Friday, April 4, 2008

Arrested development?

Over at "The Arts Fuse," Bill Marx is currently lobbing softballs to Ilana Brownstein, the Huntington's Literary Manager, about the upcoming Breaking Ground festival of new plays. Of course there's nothing wrong with this kind of promotional feature - even though it's precisely the kind of "gush" (to use his own word) that Marx has said he deplores so often that it's practically his mantra.

But Marx does bring up at least one point that perhaps isn't widely known - that the Huntington produces more of the scripts it develops than most theatres do. As Brownstein says, "We have a great track record in this respect, and it’s one of the real successes of our new play programming." So Bostonians have the chance to see the development of a new script, to some extent, in real time.

My question, of course, is where does the critic fit in this process? And what precisely constitutes the "success" of a development program?

I confess I have a particular reason for asking that question right now. I've attended the Breaking Ground festival before, on the understandable condition that I not write about the scripts in development - a request that of course I honored. But then, when said scripts reached the stage of the Huntington, I have occasionally mentioned my earlier impression of them, in the development stage - usually, alas, to point out that the play didn't seem to have developed all that much since the first time I saw it. And I will say that at the readings themselves, when audiences have been invited to ask questions, I've felt hackles rise at my rather pointed queries (but also, to be sure, at anyone whose comments circled, however gingerly, a failing in the script). One memorable encounter actually ended in the (female) playwright confidently telling me that if I were a woman rather than a man, I'd understand the obvious gap in her second act wasn't a gap at all! (Imagine, if you can, a male playwright telling Louise Kennedy she couldn't understand his play because of her anatomy.)

Well, so some women are sexist - that's hardly news. What is news is that this spring that critics will not be allowed to attend the Breaking Ground festival, not no way, not no how. Or at least so I was told (I see no mention of this in Marx's story).

This raises a few intriguing issues. First, of course, the Huntington can refuse entry to Breaking Ground to anyone it wants - and it's clearly not interested in a critique of the festival or its development process. To my mind, said process is a valid topic of critical conversation, and the fact that I haven't seen clear improvement in the scripts that have gone through it is worth noting. No doubt to the Huntington, however, a review is simply publicity, and who needs negative publicity about their development process?

Ah, but here's the rub. Even as the Huntington was telling me I couldn't go to Breaking Ground, I was being approached by one of its playwrights (no it doesn't matter who), asking me to see his/her work and give some feedback. But I had to tell the writer (after checking with the powers that be) that I wouldn't be allowed in.

An interesting problem, no? It's hard to fight the impression that my critiques of the scripts at the Huntington have impressed at least a few of the playwrights themselves. But oddly, in the interest of "protecting" them from the withering influence of critics, they're being prevented from getting the very feedback they seek. Of course the Huntington has the right to control its own publicity. But isn't there some way, in a "development" process, to include the kind of pushback that might actually help these plays develop?


  1. Hi Thom,

    Are you in particular being barred from attending, or all critics? Either way, it’s interesting. Many critics also practice as dramaturgs in theatre productions. So if a playwright in the festival actually requested your attendance to view his/her work, and you were denied entry, but other playwrights’ requests for “audience” were honored, I think that would be a problem. But of course a particular playwright would then have to be petitioning the producer for you in particular to attend.

  2. The email I received said that any "reviewer" was not allowed. I emailed back and asked if that meant, as it used to, that we couldn't review the pieces in their current state, and was told that no, it meant that anyone who wrote reviews could not see these offerings at all. The playwright who requested I attend did not press the point once the policy was re-emphasized.

  3. Hi Thom,

    That seems pretty clear. Did other reviewers receive this e-mail.

    I guess I am wondering if Louise Kennedy is also barred from attending.

    Other Irne reviewers?

  4. The original email looked like a mass mailing, and I was told that it was a new general policy.