Wednesday, March 30, 2011

IRNE Intrigue

So what happens when Director of Press and Public Relations for one of the largest theatre companies in the Boston metropolitan area admits to spearheading an effort to exert pressure on the area's main theatre awards committee to remove a theatre critic from its membership?

The answer is: no press coverage.

On March 17th, The Hub Review's Thomas Garvey, the self-described "strongest, most versatile, and most prolific critic in town" (to which I'm inclined to agree, though I'll also add "provocative", and "polemical") announced that he had resigned from the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) just a month before the Awards ceremony. According to Garvey, he did not resign over a disagreement with his colleagues, but because of campaign of pressure against the IRNE.

In Garvey's own words: Director of Press and Public Relations for the American Repertory Theatre, Katalin "Kati" Mitchell had:

[...]not only used to send me crazy emails in all caps after a bad review, but, believe it or not, she even penned the IRNE folks an angry letter declaring that the ART's failure to win more awards every year only made the IRNEs look bad.

However, Mitchell was not alone:

[Shawn LaCount, Artistic Director for Company One] claimed he would boycott the IRNE ceremony unless I left the organization, and would talk other companies into boycotting, too. He threatened that he would not allow his actors to accept their awards should they win. Which was pretty ironic, since one of those nominated actors - Becca A. Lewis - was on the ballot largely because I argued for her to be there. So it's also amusing to ponder that if she wins, and I hadn't resigned, LaCount would have ripped the award right out of her hot little hand. That's how much he loves his "collaborators."

Indeed, both companies had denied Garvey the customary press passes that reviewers are given.

Now. I suppose that given the snarky tone, some readers might be inclined to wonder if Garvey isn't exaggerating for dramatic effect. However on March 18th a commentator claiming to be Kati Mitchell largely confirmed most of Garvey's charges:

kati said...
from the addled old bat:
- I only wrote to Garvey once, when he panned Gatz after leaving at intermission (and yes, it was all in caps)
- I have never met Shawn LaCount, so I could not have influenced him in any way. Though we did correspond recently during the exchange with numerous members of the theatre community, whereby a letter was written requesting Garvey's removal from the committee for his unprofessional and insulting behavior towards members of the artistic community (but never sent because he was removed from the committee before we sent it) and the 8 signing companies included Speakeasy and New Rep. Happy to share the letter with you if you wish.

This note only scratches the surface of the multitude of incorrect and false statements you make. But enough already.
March 18, 2011 3:04:00 PM EST

Mitchell admitted that such a letter existed, and named four out of the eight signers, but as of this writing still seems not to have shared the letter to either Garvey or to the general public. Of course, here's the rub: ART received over twenty IRNE nominations in 2011 and not only did Company One garner seven nominations, but Garvey states that he advocated for one of them-- so clearly Garvey's criticism of both companies is pretty irrelevant to either company's chances of winning at the IRNEs!

But the bigger story is: pro-Garvey or anti-Garvey, this is being discussed on the telephone, by email, and in face to face conversations amongst theatre people, but no one in the local theatre press is covering this story either in print or online. Would the press be so quiet if something similar had occurred on the theatre scene in New York? Chicago? Washington, D.C.? Seattle? Minneapolis?

Where's the letter that Mitchell promised?

[Nota Bene: Earlier today I erroneously stated that the ART had not received a single IRNE nomination. This error was mine and mine alone.]


Thomas Garvey said...

Hey, Ian, thanks for posting this.

I think any answer to the question "Why hasn't anyone in the press covered this?" would have to include, at least in part, the answer "Because everyone else is afraid of Kati Mitchell and Shawn LaCount too!" Mitchell's fury represents Harvard's disapproval (and by extension that of the whole Harvard Mafia); LaCount, meanwhile, is only too happy to call you a racist if you point out the poor quality of his productions. Both prospects strike terror into the hearts of every local reviewer but me. Add to that fact that I'm hardly popular with many local scribes - as I've criticized several quite harshly - and it's no surprise nobody's gone out on a limb to defend the freedom of the press when it's Tom Garvey's freedom that's in question.

But as I've mentioned to you before, the funny thing is that many of the theatres who signed that letter still are hoping I'll continue to review their productions! NOT Kati and Shawn, of course; they both know all too well they have nothing to gain from honest criticism. But much of the rest of the community is clearly hoping that slowly the whole thing will blow over, and that I'll keep giving the city the kind of intelligent overview of the local culture that nobody else is able to do - for free, of course, and apparently even as I'm kicked around.

But do I really love the theatre THAT much, particularly when music and dance groups are all banging on my door for reviews, too? We'll have to see.

But I do think the whole affair has sent a clear message to the community as to just who is really in charge of local theatre reviewing. (And it ain't the critics!) For a time it was thought that the Web would give reviewers greater power and freedom - instead, it has given them LESS, because it removes the leverage of a backing institution like a major paper. What's the solution to that trend? In short, greater solidarity and more money. I'll be writing further about those issues in a future post on the Hub Review.

Ian Thal said...

You're very welcome, Tom.

I know that I'm the odd man out at times in that I will publicly state the view that the actors, directors, writers, and critics, despite disagreements, are all part of the same theatrical community-- but that drives my belief that we need more transparency.

I'd still like to know if this would go down this way in other cities, as Art Hennessey asked today in his Twitter feed: When will Boston know it's a world class theatre town? When our theatre press asks questions about things like this:

The point is, the people in the "Thomas Garvey is the problem" camp are not only operating in the shadows, they aren't trying to make their case to the rest of the theatre community, and no one is shining a light on them. There has been no discussion, and there has been no consensus. So representatives of eight theatres (so Kati Mitchell claims) discussed this amongst themselves. Did they consult with the other theatres in town? In a recent conversation, Art estimated that there are maybe ninety professional and semi-professional companies. Who appointed these (allegedly) eight to speak for the others on this matter?

I'm a loyal reader of The Hub Review because I find it both stimulating and entertaining in a way that few other theater writers-- and, yes, sometimes I think you could tone down the polemics a notch or two, but even without the rhetorical flourishes, there's always an underlying argument.

I also know from the scuttlebutt around town, that while local theatre folk have genuine affection for Larry Stark-- you're the guy they read.

Thomas Garvey said...

Just btw, I do want to point out that the ART did get quite a few IRNE nominations in the musical category, just very few in the straight drama category.

Ian Thal said...

My mistake. I did a quick scan of the IRNE nominees (I normally don't pay much attention to awards) and was looking for "American Repertory Theater" as opposed to "ART." I will make the appropriate corrections.

Ian Thal said...

Art Hennessey has followed this up over at The Mirror Up To Nature with the question of When Will Boston Know It's A World Class Theater City?

Ian Thal said...

Geoff Edgers, on the Boston Globe's Exhibitionist blog has picked up the story:

Juicy theater world feud erupts.

Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks for sticking up for me, Ian, over in the talk-radio mix at Universal Hub!

Ian Thal said...

Not a problem.

Most of the Universal Hub folk making comments clearly had no familiarity with the theatre scene, and were thus offering their opinions without doing the prerequisite reading!

Besides: Even if I were not a fan of The Hub Review, it's the principle of the thing: Reviewers and awards committees should feel free to review and give out awards without intimidation. Furthermore: since your reviews are open to the public, the eight companies should have publicly issued their complaint in an open letter to the entire community instead of resorting to closed door tactics.

Ian Thal said...

In light of Larry Stark's principled open letter to the American Repertory Theater's Diane Borger, I have posted a follow-up: