Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Leonard Jacobs on Louise Kennedy

New York Critic Leonard Jacobs writes a little bit about Louise Kennedy's recent article about the American Repertory Theatre.

He focuses most of his thoughts on this passage from Kennedy:

My frustration, I think, has some of the same roots as my admiration. Before becoming the Globe's theater critic, I spent nearly five years as an arts reporter, often writing preview features in advance of a show's opening. As it happened, many of these previews concerned the ART, so I've spent a lot of hours in the company's basement rehearsal space at Zero Church Street, in its offices
at the Loeb Drama Center, and in conversation with many of its staff members, directors, and actors, as well as in the audience at the Loeb and the new theater space at Zero Arrow.

Some might argue that that's too much inside information for a critic to have, and I'll admit that it's sometimes challenging for me to write a strong critique of work by people I have come to like as well as respect. (Of course, since becoming the critic I have no longer attended any rehearsals or other "backstage" events.) But I also know that having observed the process, not just the productions, at the ART has given me a deep appreciation of the company's passions, its vision, and its creative ferment. And that's why I know it could
be better than it often is.

Leonard Jacobs Responds:

Well, perhaps some might argue "that that's too much inside information for a critic to have," but I'd argue that Kennedy is doing ART, as well as her own profession, a disservice by refusing to continue attending such events. By erecting a wholly artificial wall between critics and artists, Kennedy neither helps her readers, nor helps ART, nor helps herself as a critic.

To be clear, I have no problem with Kennedy airing her concerns about ART within the public sphere. In fact, as a nonprofit that likely receives one or more forms of public subsidy (from the city of Boston, state of Massachusetts, or the federal government), one could easily argue that it's a matter of the public's right to know.

But Kennedy, like it or not, I believe has a moral responsibility to
act like the member of the theatrical community that the Boston Globe theatre critic must must must -- she is, indeed, an essential and irrevocable part of that community. By separating herself from artists, she loses the valuable insight she had gained as a result of her earlier interactions. That helps no one.

I think Mr. Jacobs has a good point. And it brings up all sorts of interesting questions. Leonard has more things to say about Kennedy's piece.

My own focus when I first read it went to this part of the article:

But I'm also moved to write by some recent experiences in other theaters, experiences that created the sense of excitement and vitality that are a huge part of why I go to the theater in the first place. In three fairly different venues - the Providence institution that is Trinity Repertory Company, the small back space at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre that was temporarily occupied by a
Way Theatre Artists production, and the sui generis Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts (in the basement of the Fenway nightclub Machine) that the Gold Dust Orphans call home - I saw three very different plays, but each of them left me feeling awake, alive, and lucky to have been there.

And each of them, I soon realized, was the kind
of play that the ART could be doing.

Congratulations to Way Theatre Artists and Ryan Landry . When, in the future, you have a struggles, I hope that the critics will write long teary-eyed articles that suggest people give you more money. Somehow though, I don't think that will happen. Actually, my real wish is that they would write them now.


Thomas Garvey said...

Perhaps Mr. Jacobs has a good point, but I have to say that Ms. Kennedy's experience doesn't support it. To sum up her own article, once she was forced from participating in the ART process, the scales began to fall from her eyes. Suddenly, seeing the productions as the rest of us see them, they began to look, well, not as good as she had imagined. Suddenly productions whose process she was not party to began to look a whole lot better. It's hard to see how this could be an argument for her to return to her old ways. There may be such an argument for some critics, but I don't think, based on her own testimony, that it would hold for Ms. Kennedy.

Art said...

A good point as well, Thom.

It is the old argument: Can Arts coverage be like sports coverage?

In sports, the reporters and columnists travel with the teams, become friends with the players, sometimes help the players write their autobiographies, etc.

But in Sports things are a little different. For instance, the Patriots lost the World Championship. No sportswriter or editorial writer can spin it any way that will avoid that fact.

But in a way that is refreshing. The writers, the players and community have to deal with that fact.

I believe, as you seem and Leonard seem to suggest, that there are critics and theatre communities that can work this way. It is a fine line though.

Thomas Garvey said...

