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September 01, 2007

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Joshua James

I don't think I'm a reviewer myself, it's just not what I like to do, which is one reason that, after Pig Farm, I pretty much turned down all other ticket offers for a bunch of shows offered to me through the blog . . . I just felt it wasn't the thing I should do . . . I make no judgments on others (and in fact, I like readers others who do that very thing) . . . it just never felt as though it fit right on me . . .

I like talking about shows and sharing my thoughts and dislikes on it, and I think the dialogue is valuable . . . I just don't feel reviewing is my bag.

That being said, I don't nessarily know that I agree that every review "has" be constructive, (and I've had my share of destructive reviews) with everything we see in theatre . . . we are not in college anymore, and the shows we see Off-Broadway and Broadway cost a lot of money, someone made the judgement to put on the ridiculous (or fantantastic) thing and if it blows, that's a slot that could have gone to something or someone more deserving, which I note that George also mentioned.

If a show is terrible, why not just say it's terrible?

So often that's what's said in the bar afterwards, oftentimes by the actors from the show themselves, so why sugarcoat the obvious (in particular I liked the MacBeth story someone shared, I think on Freeman's blog) - why not talk about the work using the same dialogue we use with our friends to talk about the shows?

But that's my thing, really . . . I think one can be totally honest without the ego getting in the way, and in a way, I find that we all know when a turkey is a turkey, usually the stagehands know, the ushers know, the actors know, everyone knows sometimes except the reviewer, who uses language like "didn't meet the challenges of its premise" or something like that, which always smacked of elistism to me . . .

Again, this is just my ramblings, that's all.

I remember in the late nineties when myself and friends found AINT IT COOL NEWS and it was so awesome to be able to dialogue with other movie fans in real language you didn't read in traditional media (The movie SUCKS) and how freeing it was to be able to do that . . .

And they cracked previews and posted the results, which pissed off studios . . .

And I believe part of the wave of great films in the late nineties came about because of that honest dialogue that was taking place (unfortunately, that site has been co-opted by the Empire and mainly runs propaganda).

Anyway, that's my two cents and change, for what it's worth . . .

Leonard Jacobs

It is totally an ATPAM issue as well as one for AEA, SSDC, the Dramatists' Guild and the League of American Theatres and Producers, not to mention ATCA, the American Theatre Critics Association. I have no problem including bloggers in the realm of professional comp tickets. I just think that if they're going to write reviews, the reviews should be posted when everyone else's reviews are being posted. And I think it's just a terrible, terrible thing for any theatre to decide that it should create an entire second class of citizens yet offer them equal access -- in the form of professional comps. Seems to me the blogosphere doesn't respect itself enough to understand what's really going on, and it seems to me that it far too facile, far too convenient, for anyone that accepts professional comp tickets to say, "They gave me free tickets...I have no ethical responsibilities whatsoever."

Joshua James

"And I think it's just a terrible, terrible thing for any theatre to decide that it should create an entire second class of citizens yet offer them equal access -- in the form of professional comps. "

I don't quite understand the point here . . . comps happen all the time, not simply to PR people but other actors, to casting directors, to other industry professionals, etc . . . so I'm not quite sure what point you're making, with all due respect . . . how is it that, since we get free tix, we're second class citizens?

"Seems to me the blogosphere doesn't respect itself enough to understand what's really going on, and it seems to me that it far too facile, far too convenient, for anyone that accepts professional comp tickets to say, "They gave me free tickets...I have no ethical responsibilities whatsoever.""

And this seems a real stretch that all of us in the blogosphere (which, respectfully, includes yourself) don't respect ourselves because one guy wrote one bad review on his blog . . .

As far as the ethical concerns, they wanted him to write something, they didn't specify when it needed to be written about (as far as I've been able to discern), two other bloggers wrote reviews as well, so I honestly don't see the ehtical boundary he crossed . . . did you see this: http://mirroruptolife.blogspot.com/2007/08/what-do-we-do-its-still-in-previews.html

The quesion I have is, iif they're going to give away tickets and sell tickets, even in previews, isn't it seller beware?

Joshua James

Hmm,

Leonard, I went to your blog and now understand more where you're coming from with regards to the second-class citizens remark (the separate but equal thing) . . . I don't know that I agree with it, but I at least understand where you're coming from . . .

The last point, about all of us in the blogspheare not respecting ourselves simply because of one guy writing one review, I still hold that up . . .

Abe Goldfarb

As regards the review that began this whole fracas, the only real ethical violation I can see is a fairly nitpicky one: before trashing the thing, it should have been made known at the very top of the article that the experience was compromised by an early exit. That it is mentioned at the very end flirts with intellectual dishonesty.

