Before I launch into this get this major caveat straight: What you will read here is My Own Opinion and No One Else's. No other IRNE Reviewers consulted with me on it, and they will all be surprised, and some of them I'm sure will strongly disagree with much of what I say and certainly with the ways in which I express myself. These are comments about what is now known as the INDEPENDENT REVIEWERS OF NEW ENGLAND from me, Larry Stark, and no one else.
My responses were prompted by two letters commenting on the Awards Party that took place Monday, 27 March of this year --- both of them from press representatives for two of what the IRNE Committee has designated "BIG Theatres" here in the Boston area. The letters arrived almost simultaneously and are as different as night and day:
Here's an e-mail from Frank Roberts, who's the press rep at Reagle Players and who was also nominated for Best Director of a Musical at a Large Theater for Reagle's "The Sound of Music." I thought you'd want to see his appreciative comments, which reflect many of the comments all of us have been hearing.
What a simply wonderful IRNE Awards. For a first timer attending, I was duly impressed and delighted to be there. Do let all concerned know that our entire group had a wonderful time. The evening had a nice relaxed sense, a touch of class without being stuffy, great good cheer and swell collegiality which was priceless for all. IRNE people need to know this and to hear how much they are deeply appreciated by the theater community. Should you meet as a group --- do please let them know for me and for all of us at Reagle.
I don't know if you all realize just how very much we appreciate all of you. This Boston "outer critics" type concept is ingenious --- and was sorely needed. Bravos and standing ovations to all of you --- our arts writers and regional critics!!!
And then this arrived:
Director of Press and Public Relations
American Repertory Theatre
64 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA 02138
Here is my note to Jules [Becker]:
Jules, to follow up on yesterday's brief conversation, I want to share my concerns about the IRNE Awards under your current system.
1) Of the 15 or so voters of the IRNE's only about 4-5 are regular attendees of our shows --- some of them I have never seen in our theatres in 16 years, others once or twice a season at best.
2) We are a producing not for profit company, just like all the small theatres and NOT like Broadway in Boston. It makes no sense whatsoever for the A.R.T. and the Huntington to be competing with for profit productions that try-out in Boston for Broadway runs, or come to Boston on tour. It is demeaning and unfair.
3) For you to award Best Sound Design to Laurie Anderson, who created the soundscape for a show in Canada a good number of years ago (even if it graced our stage last season) is unfair to all the sound designers who have created fabulous soundscapes last year at both Huntington and the A.R.T. (not to mention all those other theatres mentioned above).
4) You call yourselves Independent Reviewers of New England, but I see no other large theatres of New England represented from outside of Boston --- we would gladly be in competition with Trinity Rep, Hartford Stage, or Portland Stage, but none of those are under consideration.
The A.R.T. is recognized as one of the leading theatres in the country, and even if it may not be the cup of tea of the IRNE reviewers, it strives to present the most original and exciting productions helmed by the most innovative directors from all over the world each time it opens its doors to the public. We have three productions touring nationwide this year, and will close the Edinburgh International Festival next summer. Even with these credentials, we are consistently under represented in the IRNE Awards. If you are truly recognizing the achievement of New England theatres, not only you should be more inclusive of deserving companies and ensure that all voters see the productions they are supposed to be judging; but also develop a separate category for the for-profit and touring productions.
Please share this with all the IRNE members
Okay, I have a LOT to say in reply here, but there are a few more caveats first:
Every year the IRNE Committee wrestles with the system, suggests problems and solutions, argues loudly, and tries changes. At the last meeting my voice over one change was the loudest, and we may try it next year. Most of the problems come up again and again but no obvious rearrangements have presented themselves. We do listen, we do try, but we are human and there are always Bigger Pictures that make even my own favorite solutions only relatively successful.
That said, I can understand why a Director of Press and Public Relations would necessarily sound narrow-minded and self-serving, but I am astonished when such a press rep displays such basic ignorance of how reviewers work and what critics do.
Take point one.
Those four or five regulars managed somehow to give A.R.T. Sixteen nominations this year, but only one win. Not as good as the Huntington's 21 and 4 and the combined five BinB theatres' 23 and 4, but better than NSMT's 11 nominations and two wins. Still, only one winner in sixteen tries?
You don't suppose that those four or five regulars acted like CRITICS and judged A.R.T.'s work interesting but never really The Best, do you? I mean, isn't a critic's Job supposed to be Passing Judgement on excellence --- and lack of same? That'd be My first guess.
But to the point that so few IRNE Reviewers show up to see your plays, that is probably true.
But have you ASKED them to show up? Have you the names and addresses of even the sixteen or so of us who were announcing citations on Monday the 27th? How many of them have ever received a Personal Letter from You encouraging them to confirm their seats press-night (I mean a Letter, not a boilerplate press-release)? I don't think I have ever gotten one from you --- whereas Jim Torres of SpeakEasy Stage makes it a point to go out of his way to "get me to the church on time" every single show, knows about my knee-surgery, and hands me my tickets, no press-packet and Two programs without my even asking, and we talk shop.
Try it and see if it works.
