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October 25, 2007

Comments

Aaron Riccio

God, that Times review pisses me off. I mean, "It doesn’t help that Louis Cancelmi, who plays Philoktetes, has a passing resemblance to Matthew Fox, who is Jack on “Lost,” and has lines about loving and hating the island. “Lost” is clearly not an influence, of course." Clearly he looks more like Zachary Quinto, the guy who plays Sylar on Heroes. I mean, they're even both equally soft-spoken and sinister.

In seriousness, though, I also wound up with nothing to say, which sucks as I'm really in admiration of the Soho Rep season and their bold choices of premieres (or returns, as with No Dice). I felt like I was watching a multimedia cuckoo clock (such synchronized movement and dialogue), and all the things this could have stood for really did ebb into a liquid blur, like injecting yourself with language itself.

David Cote

Hey Aaron: I wouldn't deny that the show is profoundly strange and dislocating, even gnomic and hermetic (gnomes and hermits, hm, perfect for Philoktetes), but the Times review displayed no sense of context beyond: "Eww, I'd rather be watching TV." Which, by the way, I've felt before, but can get beyond, especially when it comes time to write the frickin review. Eww, abstraction! Opacity! Formalism!

Playgoer

I completely agree about this Philoctetes review, David. Is it imaginable that, say, a visual art critic for the times would review a new exhibit by a respected abstract or mixed-media painter as "an unintended satire of avant-garde art"?

As for the tv-limited frame of reference...need we remind ourselves the critic in question, Caryn James, actually WAS a on the NYT TV beat for many years. (She's still relatively new to the theatre section.)

David Cote

Yes, the Times apparently believes that anyone can review theater. I wonder if they'd shuffle a staff writer for architecture to the opera desk? Or an automobile reporter to the Business pages? Reminds me of grammar school, when the gym teacher had to fill in for the the English teacher who quit. My question is: Who's going to write the big Slate.com story with the title: "How Bad Is the New York Times' Theater Coverage?" The story would go into detail about the stylistic ignorance & conservatism of its identical lead critics; the general disrepute the paper is held in; and its inability to identify exciting young talent. The article kicker would be about how the exorbitant rates the paper charges for (mostly ineffective) print advertisement exists in inverse proportion to how vital or relevant its coverage is.

George Hunka

The Times is not going to go away, nor will any amount of carping by artists and critics change the perspectives of its editors and its critics. Though the Times is Kremlin-like in their disregard of criticism of its own practices, it's not hard to see that the newspaper is just the house organ for the Disneyification of New York theatre -- and I don't just mean Broadway, but "Off-Broadway-Land" and "Off-Off-Broadway-Land" as well. Unfortunately, for all the carping that artists do about the New York Times, very few theatre critics or practitioners are willing to take them on publicly (in some cases, on the advice of their agents, but in most cases because they know they need that Times review to gain legitimacy). And why should they? The Times plays a unique role in the economic and publicity schemes of New York theatre; even in fundraising activities by non-profits, a Times review, even a lukewarm review, is included in the fundraising package as an indication of the status of the organization: The Times means business; now, you're serious.

The only answer to the Times is to write better, more insightful reviews ourselves, and to urge other publications to do so as well. The New York Times is not an altruistic organization, it's a business. To complain that Caryn James compares a performer to somebody she's seen on "Lost" is about as meaningful as complaining about a critic who compares plays to Lifetime television movies. That's not the problem.

George Hunka

But on Philoktetes, my own review of the play is at:

http://www.georgehunka.com/blog/index.cgi/2007/10/16#philoktetes_071016

(Sorry about the rather uninteresting graphic, but theatre bloggers don't get press photos.)

David Cote

Thanks for your two cents, George, but I'll go on carping meaninglessly on my little blog. If you're offering your review of Philoktetes as a corrective to the reductive Times piece, well okay, but I don't think that will change much except maybe attract some readers to your blog. Being an editor, I know how responsible we are for the tone and direction of sections, what stories we choose, what critics we send out. Hundreds of little decisions add up to institutional profiles and reputations. The Times is not an abstraction governed by some amorphous process of Disneyfication; it is a machine. I believe that machine could work better. If they hired me, of course. Simply writing better reviews is not enough. Carping and chatting and engaging in dialogue helps. Dialogue, George - that's like allowing comments on your blog posts. The Times does it!

