You Want to Worship at the Shrine of Repertory Companies? Read This Article

Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman in their corners. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I just came across Louise Kennedy’s fascinating piece in today’s Boston Globe. While the people in the blogosphere have been talking about change and new models and revolution and whatever else they think is going to transform the American theatre into something they can’t articulate in a single sentence, one model that still seems to get a decent reception (or less antipathy) is the repertory theatre model.

Kennedy’s piece, about ART in Boston, should thus be required reading. Read this paragraph:

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….ART is at a critical juncture in its decades-long history as a Harvard affiliate, with a university search committee apparently stalled in its quest for an artistic director to replace Robert Woodruff, whose contract wasn’t renewed by the university last year. I know nothing about how that process is going, beyond that Anna D. Shapiro, a respected director from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company whose “August: Osage County” is now on Broadway, turned the job down, and that the search is continuing. But I do know that the committee has no hope of finding the right artistic director if it doesn’t have a very, very clear sense of the artistic direction it wants the ART to take.

Now, this raises the question: If the blogosphere still feels the repertory theatre model might be desirable, what is its point? What are its goals? Or what should they be? Is it, as some have said, to create new work? Does everyone feel ART and similar groups need resident playwrights? Or are there other aesthetic goals that may be desirable as well?

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Meantime, there’s another part of Kennedy’s piece that I have a problem with — the two graphs preceding the one cited above:

My frustration, I think, has some of the same roots as my admiration. Before becoming the Globe’s theater critic, I spent nearly five years as an arts reporter, often writing preview features in advance of a show’s opening. As it happened, many of these previews concerned the ART, so I’ve spent a lot of hours in the company’s basement rehearsal space at Zero Church Street, in its offices at the Loeb Drama Center, and in conversation with many of its staff members, directors, and actors, as well as in the audience at the Loeb and the new theater space at Zero Arrow.

Some might argue that that’s too much inside information for a critic to have, and I’ll admit that it’s sometimes challenging for me to write a strong critique of work by people I have come to like as well as respect. (Of course, since becoming the critic I have no longer attended any rehearsals or other “backstage” events.) But I also know that having observed the process, not just the productions, at the ART has given me a deep appreciation of the company’s passions, its vision, and its creative ferment. And that’s why I know it could be better than it often is.

Well, perhaps some might argue “that that’s too much inside information for a critic to have,” but I’d argue that Kennedy is doing ART, as well as her own profession, a disservice by refusing to continue attending such events. By erecting a wholly artificial wall between critics and artists, Kennedy neither helps her readers, nor helps ART, nor helps herself as a critic.

To be clear, I have no problem with Kennedy airing her concerns about ART within the public sphere. In fact, as a nonprofit that likely receives one or more forms of public subsidy (from the city of Boston, state of Massachusetts, or the federal government), one could easily argue that it’s a matter of the public’s right to know.

But Kennedy, like it or not, I believe has a moral responsibility to act like the member of the theatrical community that the Boston Globe theatre critic must must must — she is, indeed, an essential and irrevocable part of that community. By separating herself from artists, she loses the valuable insight she had gained as a result of her earlier interactions. That helps no one.

Now, perhaps the Boston Globe’s policy prevents Kennedy, at the mouth of a gun or whatever, from consorting with those horrid artists, lest it give the appearance of corruption or otherwise taints her objectivity. If so, it’s theatre artists who ought to be outraged by this. Of course, they won’t express that outrage — artists are just as guilty as critics for the adversarial relationship between the two.

By the way, I know several editors who disagree with me, and that’s their issue — or bias, or lack of vision, or insecurity, or terror, or whatever it is. I believe that to support the separation of critics and artists is to drive a stake into the heart of the art form. Period.


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