The Playgoer: TCG to NYTW's defense

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

TCG to NYTW's defense

"But for now, lobbing charges of censorship against an organization that, earnestly and with the best of intentions for the sake of the artist, asks for reasonable delay, strikes me as incendiary, polarizing and, frankly, too easy. Let's reserve the charges of censorship for those places where they really belong, for those who seek to silence and to suppress, not for those who labor in all earnestness for voices to be heard. Especially if all they ask from us is a gift of time."

-Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Ben Cameron, in his monthly column in American Theatre.

Make no mistake, TCG is a lobbying and advocacy group explicitly for theatre institutions, and necessarily theatre artists. And American Theatre its trade publication. So Ben Cameron is basically doing his job by defending and supporting the beleaguered Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop.

But supporting a member institution hardly requires the outright dismissal of criticism Cameron displays here. Of all people, Cameron is uniquely positioned to call for healing in this. Especially at this time (two months into the controversy). But that would entail recognizing dissent within the theatre community itself. Which he doesn't. Like NYTW, Cameron's stance is defending "theatre" itself from outside antagonists like the press and political interest groups. His post and platform position him to speak for the entire US nonprofit theatre community, yet he chooses to only take the side of the Artistic Director--not the playwrights (Kushner, Shanley) or directors (Gregory Mosher, Irene Lewis) who have characterized NYTW's actions as, if notcensorshipp, then at least gross insensitivity and irresponsibility.

As his very title shows--"Censorship or Delay?"--Cameron is weeks behind in this debate, and seems to not to have weighed all the complex arguments beyond the headlines. I wonder if he has genuinely weighed the different accounts of NYTW and the Royal Court. Or is he just admitting his job is simply to defend the former over the foreigners.

Not to spend too much time taking Cameron's defense apart, but... Again we have lauding of Nicola's (true) fine aesthetic record. But--c'mon!--the fortitude shown in rearranging the seating for Hedda Gabler and A Number is hardly relevant here, is it? And again we hear that premiering Homebody/Kabul weeks after 9/11 was politically controversial--when I still don't understand what threats this play about the evils of Taliban Afghanistan (starring a bunch of Brit characters) posed to anyone not named Bin Laden. Awkward tension seeing the play then? Yes. Political challenge? No. I'm tired of hearing arguments it's assumed I won't think about.

Again, as the head of an organization devoted primarily tonurturingg (and funding) theatre institutions, Cameron is right to give the perspective of the board- and corporate-dominated theatres we are forced to live with. By his rules, NYTW's actions, then, make total sense:

if productions of even the standard repertoire must sometimes be justified, tackling a play with the potential to incite community controversy demands even more time. There are meetings with funders to help them understand our decisions, in order to protect the theatre from inappropriate reaction when grant applications are reviewed. There are meetings with the press to convey motive and intent. There are meetings with community groups: Can we broker better understanding with people likely to oppose the play (on whatever grounds)? Can we galvanize goodwill around our choice to produce? Are there community partners to participate in audience discussions? Are there formats for opposing viewpoints to be heard? How will we think about program notes and ancillary materials, and more? At heart, how we can present the work in the most responsible way, preparing the community to be its most receptive, creating the environment for the artist to be heard in the most supportive, most responsible, most appropriate environment?
I'm struck by the tone of optimism here. No longer is the call, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" It's, "Hey, funders! Hey, community partners! Let's schedule a lot of meetings to see if it's ok to put on a show!"

What's also missing here is the artist. Yes, Cameron and Nicola say plenty about "serving" the artist. But notice how Cameron's scenarios here keep implying the artist's assent. He misses that a key part of this story is how the artists in question--Rickman, Viner, the Royal Court, even the Corries--resisted what NYTW was doing, even if it was supposedly in their name, supposedly. In fact, the tone coming from NYTW lately is that the artists were plain ungrateful for their efforts!

Does this consent of the artist not matter here? I remember a while ago someone drawing a comparison to how the Roundabout cancelled their big Assassins revival after 9/11. They did indeed reschedule it two years later to great acclaim. One reason this wasn't controversial was that Sondheim was ok with it! He wanted it to do well. And it was clearly fear of financial strife, not political (who would want to see a downer musical in Fall '01) that led to what appeared to be a mutual decision.

