"But for now, lobbing charges of censorship against an organization that, earnestly and with the best of intentions for the sake of the artist, asks for reasonable delay, strikes me as incendiary, polarizing and, frankly, too easy. Let's reserve the charges of censorship for those places where they really belong, for those who seek to silence and to suppress, not for those who labor in all earnestness for voices to be heard. Especially if all they ask from us is a gift of time."
-Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Ben Cameron, in his monthly column in American Theatre.
Make no mistake, TCG is a lobbying and advocacy group explicitly for theatre institutions, and necessarily theatre artists. And American Theatre its trade publication. So Ben Cameron is basically doing his job by defending and supporting the beleaguered Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop.
But supporting a member institution hardly requires the outright dismissal of criticism Cameron displays here. Of all people, Cameron is uniquely positioned to call for healing in this. Especially at this time (two months into the controversy). But that would entail recognizing dissent within the theatre community itself. Which he doesn't. Like NYTW, Cameron's stance is defending "theatre" itself from outside antagonists like the press and political interest groups. His post and platform position him to speak for the entire US nonprofit theatre community, yet he chooses to only take the side of the Artistic Director--not the playwrights (Kushner, Shanley) or directors (Gregory Mosher, Irene Lewis) who have characterized NYTW's actions as, if notcensorshipp, then at least gross insensitivity and irresponsibility.
As his very title shows--"Censorship or Delay?"--Cameron is weeks behind in this debate, and seems to not to have weighed all the complex arguments beyond the headlines. I wonder if he has genuinely weighed the different accounts of NYTW and the Royal Court. Or is he just admitting his job is simply to defend the former over the foreigners.
Not to spend too much time taking Cameron's defense apart, but... Again we have lauding of Nicola's (true) fine aesthetic record. But--c'mon!--the fortitude shown in rearranging the seating for Hedda Gabler and A Number is hardly relevant here, is it? And again we hear that premiering Homebody/Kabul weeks after 9/11 was politically controversial--when I still don't understand what threats this play about the evils of Taliban Afghanistan (starring a bunch of Brit characters) posed to anyone not named Bin Laden. Awkward tension seeing the play then? Yes. Political challenge? No. I'm tired of hearing arguments it's assumed I won't think about.
Again, as the head of an organization devoted primarily tonurturingg (and funding) theatre institutions, Cameron is right to give the perspective of the board- and corporate-dominated theatres we are forced to live with. By his rules, NYTW's actions, then, make total sense:
if productions of even the standard repertoire must sometimes be justified, tackling a play with the potential to incite community controversy demands even more time. There are meetings with funders to help them understand our decisions, in order to protect the theatre from inappropriate reaction when grant applications are reviewed. There are meetings with the press to convey motive and intent. There are meetings with community groups: Can we broker better understanding with people likely to oppose the play (on whatever grounds)? Can we galvanize goodwill around our choice to produce? Are there community partners to participate in audience discussions? Are there formats for opposing viewpoints to be heard? How will we think about program notes and ancillary materials, and more? At heart, how we can present the work in the most responsible way, preparing the community to be its most receptive, creating the environment for the artist to be heard in the most supportive, most responsible, most appropriate environment?I'm struck by the tone of optimism here. No longer is the call, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" It's, "Hey, funders! Hey, community partners! Let's schedule a lot of meetings to see if it's ok to put on a show!"
What's also missing here is the artist. Yes, Cameron and Nicola say plenty about "serving" the artist. But notice how Cameron's scenarios here keep implying the artist's assent. He misses that a key part of this story is how the artists in question--Rickman, Viner, the Royal Court, even the Corries--resisted what NYTW was doing, even if it was supposedly in their name, supposedly. In fact, the tone coming from NYTW lately is that the artists were plain ungrateful for their efforts!
Does this consent of the artist not matter here? I remember a while ago someone drawing a comparison to how the Roundabout cancelled their big Assassins revival after 9/11. They did indeed reschedule it two years later to great acclaim. One reason this wasn't controversial was that Sondheim was ok with it! He wanted it to do well. And it was clearly fear of financial strife, not political (who would want to see a downer musical in Fall '01) that led to what appeared to be a mutual decision.
(Sondheim had learned this lesson back when Assassins premiered in '91--during the 1st Gulf War. They may not havetransferredd to B'way, but they still sold out little Playwrights Horizons for the run.)
Cameron has, I understand, done an excellent job at TCG for his members. A very informed and passionate theatre person, he also brought years of corporate savvy from Target. (Yes, the store.) He is now leaving TCG to run arts grants at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Lord knows, theatre artists in this country are grateful for the dollars flowing from this place. (They have no choice but to be grateful, do they.) But it is essentially a corporation as well--just non-profit. Their product is philanthropy.
One of the more interesting legacies of this controversy is the fault line exposed between one American theatre that sees itself as corporate- and board-dependent, and another that sees its mission as putting on plays they want to do, period.