Dear Mr. [Albert] Williams:
It is a matter of utmost professional concern which I am choosing to bring to your attention.
I read with great dismay and with something resembling a fit of anger your review in the April 7 issue of the Chicago Reader of a play that had just opened entitled The Blank Page. It was not so much an objection to the opinion of the review, as I am sure you are accustomed to such reactions from the public, but it was something far simpler: the play was written by Adam Langer. That is, Adam Langer, Chicago Reader critic.
I question your ethics. There is quite plainly a large issue that exists of conflict of interest. I believe a violation of this principle has occurred, not only in this particular instance, but I suspect over the course of Mr. Langer's length of employment at the Reader as a reviewer of Chicago theatre. Such a plain violation demeans severely the credibility of your paper. I have to ask, how can someone who has a vested interest in the success of his own work in the very same medium possess a fair and objective point of view from which to review a new work in the theatre?
In conjunction, I also have to point out, Mr. Williams, that your review of your colleague's work was obviously protective and biased and uncharacteristically kind, lacking the sharp-tongued, ready-to-attack tone customary of your review section. Frankly, it smacked of the worst kind of cronyism. Is the arts section one big club and fraternity, or is it a place where the public can expect worthy journalism?
This instance might not be so bad, or might even be overlooked, if it wasn't for the fact that over the four years I have been a practicing theatre artist in Chicago, Mr. Langer has consistently proven to be a particularly acerbic, cynical, negative, mean-spirited, ill-informed critic and, judging by his reviews, clearly someone who is more interested in the sound of his own voice and his own turn of a phrase rather than serving the public with a well-observed, informed and--is it too much to ask?--astute opinion of a performance. I can assure you that within the theatrical community Mr. Langer is looked upon as something of a joke. And, yes, if you sense a mean-spiritedness in my tone, believe me, it is only the same medicine the theatre community has had to put up with from Mr. Langer all these years.
In addition, from having closely followed your review section every week for the years I have been in Chicago, it is apparent that a majority of what Mr. Langer covers is new plays or original scripts. How could a reputable newspaper like yours let this have happened for so long? When Mr. Langer reviews an original script his self-interest must always be in question. Let me make clear, there is nothing wrong per se with this critic's particular style--critics have always been known for stinging opinions and invectives--notably, John Simon of New York magazine, whom Mr. Langer closely emulates, but there are two important distinctions: (1) John Simon is well informed about theatre arts and its history, and (2) John Simon does not write his own plays. It is the combination of Mr. Langer's track record of negativity and unsupportiveness, especially towards new works, and glaring conflict of interest which has propelled me to write to you.
Your paper has a wide distribution and your arts section carries a broad appeal to the type of audience that is of vital interest to especially small, non-union theatre companies. And your paper has the honorable distinction of covering all theatre in Chicago, no matter what size--and this is certainly a privilege for those of us working here. I know a number of theatre companies who rely on your publication greatly for visibility. However, I feel it is time for working artists in this city to start reacting back to shoddy press. You have access to an enormous public who trusts in your reviewers' opinions, and you have a wide range of working theatre artists who depend on them. If Chicago is to be known as a viable professional theatre town like the First City (aka New York) we must ask you to be supportive in the development of theatre in this town by acting responsibly and with integrity in your coverage. Your public expects this. The working theatre artists in Chicago deserve this.
In closing, I must state that this is not to say that there aren't worthy critics in your department. Yourself, Larry Bommer and Justin Hayford come to mind as ones who always have something interesting to say. And, I also must admit in all fairness that I myself have been "burned" by an Adam Langer review in the past. So I leave you to conjecture whether my intent may be self-serving in any way. The issue is, do I make a valid point? And the point of this letter can be made plain: Adam Langer should not be a critic.
With all due respect,
Albert Williams replies:
The alternative press has traditionally been a forum for critics who also work in the arts they cover--or, if you prefer, for artists who also write criticism--and the Reader is no exception. Adam Langer is not the only critic here who also writes plays. So do Jack Helbig, Lawrence Bommer, and Justin Hayford (Hayford is also a director and performance artist); and Stephanie Shaw was employed as an actor while she wrote reviews here. I myself have worked in theater for 25 years as a librettist and lyricist, composer, performer, and teacher; and past Reader theater critics have included playwrights Bury St. Edmund and Terry Curtis Fox.
If you call that conflict of interest, so be it. All of us named above, and others I may have neglected to list, have received our share of bad and good reviews from other Reader critics. While it may not suit your purposes to believe this, we who write for the Reader (in any of its sections) place too high a premium on our integrity and independence to be prone to "cronyism." As for your suggestion that we are so obsessively competitive and self-interested that we would use our reviews to undermine our supposed rivals, please don't project your own paranoia onto us.
For the record, when assigning a play for review, whether it's by a Reader critic or not, I choose a reviewer with as little personal connection to the playwright and theater company as possible. Though I talk to Adam Langer in the course of making review assignments, we are not personally close. In any case, Langer's play didn't need my review--which I stand by--to validate it; the Tribune's Richard Christiansen praised it unequivocally. I mention this not to justify my review, which noted in the first sentence that Langer is a Reader contributor so as not to inadvertently deceive readers, but to clarify that my favorable reaction was hardly isolated.
As for Langer's supposed "negativity and unsupportiveness," his track record hardly supports your claim that Langer is "consistently . . . mean-spirited." You or I might not agree with all of his opinions, but his positive-to-negative ratio is pretty much on a par with that of most serious critics. More important, nearly all of Langer's reviews--and this is true of all Reader critics--are mostly mixed, because they try to analyze the components that make each play and production special rather than delivering a knee-jerk consumer-guide assessment.
All critics have individual biases and tastes regarding the art we write about; that's why we become critics. I think professional activity in the field makes us better critics. It gives us a more informed perspective on the practice of making theater; it sharpens our points of view--making them too sharp for some tastes, perhaps. But then, no one ever became a critic in order to be popular--certainly not with aspiring playwrights.