Sunday, April 06, 2008

More on Breaking Ground

Well, it appears that the Huntington really has banned critics from the Breaking Ground Series at the Huntington.

Thom Garvey, in a comment to me on his blog, said that he had received what appeared to be a mass e-mail. He then clarified with the Huntington and it was confirmed.

Bill Marx, in the comments section to my last post says that he confirmed it with the Huntington as well. Marx is suggesting some type of civil disobedience would be appropriate:

But who cares? The Huntington can only reques a critic not come -- the event is free and any critic, blogger, whoever can attend. Mr. Garvey simply has show up, sit, and write about what he sees. I could do the same -- it does not frighten me to dismay a theater.

This is a non-issue -- it would only have significance if a critic is
intimidated by the request, or his or her editor tells the critic not to review the show or not take in a reading.

Apparently, Mr. Garvey is afraid to go to Breaking Ground because the Huntington has not invited him.

In a comment to that post I noted that while I understand his argument, Marx appears to be sidestepping the question of whether or not he also received the same e-mail rebuff as Garvey.

As for Marx's suggestions of crashing the gate, Garvey sees this as very uncivil disobedience:

To ask that no one review a script in development is perfectly
understandable; to throw a veil over the very process of development itself is something else. And to have the supposed critical scourge of Boston seemingly pleased as punch with the effort is something else again, isn't it. (It almost makes you wonder - is Marx invited, while other critics aren't?)

As for the recommendation that I simply show up at the theatre anyway: really, Bill, only you could be such a jerk as to barge into a theatre where you weren't wanted (and even if I did so, I doubt the playwright in question would be much pleased). No wonder you call yourself persona non grata, and have obviously researched the legal questions involved!


Thomas Garvey said...

Okay, so in his previous post, I was "delusional" and "battling with my own shadow," but now - whoops! - suddenly what I said has turned out to be entirely accurate, and Mr. Marx's version, as usual, has turned out to be - well, not quite so accurate. Never one to backpedal honorably, Marx has now decided that I'm "afraid" to attend the Breaking Ground festival. Yeah, I'm shaking in my shoes - sweet little John Michael Kennedy might be waiting for me in the alley with a pair of brass knuckles! The point is that whether or not I personally go, most critics will be dissuaded from attending, with is the Huntington's intent (and for what it's worth, as I think the my tumultous career has shown only too clearly, I'm the most fearless critic in town). Actually, that's just one point - the other point is that the Huntington's actions, which I feel are regrettable, nevertheless fall within their prerogatives. It doesn't seem to occur to Marx that the "dismay" of theatre companies at his behavior could in some cases be legitimate. Or that a valiant stand for critical independence could prove a vain one if it complicates a playwright's relationship with his sponsor. And please, Mr. Marx, stop citing George Bernard Shaw and Kenneth Tynan, as if you were somehow their peer! I doubt either one would find your arguments edifying; mortifying is more like it.

Thomas Garvey said...

On a calmer note, I did want to subject Mr. Marx's arguments to a bit more critical analysis. He wrote:

"A theater company can ask that a critic not come to a public reading or a production, but that request has no legal standing. There is nothing stopping Mr. Garvey or any critic from walking into Breaking Grounds and writing about what they see."

Now I'm not a lawyer - nor do I play one on TV - but it seems to me there's an obvious gap in Mr. Marx's logic. To wit - does he feel that he has the right to barge into the Huntington's internal meetings and discussions about the plays they are considering for production? Because that is clearly how they are framing the Breaking Ground Festival - as part of their "internal process," if you will. I admit the "internality" part of that concept is, well, debatable, but the "process" part is not, and there's certainly an argument to be made that the Huntington has a right to see and hear the effect of a text on an audience without a critical presence in the room. As I said before, I feel this process is improved by the presence of critics (or at least some critics), but as said presence will inevitably lead to questions around, and second-guessing of, the Huntington's choices, I can understand why they'd prefer the critics simply butt out. And the fact that these performances are free-of-charge actually strengthens rather than weakens their argument (as Marx seems to imagine) - if the Huntington were charging admission, their stance would, yes, be internally contradictory. But they're not.

True, Mr. Marx could march right in anyway and plunk himself down in a seat; he certainly wouldn't be breaking a law. But he would arguably be violating the parameters of the cooperative model that theatres and critics supposedly share. No, critics should never behave like lapdogs, nor should we see ourselves as promoters of whatever a theatre presents; but I also doubt that our relationship to the practitioners of what is an economically risky (or even dying) art form should be simply or openly antagonistic. In short, the traditional premise of the critic's presence at a show - that he or she is defending the interests of the public - has no purchase at an internal, free reading; it can legitimately be argued that said interest is adequately defended by reviewing the final show. Of course a critic would like to know as much about the show's genesis as possible, and probably this would add to the quality of his or her criticism - but that's his or her own problem, isn't it.