Aaron Riccio

So how do we get more dialogue going? I mean, nice as it is to comment on blogs and to occasionally chat in person, what sort of dialogue can we achieve?

Parabasis tried to start something like this with his blogger night idea, but that fractured into independent discussions on myriad sites. What about getting a bunch of bloggers together to see a show selected in advance, perhaps one a month (like a book club), that could then be posted about by EVERYBODY, and to the same blog.

The show could then really be discussed, not simply in comments, but in an evolving flurry of posts, thoughts, digressions, and ideas. And with open comments, so that anyone could chip in, ala the way the Brick's Pretentious Blogger event went down. Wouldn't that be an interesting way to pique more curiosity in a way that merges casual discussion, serious critique, and the public forum? (On my end, I know Show Showdown is helped by the gimmick of a theatergoing marathon, and ironically by that NYT write-up way back in March '07. I enjoy talking theater with them; I'd love to see what further growth the web might find.)

David Cote

One thing we could use is Rotten Tomatoes for theater. Or a Metacritic-type site. Or a totally anonymous site where the writers could attack and criticize with impunity.

Edward Einhorn

The Times frustrates me no end, at times, not least because when George Hunka wrote a Fall preview for last season one of the few things cut was any mention of the Havel Festival--a personal gripe, to be sure, but epidemic of their attitude towards independent theater at times.

However, I will say this--they are the only daily who ever ventures on a steady basis into the independent or experimental scene. The reason that the Times has so much power is because, sadly, there are no alternatives. When I do a show, I know there are really only three "respectable" publications I have a shot at: The Voice, Time Out, and the Times. The Voice has been the most steady over the years--though I have to say, David, you have done some work to expand Time Out's coverage (and could still do more yet, I think). But weeklies have a different impact.

But how often do you see the Post, the News, the Observer, the Sun, or any other daily out seeking new talent? The Sun did do a huge feature on Havel, I must admit--not to make this just about me, but I can only talk from my own experience--but that was more of an aberration, and it never mentioned the theater. Yes, the Times is going to powerful regardless. But other papers could have a major impact, if they cared to. Which they don't.

And as for dailies, how about New York, or the New Yorker, or...the list goes on. Yes, NEw York has an overwhelming amount of theater. But so does London, and the amount of coverage there is incredible. It's not just funding that helps the London theatre thrive. It's the coverage it gets.

Is it from lack of interest here? I don't know. It's almost certainly a financial decision, but is it just being afraid to try? When I look at Time Out London I am amazed at the amount they cover, much more than you are able to here.

Why would you say that is, David? You're in a position to know. Why are you so limited in the number of pages allocated? Yes, everything is important, and it's a balancing act, but frankly when you're in the theater capital, you should be giving at least as much space to theater as you do to film.

I ask not to attack in Time Out in particular. As I said, Time Out is one of the few more reliable publications. But at the heart of the grousing about the Times is a bigger problem, I think--the lack of coverage in general. Who cares if the Times chooses to send its TV critic to one show, if there are numerous reliable publications that choose otherwise. If we are going to talk about why the Times coverage is so poor, we need to talk about why so many other publications' coverage is often poorer.

I am honestly curious for insight from an insider.

George Hunka

For what it's worth, Edward, I fought hard for the inclusion of the Havel festival in that piece. But, as David is surely aware, space is at a premium, and even David has editors above him (and a publisher) to whom he is answerable. The basis on which these decisions were made is indeed a product of the machine that David cites (of which I was a cog myself last year), and because I can't read minds I can't offer you a rationale for it. I have my suspicions, but they remain only suspicions.

In any event, I'm not convinced that the machine can work properly, or better, with only a little tinkering. Call it cynicism: I'm not convinced that the system, or the machine, can be changed meaningfully from the inside. I've heard that from too many politicians. If it were true, democracies wouldn't still be throwing up George W. Bushes.