(Sondheim had learned this lesson back when Assassins premiered in '91--during the 1st Gulf War. They may not havetransferredd to B'way, but they still sold out little Playwrights Horizons for the run.)

Cameron has, I understand, done an excellent job at TCG for his members. A very informed and passionate theatre person, he also brought years of corporate savvy from Target. (Yes, the store.) He is now leaving TCG to run arts grants at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Lord knows, theatre artists in this country are grateful for the dollars flowing from this place. (They have no choice but to be grateful, do they.) But it is essentially a corporation as well--just non-profit. Their product is philanthropy.

One of the more interesting legacies of this controversy is the fault line exposed between one American theatre that sees itself as corporate- and board-dependent, and another that sees its mission as putting on plays they want to do, period.


Anonymous said...

This story has been kicking around long enough, now, that it's no longer easy to be outraged. But Cameron's statement is breathtaking just the same.

Playgoer hits all the main points, but take another look at Cameron's words:

If productions of even the standard repertoire must sometimes be justified, tackling a play with the potential to incite community controversy demands even more time...Can we broker better understanding with people likely to oppose the play...Are there formats for opposing viewpoints to be heard...At heart, how we can present the work in the most responsible way, preparing the community to be its most receptive...

Would Cameron call for the airing of "opposing viewpoints" at a production of ANGELS IN AMERICA? Would he worry about GOLDA'S BALCONY being staged "responsibly"? Of course not.

That said: The donor-centered, offense-avoiding vision of theater that he puts forward here is beyond disheartening.

Anonymous said...

Cameron's statement is dispiriting and then it is disgusting. He is allowed to have his own opinion, but not at the expense of the facts and of the many thoughtful voices that have contributed to this debate. Unbelievable!

Playgoer said...

I should also add a simple point about this concluding plea of Cameron's:
"Let's reserve the charges of censorship for those places where they really belong, for those who seek to silence and to suppress, not for those who labor in all earnestness for voices to be heard. Especially if all they ask from us is a gift of time."

My point being, that this characterization of NYTW's approach IS contestable. Even if we grant the "earnestness" of NYTW's motives, reasonable theatre-loving people could still argue that what they were trying to do did not and could not help Rachel Corrie's voice be heard.

Anonymous said...

What Cameron idiotically overlooks is that NYTW wanted more time because of Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas -- in its own words! "Labor in earnestness for voices to be heard" by cancelling plays? Wtf?

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron's statement does expose what's wrong with the model of American non-profit theatre - it's crucially more about pleasing the stakeholders than putting on art or promoting the work of artists. A shame, because it's hard to see a way past that (you're not going to get substantial government funding anytime soon). It makes abundantly clear that the purse strings are what matters. Of course no theatre wants to be shut down, so this is understandable: but it gives an image of an internally cowed, self-censoring theatre sector which - and maybe this is the real problem - doesn't even have to ask to know what the answer will be. That's smart politicking.

PeonInChief said...

A couple of points, in no particular order:

1. It's not surprising that Cameron puts meetings with the funders first. It's part of the modern fundraising strategy of developing "relationships" with funders to both protect from "inappropriate reaction" (read: denial of grant) and to obtain the coveted multi-year grant. While this funding system is better than the project-by-project grant system, the system has problems of its own--it requires a lot more toadying over a longer period of time, for one. (I once endeared myself to our Development Director--the person in charge of fundraising in nonprofits--by telling her that I didn't want to develop a relationship with our funding sources. I wanted them to give us money and then go away and leave us alone.)

It also enables funders to feel that they are part of the funded organization, be it arts, social justice, environmental or whatever. They aren't just giving money, they're part of the process...

2. The second issue is what I call the Florida problem, after Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class. (One would think that Florida would have been thoroughly discredited after one of his major creative class occupations, computer programmers, found their jobs shipped off to India and China, but alas, he remains a working pundit of popular political economy.) Florida argues that cities, to remain viable, must attract members of the creative class and, to do so, must have the kinds of entertainment that will entice the creatives to move to and remain in your city.

