by 99 Seats
I'm a smart guy. I feel comfortable saying that. I'm a smart guy with a pretty sharp sense of humor and satire. But sometimes I miss a joke. It happens to the best of us. A piece of satire is so good, so sharp, so well-done that I miss the satire and take it at face value, the way some people do with, say, Swift's A Modest Proposal. So I'm open to being corrected. I'm hoping, very, very much that someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, "Uh, dude, it's a joke" about this piece by Jason Robert Brown. I'm fine with being embarrassed by my sheer, volcanic, thermonuclear rage at this thing, I'm fine with being shamefaced for going full-on medieval and looking like a jerk for missing the joke. Because I'd rather it be a joke. I do not want this to be earnest, honest advice to young artists and theatre critics. I do not want this to be portrait of how theatre artists are expected and allowed to behave. I do not want this piece to be true. So please, if you read this and get the joke, if you posted it on Facebook because you think it's so ironic and satritiric, please, please, please, publicly shame me. I'm begging you.
Because otherwise? This is why theatre sucks to work in, why theatre is rapidly becoming an artistic backwater and playground for people of privilege. This is why theatre criticism is being killed off by inches. This is why terrible artists are promoted and talented, intelligent people are fleeing the theatre by droves. This is what's wrong with theatre.
Go ahead. Go read it. Or don't. I can sum it up: When Jason Robert Brown was 23, he was invited to see a show by Stephen Sondheim that he didn't like. After the show, at dinner, he left Sondheim with the impression that he didn't like it. He felt terrible about this, called Sondheim to talk about it was given this advice, advice when JRB is offering up to young (and old!) theatre people everywhere:
Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live; either they did their job or they didn’t. But that is not your problem.
If you come to my show and you see me afterwards, say only this: “I loved it.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it, not “in spite of its flaws”, not “even though everyone else seems to have a problem with it,” but simply, plainly, “I loved it.” If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage, don’t find me in the lobby, don’t lean over the pit to see me. Just go home, and either write me a nice email or don’t. Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet.
Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe someday down the line, I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you; that is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought, what you actually, honestly, totally believed, then you must tell me, “I loved it.” That moment must be respected.
This has long been an "unwritten rule" in theatre, and now it's been written, I suppose, and we can talk about it. So let's talk about how dishonesty and lies kill an art form. Because that's what Sondheim is asking for: not gentle critism or encouraging words. He's asking for people to lie to him. And he's apparently lying to them. Look at the first line of the quote: "Nobody cares what you think." Except, of course, Stephen Sondheim, who invited Brown and his friend to the show, presumably to ask them what they thought. It's just that he only wanted to hear "I loved it!" and nothing else. He does care what they think...as long as they liked it.
An artform can't grow under these circumstances. And artists can't grow. It's one thing, if you're talking about a friend, someone you know, and you see a show that you don't like or that doesn't work. I know that dilemma. It is always awkward and uncomfortable. But, here's another unwritten rule: we've all settled on a series of phrases that tell that person you didn't like it without saying "I didn't like it" like "Great work!" or just "Congratulations!" And then you flee. And people know. Which is cowardly. But not as bad as the outright lying that Sondheim is encouraging.
In a culture that feeds on that kind of dishonesty, flaws in plays go unspoken of and uncorrected. Imagine a world where Sondheim asked two young, smart, talented artists what they thought and they gave him smart, cogent suggestions and he used them. Wouldn't that be better? What does it benefit the theatre to have young artists so filled with terror that they apparently can't cogently crititique a work by an artist they love, even years later. JRB doesn't indicate what his criticism were, or if they would have been helpful. He's apparently still so scared of Sondheim that he can't even name the friend he went with. How is that healthy for an art form?
How is it healthy for an artist to be a hothouse flower, so delicate and vulnerable that only warm air can support them? How does that encourage growth? We're building a community of mutual sycophancy, daisy chains of artistic blowjobs and calling that support. What this also means is that when you seek out real criticism of the work, even at the lower levels, it's nearly impossible to find. No one wants to say a bad thing about anything. Oh, we say it's because we don't want to hurt the work, but really? It's because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings and get the freeze-out that JRB got from Sondheim after their awkward dinner. Yes, part of it is the human nature of not wanting to hurt someone, but part of it is purely venal and career-focused. We don't want to close a door by being critical. So we're not.
All of this enshrines something that's even more pernicious: privilege. When access, success and career advancement are based as much on manners and social convention, the people who succeed are the people who master that, not actual talent. Telling young artists to keep their opinions to themselves is basically telling them, "It doesn't matter about the work, it matters how you treat your betters." We're just maintaining a good old-fashioned caste system. If you can't play the game, you can't play the game. People who aren't good at sucking up to the right people lose out.
This piece fills with an incandescent rage, sure. But it also makes me very, very sad. Even if it is satire (and I hope it is!), people I know and respect, some of the bravest, smartest artists I know, have been pasting it on Facebook approvingly. And this vision of an artist, above all, makes me so very sad. It's so timid and small, really. We're not talking about JRB being invited to Sondheim's house to hear early sketches of songs and then trashing them. We're talking about the opening night of a Broadway show. Yes, I know, I have had productions, you're a ball of tension and nervousness, there is so much riding on the line, all of that is true. But...you're having a show open on Broadway. Shouldn't we be tougher? Shouldn't we have a better sense of what's good and what's bad about it? Shouldn't we be conscious, clear-eyed artists who can take a 23-year old's dislike? Maybe even ask them about it? Are we really going to wither in the face of that? It says such sad things ab0ut us playwrights. Such sad things.
For an artform to be relevant, you need brave artists. You need artists who are going to look hard into the essence of human experience and talk about what they see there. And yes, bravery needs support. But it also needs feedback and criticism and honesty. If we as artists close our doors to those things, then we close our doors to growth. And the art form atrophies. Our vision closes down to spot. If all we're doing is looking for approval from our fellow artists, we're looking for the wrong things. To tell artists that's what's expected of them is a crime against theatre, if you ask me. It only breeds more nervous artists, more deluded artists, more cowardly artists who crave protection when they should be courting danger, who are thinking about safety nets when they should be flying. It breeds a theatre that isn't talking about the big things because we can't talk honestly with each other.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for Jason Robert Brown's artistry. The Last Five Years is one of the bravest, smartest, most honest musicals I've ever heard and I kick myself on a daily basis that I didn't see it when I had the chance. And I still do have a ton of respect for him and his work and for his bravery in maintaing a blog and saying what he wants to say. That's all awesome. I just think this piece is awful, absolutely awful. That's my honest criticism of it. I hope he can take it.
Now, again: maybe it's all a joke. Mr. Brown, please drop by the comments and tell me it's all a joke. I'll even leave this post up as a monument to my shame, if it is. If not, I think your piece is a monument to yours.