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Purloined Letters; Divided They Wait

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Last month Windy City Times theater critic Rick Reed logged on to the Internet to do some background reading on Black Comedy, a play he'd soon be reviewing. Among the sites he visited was nytheatre.com, where he read that "Black Comedy takes more than an hour to tell its standard-issue story of a young artist." A week or so later, after he'd filed his review of the local Speaking Ring Theatre Company production, Reed logged on again to take a look at what his fellow Chicago critics had said about the show. At chicagocritic.com he saw something that gave him pause. The review, by the site's owner, Tom Williams, read: "Black Comedy takes more than an hour to tell its standard-issue story of a young artist."

"It was odd," Reed says. "There were a couple of phrases that struck me. . . . I knew I'd read it before." In fact, the entire paragraph matched the nytheatre.com review word for word. Wondering if this was an aberration, Reed googled a few phrases from other Williams reviews. "Right away, I found three other instances," he says.

Williams's review of Peter Shaffer's Equus, for example, opined that "Shaffer combines psychological realism with expressionistic theatrical techniques, employing such devices as masks, mime, and dance"--exactly the observation made by bookrags.com, an Internet study-guide source, in an identical paragraph. Another section of the chicagocritic.com review explained that "audiences, face a bewildering range of explanations for Alan's mental state"--the errant comma a holdover from its apparent source, a twin paragraph at penguinputnam.com. The major distinction between these two was the names of local cast members, which had been added in parentheses when their characters were mentioned in Williams's piece. Local cast names had also been popped into two paragraphs of a chicagocritic.com review of The Petrified Forest that otherwise were identical to an introduction at enotes.com. And chicagocritic.com's review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? included a six-paragraph plot summary that matched one at another Internet study-guide source, pinkmonkey.com.

All this struck Reed--who's published three novels, works full-time as a copywriter, and has been burning the midnight oil writing theater reviews for five years--as cheating. He alerted a couple of Williams's apparent sources.

Tom Williams (no relation to Reader theater critic Albert Williams) launched chicagocritic.com three years ago and remains its only reviewer. The site carries banners and links, but he says it's not a moneymaker: he's collected a total of about $600 in advertising fees. A former salesman, Williams says he's a lifelong theater fan who got into reviewing when the publisher of the now defunct Wicker Park Voice asked if he knew anyone who wanted to do it. By his count, Williams reviewed about 240 shows last year, and he's also working on getting chicagostagetalk.com, a radio show about theater that he used to broadcast on the Internet, back up. "I've never had any training in criticism or journalism, and I like most of what I see," he says. "I view myself as a promoter; I try to write from the point of view of looking for a reason to get people into shows."

After pinkmonkey.com contacted Williams about copyright infringement, he took his site's plot summary of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? down, and he subsequently dropped or revised other pieces, including the Equus review. He has since posted an apology on chicagocritic.com. "I do, indeed, have material in several of my reviews that I taken [sic] from unaccredited sources," he writes. "There is no acceptable excuse for my poor judgment." Then he floats a few: "overzealous," "just paraphrasing," "accidental."

Enotes.com business development director Alex Bloomingdale says his site's been ripped off by other Web sites but this is the first case he can think of when it's apparently been done by a critic. "There's not much we can do," he says. "They can type right into Google and cut and paste. The Internet is so widespread and unregulated, we're not usually going to find out about it." Bloomingdale's reaction is echoed at nytheatre.com, where spokesperson Rochelle Denton says, "All our pages have copyright notices on them, but we're a small nonprofit--we haven't got time or resources to pursue it."

Besides making it easier to find and lift material, the Internet's busted the barriers for critics. For theater publicists like Karin McKie, whose Tree Falls Productions handled the press for Black Comedy, the appearance of self-appointed Web-only critics is a quandary. "It didn't used to be our job to decide who's the critic," she says. "Now, anybody and their dog can have a Web site, and we have to figure out if they're just scamming for tickets. They pop up and when I ask for their credentials half the time they say, 'What's that?'"

On the other hand, at many attention-starved storefronts any wagging tail is appreciated. "We need to embrace people who are enthusiastic," McKie says. "If they love theater enough to start a Web site, and if two people read their Web site, that's two more people."

Divided They Wait

After a year of planning, Columbia College full- and part-time staff finally took a vote last week on whether to have union representation, but the outcome is up in the air. Joan McGrath, an administrative assistant and spokesperson for the pro-union group, United Staff of Columbia College, says 138 votes were counted in favor of the union, 158 against--but there are 60 additional disputed ballots that will determine the result, with a simple majority all that's needed. The challenged votes were cast by employees missing from the college's 422-person eligibility list. They include longtime tutors (some of whom belong to a part-time faculty union) and supervisory personnel without anyone to manage (according to college spokesman Mark Lloyd, if you're in charge of a project budget, you're management). After recent top-down decisions on job and pension cuts, USCC is seeking representation by the Illinois Education Association; the National Labor Relations Board will schedule a hearing and make the call on eligibility cases in the next few weeks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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