Everyone's a Critic

Journalists as Artists? Austin's Theatre Community Sounds Off

Everyone's a Critic
By Doug Potter

Dear Loki,

I am a writer for Theatre in Austin, TX. I have recently become concerned by the glaring conflicts of interest many of our local critics have. One critic produces his own plays, then sits on the nominating committee for both local awards, then wins awards for his plays from his own committees, then writes glibly about his conflicts in the paper. Is there anything you can do to stop this?

Yours truly,

The Littlest Rude Mechanical

-- Letter posted on the Rude Mechanicals' Web site to their advice-spouting Web god, Loki

A School for Scandal

When a review of Twelfth Night appeared in these pages in May of 1999, some in the community were taken aback by critic Robi Polgar's unabashed enthusiasm for the show and its director. Why? Because Robert Faires, who co-produced and directed Twelfth Night, is also the Chronicle's Arts editor.

No one argued with Polgar's glowing description of Faires as a "sharp wit with a soft tongue," or as "a gentleman -- a scholarly, quietly knowing, quietly confident man," but some questioned the ethics of running the review at all, as Faires had an obvious stake in promoting the show.

Then in June 1999, at the Seventh Annual Critics Table awards, Faires took Best Director of a Comedy, and Twelfth Night tied for Best Comedy. That was also the year Faires' wife, actress Barbara Chisholm, won for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for Nantasket.

Even though Faires did not vote in any of the categories in which he or his wife were nominated, he was present during the voting, and many in the community were shocked by what seemed a blatant conflict of interest, a provincial overlap of roles not befitting a rapidly growing, increasingly sophisticated theatre scene.

These detractors questioned not only the awards' validity, but also the ethics of critics working in the theatre at all while they control press coverage of their own shows and those of would-be competitors.

As it happens, a majority of Chronicle theatre critics, most notably Public Domain's former artistic director Robi Polgar, are involved one way or another in the theatre community.

So why are we doing this story when it involves so much self-recrimination? Well, after hearing a number of frustrated comments in casual conversation about the "incestuousness" of the Austin theatre community, the "questionable ethics" surrounding the Twelfth Night incident, and the "elitism" of Austin's critics, I suggested to Faires that we do a story defending the Chronicle's policy. He suggested that we instead do a story about our opponents' discontent. The result is something in between.

In compiling this story I interviewed more than 20 people by way of e-mail exchanges, telephone calls, and in-person interviews. It became clear from the heated debate and the tone of the comments that were pouring in that a nerve had been struck. To avoid any further conflict, Faires opted out of the editing process of this story. Several other editors were consulted, and the task finally fell to Politics editor Amy Smith.

Marshall Maresca
Marshall Maresca (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

That's one line we've drawn. Where to draw others is less clear. What is a conflict of interest, and what is an instance of fluid borders? Is distance between the press and the scene a boon or an evil? Clearly, Austin's growth has led us to a crossroads between the laid-back indulgence of Old Austin and the big-city professionalism of New Austin. Where we go from here will be a major determining factor in the future of our theatre scene and our city. So on to the controversy.

Critics' Harshest Critics

Kirk Lynn, alias "The Littlest Rude Mechanical," is one of the city's most successful young playwrights. He recently won an award for Best Adaptation from the Austin Critics Table for his spirited translation of Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. He is also one of the most vocal proponents of having a professional distance between critic and community. "Robert Faires has acted in, co-produced, and directed a handful of plays in the last five years in Austin, Lynn wrote in one e-mail. "Throughout that time he has also been the editor of the Chronicle's theatre department, and its lead critic. There is a direct conflict of interest in that the Chronicle reviews plays in which Robert Faires has been involved."

According to Lynn, the fact that Faires both produces shows and sits on the Austin Critics Table and the B. Iden Payne Awards committee is a direct and far from victimless conflict of interest. "Mr. Faires allows himself to receive awards from committees on which he sits, from colleagues whom he supervises," writes Lynn. "The theatre companies who have then employed him have a greater advantage in the acquisition of funds, and a greater cause to hire Mr. Faires. It is unfair to theatre companies who do not wish to hire Mr. Faires, as well as unfair to the actors and directors who wish to compete for the same jobs Mr. Faires is taking."

In agreement is Wade Williams, who moved to Austin in 1997 from Houston (via Boston) and has since co-founded ONE Theatre Company, acted in shows for the Rude Mechs and Theatreless Theatre Corps, and co-founded the Mind Over Money Fest in 1998. Williams cites the "image problem" created by a critic also working in the community and the "favoritism" that it engenders.