Leonard Jacobs

"I don't quite understand the point here...comps happen all the time, not simply to PR people but other actors, to casting directors, to other industry professionals, etc...so I'm not quite sure what point you're making, with all due respect...how is it that, since we get free tix, we're second class citizens?"

Getting free tickets does not make you second class citizens, and this is not what I said, and please, read what I wrote.

Moreover, comps DO happen all the time, but comps do NOT happen all the time for people writing, publishing, uploading or posting reviews -- or, if they ARE going to be given out, should the person writing, publishing, uploading or posting that review be exempt from the rule that such reviews are not published, uploaded or posted before the appointed press night(s)? Why is there one rule for bloggers and one rule for all others? Reviews are held, by common compact between the theatre and the artists, and the theatre and the critic, until whatever day the theatre chooses for the play to open. The theatre was at fault for acting like it doesn't matter what George or anyone else posts, and George and any other poster are wrong for publishing a review, especially a formal review, before the appointed opening night. Period.

And for the theatre to disingenuously claim that George did not write and post a review is out and out outrageous; no one seems to be buying that particular argument at all. What the theatre has done -- what I fear the blogosphere is willing to settle for -- is to create a second class of blogger-critics that it does not view as legitimate critics, yet they're willing to give them the same professional press comps, to confer upon them the same professional legitimacy, given to so-called press people. That's separate but equal. And that's wrong.

Finally, you suggest that the Mirror Up to Life post is a review? You think that's a review? Do you really? Really? Really? Oh, dear.

Joshua James

No, I merely asked if you read it, Leonard, okay?

I did not suggest it was a review at no point or anywhere . . . I only asked if you'd read that point of view . . . no more, less, okay, hmm, okay, hmm?

And as I mentioned, I got your point re the "second class" after I went to your blog . . . it wasn't clear from your comment, it was once I went there and followed up on it, which I then left another comment to let you know that . . .

Though again, I don't get your whole point about none of us in the blogosphere respecting ourselves - and frankly, after all this, I don't care any longer . . . I guess this is why, after Pig Farm, I don't accept tickets in return for writing about shows . . .

Alison Croggon

Blah. It's a non-issue as far as I'm concerned, speaking as both a blogger and an msm critic. The theatre openly invited comment, and it got it (both positive and negative - I don't know why Leonard isn't equally going on about the reviews - definitely Reviews - on other blogs, and it makes it all seem just like a mystifying personal attack). George's review might be controversially negative, but it is hardly unethical - it's upfront and intelligent and talks about what he saw. What's the big deal?

As for the embargo thing, embargoes are set by the organisations themselves, not by newspapers, and are conventions rather than rules. George didn't break an embargo, since the theatre itself solicited comment. And how on earth is a theatre creating "second class citizens" by offering "equal access" to bloggers? It just seems to me that Leonard is afraid of getting scooped. That is a cry from an earlier time, I fear. People read their media differently now. It seems to me more of an issue that theatres are selling tickets for weeks before they officially "open".

Scott Walters

He received a comp in exchange for a written response. He accepted. He left midway through, and wrote a review anyway. That is what is unethical, in my book. I agree with Leonard, and I've been equally uncomfortable with blog reviews for other reasons as well.

Jason Grote

I think part of the problem is that no one really understands how the blogosphere in particular and the internet in general works yet. There is a tendency to (1) assume that it's just going to replace the MSM, or (2) that it's irrelevant, when neither is really true. While the internet is indeed changing media, blogging is a fundamentally different enterprise, one that we don't really have a name for.

We haven't finalized things yet, but we'll probably have some sort of blogger's night for 1001 in October. But as someone who has attended these things in the past, I don't have any illusions that bloggers or anyone will have the same effect an MSM outlet would. People read the NYT, the Voice, Time Out, the Sun (assuming anyone reads the Sun) etc. to find out what their reviewers and reporters think about culture. People go online to talk, among many other things. The dynamics of internet discussion resemble the dynamics of communities, games, or other models more than they do traditional media. I want to invite bloggers not because I think they'll put a dent in the hegemony of the NYT, but because I'm confident that the show will be good and I think it will generate word of mouth. I want to try and get comps or heavily discounted tickets for students and advertise on "event" sites and listservs like Going for the same reason. I'm also trying to set up participatory stuff like an alternate reality game, an art contest, message boards, a wiki, and reading groups on 1001nyc.com in the hope that people will actually participate in the conversation and community, and it won't just be some more advertising, the ad/consumer paradigm being the one that has failed the whole blog/critical enterprise.

