Friday, June 02, 2006

"Absolutely the Most Towering Performance of a Subtle, Eye-Popping, Masterfully Lyrical, Epic-Proportioned, Destined-to-Be-A-Classic Text of a Veteran Emerging Playwright possessed of a Visionary Prescience that is only Surpassed by Linguistic Mastery. A Charming and Airy Delight that is also a Sobering Wake-up Call. Achieving the near impossible, it Seamlessly Blends Shakespeare and Beckett and Neil Simon. A Rollicking Farce in the Spirit of Moliere Imitating Jackie Mason Channeling Eugene O'Neill. In a Decade of Theatre Going, You Will Not See Another Show Like This. Go Now!"

I have been mulling over the Op-Ed by Bill Marx about identity theft of reviewers by overly creative marketing people. The BUR Arts Blog - Attitudes contains posts by sometimes freelance critic Thomas Garvey, who recently penned quite a rave for Love's Labor's Lost at the Huntington. Apparently, the Huntington has been using blurbs from that review in their advertising. Marx explains:

I didn't pen, "JUST PLAIN FUN! --" either, which
appeared in an ad for "Love's Labour's Lost" in the May 26th issue of "Metro."
Thomas Garvey wrote those words in a review posted on "Attitude," WBUR's online arts blog which encourages readers to sound off about New England culture via news, reviews, debate, etc. It is an interactive redefinition of the letters-to-the-editor section traditionally found in newspapers and magazines, where those concerned about the arts can exchange opinions and information. By identifying the quotes as coming from, the Huntington advertisements exploited an ambiguity -- the misleading implication is that WBUR's theater critic wrote those things about the production.

I agree with Marx that the practice is intentionally deceptive. He goes on to sound a cautionary note about the proliferation of online Arts Journalism and the increasing ability of publicists to pull blurbs from many different sources.

"Alas, publicists on the hunt for blurbs now troll the web because it spews out opinions with dizzying ferocity. Movie studios, theater companies, etc., are lifting hyperventilated praise for their ads from obscure or compromised online
sources. Someone somewhere (a relative of the playwright, for example) will opine that a production is a delight, when it is actually a total dud."

Mr. Marx is generally a supporter of the internet as a place for independent criticism, and his caution is understandable. Although, one would ask, "doesn't that happen with regular critics also?" We all know of cases where we ourselves have disagreed drastically with certain critics' pronouncements on everything from movies to books to plays.

I am interested in the question after I was initially a little taken aback by a commenter to my post on the Mal/Fin de Siecle of playwrighting and theatre. The nameless poster said:

"And while we're on the subject of credibility (Re: Ed Siegel departing) It might increase yours if you disclosed your own links to the Huntington in one of your effusive posts praising their work."

This was an interesting charge, and one that did cause me to step back and assess my post and any criticism or praise I give to certain theatre companies. I think I am negative just as much as positive about the Huntington, but what fascinated me was the suggestion that I was some type of shill. You can see my reply below. Basically, I stated that, by virtue of being a theatre person in Boston, yes, my paths and those of my wife and my colleagues cross with the Huntington quite often, but, just the same, they cross with many other theatres, small and large. (And, for the record, I have never questioned Ed Siegel's credibility, ethics or conduct.)
The combination of these two things, (Marx's article and the commenter's question,) is interesting and brings up questions as far as the balance between the blogosphere, independent theatre journalism, and the Mainstream Critics.

Much of the theatrical blogosphere is populated by actual artists, who work in communities in which we know each other. As some of these blogs gain inevitable visibility and name recognition, will they indeed be trolled by publicity machines?

Look at this post at George Hunka's blog Superfluities today. George talks about Sheila Callaghan's new play Dead City. Sheila is a part of the ever expanding theatrical blogging community. The post is a review, more or less, and it would qualify as a rave. And to my mind, George has every freedom to write it, (and I trust his opinion by the way.) However, the description is full of pull-quotable phrases , of the kind Mr. Marx points out that marketing people are trolling for. To make the situation more complex, George is actually a reviewer for the New York Times. (By the way, Thomas Garvey actually writes reviews for the Boston Globe occassionally.)

Now, here is the hard part...I have no conclusion on what we need to think or do about all of this. On the one hand, giving legitimacy to voices on the internet can free the public of the "thumbs up, thumbs down," shrinking column space of the current arts pages in the Mainstream Press. On the other, that same legitimacy opens a wide, wide, internet- wide door.