Art said...

Hi Thom,

I guess then, I am going to agree with Marx. Not that one should barge into the reading, but I would agree more with the substance of his comments.

I think you and I agree that the Huntington has every right to internally make decisions, control the process and, quite frankly, deny anybody entrance.

And I think you and Bill agree that without some type of critical/journalistic presence the Huntington, (receiver, by the way, of tax dollars from sources like the NEA and the MCC,) can basically control the messaging about the Breaking Ground program and its success.

The question is: How important is this? To Marx, not important enough to approach the subject with Ilana Brownstein in the interview.

And after reading this last assessment of yours it seems as if you understand and agree with the Huntington's decision as being reasonable, considered, ethical and perfectly within the bounds of the critic-theatre relationship.

So my question to you then is this:Why then, do you feel it was so outrageous that Bill Marx did not ask Ilana Browstein about this?

(And my question to Bill is still standing: Was he also told that he could not attend the Breaking Ground?)

Thomas Garvey said...

Okay - what "substance," exactly? I'm actually curious, because honestly, I don't see what "argument" Marx is making beyond a personal attack on me. (Do you mean the "substance" of his "conversation" with Ilana Brownstein? Hard to find much there beyond what the Huntington might send out in a press release.) Marx is embarrassed that I pointed out he'd missed the salient fact about this year's Breaking Ground Festival; fine. I didn't say it was "outrageous" that he didn't do his homework - just that it was amusing given that he styles himself as some latter-day Savonarola (or George Bernard Shaw!). No doubt he, too, sensed this irony rather acutely, as he then got his panties in a bunch, called me names, and I got pissed off, too - but looking back over the posts, I kept making detailed, coherent arguments. And frankly, I've outlined the situation for everyone, and even brought to light the central irony (the playwright who wanted me to attend) which is actually the single strongest argument against what the Huntington is doing. At the same time, I've admitted that I don't feel like violating their prerogatives in the matter, and I've explained why. Marx's repeated statement that it's not "illegal" to force your way into a theatre is simply stupid (there are a lot of things that are legal that are also very bad form), not to mention beside the point - it simply doesn't address the Huntington's argument (which, as usual, I had to model for Marx; it was probably a bit beyond him). I mean if you disagree about the Huntington's pregoratives, I'd be interested to hear your theory. If you plan to go the readings and write a critique of them despite the theatre's wishes, by all means do so. And have fun comparing notes with Bill, because I doubt any other critics will be there.

Art said...


First off, I said that I don't agree about barging into the theatre over an issue like this. Now you have me comparing notes with Bill? :)

And as I stated in defense of you to a commenter in the original post below, I completely understand that your original post was in response to Marx's positioning himself/criticism in general as an antidote to corporate spin in the artistic sphere.

Remember, I originally posted because I was confused as to why Bill would not bring it up in the interview as well.

I also don't know if Marx was either aware of the ban, or if he was somehow exempted from it. (Still don't know.)

But here is the thing, you are pretty much a maverick personality when writing as well.

Maybe substance was a bad word to use, but what I meant is this:

I read your site everyday and don't remember you bringing up the critical ban until Marx's interview with Brownstein.

And, yes, I also know that you didn't have any mention of the Breaking Ground Festival or P.R. style interview with a Huntington staff member. (Which was the substance of your intitial post and criticism of Marx.) Was this a conscious decision?

Actually, though you keep outlining the situation, you at least read as being unsure still about how important it is.

On the one hand: you don't think the Huntington is making the best decision here, but they can do what they want, and you're certainly not going to push them on it. You never outlined in your post the reasons they gave you for the ban.

On the other hand: It is the "salient" fact about the entire festival?

You may view Marx's original comment as a "personal attack," but I find it hard to believe that you would choose to focus on the scrappy tone of it. I mean, come on, Thom, I have no doubt that if Marx were to have critiqued something you had written, that you would have come back at him with an equally scrappy response.

Again, I don't agree that critics should be barging into Breaking Ground. (Although you bring up an excellent point about my attendance. I received no such instructions that I wasn't to attend. I only heard about it through your blog. I have attended Breaking Ground in the past. What if I had attended again, without knowing? SCANDAL!)