Jason Grote

Oh, also, with all due respect for those involved in the conversation, I find it really illustrative that hardly anybody seems to actually be talking about the play in question; it's more like, talking about talking about talking about it. The play itself becomes a sort of pale residue on the conversation - the only thing that remanins of it is the fact that George didn't like it. It's kind of interesting that people in Chicago, DC, and Sydney are talking about this play, but are we really talking about it, or are we talking about ourselves? And if it's the latter, why should anyone care? I mean that as a sincere question. I've seen the same sort of thing happen on message boards and podcasts. I used to subscribe to the Winecast, but quit once the actual minutes devoted to podcasting and shout-outs to the host's internet buddies outnumbered the actual minutes of talking about wine.

Mac

Well Jason, I don't think that's fair. If there's a legitimate conversation to have about the development of an ethics for blog reviewing, that's something any blogger can contribute an idea to, and, presumably, could be a valuable conversation. A conversation purely focused on "100 Saints" could obviously be valuable as well, but at least for the moment, far fewer people can contribute, since they haven't seen it.

If we assume that the theater blogs will continue to increase and that online opinions will grow in quantity and influence, than surely a discussion of blogging ethics has value beyond narcissism.

Jason Grote

Mac, there's no such thing as a discussion that isn't legitimate, and I'd be powerless to stop it in any case. But there is a bit of an echo chamber thing going on, and a bit of a tempest in a teapot. I was turned off by George's review of the show, in part because I'm friends with the director, but in the end I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of difference. I think that the assumption that theater blogs will increase in number is probably true, but that they will increase in influence is probably not true, at least not right now, for the reasons I outlined above. And I think this all speaks to the question Isaac presented in the post to begin with.

Obviously people can talk about whatever they want, and I'm free to unplug if I'm not interested - but I don't think there's a downside to pointing out the exaggerated sense of importance that internet communities tend to have. If bloggers were as influential as we thought we were, Ron Paul would be our next president.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the democratization of media, but one of the reasons why blogger's nights haven't yet been successful is because we're mostly talking to each other. Again, that's fine if people want to do that, but that's not going to unseat the hegemony of corporate media anytime soon.

Alison Croggon

I still don't get this weird reaction to bloggers getting comps, as if it's somehow corrupt. I get free tickets to everything I see and have since I started the blog three and a half years ago (yes, mine has always been a review blog, that's the kind of blog it is, but it is still a blog, and when I began it I just operated the same way I did when I was working as a mainstream critic). Those tickets don't oblige me to write favourably or unfavourably or even necessarily anything at all (Chris Boyd tells me that he doesn't blog many things he sees; the tickets are extended to him as a courtesy). The way I see it, my ethical responsibility as a critic is to write honestly about what I see. Full stop. To that I bring a desire to write informedly and entertainingly and with good grammar, which I feel is an obligation to both readers and the artists I review.

It would have been unethical of George to write that he liked the show if he didn't, or if he had pretended to have seen the whole of it when he had left at interval. That is, if his post had been dishonest. As it was, he was honest about both those things and any reader can make up his or her mind about the validity of his opinions. That he wrote about the show after receiving comps is neither here nor there.

That the theatre company seems to be avoiding press criticism by calling half its season a "preview" is another question; if so, George was providing a public service by offering a public critical response to a show for which tickets are for sale at full price. (These "preview" seasons sound a bit like a scam to me. That kind of thing doesn't happen here; a preview is a preview, and it's very rare for shows to preview for more than three days.) And if bloggers think that they have to write favourably about a show because they've been given free tickets, then they're being the patsies of the PR people, who are exploiting their naivety.

Jason Grote

Yeah, I agree with Alison re. George's ethics. One could conceivably make a case that leaving at intermission makes him a bad reviewer, or a not-nice person, but the fact is, he was offered a ticket in exchange for his response, and he was honest about it. No ethical breach there.

As far as previews go, this has a lot to do with the truncated rehearsal period of shows in NYC - preview week is often a necessary third or fourth week of rehearsal. I also know for a fact that Ethan, the director of the show, makes considerable changes and adjustments throughout the preview period, based on how the show changes in front of an audience, so it's not just an issue of Playwrights' Horizons doing some sort of bait-and-switch.

Mac

Jason, you wrote above:

"I want to invite bloggers not because I think they'll put a dent in the hegemony of the NYT, but because I'm confident that the show will be good and I think it will generate word of mouth."

So what I'm asking is, if blogs have enough influence to affect word of mouth at some level - if we have that modicum of influence, however small - and we have a conversation about how to use that influence responsibly and ethically, why is that worthy of a scolding?