And not just for the reviewers. Theatre artists have to expect that if they become involved with critics, the critics may well re-assert their independence at some point or other. I've learned the hard way that this is seen as "betrayal"; it's not, but can theatre people learn to understand that?

And just a few more thoughts about Kennedy's piece. As usual, she never quite makes the points she "seems" to be making, which have long been championed by me, and others. To wit: 1) the ART has lost its ensemble of actors; 2) it has also lost its connection to the city; 3) it has even lost its connection to playwrights. All these issues must be attended to before it can succeed as a "repertory theatre." Then, of course, there's its relationship with Harvard, whose academics I think never really warmed to Brustein's imported aestheticism. If the A.R.T. is to succeed within Harvard, it will probably have to do so in alignment with a genuine theatre program.

There's a deeper problem, however, in the A.R.T.'s identity that no one has articulated clearly. Can a theatre be dedicated to directorial vision AND be a true repertory company? I'd say probably not. Directors will always want to pull in their own actors and designers, and a true repertory company will inevitably develop a signature "style" to which it will expect directors to conform, or at least honor. To try to build a repertory company devoted to directorial vision is probably a fool's errand.

Leonard Jacobs said...

My point is not whether she understood better the work or did not understand better the work, or liked better the work or did not like better the work. Critics are and absolutely must be a part of the community -- an essential part of the community, whether people like it or admit it or acknowledge it or not. For God's sake, is Brustein not the prime example of this?

There is more to being a witness to the process than whether one understands or appreciates the work more fully. And there's more to being a critic than whether attending one single performance, analyzed and evaluated in one single review, makes an impact.

What happened, I suspect, is that Ms. Kennedy, consciously or perhaps otherwise, significantly broadened her horizons. Indeed, having had some access to the unseen world of ART in the past probably endowed her with some insight as to how other companies arrive at their final product(s). It's not about inside baseball -- to use the sports analogy above. It's about insight -- and having the wisdom to know the difference between the two.

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, when it comes to "community," critics have traditionally been seen as part of the audience's community, not the artists' community. Being a conduit between both camps sounds appealing, of course - only a critic really can't be involved in the process of every show he or she sees, and so questions of favoritism are bound to arise. The A.R.T. is one example where this has obviously been the case - doubly so because of Brustein, whose critical stature few local reviewers were willing to cross (even though he was widely discussed off-line as being a mediocre artistic director).

At the same time, many bloggers - like myself! - are, or have been, involved with theaters and various companies. That involvement, needless to say, is a work-in-progress, which may, in fact, prove unworkable over the long run. But if it is workable, it will be so largely because of its transparency, and small scale - two attributes of blogging which the mainstream press would rather avoid! So I don't see an easy way for a mainstream critic to become part of the 'artist community' without compromising his or her integrity.

nick@ said...

Thanks Thom, your comments are right-on in addressing the evolving artist/critic relationship that the blogosphere and other online publication models have begun reshaping.

Consider Leonard Jacobs own dogged pursuit of George Hunka and the “preview review” issue through his blog posts. This is not something he could or would do through his position as national editor or reviewer at Back Stage; it wouldn’t be consider “professional.” (At one of my comic book posts at Rat Sass I pointed out Leonard’s “contra-review of a blogger’s preview review.” I believe this one reason why Leonard, as either blogger or print editor and reviewer, will no longer pursue this very layered and complicated issue that he once promised not to drop.) The fact that Leonard is one kind of writer in the mainstream and another kind of writer in the blogosphere is not necessarily some breach of conduct, but it is something that should be addressed by other “writers.”

Thom says Boston reviewers would not challenge Brustein as artistic director. That reason is similar in species to why New York theatre bloggers are unwilling to challenge Leonard as theatre blogger. As someone who is charge of profiles and reviews of theatre artists at Back Stage, it would serve the artist blogger’s career to “make nice” with the often impassioned blogger at the Clyde Fitch Report.

How does both the artist and the critic relate to these new forms of publication and to one another without (as Thom says) “compromising his or her integrity”? This will become more and more a central question both artists and critics will need to answer.