Of course, it might not really work on me, because you HAVE seen me in your theatre several times in the past, but not lately. After a few years of watching you destroy the plays of Shakespeare I stopped begging you for tickets because, quite frankly, I did not like the work you did and I had better things to see, better ways to spend my time than --- what was my phrase? --- than watching you piss all that money down the rat-hole of directorial egomania. I had a friend volunteer today that she and two different friends had cancelled their subscriptions because the work was so bad. I have no idea whether Any of the other IRNE reviewers have done the same, but you might look into it; the possibility could explain a lot of things, couldn't it?
As for point two
Saying " ...the A.R.T." is "just like all the small theatres" is, to quote Shaw, a ramping, stamping LIE. The distinction is not between the hope of profit versus sucking up grant-money, it's SIZE, pure and simple.
I mean, consider The Reagle Players and the A.R.T. for a moment. Both of them pay a certain number of Equity professionals, and sometimes they're people who come up from New York to work here. Reagle doesn't have as many seats to fill as the Wang, but I'll bet they have more than you do --- two or three times the size of The Lyric, maybe? You both pay someone to do p/r full time, at least during the season, and buy advertising including a lot of snail-mailed brochures and e-mailed press-releases. Your budgets, compared to places like The Devanaughn or Boston Playwrights' Theatre or groups like Company One or Animus Ensemble or Theater Cooperative, verge on astronomical. And, like the five BinB houses, A.R.T. and Reagle have made long-standing reputations for doing what you do.
And pardon the history lesson, but the original impulse behind the IRNE's was to shed light on the excellent work we were finding in theatres that Weren't big, but were good nonetheless.
I realize that you consider the IRNE's as just another p/r game that you can --- and should --- play to A.R.T.'s advantage. But because small Means "Small" rather than "Inferior" the IRNE reviewers have tried to ignore the effect of budget and advertising in the Quality of The Work, and to vote accordingly. And though I'm sure you can't believe it, there aren't six or even sixteen theatres in this area, there are over NINETY in Boston alone, and we're attracting newer companies doing vibrantly interesting work every year. And that's why the IRNE Party has become important as a meeting-place for the entire, large and small, theater community: we're "equal opportunity" recognizers of what's good on stage.
I can say nothing about Point three because I didn't hear the "soundscape" and don't understand what your complaint is.
But about Point Four:
Here's where your total ignorance of what reviewers DO becomes obvious.
The fact that the large number of theaters and the relatively small number of reviewers means no one ever sees Everything is a problem we moan and curse about every year, but your self-serving cry for us to be "more inclusive of deserving companies" is just a hollow cry of "Me, Me, Me." If A.R.T. were to hire a bus to ferry all fifteen of the IRNE Presenters to every presentation of Trinity Rep, Hartford Stage, or Portland Stage (And why stop there? Why leave out Worcester Foothills, Long Wharf in New Haven, and W.H.A.T. on the Cape?) --- even if we saw every one of their shows, I'll bet the Critics would end up Cutting Down on A.R.T.'s votes rather than discovering your superiority. And, my own personal impulse to be "more inclusive of DESERVING companies" would drive me not to "regionals" in other towns, but to what's at the Devanaughn, the Charlestown Working, the BCA Plaza, the BPT, The Cambridge Y, and TheatreZone. But that's just me...
But again, the nature of reviewing makes that bussing scheme impossible!
Consider: there are workaholics among us, but someone working for a newspaper usually gets to write about only One Show Per Week. Sometimes that turns out to be the local community theatre; sometimes it's the week's most highly hyped (read BROADWAY!) show. Yeah, the dedicated theater-lover might see a second show --- but often the reviewer's doing it for Love and, like most actors, has a real job to pay the bills, and some of them actually are raising Families that have their own demands on time. I happen to be a deadbeat living alone on social-security and medicare, and that's probably the only reason I could see 133 shows last year --- and, yes, none of them at A.R.T. --- by design, as explained above. No one but a madman would see as much theater as I do, and few of my IRNE colleagues are insane enough to fight for seats on that A.R.T. bus to Worcester, Providence, New Haven, Welfleet, Hartford, Huntington Avenue, and Cambridge Mass.
Another bit of history:
The name "Independent Reviewers of New England" is about as grounded in fact as the name "American Repertory Theatre"; we tried early on to encourage reviewers in all six New England States to do as we were doing here --- and all we got back was puzzled looks and inaction; but the name stuck. Yes, Trinity DOES get nominated and won awards last year, but for the reasons I've outlined theatres inside Route 128 or reachable by MBTA still dominate.
And when The Party first took place, my suggestion that a single award to Best Visiting Company (which I lobbied to call "The Carpetbagger Prize") went away because "unless we give awards to Broadway shows, no one will take us seriously." Now Kati sees it demeaning them to force nervous Broadway profit-seekers to come here to Boston to compete with fat, grant-bloated companies like the Huntington and the A.R.T. that pay less rent to B.U. or Harvard than the producers of "Virginia Woolf" had to pay the owners of Ye Wilbur Theatre.
No, I don't think to would help anyone to adopt any of Katalin Mitchell's self-serving schemes for "improving" the always flawed but always interesting IRNE Awards System, though improvements are tried every year.
But I am a strange old man.
( a k a larry stark )