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An Apology

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I had an opportunity to talk to Lily this morning and I know she shares in this apology with me.


The H logo for HowlRound.


I believe so strongly in the work of HowlRound because I long for open and transparent conversation for the theater. So often we do the hard work behind closed doors and we miss the opportunity to share valuable learning with each other. I offer this apology as a way of making transparent my own learning process this week.

On Tuesday we published a NewCrit piece by Lily Janiak. It covered her experience seeing a new piece of theater at Cal Shakes. Lily has been a terrific critic for HowlRound whose work and voice I completely support. When I edited this piece I read it in that context and saw immediately her keen observations of a common dissonance in our field—an institution working with one set of intentions and the audience perceiving something else. This felt like an important piece of criticism to me. What I missed in my editing was a tone that I don't think properly reflects what I hope to be the tone of HowlRound. Brad Erickson's comments on the post address this well. There is a way that the tone of Lily's piece can be read as disrespectful. This is not a tone we want to promote on HowlRound.

I offer my sincere apology to the HowlRound readership and to the staff of Cal Shakes for this misstep. And I look forward to working with all of you to continue to create a place where hard conversations can happen with respect and generosity.

When we announced this initiative it was controversial and we received a lot of negative feedback for suggesting that criticism could come from a place of "positive inquiry." And I'll admit finding that tone of positive inquiry without censoring the emotion and opinions of the contributors to HowlRound has been the most difficult work I've undertaken in the theater. And I think in this instance I failed in my role as editor to set a proper tone.

I offer my sincere apology to the HowlRound readership and to the staff of Cal Shakes for this misstep. And I look forward to working with all of you to continue to create a place where hard conversations can happen with respect and generosity.

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Art, and the responses to it, should be many things, but genteel and polite are not high items on that list, as I see it. Being an artist is an aggressive act--you're grabbing the world by the collar, shaking it, and saying, "Listen to what I have to say!" And as one who endeavors to put that art in context, and even offer an opinion of its worth, you are certainly telling the world that you have the right to assay the work of others. I want a theater full of difficult truths, boldly told, and let the chips fall where they may.

After having just left the American Theatre Critics' Association's annual meeting and reading this apology, I am so disheartened about the future of our profession. HowlRound is one of the few paying outlets for theater criticism, and if it is willing to cave to an artistic director so quickly over an opinion piece--whose very existence necessitates strong opinion--I fear, as Jason Zinoman rightly asserted in his ATCA keynote speech, marketing will indeed fill the vacuum caused by our absence.

I don't agree with Janiak's countering Cal Shakes' perceived classism and racism with ageism, and I don't know enough about the company to decide whether or not her condemnation of their outreach efforts warranted as strong a critique as their production. However, I'm certainly interested in reading about it and fully support her effort to express impassioned opinions on topics about which she feels impassioned. I admired HowlRound for giving critics that space and freedom, and am very disappointed to see you abandon it at the first sign of controversy.

Barring factual errors, if an editor allows a piece to go live, she's obligated to stand by it and by her writer. This is a new age of dialogue between critics and their readers, and if a theater doesn't like what's been written about them, they are able to respond immediately, detail their complaints in full, and enter into a public debate with the writer all via the comments section. This happened with Janiak's piece, and, until it was undermined by this apology, engendered a pretty interesting discussion.

Here's hoping you'll refine your NewCrit editorial policies, defend your critics in the future, and let theaters do their own marketing.

I'd like to note something else in Jason's speech that relates to this issue. "Traditionally, our authority is derived from the outlets where we work.
But if the outlet is where our authority comes from, we are depending on
sinking ships. It’s not just that papers are closing and shrinking.
It’s that technology has changed the way people read our reviews so as
to distance us from association with where we write," he said. "Exposing the flaws of institutional basis for authority and the voice of
God should actually liberate critics. More than any other part of the
paper, criticism is fueled by a specific voice.... We should be the first ones to call bullshit when confronted by authority by credentials. ... Our credentials derive from our work."

Howlround is as much an institution as The New York Times. It seeks to be an outlet for this "NewCrit," as it defines that term, and its authority derives from its status as a think-tank based at an education for higher learning, and the goodwill of many of those who look to it as an example of what that criticism can be. But I see it as no different from the use of the New York Times as an exemplar of criticism: the so-called authority for the writing there, too, is seated in the institution, not the individual critic.

If Jason is right -- and I think he is -- then critics must look to themselves for the reasons that they're marginalized in the critical discourse of the culture. The responsibility is on them to educate themselves, to seek out new outlets -- to engage, to write better, to hone a style and voice that expresses whatever authority they may feel they possess. Howlround can't do this, whether they pay their critics or not. The fault is not really in the New York Times, or in Howlround -- it is in ourselves.

George I think you misunderstand what HowlRound is when you say it's as much an institution as the New York Times to the degree that you're not acknowledging the commons based practice we espouse. The New York Times like any major newspaper gets its authority from its curatorial role driven by the editor and the singular voices in its various sections from Opinions to the Arts. As a community sourced journal, our writers come from those who raise their hand to participate. We don't determine in advance what stories need telling, but rather people submit ideas and drive the content. It's an important distinction because it speaks to your other point that I think is more accurate.

When you say the "so called authority there, too is seated in the institution, not the individual critic" --the kernel of truth there is that we you're right to say we're not interested in elevating singular voices on HowlRound as tastemakers determining what shows people should see. We're interested in creating dialogue around the work.

In my reply to Wendy Rosenfield above I say:

"So the apology came from a place of saying -- we're trying something new and we don't think we got it quite right this time. Perhaps in the context of traditional arts journalism, this is a terrible affront to the individual critic. But our focus at HowlRound is to create a commons based practice based on creating an inviting space for artists and I had hoped to add critics to that mix to share knowledge and resources and ideas with one another. It isn't a place to create tastemakers or to elevate singular voices of expertise...it's not a site that espouses to have a Chris Jones for example whose singular voice determines the success or failures of shows in Chicago. And I think Chris Jones does great things for that town, but that's a different role that what we're asking of our critics."

Also see the rest of my reply to Wendy that I think addresses some of what you've been saying here and on your blog. Thanks for engaging.

And thank you for engaging my own points, Polly. To your first, I can only say that critics and reviewers regularly pitch stories to editors themselves: their assignments arise from their own interests -- what stories need telling as they see it -- and not those of their editors (though I'm sure editors make regular assignments as well).

Perhaps what touches the greatest nerve among critics in this situation -- and in the definition of NewCrit itself -- is Howlround's definition of what we might as well call OldCrit. In the hope of providing additional nuance, I want to respond very briefly to what you say here:

"We will work closely with our critics to cultivate a HowlRound voice that engages the work on stage through positive inquiry asking: Why this play, playwright, or story now? This criticism will not be aimed at ticket sales. In fact it’s unlikely that articles will be published during the run of the show—our hope is to deepen conversation around the work and emphasize its importance above and beyond the market value of the ticket."

