But first, a story.
Oh, wait, no, before that, a disclaimer:
The opinions contained within are the opinions of the author alone. Not of Insurgent Theatre, not of Tracy Doyle and certainly not of gmail, blogspot or any other venue that allows me to publish my opinion. I've always thought such a thing went without saying, but apparently not.
Now the story.
I see as much theatre as I can, I figure there's always something to learn from other companies, and I always have an opinion after a show. My friends and I generally share these opinions and Tracy and I actually started recording and publishing these conversations on my blog. Then, Russ Bickerstaff invited Tracy to write reviews for The Vital Source (and good god is she good at it, her reviews are not only informative, they're also witty and damn fun to read). When Russ extended that invitation to me I jumped at the opportunity.
The first play I saw as an official reviewer was 'Book of Liz' at the Boulevard. When Tracy called for the comps they had an issue with the founders of Insurgent writing reviews, but hesitantly gave us one of the two comps we requested. We had to pay for the other seat. No other company has had a problem with giving Tracy two comps even when she was just "reviewer and guest."
We saw the play and the director there made some terrible choices that damn near ruined it. My review is below, if you want specifics. Tracy wasn't very enthusiastic, so I wrote the review. I had Tracy read it for unnecessary cruelty (knowing my tendencies). I edited it by her advice and submitted it to Russ.
Russ submitted it to Vital Source, Vital then edited big chunks of Tracy-approved criticism from it and put it up. Within a few hours, this twice-softened review it was taken down. I don't have that version, but if you take off the last two sentences from the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs and the word "muck" from the review I submitted (again, find it below) you'll get close to it.
I asked Russ what was up and it turns out Vital got multiple phone calls, emails and even had someone pull their ad on account of publishing my review. I wonder what would’ve happened if it'd said what I really think.
That's the end of the story. Now for my reaction to the story. Please remember the above disclaimer, and if you have a problem with anything I say, air it with me, not anyone else.
To be concise: the fact that someone like Mark Bucher is able to censor his critics is evidence that I am living in the wrong goddamn city, that this city is too immature to have a serious theatre scene, and that artists are making the right choice when they get the fuck out.
Now to be a good deal less than concise, but hopefully more clear: my problem is not with The Vital Source, at all. If they want to edit my review, that's fine. My tone, and I’ll freely admit it is often a harsh one, may not jive with the tone they want to project. That’s their choice and their right. I also don't have a problem with them pulling the review, advertising revenue pays their bills and my opinion isn't anywhere near important enough to lose revenue over (if they backed down under advertising pressure over something less trivial, it'd be a different story.)
My problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Mark Bucher and his cronies who put Vital Source in such a position. These people obviously do not understand the nature of criticism. I think a good, honest, unrestrained, negative-but-constructive critic is something any serious theatre scene needs badly. Indeed it's something any serious artist needs. In a town like Milwaukee, many people are afraid to take that role because they risk accusations of "being unsupportive."
Thing is, groundless praise does not support a good theatre scene. It props up crap and it creates distrust of reviewers, which disempowers the audience. When you defang the critics, the audience has nothing to read but lukewarm reviews and nothing to get excited about, or to compare their experience to. When a critic with a reputation of being a curmudgeon and a jerk gives praise, it'll actually mean something, to the actors and directors as well as to the audience. It's something we need more of here.
Now, I'm willing to take on that role, regardless of how many enemies it generates. Insurgent Theatre will weather all storms. But, I don't want other people to be punished for letting me express my opinion. I can't believe I've devoted my life to making art in a city where a newspaper loses money as a punishment for honestly covering the arts. It seems this is not an isolated incident. I understand that this type of bullshit is behind OnMilwaukee.com not publishing theatre reviews anymore, either.
The fact that these local independent news sources that support the arts (often reviewing shows that others won't even acknowledge) have lost revenue because Mark Bucher's feelings were hurt by something I said is sick. Clearly these people are not only confused about the nature of art criticism, but also about the concept of community support. Attacking a newspaper because they published an opinion you disagree with is not supporting the theatre community. It's supporting one pathetic little man's ego at the expense of the rest of the theatre community.
I also take issue with Bucher and company's superficial justification for their actions, that somehow me writing a review is a conflict of interest and inappropriate. First, I call this a superficial justification, because this is not an isolated incident, and Tracy and I have just started writing reviews.