Alison Croggon

Jason, I am quite gobsmacked. Can I just clarify that: that shows over there often have TWO WEEKS rehearsal? Is that really true? If so, that's insane. We grumble here about the standard four-week period, which is really not enough though of course things can be achieved (in Europe, standard is 6 to 12 weeks). But nobody can be expected to really achieve anything in two weeks. Especially with a new play. Nor should they be expected to rehearse in public, and the public should not be asked to pay to see what are effectively runthroughs. Especially full price tickets. If there's a scandal, I reckon it's precisely there.

Jason Grote

Mac:

Scolding? Really? I just calls 'em as I sees 'em. Let me put it this way: everyone's opinion counts, and word of mouth has been important since long before there ever was an internet. But to read the various reactions to this "scandal," one would think we had just seen a replay of the Astor Place riots, when in fact I really doubt any of this will affect the life of the play at all. In fact, I just returned from Playwrights' Horizons and no one there - including the director and playwright, and their literary manager - had any idea any of this was going on. I'm not scolding anybody, but I don't think there's any downside to being realistic about blogs' current relevance or lack thereof. I think that both the hysterical elitists who claim that blogs and wikis are about to end civilization as we know it and the various web boosterists who say everything's totally different forever have a tendency to exaggerate the situation, which I don't think serves anyone. In the end, magical thinking only hurts activist campaigns because when the desired utopia fails to materialize, people get burned out and embittered. Yeah, let's change the world, but let's pay attention to it while we do it. But whatever, it's not like anyone's going to stop talking because I've magically shamed them into silence.

Tim Cavanaugh's 2002 essay, "Let Slip The Blogs of War," illustrates this phenomenon pretty effectively. Cavanaugh (the founder of Suck.com) is snarky to the point of mean-spiritedness, but it is the sort of thing one sees all over the internets, not just in theatre.

http://www.ojr.org/ojr/workplace/1017770789.php

Alison:

Yep, two and a half weeks of rehearsal, to be precise. Most other Off-Broadway plays get three weeks, and most regional theaters have four. Playwrights has extended preview dates, not because they're trying to get anything over on anybody, but because they want to get the plays in front of an audience as soon as they can. I think it might also have to do with the volume of productions they do in their seasons. Whether or not they should be charging people for previews is another discussion, about which I don't really ahve an opinion.

All:

Here is some inside scoop. Ethan McSweeny was pissed about this, not because of George's opinion - he's nothing if not thick-skinned - but because Playwrights' promised him that no press would be in attendance until September 12. As I had surmised, he has been gauging audience reactions and making changes - real, sustantive changes - in rehearsals all day. I also know George, as do many of you, and despite any differences of opinion we may have, he's a decent guy. I would guess that one of two things happened: (1) George got a comp while they were papering and mistakenly understood it to be a blogger comp, or; (2) some enthusiastic person in the press office gave an unauthorized press comp to George. I'd be interested to hear his side of the story.

Oh, and the play was really, really beautiful, by the way. It is a traditional, realistic play, to be sure, but it was smart, rich, and beautifully done. Jeremy Shamos pulls off one of the best, most subtle and intelligent acting moments I've ever seen onstage.

Alison Croggon

Hi Jason - thanks for that info. Well, I'm shocked, I had no idea that professional theatres could seriously contemplate a schedule like that. If anyone shoves the "American model" again in my face re arts funding, I'll know what to say!

My understanding is that George was invited with the explicit understanding that he would blog his response, whether it was positive or negative. So the issue seems to be one between the PR people and the production team.

Btw, I know this is blowing my own trumpet, but it just happens to be true. My blog is definitely read by people who are not bloggers, averaging around 14,500 visitors a month, mainly theatre people but from the feedback also quite a number of audience members. I'm continually being told that me and my fellow bloggers have changed the way people talk about theatre here. I figured from the start that what counts with blogs is _who_ reads you, not how many.

Probably it helps not being in a megalopolis - Melbourne's about 3.7 million people, Sydney a little bigger, so they're larger cities than Berlin say but not huge, so it's probably easier to generate a sense of community.

Jason Grote

Yeah, NY rehearsal schedules are a bummer. But does anyone really hold up US arts funding as a model of anything? Is the Howard government really that terrrible?

By the way, I didn't mean to cast aspersions on your or anyone's blog - merely to point out that blogs' influence is rarely as simple as we tend to think it is. I think the fallacy is to create a 1 = 1 equivalency to the MSM, when it's far more complicated than that. For example, I don't think that my blog will help me sell many tickets to 1001 - but I do think that it will help create a world that's more conducive to plays like 1001. My posts on play development are still the most widely read on my blog, and get regular visitors from universities and regional theaters, but that influence might take years to have an effect, and I think I've already been misinterpreted.