I'll admit that some critics do see themselves as providing "consumer reports" -- and perhaps that's where mainstream criticism, perhaps better defined as "reviewing," finds itself now, and perhaps that's what editors and readers want. But not all of it -- and some editors and readers want more too. Today's better critics don't see themselves as aiming at ticket sales, but in fact are already engaged in "deepen[ing] conversation around the work and emphasiz[ing] its importance above and beyond the market value of the ticket." To put it perhaps a little too glibly, there's no need to rethink what better critics are already doing, to reinvent what is already there. That is, anyway, what I try to do, and I'm not the only one. True, critics like this look to the past -- to reviewers like Bentley, Brustein, and Gilman, to Shaw and Tynan, none of whom could be said to be interested in encouraging ticket sales, though of course they'd want their readers to share in those experiences they found notable.

As, I'm sure, do the HowlRound critics. But recognizing both the best criticism of the past and the notable criticism of our own time, I hope, would inspire a more important criticism to both artists and to the general readership outside of the artistic circle.

I also hope that in the future Howlround will encourage different voices -- and, yes, different tones, however strident they might be -- and resist opposition to those voices. Criticism, too, is an art, and tone is a necessary element of individual style, as any artist will attest.

I think you misunderstand the nerve you hit and what you are seeing in a very small way in these comments is a much wider reaction off your site, and not just from journalists. You frame this as a debate between traditional journalism and nontraditional. I disagree. It's one of credibility and trust. These are however issues that journalists understand very well. We have thought a lot about them. And that thinking is part of the underpinnings behind say corrections or conflict of interest rules or the public editor or the reportorial convention that you try to get the other side of a story when a source launches a harsh attack. These rules change and are different for different outlets, but one of the reasons they are there is that journalists understand the value of credibility and trust, and they understand what happens when you lose them. It happens sometimes, in small ways to journalists all the time. This highly unusual apology in my opinion is an example of it happening in a big way. Journalists understand that trust comes in part from perception. We also know that "positive inquiry" and "tone" are infinitely subjective terms that could stand in for other justifications. I'm not saying you are doing that, but on the question of perception, these terms are flexible enough that everyone should be skeptical when a writer's voice is apologized for (You could have simply ran another story with another side or even on the issue of tone in criticism and believed more speech is better, but you didn't). The facts are these: You apologized for tone for an article that had the guts to ask tough questions and report about the important question of diversity after a phone call from the AD who was the one being criticized. That certainly looks like you were pressured and caved. We learn from these comments that the AD himself says he was "complicit" in the apology. Do you agree? What does that mean? And was this AD who says himself he is "thin-skinned" also motivated by tone and the Howlround policy of "positive inquiry." I doubt it. So why does this matter? As i see it, it has nothing to do with whether or not you are traditional journalism or whether you are publishing the next Chris Jones. It has to do with the expectations your readers have of this site, all of them. When i read a story about a theater that seems to give the theater the benefit of the doubt about diversity of audience, i might wonder: Did the AD call? And as a journalist, i know this kind of push-back happens every day. Will actual journalists like Lily J, exactly the kind of person we should be supporting, who write for you now look compromised if they write sunny takes? The worst impact is the kind you don't see or hear about. Its the chilling of discourse when you apologize for a legit piece of criticism like this: Who would feel safe asking tough questions of powerful institutions for your site now? Who will ask difficult questions about diversity that might upset leaders of theaters when you have demonstrated right here that you will not support them after there's pressure? If you can't report with your own eyes what is the make-up of an audience in colorful language, how interesting and open and honest will your dialogue be? Look, as i said on twitter, I hope this site, which i was initially skeptical of but was really coming around to, succeeds. I have written for you before, although i don't feel particularly good about that at the moment. And I hope Howlround can be a place that is known for independent and honest discussions online about the theater. We need that. But you say you have responded to the issue. I don't think you have. You have examined the power of tone in public. But you haven't the examined the power of a phone call from an artistic director leading to an apology for a piece of criticism in public. And while that may seem like a minor thing, journalists know better.

Jason- I appreciate your continued attempts to get to the heart of the discussion here and am learning a great deal from both your questioning of Polly's apology and of the post Clay Lord wrote immediately after the publishing of Lily's piece.

As I've said in other places, I think Lily is raising really important and interesting questions about the process of transformation and the dissonance she experienced between the aspirations in the language of the theater's public writing and her direct engagement with the theater's programs. This is a challenge at the very core of how we, as a field, come to grips with the issues of legacy and "fossil behaviors" and relevance and responsibility. Lily's attempt to get at it in a NewCrit post was energizing. As was the response from Rebecca Novick, the woman at the helm of that transformative effort at CalShakes on the day to day basis-- or their engagement and new works pieces of it at any rate. I hope we can get back to that part of this whole thing at some point.

From my vantage point on the Apology conversation, I think you are on the pulse of the problem when you speak of the baseline being one of perception versus the actual flow of events and decisions. From the standpoint of perception, I totally understand the consternation and I'm glad to see you addressing it on that level. The perception is that Polly's apology was motivated by off-line attacks from the AD. He's acknowledged there were heated exchanges, which feeds into that perception. Likewise, Clay's response is withering and bullying of both Lily and Polly, and so it makes total sense to me that dots are connected in the general public that are not the dots that were connected in Polly's path to the apology post.

Instead the apology post stemmed EXACTLY from the place you are talking about: it was Polly's carefully considered opinion that she'd missed something in editing the piece, that she fell short of the bar she (and we-- I'm a proud part of HowlRound and an active participant in the decisions that Polly's taking the heat for) have set for ourselves with NewCrit, editorially, and to which we committed ourselves at the outset of the NewCrit initiative. We were, perhaps, looking too closely at our public, at the circle of people whose trust we had asked for in launching the initiative. It was to the people who'd engaged us on that original set of conversations about launching it that Polly was aiming her apology. There had been a lively set of discussions, both online and off, about the principles in the NewCrit project and this was a post in continuity with those. That it would come to be perceived as something aimed at appeasing Clay or Jon Moscone didn't actually occur to us, and Rebecca Novick had already engaged the post on her own and was clearly not in need of some sort of help to defend her program.

You make a very good point about that trust being with ALL the readers, whether they were an active part of the community at the time the initiative was launched or not. Speaking for myself, I wasn't thinking about the universe of possible readers when Polly and I discussed the notion of her writing an apology. I read what you are saying in this thread, though, and understand the truth of that immediately-- the universe to be thinking about is the full community of readers. For myself, I was thinking only about the large community of people with whom we had built this commons all along. And I concur with her that the post as edited went a bit wide of the mark as a NewCrit piece in a couple of places. Given that it is a new effort here, I felt she was showing leadership by saying so. I still do.

