Week Ending July 30: A Flap About Tweeting at the Theater

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This column features assorted commentary on arts and politics stories, issues and trends from the previous week. Or, in this case, from the previous six weeks, back to the earliest part of June. (Nothing like starting a new feature and then not following up properly. My bad.)

As a reminder, this column is a variation on the cheers-or-jeers, who’s-up-who’s-down, plus-or-minus columns that, in the not-so-old days of news magazines, used to encapsulate a week’s worth of news into a half-page of reductive charm.

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Rise = more likely we will still be talking about this topic next week.
Fall = less likely we will still be talking about this topic next week.

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To Twitter at the Theater or Not to Twitter at the Theater, Tweet Tweet Tweet
The Clyde Fitch Report addressed the topic of tweeting during performances last March, but the debate should, of course, continue. Chloe Veltman of the Lies Like Truth blog brought the issue up again in mid-July and one of the more passionate commenters on her piece, David Loehr of the 2am blog, stated that he thinks tweeting, texting or doing anything but watching the show is a symptom of our ADD-addled age. There is certainly something to be said for his viewpoint. If the “theory” is that the twaddling, tweeting, twittering twits are best relegated to the back of a theater — thus to disturb a minimum of theatergoers — “what is that minimum number?” Great question.

Loehr also made a statement that deserves further discussion: “if we can’t put down our phones for 80 minutes, there’s something wrong.” Well, yes, something is wrong, no doubt about it. But I would argue that the conversation-debate is not one of accurate diagnosis but instead one of proper treatment. During the course of human evolution, when has a stop-the-bad-habit movement ever managed a full, complete and enduring victory by demanding or forcing behavior? Currently, I’m reading a book about Chicago during the bootleg 1920s, so you’ll kindly forgive me for offering the first comparison, however wobbly it may be, that has popped into my head. If people can’t go a week or a few days or a day without drinking, there’s something wrong with that too, right? Yes, of course there is — who would deny it? But plenty of people drink, for better or for worse, and history memorably proved that Prohibition — forced behavior through the illegalization of liquor — did nothing to stop it. If you think tweeting, texting or using a cell phone during a performance can or should be made illegal, say, then surely it follows that we can make abortion illegal as well, yes? No, obviously not — we know denying a woman’s right to choose will not result in fewer unwanted pregnancies but instead drive more of them underground. Forget making tweeting or texting or cell-phone usage illegal during a show — simply make it a kind of massive moral no-no? Who will enforce that? And how will it be enforced? Who gets to decide? And when?

Much as watching someone tweet or text or especially talk on a cell phone during a performance drives me crazy, my point back in March, the same as new, is that we should embrace change in order to directly control it.

After all, in the long run I do not believe that tweeting or texting audience members will enjoy being segregated from the rest of humanity. My post, cued by a think piece written by TCG’s Teresa Eyring, said that the real message being sent to twitterers contains a note of antagonism: “We accept your neurotic need to use a cell phone, send a text or tweet, but in deference to the dwindling number of seniors who fund our theater with their philanthropy, we’re going to physically separate you from everyone else, shaming you and positioning you in the eyes of everyone else as a social pariah. Enjoy the show.” From a marketing point of view, I wrote, “this doesn’t exactly harness the positive possibilities of social media.” I still think that’s true.

Then I compared the discussion to New York City’s cell-phone ban inside places of public gathering, such as theaters (stadiums are exempt), noting that there is no enforcement mechanism for the law — which is why Mayor Bloomberg vetoed it, only to be overruled by the New York City Council. Six, seven years into the law, I don’t see ushers or house managers making citizens’ arrests, do you? File it under E for Epic Fail. For again, it’s not the diagnosis we have to fret about, which is easy, but the treatment, which is much harder to determine. If we are to state, with moral conviction, that tweeting or texting at the theater represents something “wrong” with society, what are we to do about it? Make it illegal like the cell-phone ban in New York City? Useless + useless = Useless.

Or, as Veltman notes with regard to the San Francisco Playhouse performance of The Fantasticks, are we to try to be a step ahead of change, to embrace the inevitable, to control the inevitable so as to minimize its damage and maximize its impact? I can hardly imagine the theater being more progressive. In fact, I’ll drink to that.
Verdict: Rise.

