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Who’s the Cowboy Mouth?

02.07.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES conversation starter, development, new plays, playwrights, producers, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

So apparently the following is too “abusive” or “off topic” for the NY TIMES to post on its Arts Beat page. One thing you can’t do in posts, I guess, is criticize the critics. But because this conversation means a lot to me, and because I’ve been in it for so damn long, I’m posting it here. Never done this before, but if you think it’s worth it, please pass it on. Thanks. Here goes:

In his “Arts Beat” entry of Feb. 3, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood makes reference to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s comments about the increasing number of theatres (over supply) among the dwindling demand of audiences. In the process Isherwood has fun dubbing Landesman “cowboy mouth.” But while we’re on the subject of cowboys shooting off their mouths, let’s talk about critics who consistently conflate their own opinions with fact.

It strikes Isherwood as “mildly ironic that Mr. Landesman’s initial remarks were made at a new-play development conference.” The critic goes on to quip that, of the 5.7 million arts workers Landesman cites in contrast to two million artists, “it sometimes seems to me that half of those administrators are involved in creating brand new new-play development programs.” Cowboy mouth indeed. Snide, inaccurate, and journalistically inept.

Where has Isherwood been these past few years? To what abundance of new play development programs and administrators is he referring? Truth is, if the critic possessed an ounce of curiosity about the theatre field, he would have flipped to the back of one of the hundreds of theatre programs he receives each year and noted that the number of literary and play development staff members at theatres is dwarfed by the armies of people in fundraising, marketing, finance and administration. He would have noticed that when the economy dove in 2008, theatres continued a trend that began earlier in the millennium—cutting literary offices, closing new play initiatives, and axing reading and workshop series.

He further opines that “we”—who is this “we,” Mr. Isherwood, and since when have you become part of the field of artists and administrators who make theatre?—“we might start by concentrating funds more explicitly on play production rather than the nebulous (and sometimes endless and creativity-dampening) process of ‘development.’” Again, Isherwood seems to have slept through the past few years. He’s clearly ignoring or, worse, unaware of the widespread attention to getting plays produced—production as development—that has been obsessing those of us who actually do this work. This “we” includes playwrights, producing theatres, new play labs, funders, and others.

Over the past several years, theatres have formed numerous partnerships and coalitions, including with new play development labs, to share scarce resources, offer writers more time better spent, and tie new play development to production. Theatres have even begun encouraging production at other theatres by offering funding for production of plays they “develop” and choose not to produce. Isherwood clearly missed the publication of David Dower’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded study, The Gates of Opportunity, and Theatre Development Fund’s five-year study of new play production in the U.S., Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, which I co-authored with Ben Pesner and which, like Dower’s ground-breaking work, describes the need for production (and multiple productions) as the principal goal of new play development. Moreover, the Arena convening Rocco Landesman kicked off was largely devoted to these efforts.

In short, Isherwood might have opened up his consistently blinkered eyes and paid some attention to what is actually happening in the American theatre. Instead he sacrificed good journalism to easy criticism, spouting old clichés as though they were new news.

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