NewCrit is one approach to conversation about the field, along with the Journal, the Blog, the Map, HowlRoundTV and-- very importantly-- the comments sections on all of them. And in that, we are trying to make space for all types of engagement from provide access to voices and opinions not otherwise heard in that conversation.

We are making decisions all the time here whether something is best addressed via the Journal, the Blog, or in a weekly Howl. These are distinctions that are perhaps too insider-baseball to translate to the larger readership, but they seem worth maintaining to us. NewCrit is a specific attempt, with a specific set of agreements underpinning it, to move different elements of the overall conversation through a discussion of the art. Perhaps not unlike CalShakes in Lily's experience, there is dissonance between our aspirations and the reader's experience. I know we welcome the learning that continues to come our way through the discussion thread.

One note that may help add dimension to the question of the role of the angry calls from the AD here: this is far from the first time Polly's been on the receiving end of such a thing following something published on HowlRound. Not my first time at the rodeo either. And not all the blowback comes from AD's. We have been taking ugly flack in the form of bullying phone calls and e-mails, lobbying of our funders, and virulent campaigns to have us fired from our jobs pretty much from the outset of this work. You are right to question the impact of a decision to cave to that sort of ugliness and entitlement-- we would question the same. This is not what happened here, though we've sure come to understand that it's what's perceived to have happened. Perhaps there's a good conversation in our future about this behavior of intimidation and censorship-- why and how to withstand it.

I hope you will continue to read and engage here, Jason-- and especially hope you'll find yourself compelled to write more for the site in whatever part of the platform.

Thank you for the reply and I think what you said about the apology not being the result of intimidation is important. Everything else is a good discussion, but if you don't convince people of that, well, in my opinion, you are in trouble. For one thing, if you appear to cave to bullying, that only leads to more bullying. And if you get a lot of flack and angry calls, imagine what it's like to be my editor. There's room to disagree about this specific piece (i liked it, but plead ignorance about contours of NewCrit) but even if one thinks it veered off course, my take is this: Young critics are in one regard just like young artists: They need room to fail. That doesn't mean their work shouldn't be picked apart, criticized, held to high standards. It means they need tough (often unseen) editorial support.

Young critics, young artists and young initiatives probably all merit the same space to stumble, no? I am not sure how you convince people of the process here, other than by continuing to resist the backlash- from whatever direction- and stay true to the values you set out, try every day to refine and improve and, let the verdict be delivered over time and a body of work.

Yes, they all do. As to the second point, I think improving and refining and doing good work every day is the main thing. But if you are asking what to do to regain trust with readers when there's a breakdown, the answer is always more, not less speech, more not less questions, more serious reporting that is blunt, honest and doesn't hide from uncomfortable issues. I have a lot of questions about California Shakes right now. Why are they so defensive about diversity? I have written about diversity in institutions before in much bigger forums than this and know exactly what push-back looks like. My instincts tell me this response is worth exploring more. Also, why not air their side of the story in this publication, then talk to independent sources or theaters who face similar issues and bring more context and nuance to this debate. Then edit it to strike the exact tone that you want. If what you discover after all this reporting is that California Shakes has not lived up to its own stated goals about diversity and you think that is not suitable for publication because it violates HR's idea of "positive inquiry," then i would humbly suggest you take the word "journalism" off your home page.

I was right there with you til the last bit of it, Jason. We've been talking about ways to tell more of this larger story-- more focused on the question of the process of transformation than on that of diversity in this particular context, since that was what was at the heart of the dissonance Lily experienced. So stay tuned on that front.

And the notion of editing it with precision is what this whole flap was about-- not about the substance of what Lily's experience was or what she reported of it, but how it was edited on the level of HowlRound's editorial values regarding NewCrit. So, yes, again.

Where I fall out of this as an actual conversation is the final logic string. It seems to go like this: "IF, down the road, you discover X uncomfortable thing AND IF you then do Y nefarious thing, THEN I now offer you the back of my hand upside your head in advance." Why not wait to make your humble suggestion until that has actually happened? Happy to take the smack if that comes to pass, but what's the conversational value of this swipe at this point?

You started that logic train too late. Like others, I have just lost trust in HR as an independent source that stands by its writers when they ask tough questions. That's where i am now. I was speaking to the question: How does one regain trust of readers like me. I don't see the issue as one about editing with precision. As i said, it's one of trust and credibility. I have no way to know if you shut down honest criticism in your editorial process in the future. I cant see it. That's why your unusual apology (and Moscone saying he's complicit) was so damaging. It chilled future debate and cast skepticism over something that is very hard to prove in the future. But if i see that you demonstrate you are asking tough questions, then alright, that's a useful data point. And if you tell me right now that you are willing to write critically if that is where the evidence leads you, that's an even stronger data point. On the other hand, maybe independence and honest reporting even when it hurts feelings is not what this site does. Maybe that's not its core values and i am reading my own values (which i would describe as traditional, but not limited to traditional journalism) into it. In which case, who cares what I think? You don't have to concern yourself with it.

Can we keep at it here a bit, or are you wearing out on it? I concern myself with your experience because you are looking closely at this and have specific insights not available to us from other sources-- don't mean to make that a burden for you, but it is a help.

I'm not seeing what part of Lily's experience at CalShakes-- or her criticism of it-- you see Polly backing up from here? Lily's critique of the play and of the overall experience has been backed up both by publishing the crit in the first place and in the subsequent comments from Polly as editor. It remains on the site as originally published. Lily continues to be a valued and exciting colleague in NewCrit and, I'd hope, will write for other parts of the site as she feels inspired to do. I think I am not understanding what you are seeing when you speak of backing away from the writer, or from the tough questions.

I think partly I'm too deep into this to see how it all looks to the rest of the world. We've so frequently asked tough questions here-- and taken the heat that comes with that-- that it's hard to understand that this particular exchange is taking place entirely outside the context of our history and habit. Polly's Boy in a Mans' Theater, Diane Ragsdale's In the Intersection (published in book form), several of Todd London's essays, my posts on dramaturgy and on defining success, any number of the "City Series" pieces-- plus things that have broadcast on HowlRoundTV and any number of reports published via the convenings and such all come immediately to mind and are still here.

I get that your trust is wavering based on this specific series of exchanges. I'm not challenging that this is the truth of your experience. What I'm trying to share is my own experience and to have yours inform mine toward advancing the whole endeavor. Not your job, of course. I appreciate the time you've offered already and that it matters deeply to you in the work you do.

I don't mind at all, but I suspect we have reached the end of a productive exchange. It is self-evident to me that Polly's apology backed away from Lily's piece. It's unthinkable that any editor I have ever worked for would even think about apologizing for the tone of a review after it's published. To do so would be giving up way too much. I have already explained why. I suppose being more of an industry pub, the trust you have with your readers could operate differently. But that's my POV as a reader and a journalist.

