If you invite a critic to a workshop performance, should you expect a review? Theatre Building Chicago marketing director Tom Ballentine admits he solicited Hedy Weiss's attendance at Stages, TBC's annual weekend-long festival of semistaged new musicals last month, providing her with tickets, a hefty press kit, and photos. But after Weiss published capsule reviews of the eight nascent musicals she sampled during a 12-hour day, Ballentine, TBC executive director Joan Mazzonelli, and apparently the entire membership of the New York-based Dramatists Guild were incensed. Admitting up front that she only sat through the first act of each piece—if nothing grabbed her, she moved on—Weiss pronounced the works "deeply flawed" and said the experience suggested the "artform has fallen on very hard times." It probably didn't help that her stated point of comparison was Ravinia Festival's fully staged megaproduction of Gypsy, starring Patti LuPone and backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Stages is an advertised event that charges admission to the public: individual tickets this year were priced at $15 and weekend passes at $85. This isn't the first time Weiss has written a review after attending, but playwright Jeffrey Sweet, whose work at Victory Gardens and at Stages has come under Weiss's critical eye in the past, promptly registered his outrage. "Once again," he wrote on Back Stage's online discussion forum, "Hedy Weiss of The Chicago Sun-Times demonstrates by example what a critic should not do. . . . She actually reviews, not only workshops—which any responsible critic knows are out of bounds—but fragments of workshops. This is—very simply—unethical conduct from a critic who has amassed a considerable history of questionable behavior in print." Sweet wrote that it wouldn't matter if Weiss had been invited to review or not, but added in a postscript that he'd checked with TBC and was informed that she was "explicitly told that these presentations were not for review."
Mazzonelli says Weiss should know she's not supposed to critique the shows. "This is the 13th year," she says. "It's like going to a conference—none of it is a final product. It's all about potential and process. I hope that most if not all of the press here in Chicago knows that. If they don't, they should." And since the review didn't appear until after the festival had closed, she says, "I don't know what the point was. It's debilitating to the writers and it serves no purpose for the public." Mazzonelli says that though she had no direct contact with Weiss this year, Ballentine laid it all out for her.
But Ballentine says he wouldn't presume to tell a journalist how to write. "Everyone's been coming for years," he says, "and they know that all we do are developmental works. I didn't explicitly say to Hedy or anyone, 'These are not reviewable pieces.' I focused it by saying 'These are developmental works in progress.'" Ballentine says he was hoping for a more general article about the festival and the creative process. "I feel badly if we didn't put it in black and white and spell it out in a press release, but in every other way we made it distinctly clear."
"Maybe they weren't happy with the review," Weiss says, "but frankly, I was extremely generous." She calls the complaints against her a "complete corruption," noting "there's nothing in the press kit that says not to review. Why [else] would they send me photos the next morning? They invited me to come, and there's a history of both myself and the Tribune reviewing them." (A search of the Tribune archive, however, only turned up previews of the festival, not reviews.) Weiss says that if she's told an event isn't reviewable, she absolutely won't do it. "I understand the workshop process. That's fine—don't invite me. But if you do invite me—unless it's written in the press kit, 'don't review,' 'ignore this CD'—and I'm there for 12 hours, don't be surprised that I'm reviewing." Chris Jones of the Tribune says the rules about this sort of thing are "hard and fast in New York, where workshops tend to be closed, but in Chicago it's a gray area. I haven't reviewed Stages in the past, and I wasn't planning to this year, but I wasn't aware that I wasn't allowed."
Meanwhile the leading lights of the Dramatists Guild, alerted by Sweet and operating on the assumption that TBC had explicitly told Weiss not to review, have galloped off on a letter-writing campaign to the Sun-Times. Guild president John Weidman called Weiss's review a "shocking and irresponsible betrayal," demanded an apology, and warned that in light of this "debacle," writers won't want to bring new work to Chicago in the future. Twenty-two other guild members—including Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, and Stephen Schwartz—joined in. Arthur Kopit described the column as an "obscene violation of fundamental ethics" that could "profoundly damage" theater around the country. Tony Kushner, who waged a high-profile battle against Weiss over her 2004 review of Caroline, or Change, cited her "pattern of embarrassing behavior," and Michael Weller erroneously charged her with reviewing shows that weren't open to the public. "The woman is shameless," he concluded.
"I have this sheaf of letters from people who have no connection to the [festival] who didn't really know the facts," Weiss says. "It's a very destructive thing, and I don't know why everybody's doing it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Frost.