What do playwrights (and their producers) want from the press? Feature stories! And lots of them. What they definitely don't want are reviews of any play they haven't declared totally finished. Never mind if the script has already traveled the workshop road and is getting a full production with sets, costumes, professional actors, and ticket sales to the public--if it has the word developmental attached to it, it's verboten. Dramatists Guild president (and Sondheim collaborator) John Weidman, in town for "Hold the Press," a forum hosted by the Theatre Building last week, put it this way: "Work in development never should be reviewed. The longer the critics can be kept away, the better."
The panel--part of Stages 2007, the Theatre Building's annual festival of new musicals--was a response to the tempest that blew up over Hedy Weiss's capsule reviews of the festival for the Sun-Times last year. Weiss, admitting up front that she caught mostly just first acts, wrote that the shows were so inferior they made her fear for the future of the genre. She'd been invited to the festival, had reviewed it in the past, and had not been expressly told that she was not to review this time. In fact, as she noted in her own defense later, one of her earlier (more positive) reviews had been cited by the festival in a grant proposal. But the Dramatists Guild, which apparently didn't have all the facts, rushed into attack mode. Weidman issued a statement calling Weiss's column a "shocking and irresponsible betrayal" and a "debacle" that could tarnish Chicago's future as a theater hub. This set off a letter-writing campaign that turned into a virulent national castigation. Everyone came out muddied, but that didn't end the discussion.
On Steppenwolf's blog a year ago, the company's director of new play development, Edward Sobel, chewed over this "critical conundrum." He wrote that his own innovative festival--the First Look Repertory of New Work, which presents three "developmental" but fully produced plays in Steppenwolf's Merle Reskin Garage Theatre--is "much more equivalent to a preview process than the run of a play." Sobel also noted that "it is (or used to be) considered a breach of etiquette for critics to review a production during the preview process." First Look, now in its third year, had been reviewed in the past, but when this year's schedule went out in May, critics got a "look but don't touch" invitation. That didn't sit well with the Tribune's Chris Jones. The attempt to exercise such tight control over the press struck him as an insult to Chicago's critics and "no different from the Bush administration." He was uneasy about it, but he says he agreed not to review the shows out of respect for Steppenwolf.
But then, trolling Playbill's Web site in July, Jones noticed an announcement that stopped him in his tracks: one of the productions he'd agreed not to review, Laura Eason's When the Messenger Is Hot (based on a short-story collection by local author Elizabeth Crane), was slated to open the first week in October at New York's 59E59 Theaters complex. "Steppenwolf was producing that show in New York, a month or so after it closed in Chicago, with the same actors, the same production," he says. "When they asked me not to review it, they hadn't told me that. I found that disingenuous."
Jones says he called Steppenwolf and said, "Wait a minute, you have enough confidence in this play to produce it in New York? In a production that will be reviewed in New York? But you don't want reviews here? That's bullshit. That's not treating Chicago appropriately." Faced with what he saw as "an out-of-town tryout for an off-Broadway production," Jones says, he felt he had to review. "I'm not doing my job if I allow the New York critics to weigh in on a play by this iconic Chicago theater, and somehow we've ignored it."
After Jones's call, Steppenwolf did an about-face. A week before opening they issued a new press release saying that critics were "welcome to attend the three productions" but asking them to "limit critical review" and to "keep in mind the developmental stage of the new work." Jones says he found that language condescending and especially irritating after his support for Steppenwolf's recent Season of New Work (produced for its 30th anniversary). "I like to think the critics in Chicago understand the new-work process," he says. "But the main thing was that [Messenger] is getting an off-Broadway production within weeks of its close, so obviously this is a production that was pretty much ready." If they're still going to tweak it, he adds, so what? Everyone does. "When it's a professional theater with Equity actors, in full productions charging money for tickets, we have an obligation to tell our readers what those shows are like. We can't let theaters choose routinely whether or not we can review." Jones says the independent critical voice is a crucial component in the development of new work. "If they don't want that, they should have a workshop, or an internal audience, or not charge money for tickets."
Two months ago Sobel won the only professional award given by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas for creating the First Look program. The judges commended the way First Look addresses "two pressing issues in new play development": a "lack of production experience" among emerging playwrights and a lack of audience "engagement with the process of creating new work." (First Look not only produces plays, it recruits a "class" of 101 audience members to be on hand over a three-month period for readings, rehearsals, and discussions as well as the final productions.) "It's a developmental process with a production at the end of it," Sobel says. "We charge for tickets [$15], and the actors are off book--that puts it in a gray area. It looks like a [real] production. On the other hand, the works aren't finished yet."
Jones wound up writing a qualified rave for When the Messenger Is Hot (calling it "slick," "shrewd," "savvy," "spunky," and "smart") and didn't bother seeing the other two plays. Weiss saw all three and reviewed Messenger enthusiastically but dealt quick, devastating blows to the others. (The Reader chose not to review the festival.) Surprisingly, Sobel says he prefers Weiss's treatment, because at least she put the festival "in the context of a developmental repertory program." Like Weidman (and like Prop Thtr's Stefan Brun, who was also on the Theatre Building panel), he wants the press to cover the process. "They feel that they need to be critical in doing so, and that's the cusp of the biscuit," Sobel says. "What we've done is rather unique; four of the six plays we've done in the last two years have had major productions elsewhere [later]. I think that's a worthwhile story to be telling. I think that's not their agenda."
It looks like attorney Scott Hodes's long legal battle with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs over its public-art program is finally finished. Last week Cook County Circuit Court Judge William Maki dismissed Hodes's most recent suit, noting that the city's new public-art ordinance, which eliminates the requirement for open meetings, rendered it moot.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Jones; When the Messenger is Hot at Stepphenwolf's First Look festival photos by A. Jackson, Jay Geneske.