In the Spring of 2007, when the larger theaters here in New York announced their seasons, I was quite excited. For the first time in a long time, Playwrights Horizons broke with its usual practice of producing new plays by its established stable of playwrights to bring us new works by exciting younger voices. The Public's season features amongst other things the premiere of The Brothers Size, a play from an important new American voice, featuring a cast of unknowns. New York Theater Workshop's season contains amongst other things rarely produced work by Beckett directed by theatrical Titan Joanne Akalitis and the return of both Rinde Eckert and Ivo Van Hove. Smaller companies like 13P, Soho Rep and Target Margin have put together ambitious programming of interesting, unconventional works. Off-Off Broadway remains a treasure trove of interesting unconventional work and undiscovered voices.
I mention this because much of this work is going on currently, and yet the Times' second-string theatre writer in his column today- with his trademark arch condescension and mock-playfulness that masks the contemptuousness of his point of view- mentions none of this. Instead Charles Isherwood, one of the most powerful writers on theatre in the business, devoted his column to reinforcing the idea that Broadway-- whose spectacles he regularly derides-- is the only game in town. I wish this were an isolated incident that I could protest, but it is not. It is merely the latest in a long series of writings by Isherwood that show his contempt for theatre in New York City. The time has come for the New York Times to either fire Charles Isherwood or reassign him off the theatre beat.
First off, I am offended that the Times would publish in its theatre section an article by a theatre writer that is so clearly contemptuous of the various theatrical riches that New York City-- supposedly the American theatre city-- has to offer. This represents an ongoing attitude at the Times that myself and many of my fellow theatre practitioners are infuriated by. It seems that only theatre that can afford advertising in the Times' pages has any value to most of its reviewers (Jason Zinoman, and some of your freelancers being notable exceptions). Although I understand you probably don't view it as such a quid-pro-quo, the correlation between advertising dollars and column inches is dismaying to those of us who care about the harder to discover gems here in New York.
Second, it's clear that Isherwood doesn't really like theatre all that much. That attitude is betrayed by the above article, and it is betrayed by the large body of work that Isherwood has amassed at the Times. Recently he compared 13P- which represents an attempt by writers to remake in some small way the theatrical landscape by seizing the means of production- to a softball team. The condescension and suspicion with which Isherwood greets each new play he sees (especially those by uncovnentional and not established playwrights) has provided plenty of fodder for blog posts that I wish I didn't have to write.
Third, Isherwood is a vacuuous and uninteresting writer. He prefers being clever to being incisive, and venerating himself as a writer over looking at the work he has been tasked to see. And his "think pieces" at the Times- one of which is represented by this column- are usually stuff that has less thought behind it than the average post to be found on the internet on various theatrical blog sites. Isherwood's idea of serious commentary is to criticize Cherry Jones for being miscast, say that the Coast of Utopia is dull, or talk about how great it is not to go to the theatre.
I recognize that this letter will probably have no effect other than to hurt my own career, and although I worry about that, I cannot allow it to stop me from speaking out about issues that I care about in the art form that I have devoted my life to. Isherwood is a serious problem in New York City theatre, and his contemptuous attitudes towards unconventional, smaller, non-star-powered and newer work will only help conservatise the theatre scene in what is supposed to be the trail blazer of the theatrical landscape. Given the amount of power your writers have as "arbiters of taste", you need to show more responsibility in whom you dispatch to critically evaluate work. Continuing to employ someone who has such obvious contempt for the medium he's supposed to be covering is inexcusable. Michiko Kakutani would not keep her job if she wrote articles about how great it is not to read. There's a reason why the Times hired film critics like A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis instead of vitriol factories like Armond White. Just because theatre is a less prominent art form than film or literature does not mean it is not deserving of the same respect.