a matter of solidarity

Recently I have had the opportunity to experience and observe the horrific effect of idiotically stupid reviews on a work of art which is quite close to me.  ”i put the fear of mexico in ‘em” by Matthew Paul Olmos was recently produced by Teatro Vista in Chicago.  It received some good reviews, some mixed reviews, a couple of bad reviews, and one overtly, personal, rude, and stupid review by Hedy Weiss.  You can read the review here and you can see my responses to her here and here.

Mr. Olmos posted the review on his Facebook page and the discussion that ensued centered mostly around the idea of “fuck ‘em” and repeated many of the tropes of how working artists deal with bad reviews.  These include:

  • don’t read reviews
  • you don’t learn anything from reviews
  • at least you had a production
  • at least you got reviewed
  • there’s no such thing as bad publicity
  • there’s no accounting for taste

What was even worse than seeing these responses was seeing other artists, writers and otherwise, justify Ms. Weiss’ review or give background as to why her offensive, lazy, and insulting review might have been justified.  Worse still, it was so easy to see people cow towing to Ms. Weiss out of fear of what she might say of their next production or their next play or their acting.

Why does the theatre community tolerate this way of being?  Why do we let ourselves sell ourselves out?  Why do we celebrate so gleefully the lambasting of others while praying so hard for the acceptance of one lonely sad voice behind a shitty, dying, old media publication?

Sure, it used to be that the individual opinion of a reviewer was light, was god’s own voice, bestowing or destroying an entire carreer in one mighty thunderclap.  But that was a product of the business model of how theater worked and the importance of big media outlets in shaping that market.  It was an outgrowth of the one to many communication that happens when someone writes something that gets printed in ink and distributed to a lot of people without any hope of discussion or response.

But that’s not how it has to work any longer.  That little old thing called the internet.  The intense flood gates of opinion making that happens across the social networks, the communication that happens instantly between communities and artists between cities, states, and countries is something entirely new.  The theater community doesn’t have to be held hostage by reviewers of one paper or even of any paper.  There is an opportunity to open the channels of discussion, feedback, critique, and process beyond anything ever before.  And in that opening, the preposterous, deathly process of the theatre review would be eliminated.

Imagine, for a moment, if every earnest, passionate production that received a bad review also received an outpouring of public support? What if, for every silly, insulting review, that reviewer was publicly shamed?  What if, instead of requiring an actor to defend their performance, which always makes them look petty, all of a sudden 100s of other actors and audience members came out and spoke about how they felt and responded to the art in question?

I sort of like to imagine that all of sudden the whole thing would change.

It probably wouldn’t, that’s probably just me fantasizing.

But is fun to think about, regardless.

Following Up

Dear Hedy Weiss,

I’m afraid I can’t agree to disagree.  You either didn’t read my letter or didn’t understand it. Regardless of the specific strengths and weaknesses of the script and production, your review serves to censor the discussion of an important issue facing our country and shut down the voice of a new playwright.  It is an irresponsible and reprehensible use of your influence.

To refer to this as a “truly bad play” discredits only yourself.  Having been selected by the Sundance Institute as a recipient for the 2009 Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship, developed at Intar, Lark Play Development Center, and the Gala Theatre in DC, as well as published by NoPassport, “i put the fear of mexico in ‘em” has broadly been recognized as an important play.  As a resident of New Dramatists and a recipient of the 2012 Princes Grace Award in Playwrighting, La Mama’s inaugural Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award, and as a 2012-2013 New York Theater Workshop Emerging Artist Fellow, Matthew Paul Olmos is clearly an important writer whose work deserves, at the very least, your respect.

Time Out’s recent review of the same play, while being critical, is a good example of how critics can move the discussion and development of a play forward.  I would suggest that you read it and try to see how you can help develop, rather than destroy, the meaningful exchange of ideas necessary as part of a vibrant and living theatre.

Nichol Alexander