Williams acknowledges that it is common for reviewers to have been involved in the craft they review, citing Austin American-Statesman Arts editor Michael Barnes' previous work in the theatre. But Williams believes simultaneous involvement goes too far. A reviewer should be involved in the scene, he says, but at "arm's distance, not hugging it." When Twelfth Night got "great press and oodles of nominations by committees [Faires] sits on," Williams "lost some respect for him." Williams insists Faires should have taken himself off the committees or his play out of the nominations.

And the Award Goes to ...

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story has strong opinions about the theatre awards. In Austin, that refers to two associations: the Austin Critics' Table and the B. Iden Payne Awards (in which nominations are made by committee and later voted on by members of the Austin Circle of Theatres [ACoT]).

"Now let me get this straight," says actress Lana Dieterich of Faires and Polgar. "I love both of those guys and their work, both onstage and in the paper. Robert and Barry Pineo gave me the Austin Chronicle Critics' award in 1995 for Best Name to See in a Theatre Program, for crying out loud! So you can see that no way do I want to bite the hand that feeds me, so to speak.

"Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that no one can be objective in a situation like that either. Probably worse, Robert is on the nominating committee for the ACoT awards and is involved in the Critics Table awards. Now he may excuse himself from voting on his own stuff, etc. But the rest of the members of both groups are either friends of his or in a position not unlike my own, where they do not want to do anything to piss off a critic, and vote accordingly!"

As a local actress, Faires' wife Barbara Chisholm is well aware of the buzz surrounding the Critics Table Awards. Her main concern is that while there is nothing truly amiss, from the outside it looks bad.

"I said before to Michael Barnes, I think I should be ineligible, because it's not worth it," she says. "It's just not worth it. I know there's sniping. I know there's carping about it, and I don't need that award that badly, to put [the critics] in a position where their legitimacy is being questioned. And I understand their argument, which is, 'We decided to do this thing because we wanted to recognize outstanding work, and then everybody should be eligible.' Yes, but ... just tell me to my face. Come over one night and say, 'You were really great.'"

But is the awards process fair? Playwright John Walch, artistic director of Austin ScriptWorks, says, "There has to be something somewhat democratic about [these awards], just to allay fears that they're inside jobs, because I have seen on two occasions at least a play get crucified in the Chronicle and then win Critics Table Awards. So there is obviously some openness in how those decisions are made, and there is some fairness in that process."

The Critics Table, says Michael Barnes (described by West Austin News writer Jerry Conn as the "den leader" or "scout master" of the Table), is an informal, collegial, volunteer group of, on average, between five and 10 critics. Winners are decided by consensus among the voting members, with input from other critics from the Austin press." Currently, the Table is comprised of five members -- in addition to Barnes, there are Statesman critics Jean-Claire van Ryzin and Jamie Smith Cantara and Chronicle critics Sarah Hepola and Faires.

As far as policy goes, Barnes says, "We felt that it would be equally hypocritical to ignore excellence just because it came from a member of the group." If one of the members has a show up for discussion, he or she drops out of the conversation or leaves the table, says Barnes. In response to those who question the validity of the awards because of Faires' presence during the voting, Barnes brings up the fact that Faires was chosen as the Chairman of the American Theater Critics Association's Ethics Committee. That's because, says Barnes, "He has proven over almost two decades to be a person of honor."

Former Austin Chronicle theatre critic Adrienne Martini has been on the Critics Table committee when Faires, Chisholm, or Martini's own lighting-designer husband were up for consideration. "It's a touchy situation," she explains, "but most of the critics on that table aren't shy on their opinions. You let fly anyway."

Kirk Lynn
Kirk Lynn (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Even as someone who lost the 1999 Best Director of a Comedy Critics Table award to Faires, Salvage Vanguard co-artistic director Jason Neulander says, "I don't think it's fair for Robert to be damned. He probably wants to win awards, too, and it's not fair to say, 'Well, because you've chosen to be the advocate for the entire theatre community ...' Is it fair to then say, 'You're not eligible to get the kind of recognition that every other person in town is eligible to get'?"

Yes, say many. While Lynn and others point out that personally there is nothing impeachable about Faires' character, which he and innumerable others (including Faires' harshest detractors) describe in words like "sweet," "kind," and "honest," the situation makes it impossible for even the most sincere person to be impartial.

"It is not my belief that there is any intentional abuse of the above situations," says Lynn, "but that through the compiling of levels of perception Mr. Faires places himself in an unethical situation, independent of how ethically he may act."

But why are the awards so important to people, particularly to smaller troupes? Well, because, whether or not it's actually true, production companies tend to believe that awards equal grant money. Thus, the perception is that not only do critics have an advantage in getting jobs (because they are in a position of power), but also that if they win awards they are taking, so the logic goes, a source of possible income from troupes who need the funding.

Walch points out that from a producer's perspective, the 1999 awards results might have been more palatable if the company that put together Twelfth Night had gone on to do more shows. When the company ended there, it left some feeling that regardless of whether or not Twelfth Night deserved it, the accolade had been squandered, that another troupe could have put the award on a grant application.

"I think we're all fighting or competing for the same funds, which are limited ... and always will be," Walch says. Awards become a big deal because, so say the grant applicants, representatives of large funding foundations don't often come to shows, whereas they do look at proofs of excellence like awards and reviews.

A Double-Edged Sword

While some subjectivity is unavoidable even in the strictest journalism -- there is purity only in death -- there have been attacks on the Austin media, particularly the Chronicle, for letting personal involvements blur the critical eye. Wade Williams says when theatre critics also make theatre, "your objectivity is slanted by loyalties and by your opinions as a creator."

Neulander says, "Often critics can be blinded by their personal relationships with people and that can skew the quality of their reviewing." Some ignore these affiliations better than others, Neulander says, expressing awe at Robi Polgar's lack of qualms about slamming shows (including work by Salvage Vanguard) while he is working in the community.

Chisholm admits that it's a struggle to figure out where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable bias. When it comes to productions in which she appears, she says, "He [Faires] doesn't review me, but he has. He did, and I really didn't like it because of the obvious perception. Actually, that was the harshest review I've ever had. I think if anything happened, it's that he would bend over backwards to make sure he wasn't appearing to be granting me any special exceptions, that I think he was particularly hard on me."

John Walch wrote at one point for the Chronicle and still very occasionally writes for the Statesman, but he has always tried to confine himself to feature stories rather than reviews. He says writing reviews "was always my boundary, and it still is ... I felt unable to review other people's works in an objective way, as I am a member of the community."

When critics have a personal stake in things, Walch believes "the critical community sees work in a context, and often it's the context of this person's life," rather than the context of the work.

Still, Walch says, "It's a double-edged sword ... because what is great about the critical community here is that they are artists and they are participating in the community and there is a real support and love and joy of doing that."

And how appealing, some ask, is the strict-boundaried alternative? Many who have lived in other critical communities say the Austin model has its merits (see sidebar for a comparison with Los Angeles), particularly since it provides an outlet for critics' own ambitions. Walch says, "I think a lot of what's really bad about the critical communities that I've lived in is that there's a bitterness toward the work because they're not doing it and maybe they wanted to be doing it."

Others point out that Faires, Polgar, et al. have the same creative desires as anyone else in the community, and the idea that they have to martyr themselves to attain an elusive objectivity is an extreme solution, and a debatably successful one at that. Separated from our creative impulses, they suggest, how good are any of us at our work?

David Steakly
David Steakly (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Adrienne Martini freelanced in Austin for several years before leaving for an editorial position in Knoxville, Tennessee. While a critic in Austin she also worked as a stage manager at Frontera@Hyde Park and her husband did freelance lighting design. According to Martini, gossip about her reviews (particularly when Martini reviewed Frontera's shows or her husband was up for awards) was not based so much in fact as supposition.

Sure, she admits, everyone could be plotting away and giving good reviews to get or keep jobs (or spouses), giving bad reviews to exact revenge, but it's just not the case in Austin, she says. "Austin is unique in that critics are fairly level-headed. They're not out to get anybody. They're just out to express their experience of the show." Critics at the Knoxville daily, by contrast, do not work in theatre and, Martini says, "write reviews just to get people."

The Sin of Favoritism

Members of several smaller troupes believe critics are key to getting a foot in the door of the scene, and they have no problem with the critics' extracurricular activities so long as it doesn't affect their reviews. But it does affect the critics' decisions about what to cover, they say, and that is the real ethical breach: favoritism.

One producer complains of a certain "elitism" of the press, which results in larger companies receiving all the attention and smaller companies being pushed aside. Many younger or newer participants in the scene express frustration that a few companies get all the press, and, coincidentally, companies with whom (they sneer) the critics are friendly.

Marshall Maresca of the the Disciples of Melpomene says that he, for one, has "no problem with Austin theatre critics also being directors or producers. I think it gives them more insight into what all of the rest of us have to go through to put on a show." Instead, Maresca's concern is the "lack of participation on the part of the critic," who, he says, has favorite groups and "only see and write about those groups' productions."

Frustrated that only two of the five members of the Critics Table saw any of the three shows he has directed in the past year (Antigone, Slow Night at McLaughlin's, and Titus Andronicus), Maresca writes, "It boils down to this: Every critic should be making every effort to see every show he or she possibly can. Right now I (and many others out here) don't have any confidence that they are making that effort ... The critics appear to have an agenda over which companies they promote (it seems every time Rude Mechs or Salvage Vanguard has a show, it gets a feature article), and other companies get buried beneath it."

What bothers Wade Williams the most is that even though ONE is in its third season, has received decent reviews, and earned a Best Actor nomination, Faires "has not seen one of our shows." The cause, Williams says, "is favoritism" and a missing "element of fairness." Things at Hyde Park, Zachary Scott, the State, and the Vortex always get top attention, says Williams, implying that Faires' affiliation with these groups dictates coverage.

Williams mentions Polgar's review of the ONE show Linko, a coup he attributes to Polgar's friendship with the playwright. We all see our friends' shows, Williams observes, but doing that while in a position of power is a problem and leads to a perceived attitude of, "I'm not going to pay attention to you until you make me." This, according to Williams, denies less-established troupes from getting the press coverage that he believes leads to success. When a company gets coverage, Williams says, "Suddenly the people in the suits, the people in the tall buildings pay attention."

Friends in High Places

Barnes estimates the numbers of arts events and performance troupes to be four times what they were 10 years ago. "Do the math," he says, "There are more than 1,000 arts events in Austin each year. Even the most diligent critic can only attend a third of the total, and so we make choices about what to attend and we divide the responsibilities."

While small troupes' desire for press is understandable, some say it is the theatre company's job to get attention (for example, through well-publicized, consistent, high-quality work), not the press' job to seek them out. Small troupes do have to work harder because, as David Steakley, artistic director of Zachary Scott Theatre Center, points out, there are hierarchies in every town. In Houston, he says, smaller companies get little if any press. And just because there's a hierarchy doesn't mean there's a breach of ethics when a bigger company gets more attention. Whereas Zach sees around 150,000 audience members a year, smaller companies will see two or three thousand, so, Steakley says, "There is a different impact on the community as a whole. That becomes news of a different kind, when so many people turn out for a theatre event."

Walch says, "It's true anywhere that, regardless of what you're producing, you have to court the critics. You have to know, as a producer, that that is part of your job." And how does one "court the critics" here in Austin?

Josh Frank, founder of the Theatreless Theatre Corps, says "You have to give to get. It [press coverage] is a two-way street. The role of critic and community of companies is to foster each other. If everyone's worrying only about themselves then everyone should just be in New York City." Frank is currently in New York for the exclusive Directors Lab at Lincoln Center and homesick for Austin.

In order to get coverage, says Neulander, "You have to promote yourself, and you have to know the environment in which you are promoting yourself." In Austin, Neulander and several others say, the key is befriending critics. "I don't think critics would be as supportive of the theatre community if they weren't so intimately involved with the theatre community," Neulander says, "I think it's really easy to be supportive of your friends."

Comparable troupes in Houston and Dallas struggle to get reviews, Neulander says, which means that in Austin, "the benefits of the way things are far outweigh the drawbacks. The fact that we got a review from the daily paper on our very first show ... That never ever would have happened for us in New York. Ever."

'We Have It Pretty Good'

The theatre world is all about interdependence, especially in smaller communities like this one. Troupes help each other out all the time, and actors tend to work for several different companies in a year. Playwright George Bernard Shaw's theatre criticism is renowned. Critics who put on shows put their money where their mouth is, as the saying goes. Josh Frank says of Faires that it's "great that he practices what he preaches and that he's willing to be criticized. ... The press is not an Evil Empire."
Cyndi Williams
Cyndi Williams

Zach Scott artistic director David Steakley has on more than one occasion hired critics to work as directors or performers. Faires recently directed Abundance there, and Jerry Conn has done his cabaret shows there on occasion. Steakley refers to Broadway composer Michael John LaChuisa, who said in a recent Show Music interview that a better environment is created when "there are not strict 'divisions of labor' between criticism and creating art."

"It's true it happens in Austin more than in some other communities," says Steakley. "But a lot of things happen in Austin that don't happen in other communities," he continues, "and that's why I'm here. Because this city is different. And for me, that makes it a more collegial, more friendly place to do work."

Steakley cites the very different situation in places like Kansas City, where he recently guest-directed Rockin' Christmas. There, he says, "The people who are the critics in that community have no connection to theatre. They're not theatre practitioners. They didn't study theatre. They've never been involved; they just got assigned that beat. And that makes a real difference."