I remember reading an article from the west coast in which theatre companies were going to start giving comps to bloggers, the theatre companies then expected for the show to at least get mentioned on the blog.

Larry Stark' Theatermirror, (which was a kind of blog/message board before even there were such things,) solves some of these problems by usually posting many reviews from different people of the same show. (Dissenting reviews are posted as "Minority Reports.") Although, I guess that practice actually can also give publicity departments a virtual smorsgasbord to work with for their pull-quote expeditions.

Many reviewers have written before about how they try to purge their writing of pull-quote-able phrases, but they often find the attempt futile.

Does the fault lie with "cheerleaders" or those who manipulate the marketing text.


Anonymous said...

Good Point. Sort of like when the ART tried to paint a picture that Romeo and Juliet was a show that "Divided the critics!"... which was ridiculous. With the exception of a few voices, the show was universally panned. They actually ran that quote about "Pass the bottle of poison..." on their website as if it were a positive one- which was clearly misleading. As I said to a friend, "When Ed Siegel who is a huge fan of the ART pans a production there, then you KNOW it's not good!"

I don't know what the solution is however, and I suspect there may not be any. Bill Marx makes a great point though about the mis-appropriation of writing by critics in the promotion of productions.

And, for the record, I never called you a shill. As noted, I may have come on a bit too strong. It was as much a cautionary note as an accusation- for better or worse, we're judged as much for our affiliations as for our actions.

- AA

Thomas Garvey said...

I find it interesting that I should be in the simmering center of this particular tempest-in-a-teapot, and yet no one (not even the Boston Herald, which printed a snippy little piece about the contretemps) has bothered to ask me for my opinion.

In fact, no one has offered even a shred of sympathy for the insult the Huntington has done me - to insinuate that the plodding BILL MARX could have penned MY prose! The nerve! Are people really THAT obtuse? Ah, well - as a friend of mine pointed out, "Don't worry - if it's praise, no one will think Marx wrote it!" This, of course, is true - Marx even says as much in his piece:

"I steer away from heavy-breathing statements of comparison such as "towers above" or "greater than" because they sound like ad copy."

Now I'm generally a fan of fastidiousness, but I have to question the motive for it here. I mean, did I miss something? All this time I thought the whole point of being a critic was to GET PEOPLE TO SEE THE SHOWS YOU LIKED. Which would, it seems to me, mean GETTING INTO THE ADS. But apparently the real point is - well, I'm not sure WHAT it is, exactly; Mr. Marx doesn't say. He seems to imply his goal is to build some little personal periodic table of all the plays he's ever seen, or something like that, while doing the actual theater community as little good as possible. And that's okay, I suppose. Ridiculously pompous, but okay. It's just too bad that's the attitude of WBUR's theatre critic! And I have to add - isn't it kind of a laugh? Imagine Mr. Marx, after the show, crossing out all the praise from his reviews ("Oh, dear - that might end up as AD COPY!"), and you'll see what I mean.

As for that "misleading implication" that "WBUR's theater critic wrote" what was, in fact, my prose, Mr. Marx all but flattens his own argument (or at least his attendant outrage) just a few lines later by pointing out that he's already being misquoted left and right, with exclamation points being added to single adjectives pulled out of his reviews. (That's right - single adjectives; you can guess from that just how obsessed this little Robespierre has become.) Now I agree there's a categorical difference between these two kinds of deception - but is there a practical difference (particularly in this case, where Marx actually praised, in his usual lukewarm way, the production)? Indeed, isn't the latter practice MORE deceptive than the former? Thus his line "blurbs have become even less trustworthy than before, something I thought was impossible," is, I'd argue, simply false; they're just as untrustworthy as they always were, gentle reader.

YS said...

HI Thomas,

Thanks for your comments. On thinking and talking about this particular issue the last few days, I think Bill Marx might mischarecterize the WBUR Arts Blog. He kind of makes it sound as if it is some message board free for all. "Letters to the Editor." However, I am a loyal follower of Attitudes, and it is quite clear that there are authorized posters and there are comments.

I would not presume to know the inner workings, but it would appear that you have been authorized by WBUR and Bill Marx to Post on Theatre for the Blog. That is quite different from somebody like me, who posts in the comments from time to time.