Opinion: Confessions of a Cranky Critic
Let’s have a discussion, shall we?
Welcome to the first in a series of occasional columns in which I discuss – or ramble on about – the goings-on in and around Michigan’s professional theater community. These will strictly be opinion pieces – that is, my personal commentaries and reflections. And that means I’ll name names and take no prisoners.
At times, I might even talk about the philosophies behind our theater coverage or explain why and how we cover some events and not certain others. And when I screw up – which happens every now and then, believe it or not – I’ll publicly accept responsibility for my actions.
What this WON’T be, I promise, is a gossip column.
My purpose isn’t to simply vent my spleen, but to start a dialogue. And this is the perfect forum in which to do that!
Since Curtain Calls began four years ago, I can count on two hands the number of unsolicited letters or e-mails BTL has received from our readers that discussed – either positively or negatively – our theater coverage. (Most pointed out errors or misspellings – which I really do appreciate, but every once in a while I’ve questioned the writer’s need to be so nasty about it.)
And although I regularly talk with many of the theater community’s executives, directors and actors, few seem comfortable “telling me like it is.” It’s a situation I totally understand, of course, given the nature of our relationship. (In fact, I can sometimes see them thinking, “I like the jerk, but can I trust him with what I want to say? Or will he stop giving me good reviews if I tell him what I REALLY think?”)
It’s tough, however, providing quality coverage each week when I get so little feedback.
So here’s my challenge: I’ll tell you what I think if you’ll tell me what YOU think! That goes for both our readers and thespians alike!
What’s more, I’ll even print some of the most thoughtful letters I get – both positive and negative. (However, please feel free to include “not for publication” at the top of your letter if you wish it to remain private and confidential.) All letters must be signed and include a contact phone number for verification purposes only.
Send your comments directly to me by e-mail at [email protected]. Or if you’re reading this and future columns on our recently redesigned and very cool Web site, simply click on the link that says “react to this story” and your innermost thoughts will eventually find their way into my mailbox.
I’m looking forward to this occasional chat. I hope you are, too!
Cheers to the Michigan Theatre Festival
Over the past 30 years there have been a handful of attempts to create an industry forum that addresses the issues common to all of the area’s professional theaters. But for whatever reasons – egos, fear of competition or clashing goals and objectives – previous attempts have all crashed and burned.
Today’s theater executives are a different breed, however. They’ve come to realize that there’s more to GAIN by working together than there is to lose.
Back in the bad old days, several theater bosses told me they were afraid to work together because if they did, the competition might steal away their customers. What they failed to understand was a basic rule of business: The best way to increase your customer base is to expand your market.
So I was pleased to see the increase recently in the number of theaters that advertise in their competitors’ programs. As people today – especially young people – are not as inclined to be “brand loyal,” it makes sense to invite strangers into your theater to sample your wares. And if they like what they see, they’ll be back for more. (And besides, the idea that customers will patronize only a single theater is – and always has been – patently absurd.)
But what really surprised me was a press release I received not long ago announcing the first-ever Michigan Theatre Festival and the formation of the Coalition of Michigan Professional Theatres.
Sure, I was skeptical at first – but only until I learned who the instigators were!
How Jan Radcliff and Mary E. Rychlewski of the Heartlande Theatre Company got together with Performance Network’s Carla Milarch and got the ball rolling was detailed in the May 26 issue of BTL, so I won’t repeat it here. But all their hard work – and nightmares, probably – paid off handsomely with a very successful festival.
To be honest, it was somewhat disconcerting to bump into a smiling Gary Anderson – Plowshares Theatre’s head honcho – in the lobby of Performance Network. And chatting with Meadow Brook’s John Manfredi on East Huron in downtown Ann Arbor was also a little odd.
But more importantly, meeting both gentlemen on “foreign soil” was also way, way cool, just like it was seeing nine of our local theaters work together to stage 12 readings of new plays, plus a 12-hour festival of new works. What’s even more impressive, they pulled it off in only about eight weeks!
“It was a fabulous stepping stone to do more collaborative things,” Manfredi, who’s never shy about telling me what he thinks, said a few days after the festival. “We were finally able to start the conversation.”
To be sure, there’s plenty of conversation to be had: state arts funding is once again on the chopping block, box office numbers could always be better and expenses are going through the roof.
But it’s a conversation that still has some seats available around the table.
Noticeably missing from the event – and the coalition – were the Purple Rose Theatre and the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Why that was I’ll only speculate for now. But since they have as much at stake in the community as everyone else – and they utilize many of the same artists – they, too, should take an active role in the coalition. (And personally? I’d also like to see The Abreact and African Renaissance Theatre participate, as well!)
So for now I’d like to offer a hearty round of applause to everyone involved in this historic endeavor. And to its leaders, your vision and sincere desire to work for the betterment of the entire community is to be praised.
While it won’t be easy – and it certainly won’t always be pretty – the fruits of your labor will certainly benefit the community for a long time to come!