Steakley insists he chose Faires to direct Abundance strictly based on the merits of Twelfth Night and Faires' ability to work well with the group of actors involved, which includes Chisholm and old friends of theirs -- Janelle Buchanan, Joe York, and Scotty Robertson. When people insinuate ulterior motives or scoff about Twelfth Night winning awards, Steakley says it comes out of an "odd bitterness," as in, "That's the only way he could have won, because he's on the inside track. That kind of dialogue diminishes all of us," says Steakley. "Certainly we're all bigger people than that."

Cyndi Williams, an actress and writer, believes overlaps are inevitable. She points out that there aren't a whole lot of well-paying jobs around for theatre-lovers, so it's no surprise that theatre people with responsibilities that go beyond "rent and beer money" -- Lynn's description of what funding represents -- will take jobs as critics. Williams suggests it was no coincidence that Faires, who has worked in the theatre for far more years than he has been writing about it, took the Chronicle job right around the time his daughter, now seven, was born.

It's easy, Williams says, for younger participants in the scene to point to the Chronicle, the Critics' Table, or large theatres like the State as The Establishment, but you have to pay dues, she believes, and keep on paying them if you want recognition. "The problems we have here are lucky problems," she stresses. "If the worst thing is a critic winning an award from a board on which he sits, we have it pretty good."

Eating the Cake

Regarding theatre people's multiple simultaneous projects, playwright and Zach managing director Ann Ciccolella says, "It is the way we all have lived for a very long time." Throughout its 19-year history, the Chronicle, for one, has never been at a remove. Since the paper's founding, it has been, in editor Louis Black's words, "of the community, not at a distance from it." So whether as a critic or an advocate, it has always been "from the perspective of within."

Black and publisher Nick Barbaro co-founded SXSW (along with Roland Swenson), which receives in-depth (this year daily) coverage from the Chronicle. Barbaro's wife, Susan Moffat, is active in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association and is involved in efforts to rein in Hyde Park Baptist Church's expansion plans in the neighborhood, an issue on which the Chronicle provides ongoing coverage. In December, Chronicle music writer Greg Beets wrote a story on his own band, the Peenbeets, a deliberately blatant conflict of interest he thought would provoke more outrage than it actually did.

Black sums up the catch-22 this way: "If you have active members of a community provide criticism, you're accused of conflict of interest. If you have people that have nothing to do with a community, you're accused of having uneducated outsiders. Both charges are true and not true. There are decisions to be made all the time, and we make them."

What it comes down to is that the situation in the theatrical community is not anomalous, and Faires, Polgar, and others are not going against any kind of party line. If the Austin scene is indeed incestuous (and few are denying it is), it was ever thus.

Perhaps that's why the sentiment in this area tends to break down not so much along power lines (with fairly well-off groups Salvage Vanguard and the Rude Mechanicals impossible-to-overlook exceptions to that paradigm), but rather along generational lines; generational not in the sense of age but rather how long various companies have been in town. Ultimately everyone, not just the crossover critics, wants to have their cake and eat it too.

People who have been around for a while and feel they've paid ample dues count themselves lucky to be in a community where everyone who loves the theatre can work in it, where tooth-and-nail competition isn't much of an issue, where critics and performers can share a passion for the town and its theatre and support each other, where critics want to serve a boostering role (and feed their families doing it) without sacrificing their creative ambitions or their own chance to compete for awards.

Conversely, newcomers, the hyperambitious, starving artists, and people who feel out of the loop see such members as a kind of provincial Establishment with compromised ethics. This camp yearns for a "strong critical voice," unimpeachable authorities separate from the scene who can be trusted as optimally impartial arbiters of work. Yet, at the same time, they want to enjoy the small-town luxury of being able to set up a production company, stage a show or two, and get press in under a year.

So can the former's dreams come true snipe-free in a town with scrappy, idealistic new troupes starting up all the time, and that grows more cosmopolitan daily? Can the latter's hopes be realized in a town still too small to support much division of labor? More importantly, does Austin's media have any potential or desire to be a critical voice rather than a friendly one?

The questions aren't getting any easier to answer. The Chronicle ran a review of Abundance in the June 23 issue, and the 2000 B. Iden Payne Award nominations will be coming out by the end of the summer. Conflicts of interest are nothing new. Complete purity of motivation on the critical front always has been and always will be a pipe dream. But as Austin changes, feelings about where ethical lines are crossed is bound to change too. Choices will have to be made on all fronts (not just in theatre) about whether we want to be more like a business-busy city or a laid-back town. Discussions like this one are to ensure that in our decisionmaking everyone knows what hangs in the balance. end story

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