On the one occasion I met Ben Brantley (a perfect gentleman, by the way) and told him that I was a blogger about theatre, his hair didn't stand on end in fear that the power of the Internet was going to undermine his position. I didn't expect it, either. What we do presently have control over is our writing, the content of our reviews. But the Internet is only going to be an effective alternative (which Aaron suggests) if we, through our writing, prove that it can be, and keep the inside-baseball to a minimum.

George Hunka

And so far as other art forms go, spend some time talking to visual artists, composers and musicians, and you'll get quite an earful about the knowledgeability and sentiments of Times critics and editors in those fields as well.

David Cote

George: I live with a new-music player, and while she has her opinions on the relative bitchiness or stupidity of certain reviewers, I don't see the level of appalled despair that I've seen from artists in the Off-Off, Off and academic worlds. Then again, new music has a healthier presenting culture and audience base for new experimental work. Not paradisial I'm sure, but not quite as arbitrary and blinkered.

August

"Yes, the Times apparently believes that anyone can review theater." Is it fair to complain that the New York Times sent a TV reviewer to Philoktetes when Time Out sent out numerous non-reviewers to review Fringe NYC shows? My recent Fringe production Riding the Bull was reviewed by someone in advertising at TONY who began her review by saying that her roommate was asleep before the show began, explained she though the play was going to be like "Brokeback Mountain", and then gave a plot synopsis that ended with her saying she didn't get it.

We sort of shrugged it off, as many of the other reviews we received were detailed, engaged and useful criticism; but given how much I respect the work you do at TONY, it was nonetheless disappointing.

I agree with everything you say in the paragraph that follows the quote above, and I also respect that TONY at least tried to cover the Fringe in a meaningful way, when so many others did not. I wonder if next time round, TONY might reach out the numerous quality bloggers who are deeply engaged in the Fringe and use the pages of TONY to promote their work. This would give a higher quality of TONY reviews for the Fringe, and also call attention to the passionate work of reviewers like Aaron Riccio, Patrick Lee, David Bell, OffOffBlogway, Hy Bender, etc.
I'm not sure if that's possible, but it might be worth a try.

David Cote

And Edward: George is right. Comparing the Times to TONY or any weekly is tricky. It's a question of bulk. On any given week, the daily arts section of the Times can cover 12 to 20 new shows. Plus maybe, what? - 8 or more news and features pieces (not counting Arts Briefly or the increasing number of online-only podcasts, video features, blogs, etc.). Then on Sunday it can run 2 or more big pieces. TONY cannot compete in terms of sheer word count and real estate. No weekly can. And no other daily cares enough or theater, or gets enough revenue from theater advertisers, to run comparable amounts of theater coverage. On a busy week, I run as many as 9 reviews, a feature article and maybe a box. Now, considering that I cannot simply demand 10 more pages in TONY for theater and an unlimited budget for freelancers, etc., the question really is: How well does TONY do with the space it's given? I personally think that, on a Thurs or Friday, if you had a choice of holding the Times or TONY in your hand to decide what to see, you'd be foolish to go with the Times. I'm biased, of course. But let's face facts: despite having a fraction of the Times budget, we run amazingly lengthy weekly listings that tell you where, when, how much and how good the show is. Our reviews, while bite-size, are smart and informed. And we have an a priori dedication to emerging playwrights, small daring companies and controversial material/aesthetics. We assume that our readers aren't wealthy suburbanites who shrink from difficult form or content. Now Edward, if you have detailed criticisms of TONY content, let me know - I'm always looking to improve the section.

David Cote

August: point taken. Not sure how we'll cover the Fringe next year. It is a daunting event that, to my mind, renders well-intentioned, serious reviewing very difficult if not pointless... because of the scope, variability of talent and chance of seeing even good material poorly served in that flea-market format.

Edward Einhorn

George: Yes, I actually suspected that you fought for it (since it was on your personal Fall preview in your blog). It was more a criticism of the Times.

David: The criticism of TONY is a little unfair, I must admit. If it weren't your blog, I wouldn't have brought up TONY at all. But it is , and so I did.

I think I was trying to make clear I understand the situation of dailies vs. weeklies, and I think it is the other dailies who need to step up.