OK, I hear you and we'll leave it at that. Thanks for trying, but yes we do seem to have hit a place of parallel play with this. We have our self-evident truths and they don't appear to be on paths that converge, at least in this particular instance. I'll come back to this thread, when I've more distance on these events and more experience in the space I'm trying to work from, and review this discussion to see what I've missed in the back and forth and how it might inform future progress.


I appreciate this reply and will clarify a few things again. I don't think HowlRound has abandoned anything. And this idea that HowlRound will now only publish "nice" criticism is proven false by the body of criticism on the NewCrit site already and by the post we published right after Lily's. I'm personally being accused of apologizing because I bowed to pressure of a large theater. This too is untrue. I've had more than one big theater ask me to retract an article they didn't like. I've never retracted an article and this is the first time I issued an apology.

But I realize in my exchange with Jason Zinoman on Twitter that I hit a nerve for critics with the apology and I feel like it's that cohort that refuses to engage the nuance of what I'm saying in both the comments here, my comments on Lily's piece, and my apology. I recognize that misperception comes from passion and strong emotions and I value yours and other critics. We started the NewCrit initiative because we believe strongly in a place for the critical voice around the work, but that said, and as I say in my other comment here, as an artist driven site, not a newspaper driving audiences to cultural events, we wanted to redefine how criticism would happen on HowlRound.

And not everyone has to support that, but I would like folks to at least acknowledge where the apology came from -- not from a censoring or a shutting down place -- but from a reinventing place. Here is what I wrote in my original call for critics that I published on HowlRound:

"We will work closely with our critics to cultivate a HowlRound voice that engages the work on stage through positive inquiry asking: Why this play, playwright, or story now? This criticism will not be aimed at ticket sales. In fact it’s unlikely that articles will be published during the run of the show—our hope is to deepen conversation around the work and emphasize its importance above and beyond the market value of the ticket."

All of the people that applied acknowledge this in their applications as something they desired to try and we've been working together as a cohort to strike a proper balance in these criticisms, and that balance has been focused on tone. Lily came willingly to this conversation, she fully understood the "why" of the apology as we've been talking about tone from the get go. She and I are collaborators here.

So the apology came from a place of saying -- we're trying something new and we don't think we got it quite right this time. Perhaps in the context of traditional arts journalism, this is a terrible affront to the individual critic. But our focus at HowlRound is to create a commons based practice based on creating an inviting space for artists and I had hoped to add critics to that mix to share knowledge and resources and ideas with one another. It isn't a place to create tastemakers or to elevate singular voices of expertise...it's not a site that espouses to have a Chris Jones for example whose singular voice determines the success or failures of shows in Chicago. And I think Chris Jones does great things for that town, but that's a different role that what we're asking of our critics.

I think we can all agree that criticism in its traditional form is in a difficult place right now in our culture. Can we work together to rethink it? Can we make room to learn together in that process of rethinking? That's my hope here. And I'm happy to admit I and HowlRound will make mistakes in this process.

I also said in my original call for critics:

"We hope in the process to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the role of criticism in our profession and elevate the value of that thing we work so hard to make. This is a pilot initiative and a learning opportunity for us."

My hope is that critics can work with us in the learning.

I just offered a comment for the NEXT New Crit piece to be published on Howlround (http://howlround.com/theate..., where the author, Patricia Davis, gets the critical/supportive/journalistic/outraged-onlooker tone pretty much spot-on. So let's hear it for getting it just right! And let's note than when a critic does do the right thing and splits the uprights, with no penalty flags flying, there are generally a dearth of comments (in Patricia's case, NONE, actually, until mine), and that's a perfectly good thing too. No umbrage taken; no response from the field. So I recommended a way for her to mix it up ("scold the theater for taking this long...") but mostly I didn't mean it. Don't scold. Get the tone right. Don't apologize. Keep the new works coming, keep making 'em vital, and keep figuring out ways to pay for it.

Ari Roth
Artistic Director
Theater J

Thank you for your approach and contributions to this conversation, Ari. I appreciate Polly's apology and much of the discussion around it as well- so we may disagree on that topic-- but the fact that you have redirected people back to the learning edge as it is playing out in practice, both for HowlRound and for your own theater, is delightful and energizing. Hats off to you for your expertise with the practice of appreciative inquiry.

This conversation is so many things. It is brave and cowardly at once. It is backwards and forward. It is status quo and it is the future. It is depressing and its hopeful. Sometimes its really smart. Sometimes its kind of stupid. Certainly, it is also sometimes sensitive (perhaps overly) and sometimes it is insensitive and even naive. That is extraordinary!
Thank you to everyone involved. Everyone who is scared and everyone who is stuck. Everyone who is aware of priviledge (whether they percieve it to be their own or the priviledge of others). Everyone who favors inclusivity. Everyone who wants change. Everyone who loves and sometimes hates the American Theater.
This is the stuff we need - dialogue and exchange; courage to try, to really, really risk; and willingness to support each other and nurture continued growth when we fail.
I love HowlRound! I love CalShakes and the Triangle Lab (the reason Intersection for the Arts embraces this partnership is entirely because its about change and change is immeasurably hard, embarassing, messy, and utterly painful).
What I'd love most is if we could figure out how to use this energy beyond a particular organization or play. We've had this conversation. Can we work together now to focus on the essential role that theater can and must play in healthy, equitable, 21st Century community life?
Thank you, all!

I am deeply grateful for everyone's comments here. I value this dialogue and want to respond briefly to the range of emotions that have come from my apology. As I said on Twitter today, I relish the opportunity for us to have live dialogue. This feels so nuanced and it really goes to the heart of why HowlRound exists. I feel many people read my post as a backing away from Lily's criticism. It wasn't intended to be. I deeply value Lily's voice and I have loved working with her in an editorial context. She and I are working as a team to figure out how to find the right frame for NewCrit. As all of the critics knew when they signed on HowlRound is trying something new and that the question of tone was our biggest concern. We all agreed to stumble our way through this together.

Tone is very important in stewarding a commons based approach that seeks to be an invitation to dialogue and participation. Our function is not to act as a curator of cultural tastes that limit inclusivity and rely on exclusion in determining what is thumbs up and what is thumbs down. Because criticism is a social/political expression of power, how power is wielded on the HowlRound site matters and there is power in tone—the power to close down, diminish, and dismiss. As an artist-driven site we aren’t interested in promoting or publishing this form of criticism. (Though we don’t admonish others’ interest to write and publish and read criticism in this form.)

I worried that Lily and I had unintentionally worked together on this piece and not realized the way in which many people would read it as diminishing to the efforts of the artists involved in American Night. We talked about the apology before I published it and I would not have published it without her consent.