As I said, substance might not be the best way to put it. But after seeing you again and again STRESS that the Huntington has every right to do this, and that critics shouldn't have an antagonistic relationship with theatres,and that everything is above board and ethical. I guess I am starting to understand Marx's point, which is: what is the point?

You say, after all this:

"At the same time, I've admitted that I don't feel like violating their prerogatives in the matter, and I've explained why."

The "substance" seems to be, if you didn't see the need to make waves, or even post about it, what is it exactly that you were expecting him to do? Be antagonistic to Brownstein in the interview? - according to everything you have said so far I could imagine you then saying "Why is Bill being an ass, the Huntington has every right to do this." And you'd be right!

See, it doesn't mean that I have to think you are wrong about the issue in order to agree with him.

I have to admit, I really am getting lost here. You are saying that the issue is one that you have decided is not worth getting upset over, but it is something somebody else should get upset over?

Then again, if anybody reads the police bloter and sees that Bill has crashed the gate at the Breaking Ground, let me know. I will apologize to Thom and rethink everything I just wrote.

Thomas Garvey said...

The situation about Breaking Ground only became clear to me a day or two before I read Marx's piece. I'd been mulling how to discuss it, but then decided to take the plunge.

I then focused on the "scrappy tone" of Marx's attack because, as I said in my reply, there was nothing else to focus on. He simply didn't engage with the tricky issue in question; he instead claimed there was no question at all. But there is a question, as I think I've made clear. This may sound confusing, but someone can have the "right" to do something, even though doing it can still be the wrong decision. I feel the Huntington has come down on the wrong side of this question, but they have a self-interested argument which is not nearly as easy to ignore as Marx imagines - in fact, it's stronger than Marx's argument. Marx is far more prone to pronouncement than careful reasoning, or he might have seen this for himself; perhaps his recent silence is due to the fact that he sees it now.

And I never said the issue was "not worth getting upset over,;" it's really too bad. And yes, it is the "salient" fact about the festival - it's what's new.

Of course in the end this really is not about the eternal feud between me and Marx. But surely you can appreciate that after reading all his diatribes about how critics should get tough with theatres, the irony of his cozying up to a theater that was cutting critics out of its process was just too delicious not to point out.

Art said...

"But surely you can appreciate that after reading all his diatribes about how critics should get tough with theatres, the irony of his cozying up to a theater that was cutting critics out of its process was just too delicious not to point out."

Sure, that's fair enough. The confusing part for me was that you yourself hadn't mentioned it, (Which you have now explained.)

Then, Marx threw the hot potatoe back to you without " engaging with the central issue," (maybe he was embarrassed.)

But, (here is the most confusing part,) rather than pursue the central question further, with more elaboration about why this is a serious issue. It appeared that you were punting, as if you didn't want the ball either. And I hope you could see where that starts to make Bill's comment gain more purchase.

I think the issue of the mere presence of critics at a reading series is interesting. There are many facets as you point out. Some artists may feel there is too much pressure. Some may feel they want the feedback from professional critics.

The "not writing about it" is a traditional and generally accepted idea that everybody understands.
On just the surface it seems strange though to prevent anybody from physically entering a free public reading event, especially one from and institution that takes dollars.

Thomas Garvey said...

Sorry if I haven't "pursued the central question," despite a half dozen posts about it. As for why it's a serious issue - it's hard to see why it wouldn't be, but then it's also difficult to justify singling out the Huntington for critique on this score, as we've seen far more of its play selection process than we have of anyone else's. (So no wonder it wants to change that.)

As people who read my blog know, I questioned the selection of "Mauritius" and "Persephone," for full production by the theatre, and felt that "The Atheist" and "Brendan," despite earlier readings and in the case of "Brendan" a full BU student production, had the same gaps in full production as they'd had in earlier versions. And I described in an earlier post a "vibe" to the Breaking Ground readings that sometimes seemed to discourage honest discussion. It has made me wonder sometimes how much "development," at opposed to "networking," actually goes on in this process.

Needless to say, all this was missing from Marx's posts on the festival, and I can't really say I've seen it discussed much by the other critics. I think I'm the lone writer who's expressed any interest in the Huntington's process, which, in conjunction with the other facets of the BU playwrights' program, is hard to see as anything less than the prime mover in what people used to think of as transforming Boston into a "second Chicago." Ironically enough, I imagine, therefore, that I'm perhaps one central reason that the Huntington is closing its doors. So were we better off going, but not being able to write about it? It's an interesting question.