HowlRound, New Crit and Controversy

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Pen Mightier than SwordYou may be surprised who’s on the other end of the phone, especially if you work in a newsroom. But as I answered the news desk phone at The Birmingham News in Alabama, I recognized the caller’s voice immediately. The prominent Birmingham politician requested any editor. All of them were in their afternoon meeting.

“I’d like you to take a message,” he said, forcefully. “I’d like you to ask the editors why they’re so racist.”

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When they came out of the meeting, the racially diverse group of editors received the message with amused expressions. One of the metro editors explained that the caller was responding to an ongoing investigation.

Every morning, the editors gathered to critique yesterday’s coverage. The group acknowledged what stories could’ve been better. During the day, they discussed current stories to make sure the reporting was airtight.

The one thing they didn’t do, especially in this case, was apologize.

It’s a good thing, since the caller was then-Mayor Larry Langford. He would soon face a 101-count federal indictment alleging bribery and conspiracy. Langford was found guilty of 60 counts, and is currently serving 15 years in prison.

The former mayor was part of a racially varied group of politicians, officials, engineers and contractors convicted of charges in connection with the Jefferson County Sewer Debt. That debt led to Jefferson County declaring bankruptcy. Up until last week, Jefferson County, Alabama was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

It may sound over-dramatic to compare such a case to Howlround’s New Crit controversy. It’s not. The principles are the same.

Apologize for spelling a name wrong. Say sorry for screwing up a fact. But don’t apologize because you made someone uncomfortable with what you’ve written.

If you had the courage to publish something, have the courage to stand behind it.

The New Crit

HowlRound is a popular hub for the theater community. In January, they announced a new initiative called “New Crit Critics.” Although the description sounded a bit fuzzy, the New Crit segment was a way of fostering a dialogue. It wasn’t a conventional review; rather it was to answer the question. “Why this play? Why now?”

They called it “positive inquiry,” and when the call went out for participants, some people voiced concern. Did positive inquiry mean only positive comments? Would it just be insiders talking to other insiders under the guise of criticism?

I, too, wondered if a site perceived to be so close to theater institutions and other insiders could pose powerful questions. More importantly, how would they hold up under a possible backlash?

Lily Janiak’s recent piece, “‘Cal Shakes’ ‘American Night’ asks, ‘Whose American?’ and also, ‘Whose Theater?” described the experience of seeing a California Shakespeare Theater production. She noted how the theater’s new mission sought to explore California’s diversity from an artistic and cultural standpoint. Janiak explained how challenging it might be for the organization since their theater is located in Orinda, a community that is more than 82 percent white.

The company is attempting to engage the audience, but that, too, is difficult. She writes: “In reality, it’s the kind of theater where, if there’s an interactive exhibit outside the theater (as there is for American Night), the company must instruct audiences to interact with it; at a recent performance, the employees tasked with this unenviable chore looked uncannily similar to bright T-shirt-wearing, clipboard-wielding Greenpeace employees.”

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She also describes the disparity between an older, white audience watching a play about a Mexican immigrant. “But as the show progresses, the sight gags become more frenetic and desperate, thinly justified by the play’s “anything can happen” dream structure. It’s Telemundo on steroids for an audience on Metamucil,” she writes.

Janiak painted a portrait of what she observed. She gave HowlRound‘s international audience a clear picture of an organization working to overcome challenges. It was a piece that engaged and provoked its audience. After reading it, I found myself reflecting on organizational intentions, diversity and the state of theater in general. I kept revisiting those questions in my mind throughout the day.

Janiak’s work produced swift reactions, much of which came from Bay Area theater people. Staff of the California Shakespeare Theater commented on the HowlRound site. Clayton Lord, former staff member of Theatre Bay Area, entered the discussion through his blog, New Beans. Even Janiak’s new boss Brad Erickson also from Theatre Bay Area, weighed in on the controversy, noting the article’s “tone of contempt.”

Those opinions are valid because they’re opinions, and everyone has them. But readers outside of the Bay Area, like myself, might have read that piece quite differently. Although I lived in the region back in the ’90s, I have never been to California Shakespeare Theater. I don’t know any of the people involved. I have nothing at stake. What some people thought was a contemptuous tone, I interpreted to be personality and a refreshing amount of honesty.

The Apology

Three days later, HowlRound posted an apology on their blog from Polly Carl, editor of Janiak’s work. Carl writes, “What I missed in my editing was a tone that I don’t think properly reflects what I hope to be the tone of HowlRound… There is a way that the tone of Lily’s piece can be read as disrespectful. This is not a tone we want to promote on HowlRound.”

Wow, they abandoned the article, I thought to myself. Like a producer who distances herself from a play because it got a bad review, the editor is now personally apologizing for making Cal Shakes and others upset.

Then I remembered that phone message from Larry Langford.

When publications issue these kinds of apologies, they run the risk of discrediting themselves. It causes readers to question whether future content is honest or spun. And their writers might ask themselves what will happen if they encounter controversy. It’s only natural.

Fear and Honesty

The bigger issue, however, isn’t about HowlRound at all. It’s about fear and honesty in American theater. It’s about how niceness obscures authenticity; how a message gets lost in a desire not to offend powerful people. When the American nonprofit theater community attempts to tackle issues – especially dealing with their institutions – it often treats them so gingerly that the effort is rendered ineffective.

Institutions aren’t used to having a spotlight on them, at least not by such a formidable presence as HowlRound. Theatermakers have voiced concern over the direction of American theater for a long time. But the dynamic between powerful institutions and solitary artists is extreme. Even when theatermakers join together to voice their concerns, they can still be dismissed with two words: “sour grapes.” Other artists will buffer any criticism by first announcing how much they like the person or institutions they’re about to criticize. It might go something like this: “He’s a really nice guy but… (he just scheduled an all-white male season again.)”

It’s no wonder that theater-makers and institutions recoil from criticism. How often have productions died due to bad reviews? But in order for theater to become more relevant, it needs to get out of its poverty and survival mode. Perhaps it isn’t only the plays that are the problem. Maybe it’s about time we had the same freedom to examine the institutions producing them.

Progress is directly proportional to honesty. That’s what should make HowlRound‘s New Crit effort worthwhile and intriguing. It could be an important project. Let’s hope next time there’s a backlash, they stand up for what they’ve published.

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Laura Axelrod
Laura Axelrod is a writer, filmmaker, playwright and actress. Her plays have been performed in New York, California and Europe. She has also contributed to The Birmingham News and AL.com. Her book reviews were distributed nationally through Newhouse News Service. She is a Curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. Read more at www.lauraaxelrod.com.