We believed then as we believe now, that the artist lives at
the heart of the theatrical enterprise. When we started HowlRound we were inspired by a host of artists and thinkers who were asking, where is the artist’s voice in our institutions? We believed that our field was overrun with infrastructure at the expense of the artists’ pay and well-being. And HowlRound has been led by that voice. Our contributors are disproportionately practicing artists at all level of experience and professionalism. And so this is an artist-driven space by design.

Our agenda is rigorous critical engagement about the art and the context in which we make it and we promote a field-wide dialogue so that we collectively learn together. Which is different from traditional journalism, and which we hope is of value and meaning to the field of theater practice.

I just want to add this - does it ever occur to any of you thin-skinned waifs that back in the day, when reviews were vituperative and harsh, the theatre was somehow thriving and vibrant? That snark and satire did nothing - and I mean absolutely NOTHING - to harm the theatre? One could argue, in fact, that niceness cannot and will not save the theatre, that it is completely beside the point. Indeed, the nicer the reviewers are, the deader theatre seems to become.

Sigh. Is this whole conversation pathetic or what? You're all coming off like teenagers. I've rarely been so embarrassed for the theatre.

sorry howl but i got2 growl, leave u on the mat 1 more Round

i seen every play in the BA since back in 98
seen each n every 1 of em since calshake was still bout SHAKES
1 thing they def got2 face
they been playin white since white was a race
now they tryin 2 change up, they tryin 2 get up2date
n lil LIL comin in n settin it strait
layin down the law doin it great
sayin may b its 2 lil but not 2 late

n wass wrong with that? no need 2 b sorry... hav some #selfrespect

standin with chilly lily
knockin em cold
bein bold
spittin gold

luv from CONCORD, PTL

I have been pretty much under the radar on the public face
of this conversation, but I feel like now’s the time to share some thoughts.

First, I think it’s important we all acknowledge how
passionately people feel about the issues discussed, from whatever angle each
of us is coming from. And as tense as
some of this exchange has been, it’s ultimately a beautiful revelation of who we
are as art makers in this country. I
hope we can take a moment and know that about ourselves and each other.

Second, as much as I have resisted participating in this
discussion publicly, I realize that as artistic director of Cal Shakes, I owe
it to everyone who has weighed in from every side to join in the conversation.

I am actually kind of a thin-skinned person, despite my
bravado. I used to cry profusely when my dad would be (in my youthful opinion)
unfairly criticized for the work he was doing as Mayor of San Francisco. From the right, from the left, he took it on the chin. He used to say to me, “Don’t worry – it’s tomorrow’s fish wrapping.”

Well things are different. For that to be true, I’d have to
print out blog entries, and then find the fish, and that just all seems so time
consuming and environmentally unsound.
Seriously though, as my colleague wrote to me the other day,
Cal Shakes is now in the center of this conversation. And that’s a good thing,
no matter how thin my skin is.

I want to be upfront about this. Polly Carl is doing amazing
work in our field. And I feel I must
come clean and say that I expressed to her privately how upset I was by some of
the ideas expressed in Lily’s article.
Not so much that she didn’t like my production (I mean, get in
line). But for other reasons that I
think Rebecca Novick, our Triangle Lab director, expressed quite eloquently and
honestly in her response blog, a blog that invited conversation. Which was a
great thing for Rebecca to do.

All this is to say that I must accept a certain complicity in Polly’s
choice to make a kind of apology. And I am sorry for that. She should not be
the only one on the front line now. I should join her and remind everyone that
she, along with all the folks working with her, has paved the way towards a
platform where every voice can be heard.

Polly, like Rebecca, Susie Falk (my partner), everyone at
Cal Shakes and our partner organization, Intersection for the Arts, and anyone
engaged in the important, necessary and profound work to articulate ways to
become authentic in creating inclusive cultures of artists and audiences alike,
are in a very steep and real learning curve.
We are going to fail. We fail daily.
We learn. We try better. We will listen. And we get closer and

We are all of us thin-skinned, because no matter what building we work in, or
feel excluded from, we are all individuals making art in a country that needs
artists to help solve its intractable problems.
So let’s keep the dialogue going and do what each of us can in our
powers to make progress and headway in making the American Theater a model of
diversity and inclusion.

Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you would
like to discuss particular issues with me, ask questions, or take a swing.

Thanks. Jon Moscone, Artistic Director, California
Shakespeare Theater

Is every theatre company with an admittedly "thin-skinned" artistic director entitled to a public apology for reviews that aren't completely laudatory, or only ones with which (according to Cal Shakes' tax forms) ended FY 2011 with $8,467,437 in net assets?

Pardon me if I'm not clear as to how a closed-door consultation with a critic's editor that results in the editor making a public apology and only the editor's assurances that the critic apologizes, amounts to "Just trying to keep the conversation going."

The conversation now, is not a debate about what Lily Janiak wrote, but about the apology (and whether it was warranted.) Janiak's twitter feed doesn't seem back up the claim that she shares in the apology.

As to CalShakes' monetary assets: Over the years, I have noticed that in dealing with critics, the more monied institutions just tend to operate in a different ethical universe than the rest of the theatre world-- one where closed-door consultations rather than making one's case in public is deemed appropriate, for instance.

Yes that makes sense. Thanks for clarification. It wasn't really a closed door consultation. But your point is well made - that without acknowledging it, I allow my privilege not to see when I am using access to get through to someone on something. And although I realize it's not your job to school me on these things, I do appreciate seeing things that I don't see cause of the backpack of privilege that I was given from birth and carried with me without much burden.

This work has put a lens on a lot of what I do, but I am still able to take that lens off when it feels too clear - the "it" being how what I do aids and abets that which I claim to be dismantling.

There's a lot of what Lily wrote that puts a lens on implicitly exclusionary moves/practices, and getting past this ridiculous notion that even I bought into - that is my "thin skin", I need to see that, acknowledge it and deal with it.

The 'thin-skin' argument, even in the way I brought it up is a way of defending against some necessary criticism. So let's drop that term. At least I will and keep listening to how people with sharper lenses see what is going on.

Thanks for expanding on that though Mr. Thai.


It's not even "privilege"-- it's an unseemly way of trying to influence a conversation about art and culture, in that rather than engaging in dialogue, or arguing that Janiak may have been in error, we have seen what is, in effect, the silencing of a critic. And at least to my fellow critics in Boston with whom I have discussed the story, it had all the appearances of a vulgar display of power.

in my life as a theatre writer as well as in my observations of human behavior, I have heard "thin-skin" and other such sensitivities used as an excuse for all sorts of bullying-- both subtle and unsubtle.

What privilege Cal Shakes possesses, as relatively long-lived, well-funded arts organization, is that it was perfectly capable of shrugging off a review like the one Janiak wrote-- it was going well beyond that privilege that made it clear that criticism was well deserved.

