The Shame of Pre-Judging Art: “Family Ties” for the Stage

Family Ties
A still from an episode, on YouTube, of Family Ties.

In his latest dispatch from the wilds of the American theater for The Guardian, Howard Sherman, director of the “Arts Integrity Initiative” at The New School for the Performing Arts, has published a piece that, ironically, raises questions around arts integrity. As someone who has reoriented his career from arts administration to advocating on behalf of contemporary cultural issues, I was surprised that Sherman committed, surely unintentionally, an act of prejudice toward an artist.

You may know that playwright Daniel Goldstein was announced this week to be writing an adaptation of the 1980s sitcom Family Ties for the producing company The Araca Group, with a premiere set for June 2017 at The Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio. I’m not super-clear from all the press coverage just how far Goldstein is with his adaptation, but nowhere was it reported that the play is absolutely finished — that the work, if you will, is completely complete. By definition, then, it remains a work in progress.

Setting aside that Justine Bateman, who played Mallory on the original Family Ties, started a pissy Twitter war with Araca executive Michael Barra (the exquisitely muttered “Ew ew ew ew”), Sherman focused on stage adaptations of TV shows as an idea whose time may be arriving, and their inherent challenges. By focusing on these “challenges” without acknowledging, in Family Ties, that we haven’t seen a final product yet, Sherman implicitly pre-judged Goldstein’s play.

Perhaps Sherman will defend the structure, tone and substance of his article in that it does offer a mild, “let’s see what they do with it” approach. But he can’t argue that the way in which he frames the topic casts a bit of an eyebrow-raise on a work not yet read and cast and developed and workshopped and produced and seen by an audience. If I were a playwright; if my default position were to support creatives in their work; if my priority was to ensure that creatives have space enough to operate without fearing beams of presumed negativity being lasered in their direction, I’d argue that Sherman’s seemingly harmless article is a minor aesthetic arson.

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Sherman points out the obvious: TV shows “operate under a different model” than plays structurally; characters and arcs “can go on for years, sometimes adding up to hundreds of hours.” That’s hardly an insight unless one has never watched TV. He notes that part of the adaptor’s challenge, “especially when it comes to sitcoms, is that they don’t provide narrative arcs designed to sustain a story for two hours, as films do” and “may require a particular perspective and perhaps a new take on the material to make it live on the stage.” Does he think Goldstein, for example, doesn’t know that?

Whatever. Sherman, after all, is writing for a general, not theatrical, audience. What’s damaging is this:

It will be interesting to see how Goldstein succeeds with reviving the Reagan-era Family Ties for consumption after the looming US election, since the show was rooted specifically in 1960s idealism (the parents) versus 1980s commercialism (the kids) as the source of its humour.

Setting aside the spelling of the last word (Sherman’s American), note his use of “how.” He avoids “if,” as in “if Goldstein succeeds” in adapting Family Ties for the stage, but “how,” as he ties it to “success,” nonetheless reminds us that Goldstein, at least in Sherman’s eyes, may well fail. I teach a leadership class at CUNY’s MA in Arts Administration program at Baruch College and we have just started our semester. Of course one or more of my 19 students may fail. However, it’s my clear responsibility to assume that each student possesses the ability and talent to knock it out of the park — to get an A. It’s the opposite of positive or productive, in other words, to remind my students, myself or anyone else that one or more of my students may fail. Why remind us, or Goldstein, or the Araca Group, or the casual Guardian reader, that an unseen, incomplete play may suck?

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If were writing plays, I might come away with a feeling that the unseen, incomplete play is already on a kind of probation. Who does that help? It’s a subtler, if no doubt unintended, form of the snickering and bullying theater journalism championed by Michael Riedel at The New York Post. Surely all involved in Family Ties — surely anyone involved in creating any work of art, ever — knows someone, sometime, somewhere will judge it. The real question is how we support artists during their process — if we do. When Tim Gunn strolls into the cutting room on an early episode of Project Runway, he doesn’t begin by warning or stressing to designers that their final product may be unfit for public view.

I, too, can be gimlet-eyed. On Facebook, I offered commentary on Bette Midler not exactly being age-appropriate to play Dolly Levi in the upcoming Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! As a dramaturgical matter — that is, the character created by Thornton Wilder for his play The Matchmaker, which Michael Stewart adapted for the book of Hello, Dolly! — she is “a widow in her middle years.” As a matter of the birth records of the city of Honolulu, Midler was born in 1945; when the musical revival opens on Apr. 20, 2017, she will be 71, not in her “middle years.”

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What I did not write and what I do not believe is that Midler can’t play a widow in her middle years — that’s where talent comes in. I wrote that, too, on Facebook and I write it again here. So, yes, there may indeed be dramaturgical challenges in adapting Family Ties for the stage, but that’s where talent comes in. Nowhere does Sherman state explicitly or otherwise remind us that we haven’t seen the final product yet; whereas, with Midler, I stated that even if did not turn out to be 500% delirious with suspension of disbelief, being merely 499% delirious would be more than enough for me — which is what I define as a reasonably open critical mind. I love Midler and want this Dolly! to get an A. Deep down, I don’t think Sherman likes the idea of Family Ties: The Play, and his dislike is where his prejudging of Goldstein’s play really stems from.

When commentators and self-styled journalists want to operate with integrity, they need to understand that pointing out trend-lines is fine so long as their treatment of those trend-lines doesn’t inadvertently take a prejudicial stand toward artists and their work, especially when we know that work isn’t ready for prime time.