Thursday, February 23, 2006

Something Is Rotten, But is Bill is a bit off the Marx?

Bill Marx filed an op-ed about the recent real-life DC theatre thriller involving a theatre critic for the WaPO and her conflating comments on her personal blog.

Apparently critic Tricia Olszewski, (who bottom feeds as a thankless stringer for the Post’s drama stable,) runs a personal blog called the Movie Babe. In her blog’s bio section the "Babe’ attempted some wit, but wound up without a job. She penned the following phrase, which will now live in infamy among theatre bloggers:

....drama nerds can find my snooty takes on local theatah on Help make MovieBabe a success so I don't have to see any more pretentious plays! Disclaimer: Movie Babe is not insinuating that all productions in the Greater Washington, D.C. area take themselves too seriously. Just some of them. And by some, I mean many that I'm sent to.

Apparently, she was taken off the boards beat in response to a few disgruntled theatre folk who alerted the editors of her egregious utterances.

There is a lot more to this story and the details can be found in Marx’s Op-Ed and the linked sources. In expressing outrage that such a tepid comment could result in a McCarthy style purging of the stringer stable, Marx seems ready to recite Pastor Neimoller. Marx says the following:

"Critics who dare to be critical rather than supportive have to
watch out on several fronts now, including considering what statements in their theater blogs could be used to discredit them. Also, the punishment meted out for Olszewski's mild putdown sends a chilling signal to freelancers around the country: be as safe and supportive as possible if you want to keep your jobs."

Now I am, by nature, a slippery slope type of person myself and following the story since earlier this month, I have to say that my initial gut reaction was very similar Mr. Marx. As a fairly prolific and sometimes outspoken Blogger, I thought that it was a little bit of overreaction by the Post.

However, upon reflection, I would say that there were some serious issues here that cannot be glossed over. They are best covered in a follow up by Beltway Stage Blogger T-Boy and his conversation with a person on the inside at the WAPO, Michael Cavna, Theatre Editor.

Cavna acknowledged that T.O.'s blog bio "immediately raised a red flag." The trouble was twofold, he said:

There was the obvious issue of the Post's difficult public position, "now that she publicly has given the perception that maybe being a theater critic isn't for her."

But, Cavna said, there was also a certain amount of basic editorial flock-tending involved: How does this person feel covering theater? "It sparked a conversation," Cavna said, that eventually involved editorial panjandrums up to and including Style section chief Deb Heard.

In those conversations, Olszewski "expressed discomfort in her role," Cavna said. "As you know, it's different from writing about movies or music; it's insular, and you're frequently in contact with those youre criticizing."

With all of the above in mind, Cavna said, "We talked with her and decided it would be better for her to step back from theater and continue as a pop music critic. And what she expressed to me was relief."

I am a little confused by Bill Marx’s railings on the issue. Are critics to be held to no standards? Is a person a competent critic merely by their association with a publication? Should somebody who is actually distasteful of the art-form be reviewing that form anyway? It reminds me of an exchange on the TV show Slings and Arrows. In the scene, an artistic Director fires a pretenious auteur director who is massacring Hamlet, (see the recent reviews of the ART's Romeo and Juliet.)

Artistic Director (to director): You always hated the theatre.

Director: I don't hate the theatre, I pity it.

Recently we have seen the publication of two important books of criticism John Simon’s collected writings and Richard Gilman’s The Drama is Coming Now. Both of these books are filled with scathingly negative critiques, but one thing shines through: A passion and desire to see theatre improve and flourish. (Gilman more than Simon, or at least more noticeably.) These are people who, though they review other arts, love the theatre. While Larry Stark and Bill Marx here in Boston have faced off many times on their definitions and views of critical ethics, forms, and theories, they both have a great passion for the theatre as an art form, not wishing to see its quality diminish or existence extinguished.

In the Olzewski case we have somebody seeming to admit that they don’t want to be reviewing drama. And according to Michael Cavna, in this case, where there was smoke there was fire. That said, Marx may have a point in fearing that critics may have to contend with too many ominous fire detectors that can’t tell the difference between a drape catching flame on the space heater and a delicate dinner being sauteed in an open pan.

Take all the wit out of reviewing and I suppose you are left with box scores. But filling stringer positions with witty people who don't even want to be drama critics cannot be the answer, and will certainly not lead to any sort of rejuvenation of Arts pages in the paper. Will it?

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