To the editors:
Thanks to the Reader and Chicago Tribune, I have lost my girlish innocence.
Ever since I was a wide-eyed and idealistic J-school student, I have always believed that the most basic obligation of the press is to present and check the facts, especially when they are readily accessible. But, instead, both papers have sensationalized, personalized, and mocked my serious charges that someone else is claiming co-ownership of, drastically changing, and using my original and copyrighted work without permission.
My most naive misjudgment of all was of the Reader, which I formerly perceived as an "alternative" paper fighting for the underdog. Its gossipy feature [Our Town, January 29] about this conflict was so shallow that it made those two broads who do the "INC." column look like a couple of muckraking Upton Sinclairs.
I resorted to going to the press after the director of my play, Jane: Abor- tion and the Underground, suddenly claimed coauthorship two weeks before its January 22 opening. She started advertising this in the media--and would not budge from her position or give me the contract she had been discussing for months. I had even sent her a letter of intent outlining these terms after three months of waiting for her to deliver the contract she had been promising. While I affirm her right to tell her side of the story, I had faith that my well documented facts would help back me up.
So, I was shocked when I read the analysis of our "stage fight" in last week's Reader (headlined "Women Helping Women.") If the reporter, Todd Savage, would have fact-checked one word of the director's or my testimony, the entire story would have changed. That would have forced him to look at the central issue (as framed in the subhead): Who wrote the play?
Instead, he told the story, from his own personal and cynical perspective, of the beleaguered and hapless writer caught in an ugly imbroglio with two wacky "dramatist wannabes." As a result, the article took on a flimsy "she said/she claimed" structure. But, I have mountains of documented evidence that I repeatedly offered to Savage. He said that the contract I rejected gave me ownership; it actually just stated that authorship (and thus ownership) was still under dispute. He could have easily gotten this information from either of our lawyers. I have a copy of the poster that she faxed me on December 23, 1992, listing me as the sole author. Instead of describing this poster, he just mentioned my "claim" to have it. But, he could have easily just taken a look at it himself! Also, he could have easily read the November PerformInk profile of me, which quoted the director calling me the playwright. She also explains there that she had accompanied me to research interviews for "casting purposes," not as a "collaborator" (as she tells Savage). He could have verified that she couldn't have written the play because she didn't even have copies of the interview transcripts--that the whole thing is based on--until the middle of December, right when she started casting! I even offered him the tapes, which clearly record me conducting the interviews.
As another routine example, she told Savage that rehearsals started on Thursday, January 21, the day we made an agreement to start them. She actually started them a day earlier--as a violation of federal copyright law. As I pleaded with him to do, Savage could have simply picked up the phone and called the Theatre Building or any of the actors or crew or dozens of witnesses present that night to refute her claim.
The most surprising twist is the condescending and arrogant tone and bias of the story. His definition of being "objective" is apparently just bashing both sides. With the harsh and glaring pictures used, both of us were cast as bitchy, whiny, trivial spoiled children. My face had the additional distorting and circus-mirror effect of a wide-angle lens taking my picture from two inches away. All that was missing to complete the ghoulish image was an artist's sketch of bile dripping from my mouth.
Much of Savage's bias is subtle. Savage made me seem like a slick media manipulator because of how I successfully alerted the press about this conflict, explaining that I have experience "hawking my book." I actually just gave reporters the facts and phone numbers they could use to check them. Ironically, in another article last spring, another recent Medill graduate and Reader free-lancer profiled me in the complete opposite light--as a struggling author trying to survive without a publicist and the luxury of a comprehensive health insurance plan. That article portrayed me as having no control over the media, with no one showing interest in my message about young feminists, but instead appointing me a spokesperson for every other "twentysomething" issue. Savage also made me seem hysterical saying that I left rehearsal "in tears" after being asked to leave. I have no idea where he got that impression (he apparently forgot to list anyone "claiming" that one).
As a writer who regularly addresses feminist issues, I'm hesitant to seem extreme and, well, call the article's angle, you know . . . sexist. But, if the conflict were between two men--especially two older men--about their careers and their writing, this legal matter wouldn't have been trivialized as "a spat." This article reminds me of the Reader's equally offensive profile of a visit last summer by another young feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, to Women & Children First Bookstore. Instead of describing her ideas, the writer launched into a bizarre personal attack, even taking special note of her "rounded ass." Thank goodness I wasn't wearing stretch pants to my Reader interview!
Savage also missed the behind-the-scenes story that this really is a case of women helping women. The "hotshot lawyer" he says I "hired" is really an independent arts attorney, Patricia Felch, who came forward to represent me for bubkes (I qualify for a low-income discount through Lawyers for the Creative Arts). Without remuneration, she has toiled seven days a week since early January to help preserve my rights. Since the beginning, I have been assisted by a legion of tireless female friends who have accompanied me to rehearsals and gathered evidence for a possible court case. Women from the National Writers' Union and Dramatists' Guild have also backed me up. While this entire mishap has indeed cost me my youthful sense of trust and innocence, I am more idealistic than ever that sisterhood is possible and that the message of the play--women empowering each other through organizing--is not a hollow one.
Paula Kamen "Theater wannabe" S. Ellis
Todd Savage replies:
I attempted to present an even-handed account of the dispute, not to act as a judge as Kamen would have had me do. As for Kamen leaving rehearsal in tears, I was mistaken and I apologize. To clarify: Kamen's attorney said that Kamen was ejected from a rehearsal and called her that night in tears. I agree with Kamen that the play's message of empowerment is important. It's what first intrigued me about the play and what I wanted to write about until offstage events proved difficult to ignore.