I just want to say that Jon Moscone is not running covert operations for the government, and that your comments register as unhelpful and somewhat strident, at least to me. And in acknowledging one's thin-skinnedness one is not necessarily creating some diversion away from all the rampant "bullying" one is doing, but maybe making an actual attempt at openhearted dialogue and vulnerability.

Polly Carl is not the editor of the New York Times and many many people know her socially and like her and feel they can call her and talk about whatever they want with her. And there is nothing "unseemly" about that. I find Jon Moscone's transparency here very refreshing.

Jasper, for the record, I do know Polly Carl, and like her (not that that's really germane to the discussion: editors are often likable, approachable people.)

Please also note that I am speaking as both a critic and a journalist who has penned his share of controversial essays and articles.

If the AD of a theatre takes issue with a critic, said AD should do what the rest of us do, and either make a public rebuttal or let it slide.

I am bothered by the notion that AD of a theatre company, or any other arts organization (especially a monied one like Cal Shakes,) would be able to privately influence one of my editors to issue an apology is so business-as-usual that the AD thinks nothing of admitting, after the fact, that that was done, and attempts to garner sympathy for this act by "acknowledging" being "thin-skinned."

I can only imagine the number of monied individuals and organizations that would be lining up to demand apologies from my editors if that were the norm.

One wonders whether August Wilson's "The Ground On Which I Stand" or the first paragraphs of Herbert Blau's "The Impossible Theatre" would find a place on HowlRound. Here is what Blau wrote:

The purpose of this book is to talk up a revolution. Where there are rumblings already, I want to cheer them on. I intend to be incendiary and subversive, maybe even un-American. I shall probably hurt some people unintentionally; there are some I want to hurt. I may as well confess right now the full extent of my animus: there are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like the lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to "kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.

My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what's really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht's Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow -- on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable -- "I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?"

Do you, in truth, wonder? Take a look around the site, Scott- you, yourself, have contributed articles here that vent frustration at the current state of change in the American theater. And you neither applied for nor write for the NewCrit section so you are not part of that experiment and not, therefore not working with us on that particular endeavor or in this particular way. Perhaps it is too much to ask even such a close collaborator as yourself to carry and work with the nuances around this site that we live with everyday-- the distinctions between the journal, the blog, and NewCrit actually matter to us and we are developing our understanding of those distinctions through practice.

Blau and Wilson both made significant contributions to the field in practice as well as in the pieces of writing you are citing here. One important distinction in the Blau quote you've pointed us to here and NewCrit writing I think is that Blau was talking generally about the overall pace of change in the field and how maddening it is to him. He is not calling out individual practitoners for their their failures to meet his expectations. In NewCrit we look at the whole through the specifics of individual practitoners. We start from a fundamental appreciation for the fact that they are putting themselves on the line, making work that relates to and reveals things about important aspects of what's at play in our field, and have created an opportunity for us to reflect on those things through their offering. We don't intend to use this as a space to deride or punish them for that generosity. There are plenty of people in our midst who tee off on artists' efforts to spew their own frustrations. We don't see a need for yet another such space in the conversation. Nor do we feel that this consigns us to the role of mindless cheerleading. There is a space between and we are incrementally discovering it by working in it. I am one who has learned a great deal about this space from Lily and Polly over these past days.

David, the situation makes me uncomfortable with the whole NewCrit project.

When the project was first announced, a number of folk had suggested I apply to be one of HowlRound's NewCrits (since I already write criticism) and I decided not to: partly because of the time and writing commitments I had at that precise moment, but on the other also the lack of clarity with which "positive" inquiry was defined.

The problem with this apology is that it puts critics in a bind: are they going to be able to be truly inquisitive, if the questions they want to pose, or the interpretations wish to offer, are going to be recanted after a phone call from a "thin-skinned" Artistic Director? Especially from a theatre with a seven-digit operating budget?

What criteria will those demanding apologies have to meet in order to receive one? Operating budget? Role in the production? Personal history? Influence in a given region?

I've never panned a show or production that did not, in my mind, deserve to panned. I take no pleasure in panning shows; like most critics, I rather spend a great deal of text explaining what makes a great production great. But I can't in good conscience give a rave to something that doesn't deserve a rave-- my credibility is at stake.

Critics need to feel that their editors care enough about criticism that so long as the critic is doing their job properly, the editor will back them up. Ultimately, the question is, why write for HowlRound when I have reason not to trust that I would receive the same level of support I take take as a given over at The Arts Fuse or The Clyde Fitch Report?

I know that Jon was just trying to help by saying that he had some measure of the responsibility for Polly's apologizing, based on his reactions to her post. But you'll have to take it on faith (a faith hopefully somewhat built up over the many, many interactions you have had with both of us, particularly over this past year) that this is not actually the case. Interested parties demanding apologies are welcome to do so in the comments section. They never do, by the way...

Jon is a colleague of many years and I can easily give him the benefit of the doubt here. It is kind of him to want to help. And, of course, now we're seeing it has been the opposite of help! With friends like these... ! (grin)

I won't rehash my comment in response to Jason Zinoman's comment above as it relates to 'caving to pressure'. But I would ask that you continue to engage, whether it is to challenge or to support or to offer a new bit of food for thought, Ian. You don't have to be a writer for NewCrit to make contributions to the conversation-- witness the whole thread here!-- and you are fortunate to have a place to publish your raves and pans of Boston productions without us. So, carry on!

I think the issue is that criticism, at least when practiced in good faith, has an important role in any cultural activity, be it theatre, film, music, visual art, dance, literature-- it help teaches audiences and artists think more deeply about the work they encounter and the work they do-- by reading how others articulate an opinion, we become better able to articulate our own opinions-- and this is valuable to the development of any art.

I often hear from people in the field-- both my generation and younger-- proclamations of "this is what American theatre is today" and little ability to articulate an answer to "Why is this what we're doing in American theatre?" Or "why we aren't doing this in American theatre?" Or "Is there a cultural conversation about these choices that needs to be articulated?" Or "Are there presuppositions being made by these choices?"

These are the questions that good criticism asks. Likewise, we should ask now is "What are the unarticulated presuppositions at work that allow us to consider an AD calling upon an editor to issue an apology for a critique to be viewed in good faith?"

I dunno, Ian; I think the presupposition you're talking about has been pretty clearly articulated: David is asking us to base our good faith on his and Polly's previous record of engagement and "hard questioning," and their openness to the questions raised here and in the original piece. We know them, the argument goes, either in-person or online, and we know the work they're doing, and thus can conclude how far we can trust them versus how far we can throw them. To me, that makes sense, and there's more than enough in what they've done and why they've done it to convince me. Your mileage may vary.

