Friday, August 31, 2007

Why Do Bloggers Endorse and Embrace "Separate But Unequal"?

That's the real question inherent in Aaron Riccio's recent post on the Hunka fracas. He writes,

"I'm not neutral on this subject; like Hunka, I was invited to attend 100 Saints You Should Know, and I accepted free tickets on the condition that I blog something about it after seeing the performance (good or bad), and was given a discount code to share with readers if I wanted to encourage others to see the performance more cheaply. I don't consider this to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show (actually one of the lighter bits of hyperbolic metaphor Jacobs uses). I'm twenty-three, I work two jobs, and I love theater: if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too.

I think an embargo is necessary for the mainstream media because they are businesses first and writers second: removing the prohibition forces critics to go to attend ever earlier previews so that they can get the first word while it's still relevant, much like movie critics are currently flying out to London to catch earlier and ever earlier premieres, chasing the scoop. But a blogger is a writer first, their reviews don't have an institution backing them up; if they happen to see an early preview, they're ethically off the hook so long as they acknowledge what they saw, and when. If a show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they've pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too, and a blogger, who speaks directly from that audience and not from a cultural arbiter, has the right to post a review as early as they like. Being formal isn't a crime, it's a blessing; a lucid blog is a treasure."
My responses are:

1) Just because you're offered free tickets and just because you know PH is looking to use you as an avenue for free PR doesn't give you -- whoever you are -- the right to review something before it's ready to be reviewed. The argument, flimsy and cavalier, that anything can be reviewed at any time is far too facile and, so help me, won't stand.

2) While some may not consider this "to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show," that is indeed what it is. PH uses the blogosphere to generate buzz and did indeed invite the bloggers to write anything they liked, including a formal review. And what the blogosphere is saying is, "We're separate but equal" -- we're "ethically off the hook" -- that there are no standards, no expectations, no applied level of professionalism to be considered of them. What's that about "If the show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they're pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too?" That's the purpose of previews, and if you want to argue that preview ticket prices should always be lower, or even considerably lower, you've got my vote on that. But to justify what PH did by saying that it's cheating its audiences -- and therefore no ethical standards apply to bloggers -- well, that's just nuts. Sorry, but it is.

3) What does being 23 and/or working two jobs have to do with anything? The crux of the issue is in what Aaron wrote: "...if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too." See, right there! He's saying, "Thanks, Playwrights Horizons -- by dint of giving me free tickets, you absolve me of any professional or ethical responsibility whatsoever; I owe the artists nothing."

4) I agree that an embargo is necessary for anyone who is going to write a review, period.

5) To say that critics are "businesses first and writers second" has some validity, but there are a lot of exceptions to this, and its dangerous and facile to lump all the critics and/or writers into a conveniently labeled bag of cats. People write for publications that may be institutions, but how does that make them institutions? It's called a job, two of which I understand Aaron holds. And what about Martin Denton? What's his institution? Oh, right, that's called a nonprofit -- what is the institution "backing him up" other than himself? Andy Propst's American Theatre Web is for-profit, but he's it, he's the guy, he's the one who does the work -- where is his institution? Or how about all the critics -- and this is the vast, vast majority -- that are freelancers: What is the institution backing them up? You're telling me that David Finkle at Theatermania, for example, who is a freelancer, is by definition an institution? To suggest that any critic, or anyone writing a review, is not a writer first is to smack them across the fact, insult them, and try to suggest that somehow bloggers are some separate but equal third-class that shouldn't be acknowledged. The blogosphere, in fact, should be insulted that PH doesn't consider it -- well, certain key bloggers, anyway -- to be equal to the rest. And participating in a subclass enables it to continue.

Why would anyone, in 2007, endorse and embrace the idea of separate but equal? Didn't we resolve that a long time ago? Maybe you're drinking out of different water fountains, too.

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Aaron Riccio said...

A review is a critical, but still at heart opinionated, appraisal of a work as is. So long as the format of the production you saw is acknowledged -- i.e., during previews, with an understudy, &c. -- then I see no reason why *THAT* performance cannot be objectively (and comprehensibly) covered. That's like saying the beta version of a software shouldn't be reviewed: not so. Such appraisals (often called "previews" but really, simply semantics--i.e., what if I just add a small "p" to my "review"?) are useful to people wondering about the process, the show, the buzz, and more.

The Little Mermaid, currently in Colorado, is getting reviewed there, and read about by interested audiences here. (The production there is even acknowledged as a tryout, and isn't that the same as a preview? Again: semantics.) When it comes here, it will no doubt be different from Denver (Riedel hints, through much denial, that it may have a new director), but does that invalidate the right of critics over there to review what they saw? Or should New York City audiences (and all relevant tourists) be under embargo from reading those foreign reviews until after it opens here? Why can't I read about Spring Awakening playing at the Atlantic Theater or Rock 'n' Roll playing in London? Someone sinking that much money into a show -- even a preview of a show -- should stay willingly in the dark? And let's not ignore that publicists reviving a show use quotes about what's been said about earlier, potentially different versions. Ultimately, if you aren't ready to be reviewed, don't let ANYBODY see your show. Everybody's, as they say, a critic.

However, the argument here is about what you call the "separate but equal" critics... where's the equality? I seldom get scripts when I attend a show, I rarely get press material, and I only occasionally have a seat reserved. I am certainly treated differently from the mainstream, and most invites are from people who are curious about what I might say about the show, formal or otherwise.

There is a difference between blogging and reviewing. I made that clear in an earlier post. It has to do with the medium you release your material into, and whether it's an institution or not. Denton et. al. are free to post reviews on their blogs: if they post to their INSTITUTIONS (for instance, if I were to post to Theater Talk), that would cross the ethical line. It goes from a singular thought to a commercially backed opinion by dint of the editor's publishing it.

As for hurting the artists? I've gotten thanked by people during previews and cursed by people after openings. I don't really think they're the fragile creatures you make them out to be.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I think there are more holes in your argument than swiss cheese, and the situation will not stand as it is. I'm not dropping it.

Freeman said...

First the Holocaust. Now the Separate But Equal doctrine. Man, Leonard... this is pretty harsh stuff.

Leonard Jacobs said...

Yes, Matt, it sure is. And it is absolutely what is happening here. I know there are delicate sensibilities out there, but that's how it has to be.