Second, it isn’t a conflict of interest because Insurgent Theatre is not competing with The Boulevard. They would never produce the kind of plays we put up, indeed, I doubt they'd ever even come and see the plays we put up. We're a DIY theatre company, reaching out to a small niche audience of young working class punks and students, not the traditional theatre audience that Bucher plays to. We're competing with local garage bands more than local theatre companies. Somehow underage punk rockers can handle this competition with the maturity and enthusiasm that is lacking in Bucher’s response.
Third, even if we were competition, it wouldn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with reviews written by other theatre people, indeed who better to review a show than someone who produces theatre? I don't believe Tracy and I are the only active theatre producers to write a review these days. I'm totally guessing here, but I bet if you stopped every playwright, director or actor from writing reviews you'd quickly run pretty low on critics. Criticism is not a business transaction, it’s an exchange of ideas.
Forth, in case my guess is off, if nowadays only lay people are allowed to write reviews, I know it hasn't always been that way, and what's more it shouldn’t be that way. Bertolt Brecht (to use my favorite example for almost anything these days) acquired quite a reputation for writing scathing reviews of the “competitors” of his time. Surely the discussions started in these reviews contributed to his theories on theatre and helped make him one of the, if not the most influential playwright of the 20th century.
Now, I recognize that, like Brecht, I can be something of a trouble maker, that my insistence on honesty, my enjoyment of a good burn, and my refusal to get by on tact and politeness can cause trouble. But that's my choice. I'll readily absorb all kinds of hate and blame from whiney artists, bring it on. How else am I supposed to change my mind? Maybe I got something wrong, and if you tell me off I might learn something. At any rate, I love that kind of conflict because it gets close to truth and it's resolution is beautiful and educational. Conflict brings about change, development, improvement. So I welcome it.
See, I prefer achievements and a shared learning experience over appeasements and superficial friendships based on false compliments. I realize that some people can't handle that, and those are people who have a hard time being my friend. So be it. That’s unfortunate, but unavoidable, because I’m not going to moderate and sugar-coat my opinions and personality because that doesn’t give people the opportunity to prove they are not whiney little bitches. I surround myself with people who will treat me the same way, cuz there's nothing I like less than receiving praise that I can’t fully believe in.
If we treat everyone like children, no one will ever need to rise to the challenge of acting like an adult and engaging in a direct genuine interaction. So, I come on strong, I insult strangers and sometimes intentionally act like a jerk. I know that's weird and can be seen as counter-productive, but, it works for me. It's my way of doing things and my reason for doing it, and mostly, it works very well. Examples include my interaction with Monica Bennet and Faythe Levine and now in the opposite direction, the direction of someone failing to rise to the challenge, of proving unequivocally that he is a whiney little
bitch, Mark Bucher.
So, if Bucher failed the litmus test my assholery presents, then why do I care? Why have a written a fucking diatribe about it? Why didn't I just write his name in the "useless shitheads" column and move on? Because maybe talking about this, or thinking about it, or working on it, can change things.
Now, I don't think I can change Mark Bucher. He’s got twenty-two years of experience running his company how he runs it (and, hey, it’s working for him, and over the course of those twenty-two years he has done quite a bit of good.) I also doubt I can change whoever the fuck was stupid enough to pull their ad from The Vital Source over my review, but I can change other things.
If you go back to the concise version, the part where I'm talking about artists getting the fuck out of this town, you'll notice that I said "evidence" not "proof." Things don't have to be this way, and not all things are this way. There is counter-evidence, there is potential. Milwaukee's immaturity frustrates me, but it's
Milwaukee's immaturity that gives us an opportunity to make things happen here. The theatre establishment isn't quite as established as it is in other bigger cities.
I don't expect to change Mark Bucher or his audience or the people who support or appease this kind of shenanigans. Instead, I expect to build a new audience and a new community. To mobilize radical artists who are seeking more than a shelter for mediocrity, who want art that does more than “feed the soul” or in this case, the ego.
So, come on people, if the Boulevard still can't handle a negative review like adults after twenty-two years of them, they can't be that hard to shove out of our way.
Oh, yeah, here's the review that started it all:
5 days ago