David's dialogue with Jason Zinoman is crucial, though, because it demonstrates that in a vacuum, perception is much less controllable on those terms. That's an essential thing to remember: people who don't know Howlround's work see this apology much differently than those inside the community (even the dissenters). New readers/critics/observers don't see the track record (or have personal relationships of any kind with the editors/writers), and the chance of being trusted by them from the get-go has been damaged to some degree by this kerfluffle.

But part of Howlround's goal also seems to be to gradually build a community where "good faith" is the assumption more often than not. By opening interaction up to everyone involved, and including themselves on the conversation, David and Polly are structuring an environment a bit less monolithic than traditional critical outlets (not as totally free-form as a blog or other form of self publishing, but also more open-source than an unseen editorial board cloistered in a conference room somewhere). The hope seems to be that, the more that people engage, the more they generate good faith, and that seems like a pretty common-sense proposition. We're now in the calibration phase: how open vs. how separate, how shielded vs. how exposed. The hope of the NewCrit process, at least from what I can tell, is that there's a sweet spot where critical discourse can be both respectful and honest, and that both insiders and new readers can approach any piece they read on the site with confidence in both the rigor and the good faith that went into it. This series of events has certainly been a setback in that direction, but again: it's a calibration, not a zero-sum game. "No matter. Try again. Fail. Fail better," etc.

In the specific case of the phone calls with Cal Shakes, I don't know that there's much more that David or Polly could do to convince us that the discussions with Jon and the apology decision were two discreet entities. There seems to be good faith enough, from my perspective, to take them at their word and chalk it up to problematic misconception. Maybe, if we need a final assessment, we can drop a line to the NSA and see if they'll give us the phone records of the pertinent conversations.

Walt, I have no doubt that people saw themselves as acting in "good faith." Lilly Janiak was acting in good faith when she attempted to fulfill her mission as a critic by weighing what she saw on stage and on the grounds of Cal Shakes against its stated mission. Jon Moscone was acting in good faith when he was defending Cal Shakes against criticism-- after all, he has a lot invested in the organization and views it as an important cultural institution.

The problem is that "good faith" means nothing without institutionalized codes of ethics that handle conflicts like this one. The notion that the AD for any major organization can just call up and have a review recanted because he or she is "of good faith" is problematic.

It devalues efforts to engage with work in a critical manner.

Now, this is not to say that I view it as devaluing the work of HowlRound or of the Center-- without question, the NewPlayMap, NewPlayTV are important undertakings; the City Series and travelogues that have run in HR have been particularly interesting to me due to their documentary nature. However, I can't help but think that there is a structural flaw with how NewCrit is conceived in its relationship to the theatre community if an essay can't stand up to a phone call from a "thin-skinned"AD.

Right, but at the moment you're focusing on a premise (the phone call led to the retraction) that, according to David and Polly, is false. THAT'S where the good faith in this argument comes in: you either believe them or not when they say that the editorial decision happened independently of the phone call. Some, like myself, will believe them on that, and others will obviously not, but that's the point where the conversation can unfortunately go no further, because it just becomes a matter of he-said she-said.

But with Moscone claiming complicity in the apology, it only gives encouragement to ADs and other arts administrators that they should be making phone calls whenever they object to a review or essay.

So what was the point behind the apology then?

This apology was useful for me because without it, I wouldn't have read the original piece. And certainly wouldn't have attempted to engage with it as much as I have.

That said, the original piece and the ensuing discussion seem to boil down to dancing around a single question: "How do our institutions perpetuate bad things?" Because a number of criticisms are about this notion (with a little bit of snark, okay, so let's criticize the snark, that's fair too) but the criticism of this criticism appears to be largely "Hey, they're trying!" Which is fair, but I'm not sure trying is enough. Maybe our institutions are part of the problem - maybe they're not - but the question needs to be asked.

I don't think you need to apologize, Polly, and I don't think the piece was a "misstep." I think it's great that HR is opening up this NewCrit experiment--and also think we should be wary of "positive" coming to mean "toothless." Surely we are large enough as a field to have lively discussions, and even some argy-bargy over the rules? I agree with Nicole's comment--that the dialogue between Lily Janiak and Rebecca Novick was measured, engaged and respectful. It was also really informative and fascinating to read! And that wouldn't have happened without a difference of opinion being aired in public. We need more of that, not less. Perhaps a positive "tone" comes from genuine engagement (which I think Novick and Janiak modeled beautifully) not from the careful parsing of every phrase. As you have pointed out elsewhere, our field is too prone to truthiness.

I don't see why an apology was warranted.

There have been times where there have been essays on HowlRound where commenters noted logical or factual errors and the author did not respond to criticism.

No apology was issued as far as I can tell in those cases.

The comments to Janiak's resulted in an actual dialogue between Janiak and the staff of Cal Shakes. However, note that her critics did not take issue with the facts that she observed, or her logic (they conceded many of her points), but with the fact that she did not report on their good intentions-- in short, because she wasn't doing PR for them.

Cal Shakes appears to be an organization of sufficient size and longevity that a single negative review is not going to do them an injury from which they cannot recover-- especially, when after they concede that they do agree with at least some of the content of Janiak's criticism, even if they object to her tone, they express the desire to do better in the future.

HowlRound is contributing mightily to the necessary radical change in discourse about the American theatre. This dialogue is living proof. Thank you.

I’ve been watching this controversy swirl for the past few days and am amazed at the proportions it has blown up to. It’s so interesting to see the contrast between the very engaged, measured, above all respectful dialogue in the comments section between Lily Janiak and Rebecca Novick, and compare it to the later, more personal attacks on Janiak hurled mainly (hate to say it) by white men in privileged positions. It’s hard to argue that piece does come off as occasionally snarky (leaf blower wars though, come on, that’s funny), and Janiak takes responsibility for that in her response to Novick, which in my opinion is as much apologizing as anyone needed to do. At heart though, her piece reads as crucially observational: “here is where I went, here is how the experience was billed, and here is how it really felt.” Observations that an institutional theatre really interested in changing their format and engaging with a broader audience would do well to take into consideration.

Novick herself admits that their efforts are still a work-in-progress, and one of the measures of that progress has got to be audience response—an audience that includes critics. Clayton Lord’s assertion that Janiak’s piece has the power to set the diversity conversation back seems as unsubstantiated as he accuses her original post of being. True diversity
embraces all viewpoints and welcomes feedback from all directions, even when it’s uncomfortable to receive. Synthesizing such feedback into action is the job of the institution, and doubtlessly some of it will turn out to be an
unsuitable fit for their future vision. But if nobody is allowed to express
their true experiences as theatre-goers for fear of “setting back” the
conversation then what kind of a conversation are we supposed to be having? Janiak readily acknowledges that Cal Shakes has good intentions and is paying attention to the changing theatrical climate around them, but handing out “A’s” for effort is not going to help Cal Shakes, or any other theatre interested in readdressing their status quo. That would just be lazy.

