the 150 or so who showed up for the reading).

     I did actually speak to Walter Bilderback (Wilma's dramaturge) the evening of the reading for about ten minutes, and he mentioned nothing about "keeping things private," and even remarked that Toby Zinman [the Inquirer critic] was present. And as for "not advertising" the reading— the Wilma had let word slip out through a few channels: Members/representatives of several other theater companies were in attendance, and a few individuals whom I spoke to had come specifically because they knew it was Sarah Ruhl's new play. When I saw Bilderback that evening before entering the theater, I asked him what the play was, and he replied, "Oh, I'm surprised you don't know yet."

Blanka Zizka To Dan Rottenberg, January 12, 2009:

     I very much appreciate that you have taken the review of last week's reading of Sarah's unfinished play off your website.

     However, I have to tell you that I disagree with your idea that writers for Broad Street Review should have the freedom to review readings. Working with playwrights over the years, I have learned slowly and painfully that it's a very fragile process, and the wrong criticism at the wrong time could hamper the writing and create lots of damage.

     The readings are not meant to be something that we do as a service to the public, but as a part of a development process in which, while still working on the play, we need to hear the text out loud together with an audience. This is a practice that has been very successful for many playwrights.

     It's very important for the writer to have support from colleagues who are experienced in this tricky and delicate process and are able to help in creating conditions that bring out the best in their writing. There is a long tradition in the American theater of public readings that are considered to be a part of working process, and it really should be upon the writer to decide when he/she is finished with the play and ready to have it reviewed.

     Even when we go further into a production, we still ask reviewers to abstain from reviewing previews. This is because we are still engaged in reworking the play or the production, even when the audiences are coming in.

     I can't even begin to tell you how many changes I make during previews and how different the piece can look over the course of the seven days of preview week. In one play, the writer cut forty minutes of text between the first preview and Opening Night; in an original musical, we developed here, songs were cut or changed right up to the last minute; in another production, I threw out a piece of scenery that was cumbersome and was imposing on the actors' performances. Those are large changes but there are also a myriad of nuanced changes: in interpretation, in timing, in making sure actors are stressing the right words for the purposes of story telling, in setting intensity in lighting and sound levels, etc.

     To have the freedom to organize readings and run previews without the presence of critics is something that theater artists need. We consider it a right that each artist have a safe space in which to experiment and test their work before it is subjected to the kind of rigorous public examination that written criticism brings. I will defend this right fiercely.

Jim Rutter to Dan Rottenberg, January 12, 2009:

     I disagree with Blanka on most of her points— and I speak as a current playwright who has held staged readings of his own work.

     The first people whose feedback I would like (and have invited/encouraged) are critics. They are experts in understanding and evaluating the experience of live theater; they also serve as very reliable gauges of (current) public taste. (Not surprisingly, when Walter Bilderback called me to ask if I would remove the review, he also asked if I thought the play would succeed here in Philadelphia at the Wilma.)

     Also, I know that those very same critics will ultimately serve as the public arbiters of my (or any) work. If something doesn't work in the development stage, critics could save a theater's limited resources by commenting on a play's shortcomings at an early stage. The Wilma folks could have saved a great deal of time and money had they invited Toby Zinman, J. Cooper Robb, Mark Cofta et al to critique a staged reading of the Wilma's two recent bombs by Roy Smiles.

     Third, I hardly think that all of these theater pieces exist in the sort of "fragile environment or process" that Zizka describes. For example, next Monday, the Wilma will give a staged reading of Boom!, a play that already saw a full production at the widely heralded Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. Obviously, that play is finished, and neither the playwright nor his work would "suffer" from a critic who happened to be dumb enough to write about a mere staged reading of a work that other theatres have already given full productions.

     The same goes for tonight's reading of Vaclav Havel's "new" work, Leaving, which has already received staged readings in London and Prague. Whatever else Zizka may believe about Havel, the man suffered under a brutal regime for decades. I doubt that anything I write will "hamper his artistic process and create lots of damage."

     And as for last week's reading of Sarah Ruhl's new work? The woman was short-listed for the Pulitzer and received a MacArthur "genius grant" at 32; now, her plays appear all over the country. She's money in the theater's bank. Any carping over my article about her new play stems more from the practical concerns that Zizka first elucidated when she complained that we've angered Ruhl's agent.

     Blanka's goal is to ensure the successful development of the play. If doing so requires the creation of a "safe space" in which this development can take place, then the responsibility for fomenting such an atmosphere rests entirely with her. If that means not admitting critics or other potentially hostile members of the public, then so be it. But she can't expect you to do that work for her.

     The history of theater criticism offers plenty of occasions when a theater has shown critics the door. But Blanka wants it both ways— a public reading in which the theater and playwright can receive targeted, measured feedback, but conducted behind closed doors, with everyone attending surrendering their right to speak about the reading once they've left the building.

     Any one of the 150 or so people who showed up last Monday could have published their views of Sarah Ruhl's new play on the web, potentially reaching an audience far larger than the print run of all the city's newspapers combined. Christ, I had written most of my review before I even walked out of the theater (the talk-back took over an hour). Had I owned a Blackberry, I could've emailed it to you from my seat.

     As an arts journalist, I don't recognize the right of any artist to a safe space in public that in any way violates my right to freedom of expression. An artist working in private in his/her studio has the right to that "safe space." But once any theater opens the gate—to us, or anyone with a blog, a big e-mail list, or a tongue for speaking— then all bets are off. We say what we will.

Dan Rottenberg to Jim Rutter, January 13, 2009:

     I disagree only with your suggestion that directors should solicit feedback from critics during a play's early stages. I'm sure directors would love such feedback, if it's offered privately. But I see myself as a critic and/or an audience member— not a consultant. If I have something to say about what I see on stage, I'll say it publicly.

Dan Rottenberg to Blanka Zizka, January 13, 2009:

     You speak as if theater is an end in itself. I would argue that it is a means to a greater end— the end of self-discovery and public enlightenment, which are made possible only through freedom of expression for everyone, not just theatrical producers.

     In the age of blogs and e-mail, there's no practical way you can prevent such expression, even assuming you wanted to. In today's brave new world, everyone's a critic. And ultimately that may not be such a bad thing. (The book reviews posted by amateurs on are often more perceptive than those written by professional reviewers, just as letters to the editors of newspapers are often more insightful than editorials.)

     I will grant that not all creative people can deal with open evaluation of their work before it's finished (or even after). But those who do so are stronger for the experience, and the ability to operate with this flexibility is one of the great blessings of the Internet over print, just as the ability to constantly adjust a play is the great advantage of theater over film.

     You asked how I would feel if I showed a rough draft of my unfinished book to someone in confidence and they proceeded to circulate it to others. This is a valid analogy. In fact, I did send a first draft of my most recent book, Death of a Gunfighter, in confidence to six people who are knowledgeable about my chosen subject. But I paid each of them a fee for their reading and feedback. That is, I clearly established that I wanted to impose on their time and expertise and was willing to compensate them accordingly. If you paid your audience members to come to readings and provide input, I would feel more sympathetic about your request that they suspend their right to speak freely about what they've seen.

     All that said, I will nevertheless refrain from posting Jim's review of the Sarah Ruhl reading, but for an entirely different reason: Reviewing a work in progress strikes me in general as a pointless exercise and consequently a waste of time for those who might read it. Had Jim Rutter and I known in advance that it was a work in progress, he probably wouldn't have attended at all, and I surely wouldn't have posted it— unless he had some awesome insight that I felt simply couldn't be suppressed.

To read responses, click here.
For a follow-up commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
For a follow-up commentary by Jim Rutter, click here.

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