A closed opening

Is MJ Kaufman's 'Destiny Estimate' "too personal" to review?

5 minute read
The cast of the play that you can see but I can't talk about. (Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography via destinyestimate.com.)
The cast of the play that you can see but I can't talk about. (Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography via destinyestimate.com.)

Back in September, Broad Street Review received an invitation to review playwright MJ Kaufman’s world premiere Destiny Estimate. Tonight marks its first and only preview, with an opening night kicking off its 10-day run tomorrow, October 20, 2017. Last week, we received word Kaufman decided not to open the show “to reviews.”

Destiny Estimate, funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Venturous Theater Fund, and SPACE at Ryder Farm, has its own website, Twitter account, Facebook page, Facebook event, and public-relations representative, Julie Toth.

When asked what spurred this turn of events, Toth replied by email, “It is MJ's decision to request reviews not be written as the play is of a personal nature and is going to be a limited run and not being produced elsewhere.” Conversely, another colleague was instructed that the play is definitely not autobiographical and should not be covered that way.

Too personal? Not personal? Doesn't matter — and not just because the subject of a review doesn't get final approval over what's printed. As of October 17, Kaufman was hyping the show on their own personal Twitter account, where it's neither listed as a reading nor still in development. It’s being produced at the popular theater venue Christ Church Neighborhood House, and there’s a link to tickets, ranging from $15 to $25.

Ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

I’m writing about this before opening night, because I don’t want the quality of the production to be confused with the quality of the ethics of asking media not to review the show. (And, in the interest of full disclosure: both Kaufman and one of the show’s performers, Daniel Park, have written fine essays for BSR in the past.) Also, I hope they'll reconsider.

If you’re producing a piece and inviting the press, you have no obligation to provide comped tickets, but you also don’t get to say what is and isn’t written. The New York Times once ran this note at the end of a 1980 review of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, featuring Mike Nichols and Elaine May (which BSR theater critic Cameron Kelsall discovered): “This Sunday piece came about when [drama editor] Arthur Gelb stormed into the culture department demanding to know why we weren't reviewing this production, which was widely publicized but off-limits to critics. Informed by an underling that Nichols and May had specifically requested no press coverage, Arthur witheringly asked, ‘Well, they're selling tickets, aren't they? Buy one.’”

MJ Kaufman, playwright, (Photo courtesy of MJ Kaufman)
MJ Kaufman, playwright, (Photo courtesy of MJ Kaufman)
MJ Kaufman BS Rauthors 051716

Some places and people deal with critics better than others. I’ve been screamed at from the stage in front of a full opening-night audience by a director who was certain I’d hate the show (I didn’t, actually). I’ve been “banned” from several of our area’s finest houses, as have many of my colleagues. (Of course, they can’t ban the press from purchasing a ticket to a show that’s open to the public, so I’m still waiting for any of those bans to go into effect.) I’ve gotten thank-you notes from people involved in shows I’ve panned, and was recently asked to moderate a panel at one company specifically because I panned its production.

News you can use

But lately I’ve run into this new wrinkle more than once: a performer or playwright claiming that a show is too personal or that a review should be removed because it makes them or their loved ones uncomfortable. It’s a disturbing development, for its attitude both toward the press and toward theater.

Playwrights should consider these issues before deciding to put their work onstage. There are ways around it: hold private readings; don’t produce the piece; write a different piece; check with those around you first to be sure they don’t mind being included, or make your peace with the idea that they may be unhappy with you; use a pen name; decide whether or not this is the right career for you.

Theater is a very public discipline. No matter how you approach it, its very core involves you giving and someone else — most likely a stranger — receiving. Danielle Gatto and Makoto Hirano’s 4 Minute Booth didn’t use a single word to convey its meaning, but I can’t think of a more intensely personal staged endeavor.

Good theater criticism provides a different service. Critics act as public witness and public record. We interpret what we’ve seen and try to make sense of a show’s place in the world and in theater itself. We’re not writing for playwrights any more than they ought to be writing for us, but when their work is onstage and asking to be seen, it’s our obligation to be there and to tell you about it.

[Editor's note: Because there's been a lot of discussion regarding the wording and intention of the production's "no review" request, here's the text of Toth's original email:
"I wanted to reach out to you because my producers and our playwright have asked that we not have reviews of the show. You are of course welcome to come to the show still with your tickets. We just ask that a review not be written. My apologies for the change. The play is of a personal nature for the playwright and he would prefer not to have reviews. I really hope that you will still join us, as I would love to have you in the audience.
Please let me know if you have any questions and apologies again." You can read Cameron Kelsall's review of
Destiny Estimate here.]

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