On the one hand, this would seem to bode well for arts funding, as music, theater, galleries etc. are mainstays of creative class entertainment. But there's a downside to this, which is that there are limits to the extent to which the majority of this group would want to be challenged. (Yes, it is amazing that MNiRC is beyond the challenge limit, but that it's very likely sentimental claptrap is not the point.) Theater becomes part of the Playland for the Well-to-Do mix -- like football, music festivals and the local farmers' market. This means that it has to compete with those other activities for the attention of the potential audience.

Art projects then need to be sufficiently interesting to get the attention of those who have other options, but not so beyond the mainstream as to lose audience share, either in the short or long term. Having corporate and foundation money as the main funding sources actually keep arts groups within the sometimes very indistinct boundaries required here.

3. I think that we all talked some time ago about the way in which the NYTW had tried to frame the argument so that anyone who said that perhaps their should be program notes was with them, while requiring that anyone who was critical of their position had never read, and would never read, a single word of the program notes. It's a silly frame and we shouldn't tolerate it.

The point is that MNiRC might be opposed by groups with influence and money, in a way that Angels in America, for instance, would not. Tony Kushner noted the difference--the people who would oppose MNiRC were not yahoos from Kansas or Wyoming, but people who get paid to write for the New York Times. The issue is not whether or not some groups oppose a particular work, but whether or not the theater should amend its practices if that group happens to be powerful and well-connected. And we all LIKE program notes.

freespeechlover said...

peon in chief--I had to laugh at your description of how you endeared yourself with a Development Director. I am in a university and my department has an endowment. This endowment helps pay for teaching and research assistance. It also pays for a newsletter and visiting speakers. It was raised by an advisory board of some wealthy and some professional women in the community.

I once told a department chair that I didn't see why we had to feel perennially "indebted" to this board. I said, "look they don't pay sufficient taxes for higher education, and universities cost money, so they have to pay one way or the other." She sort of laughed, but my lack of seeing any kind of "bonding" with these women as part of my job was always a sore point for some of my colleagues who, not surprisingly, ended up as administrators.

You're right--"friends," "supporters," those with funds and connections to others with funds aren't just interested in money, whether raising or donating it. They want something more. Sometimes it's an amorphous sense of "partnership" in which cultural or academic capital rubs off on them and gives them an aura of something akin to "old money" cache that being associated with the "arts" or liberal causes brings with it.

My attitude about them has always been, "let's take the money and run." I'll sit through lunches with them sometimes, but they don't get to have anything to do with our teaching or scholarship or outside speakers we bring in. Nonetheless, I've been the most adamant of the faculty about this, while others at times have gotten into rococo notions of "feminist" fund-raising. I would tell my chair, no, no, no, no feminist fund-raising. We need good old fashioned male dominated successful fund-raising with lots of big money coming in. Feminism was/is for my academic work. I like it as far away as possible from the 'board'" and their "perspectives" on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Why was the Times so much more aggressive in covering Kaavya Viswanathan than NYTW's censorship, an infinitely more important issue? The Times basically let NYTW spin their p.r. as they wished to, without doing any real follow up or investigative work. The entire fire brigade has been on Kaavya's case.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Jim Nicola can hire Kaavya to provide context for Columbinus. Both have been so "misunderstood" by detractors and the press.

freespeechlover said...

The Times is the newspaper that brought to us the Judith Miller scandal. I will never forget that photo of Moffat and Nicola staring off into the distance, and the lighting. If that wasn't pr for them I don't know what is. The only reason the Times covered the story was because they had to, and they had to because of Katherine Viner's op ed and the blogs.

Speaking of mass media--there's been some interesting articles on the fact that the media did not cover the Colbert videotape at the Washington Press core dinner. The media has basically ignored it, even though it was the real story of the evening. C-span covered it, and was it funny and a true pleasure to watch Helen Thomas wipe tears of laughter from her eyes. Bush barely acknowledged either Colbert or Thomas. Yet, the media went on about how amusing he was. Now there's been chatter on t.v. about whether Colbert "went too far." This country really needs to take the stick out of its you know what.

PeonInChief said...

I know we're getting off point here but, having finally seen the Colbert roast, I thought it was pretty tame. On hearing that none of the press had been willing to report it, I expected much better. It was okay, but nothing earth-shattering. And what that points up is how cowardly the mainstream media really is.