The Whole Stars-on-Broadway End-of-the-World Nonsense
So, um, what’s going on with Hunter Foster’s “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway” movement? Hard to tell. Did a Google search this morning and it would seem that in the afterglow of the awards, which lasted through the end of June, there was lots of talk and indignation over the sheer number of Hollywood stars who walked away with Broadway’s highest honor — at least Scarlett Johansson had the decency, or perhaps temerity, to acknowledge (via Perez Hilton) that she can understand why some theater stars, like Foster, might get bent out of shape by it. Then July arrived and…hello? The giant sucking sound you hear is silence. Silence! Where is all the righteous indignation now, kids? Oy. With all due to respect to Foster, I again aver that the actor’s “upset” with the Tonys was unearned, out of place and mildly disingenuous. Foster may not be a Hollywood star like Denzel or Scarlett or Catherine Zeta-Jones; he may not even be, except as agent-negotiated otherwise, a top-of-the-marquee name like, say, his sister Sutton, but he is a star nonetheless. I mean, people know who he is. He works a lot. He makes a living as a performer, is there any question about that? Most New York actors, most actors on Earth, would likely give their eye teeth, and probably many more than those, just to have a shot at where Foster currently sits so pretty, so the huffing and puffing is just bizarre. And, anyway, if Broadway should not, must not and cannot be a land where Hollywood actors — especially those whose origins are in the theater — return to the stage, what would Foster have them do? And who decides? Would it be a rule that Hollywood actors cannot receive Tony nominations? Who would enforce this? And how does any of this help the art form? How does it unite and diversify the acting profession? Oh, please, please, never mind. The whole subject boggles my brain. And, anyway, my aforementioned Google search does suggests that nothing real, nothing serious, has come out of this pouty, pissy, petulant “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway” brouhaha. And you know what? Good. Actors should be grateful to work at all. Oh, by the way, if you really want a contrarian view, this story from the Boston Globe, back in late June, should have set everybody aflame. Worse than the problem of Hollywood actors visiting Broadway, the story argues, is the absolutely ter-agedy of what happens to Hollywood when they leave. Movie fans suffer! That’s right! They suffer! Oh, no! I mean, who assigns these stories?
Verdict: Fall.

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No More Debate About NEA Grants to Individuals?
I really thought this subject would have caught on more substantively, but perhaps everyone is holding off to see whether National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman is able to plop the subject down on the Congressional table for everyone to discuss and debate. And while I genuinely don’t mean to be a gloomy Gus, I predict the debate will far outstrip, along with thoroughly confuse, the possibility of such a thing itself actually coming to pass. My view is that the idea of NEA individual grants might be nice in theory but will be terrible to put into practice, as I’ve suggested elsewhere previously on the CFR. The discussion itself, however, is absolutely vital and I’d still like to do what I can to keep it going. Anyone game?
Verdict: Rise.

Wow, That’s a Big Endowment. Yes, Baby. Go Ahead and Tap It.
Not one comment, people. Not one comment was generated from Judith A. Dobrzynski’s blog post on a bill, pending at the time in the New York State legislature and now passed, that would make it easier for nonprofits to draw down their endowments. (Has lame-duck Gov. David Paterson actually put his paw print signed the legislation yet? It would seem not to be so, or at least I’m having a devil of a time proving he has.) Dobrzynski, in her post, delivered a special tongue lashing to Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who opposes allowing nonprofits to “deaccession” items, such an art works, for the purpose of anything except purchasing new items, like plugging a deficit, yet he favors granting nonprofits the right to tap an endowment, albeit under very strict governmental supervision. Dobrzynski’s point is right: there’s a big double standard here. Well, welcome to the New York State Legislature, the closest organism to an Aldous Huxley-like dystopian universe we’re likely to endure in our lifetime. Too bad we’re not talking about it.
Verdict: Fall.

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Do Critics Have a Place in the Digital Age? What Year Is This?
To be clear, I very much enjoyed watching all of the videos in this PBS series. At least someone, somewhere, is on top of the issue that has driven so much wrist-waving and head-shaking and butt-slapping and eyelid-drooping. But here’s the real issue, which is, amazingly, the same real issue that always comes to the fore: no one really knows how to pay for these critics — least of all the poor critics themselves who are, quite naturally, more knowledgeable about the art they’re covering than how they’ve covering their paychecks. Where will the money come from? Isn’t that the central question, my fellow critics and journalists? Here’s the first of the video clips if you’d like to get wondering whistle wet:


Verdict: Rise.

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One Building We Can All Blow Up!
In an era in which each and every effort toward historic preservation seems like an uphill and even hopeless battle (what with elected officials like New York City Council Member Daniel Garodnick being accused of sabotaging landmark status for the childhood home of the Marx brothers), the idea of inflatable, almost pop-up buildings may be drawing near. This story in Fast Company, which ran in late June, suggests that such structures are instant revenue generators — I’m personally not sure the hypothesis is ready to be put into proof. Still, with real estate in Manhattan continuing to gyrate between outrageously overpriced and scarily sluggish (pick your perspective), and with the dominant hue of 21st century architecture likely to be green, is this the future of things to come? Is there an arts angle on this story as well? Can there be inflatable theaters, inflatable concert halls, inflatable dance halls, inflatable art galleries, inflatable — my gosh — sports arenas? Is it too crazy to dream about?
Verdict: Rise.