But I do think (not that this is necessarily under your control) that insufficient space is given to theater. Yes, as I say, everything is important, but is TONY's voice in film the thing anyone is dependent on? I'm interested in reading TONY's film reviews, but if there is something that's not covered, I can look elsewhere. Whereas, New York theater has almost no coverage and TONY is one of the rare venues I can hope to read about exciting work.

Also (and this is something you can change, I think) when there are a spate of commercial shows, it is almost impossible for an smaller production to get coverage. One thing I do like in the Voice is that they don't always feel compelled to cover a Broadway show during opening week. yes, they often do cover it then, but if there is an exciting small show with a three week run, it may be worth covering that early and then waiting a week (or two) for the Broadway coverage. After all, there are plenty of people covering Broadway, and that show (unless it's particularly poor) will keep running for a while. I'm much more interested in finding out about, say, Black Watch, than in finding out what you think of the Little Mermaid as soon as it opens. There will be time.

I'm just saying that maybe opening schedules don't need to dictate coverage as much. That may be one advantage of being a weekly over a daily.

David Cote

Edward: Besides covering smaller, Off-Off productions, TONY will remain a voice in the mix chiming in about the biggest commercial stuff out there. It's not an either/or situation. Do we give priority in our pages to big commercial openings and the nonprofit Off-Broadway world? They're the big kids on the block and it's our responsibility to evaluate them, same as anyone else. We have to keep up with our competitors in the media. If you think the Voice is doing a better job covering Off-Off, fine. But I'd have to respectfully disagree. In any given week in TONY, you'll see the blend. Look at this week: Opener on Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf at HERE, box on LightBox show at 3LD, reviews of Broadway, Off and Off-Off shows. That's New York theater. Don't expect TONY's theater section to be renamed Off-Off. That's not going to happen. Maybe I'm arrogant (maybe!?) but I trust my taste, and my freelancers, in what's worth covering in the Off-Off world.

Sean

I appreciate Gus' comment and was thinking the exact same thing. David, you mentioned our play "Hail Satan" as a bright point in the Fringe festival, but the only somewhat middling review we got was from TONY, reviewed by, I believe, an intern from "Eating Out". Or so I was told...

But this is what is so magical about the theater blogging community. People know what you like, David, and we were able to let people know what you said about our show, and I think it led to really good houses by the end of the run.

The theater community is not as big as it could be, but this is one place where that's a good thing. We know each other, we read each other's blogs and comments and posts outside of the work we do as artists and reviewers, and soon we will be working in a more meritocratic system than when the Times could single handedly kill a piece.

I read this and George's blog, (as well as many others), to let me know what is actually going on in the theater world. The Times is still as important as ever, but that is changing. And it's changing fast.

Edward Einhorn

I think I made it clear--or at least I tried to--that I actually do think that since you've taken over, the coverage has much improved. Don't think I haven't noticed. However, my suggestion is not that you fail to cover Broadway, but that you don't let the schedule of the openings dictate when the review goes into TONY. Just a suggestion, since you asked before. I don't have a huge stake in it, it's just my two cents.

Here's another idea...what you did with the Fringe was great, in terms of really trying to have at least some miniature reviews of a lot of shows. But of course, as some have commented, we really have a year round fringe in NY. Have you considered that as an ongoing feature...not with the same intensity, perhaps, I don't know if you could sustain it, but at least to an extent?

By the way, I reread my earlier comment and thought that perhaps it sounded like I blamed George for the Havel Fest info not going into the Times. I don't, not at all. And I do appreciate the effort made, George.

George Hunka

No offense taken, Edward, and I don't think you misread me or vice versa. I was only trying to illustrate that these editorial processes are often thorny indeed and as multivalent as David notes. Sometimes the writer wins, sometimes the writer loses.

I especially know it because I was a cog in David's TONY a few times last year myself (I reviewed the Grove Collected Beckett for him and did a piece on the Argentina theatre festival at PS122) and can personally speak to his care and deliberations as to what he publishes and doesn't publish in TONY's theatre section, however much his tastes and editorial philosophy and mine clash (and they do so, very often). And I have to say, I got much fairer breaks from TONY than I did from the Times.

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