Also, there's the issue of non-internet clout; as I understand it, Alison, you're a well-respected MSM journalist as well as a blogger. James Urbaniak, a well-known and beloved downtown actor, gets hundreds of comments on his blog posts, but most of them are from fans of his TV cartoon, The Venture Bros.

Aaron Riccio

Here's a question; is George press? Jason mentions that McSweeny was pissed about press attending before September 12th (also, isn't the opening September 18th?), and I just posted a p(review) myself. I really enjoyed 100 Saints, and I wouldn't want to take away from the production, but what he represented to the audience at the talk back was the show would NOT be having any substantive changes, just a deepening of what was already built. I can understand McSweeny not wanting anything printed, but would he really view my own thoughts (or Matt Freeman's, or those of my colleagues at Show Showdown) to be anything more than an audience talking back, publicly, outside of the theater? I tried disclaiming as much as I could, but if it really is hurtful to the artists, as Jacobs implied, I certainly don't mean to step on toes. If those of you more formally involved in the artistic labor could weigh in, I write as much for you guys as for the audience I'm a part of.

isaac

Hey Aaron,

I'll reiterate (perhaps alittle more celarly) what I was saying earlier as a way of answering your question. And, obviously, I speak only for myself:

(1) To my mind, George didn't do anything that is clearly wrong. There are, to me, two grey areas that the review on his blog exists within. The first is leaving at intermission. The second is placing the admission that he left at intermission at the end of the review. To me, that essentially denies the reader the context of the thing they're reading until its over which, as a producer friend put it "kind of tricks the reader into reading the whole thing". In other words, if I'm reading a review and someone says they left at intermission, I stop reading the review. So it's not that it's unfair to the show but rather maybe a bit unfair to the readers of the blog.

(2) I don't think Playwrights Horizons did anything clearly wrong either. I think that we are all very new at this blogosphere thing, and it itself is very new and we're still figuring out what the rules are going to be. So, for example, I would prefer it that if a theater is inviting people to an early preview, that the company is okay with them coming to an early preview. But that's not a rule (yet) it's just meant as a suggestion.

The clearest, easiest way to tackle all of this theatrosphere-tickets stuff is this: if you, as a theater or theatre company, want to invite bloggers, you should just treat them as press. Invite them at press night, ask them not to write about it until after the embargo is over, and let your press rep (assuming you have one) handle this whole thing. That's what they're there for, after all.

(3) What makes this more complicated is the level of negativity contained within George's review itself, which makes it hard to defend. But while I sincerely wish George hadn't written what he wrote the way he wrote it, there are ways to respond to that without making it a big ethical issue. Like commenting to the post, posting a response that is critical of its tone etc.

Alison Croggon

Jason, I'd totally agree with you about the complex influence of blogs. I'd just point out that I was absent from the msm for 15 years and my re-entry is very recent, ie in the past couple of months. It came about because of my blog, but I consider it complementary and different. The real action is, as far as I'm concerned, on the blog, where I can write what I like, instead of trying to crowbar comment into 400 words.

Isaac, what's the problem with "negativity"? If George had seen the whole show and written the same review, would you still have a problem with what he said? I somehow think he would have written exactly the same thing. Is that his real sin?

Frankly, there's nothing worse _for the art_ than a critical culture that seeks to be blandly supportive. People have said similar things about certain reviews of mine of both theatre and poetry - in fact, a rather fine poetry review I wrote a few years ago is still held up in creative writing courses here as an example of a "bad" review. (Mind you, those who hold it up are friends of the poets involved.) It's not a "bad" review - it's well written and well argued, contextualises my criticisms and comes from a close reading of the books concerned - but it is a negative review. Seeking to suppress negative reviews is much more damaging than any "negativity". (And yes, I've had plenty of negative reviews myself. It's never pleasant. We all have, if we put our work out in public - it goes with the job).

isaac

Hey Alison,

To be clearer (that'll learn me to hastily write a comment) it's not the negativity that bothered me, but the vitriol. I don't mind people disliking (or even strongly disliking) shows, but I do have a vitriol threshhold as a reader.

Jason Grote

Aaron, there's nothing wrong with anyone who saw any show talking about it online - but evidently George explicitly stated that he was offered a blogger comp. It might amount to the same thing - that is, a blog entry about the show - but there's a big difference between people attending the show by their own means and people being specifically invited to cover it. In other words, Ethan was angry with the press office (or whoever it was), not George - if indeed they offered him a press comp.

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