Chris Jones, the Great Recession and the Taking of the High Road
Back on June 30, the chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, the brilliant and conscientious Chris Jones, took one extra cranky pill too many, apparently, and decreed that philanthropy as a popularity contest — like the Pepsi Refresh Everything Project and Chase Community Giving, where grants are determined by online voting — demeans art. Again, no one can question the devotion of Jones to the theater in Chicago, and no one can question the passion or precision of his criticism. But here passion seems to have rendered his writing wrong. On the one hand, he says, we “certainly can’t blame” nonprofit arts groups for “jumping through whatever hoops are required to snag some cash”; he acknowledges that no nonprofit Chicago theater “survives on box office alone” and, as is the case everyone across the land, “levels of civic and state funding have taken turns for the worse this year.” (Not just this year, Chris.)

On the other hand, Jones says, let’s put those petty and irksome issues like sheer financial survival to the side and let’s assume that moral outrage will be enough to pay for rent, salaries, food and props. What we should be fighting against, tooth and nail, he goes on, is the way projects like the Pepsi Refresh Everything Project and Chase Community Giving smears and besmirches the “noble” Chicago tradition of the “corporate giving officer” who determines which “worthy” arts groups “get the corporate bucks.” It’s all very 1999 and wistful, quite frankly, and I share Jones’ snuggling up to nostalgia. Problem is, not only is corporate philanthropy dramatically down as a result of the Great Recession, but a growing number of pundits now believe that the “days of corporate philanthropy being about cutting checks for charity dinners and new buildings are over — or if they’re not, they should be, and fast.” There are growing calls for corporate philanthropy to be given a radical overhaul — this op-ed in the Washington Post, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, being one example. So the “corporate giving officer” may be a dying breed and Jones, if he doesn’t know it already, has an obligation, in my view, to take stock of the trend and fully think through what it will mean for the nonprofit theaters whose plights concern us all.

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Indeed, while Jones has every right to dislike the nervy conflation of marketing, corporate philanthropy and social responsibility, believing that nonprofit arts groups should drive the message home by rejecting revenue opportunities that such conflations present simply does not comport with reality. As Jones himself basically admits, what choice do these organizations have? Given the number of Chicago-based arts nonprofits that won grants from Chase Community Giving alone (15? 20? I’ve lost count), Jones didn’t enjoy much in the way of applause for his moral outrage, but the larger point is not to snicker. Rather, his essay spends a lot of time grieving for how things used to be and perhaps even how things ought to be but never quite gets around to outlining how they are going to be unless this, that or something else comes to pass. What we need are solutions — and Jones, I would submit, is uniquely positioned to examine trends like corporate philanthropy crowdsourcing and recommend ideas as to how to improve them, rather than beat down the new, hoping they’ll nurse their bruises and fade away. Attacking theaters who participate in these exercises as “on-line hucksters,” moreover, hurts the very constituency he supports and adds insult to their economic injury. To tell these companies that participating “lacks dignity and turns off many real artists” is even more needless, unhelpful and uninspiring. Stage Left Theatre, which arrived at number 55 in Chase Community Giving, doesn’t support “real artists”? Really? Ditto Actors Gang in California? Really? At wit’s end, truly at wit’s end, poor Jones throws up his hands and rails furiously at “the rampant cult of the amateur, masquerading as grassroots movements,” but offers no panacea for the economic mire facing the nonprofit arts scene, be it in Chicago or anywhere else in the nation. Instead of jutting his chin out in finger-wagging, Jones must assume the mantle of leadership our respect for him commands — and start putting his byline, his imprimatur, toward arts-advocacy ideas that everyone can embrace, and without dealing moral cards.
Verdict: Rise?

No More Silence on Silent Films
This story on Slate.com about a German website that is racing to aggregate and identify extent silent films, particularly those of European origin, is not only heroic and noble but precisely the kind of smart arts reporting that the pioneering online magazine should keep on doing. The Slate story refers, for example, to a film about an “Edwardian and his nude model“; if you click over, there is a slideshow available to look at, refer your silent-movie-buff colleagues to or simply to marvel at. As another example, check this waiting-to-be-identified film that was shot, they say, in 1908. The mind completely boggles: Is this the first time in human history that we can look at precise images (as opposed to rendered) of ourselves from more than 10o years ago? Yes, that’s obvious. But not as appreciated a fact as it should be. Really, the responsibility is bracing and thrilling. (Am I getting too enthusiastic? Hopefully more people will take an interest in this subject — it deserves it.)
Verdict: Fall.