"...attacks on Janiak hurled mainly (hate to say it) by white men in privileged positions."

Considering that some white (judging from their photographs) men (judging from their names) in privileged positions (judging by the leisure time they have to have to post an opinion on theatre criticism to HowlRound) have actually supported Janiak's right to be as critical as she wants to be and stated that airing her opinions did not warrant an apology, playing identity politics here is rather inappropriate.

Going by the responses to this apology, even while acknowledging that it's sometimes hard to determine whiteness, masculinity, and privilege on the internet (as well as any ontological problems one might have with affixing an identity on others-- after all, not every light-skinned ethnicity really experiences "white privilege") it certainly seems that the the "white men in privileged positions" who felt Lily Janiak's criticism did not warrant an apology greatly outnumber the "white men in privileged positions" who attacked Janiak.

But hey, don't let actual numbers get in the way of finding someone to blame.

Ha, I knew I was going to "hate" bringing that up. I actually agree with you, the fact that these individuals were white doesn't really seem to mean much in this context. I can't speak to their usual internet commenting habits, so I don't know if they felt more comfortable using nonconstructive language to comment on a young woman's work as opposed to a man's, so let's say that possibly doesn't matter either. But although plenty of people have now commented on this thread, mostly tipped in support of Janiak, when I commented four or five days ago there was a lot less commentary altogether, positive or negative, and the most outspoken detractors of her piece, here on Howlround and at New Beans, were two persons who not only hold positions of note in the theatre community, but actually either are or have been in positions of authority over Janiak in her professional capacity at TBA (one is her actual boss, one was part of a previous hiring process). I'm not sure that highlighting that as a problematic power dynamic is placing blame on anyone. But it did strike me as particularly notable. It does seem like there's a lot more support being voiced here, and on New Beans and everywhere else for Janiak, which is awesome. But at the time I commented, that volume of vocal support hadn't really materialized.

The sometimes hostile reaction we often see in the non-profit arts and culture industry to critics and gadflies-- when it raises to the level we saw here: Off the record conversations, editors apologizing for the observations of their writers, is pretty common when the institution being criticized views itself as sufficiently important that it can't imagine being criticized in a public forum, and imagines itself to wield enough influence that it's entitled to take action. I have seen both males and females, straight and LGBT, as well as a number of different ethnicities represented on both sides of this dynamic.

Point being that there are many in the arts who are absolutely hostile to critics who don't praise them as geniuses.

So yeah, the "privileged white male" is a cliché that was neither descriptive of the situation here, or in general.

THANK GOD HowlRound has FINALLY apologized for that post. I mean, what was the deal with all those JOKES and TRUTH in Janiak's piece? HONESTY and HUMOR are NOT qualities we cherish in critics and certainly not ones we strive for in American Theater. And that Metamucil joke, what was that?! Was she trying to say theater audiences are OLD? YEAH, RIGHT. Theater audiences are young and vibrant and THRIVING. Just look at how much they LOVE Twitter and tweeting about plays while they watch them.

Take the word PLAY - everything you need to know about American Theater making / programming / administration / criticism is right there in that word. "Of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly." That's RIGHT THERE in the definition...-...Oh, wait, sorry, I fucked up, that's the definition of PRECIOUS. The definition of PLAY is: "Engagement in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose."


Theater is important and noble, I do honestly believe that. But we have to be able to have fun, and be honest and fair. Ms. Janiak's piece was all of those. I feel like I frequently get more fun/informative discussions about art at this pro wrestling site than I do on theater sites (seriously, check out those comments). And while that makes me nervous, I take heart knowing that people who take what they do seriously but don't take themselves too seriously, people like Ms. Janiak, are still involved in American Theater in a big, important way.

Rob Ready
Artistic Director
PianoFight LLC

I believe the last line of Lily's piece says it best. If you try to please everybody you might end up with mush (I'm paraphrasing). I don't believe Lily needed to apologize, or that Howl Round needed to apologize.

This conversation matters for all cultural institutions that depend on audiences. As we seek to not just engage but involve new audiences while maintaining the financial base generated by the "old fossil" trappings (the demographic pie-chart of donors looks much different than the demographic pie-chart of the communities in which we seek to perform!).
But elevating the tone of the debate while still being candid matters, too. The uncomfortable conversations we need to have are uncomfortable because they involve a language we are still learning. This kerfuffle over words and snarky stereotypes echoes William Blake's notion that "the road to wisdom is paved with excess. One can never know what is enough until one knows what is too much". Lily went too far with her facile, assumptive and look-at-me-I'm-clever language. But as the the comments suggest, learning took place because of it. Keep it up, Lily! And keep it up HowlRound.

Thank you Polly and everyone at HowlRound. As someone working with numerous arts organizations attempting to steer themselves in new directions in terms of audience engagement, audience development, community engagement, and the like, I appreciated tremendously that Lily examined the whole enchilada/experience in her piece. But because these arts orgs' efforts are not easy, require tremendous experimentation, necessitate a shift in priorities, effect 'traditional' systems and processes... we have to be conscious of the journey and encouragingly critical. Not cheerleading but inquisitive advocates. I support the NewCrit initiative and support the transparency of HowlRound's learning/growth.

I agree with Lauren, German and others, Why apologize for helping to stimulate a real conversation between two gracious artists. Tone and vocabulary are personal and artistic...say what you feel and think and then deal with the consequences. Careful RH.

I read the comment section below Lilly's essay and felt it was exactly the sort of stimulating dialogue this new experiment can create. I do not think an apology was necessary.

I hate to spoil the mood here, but I don't think Lily's piece warranted a separate apology on the Howlround blog. The comments section on the piece is fascinating, it's an actual dialogue between a critic and an institution (or arts administrator at least). This is huge. Both of them aware that maybe they didn't get it quite right this time, both of them trying to learn how to get better. That would never have happened without the original piece, and its "tone".

Now, about that "tone". Was the piece "disrespectful"? Was it "snarky"? You know, maybe a little. But as a 32 year old theatregoer, it was very refreshing to see a young critic "tell it like it is". I used to live in Seattle and could completely relate to the big LORT theatre trying in vain to reach out to new audiences in a very inorganic, transparent manner, creating installations for public engagement and then having to employ extra people to force organic engagement. It was fantastic to hear someone call this out. It actually looks like the theatre is aware this was a rough start, but actually wants to get better at it. That's amazing. But it's still worth calling out in case they had thought it was a resounding success.

Were her choice of words a bit too much? Maybe. I think apologizing in the actual comments thread would have been enough. My main worry with this very public apology is that in the future Lily's "tone" will somehow be muted/censored/toned-down/sanitized/"nice-ified" to make certain that nobody, I mean nobody, gets offended. Especially institutional theatres. I can't help but suspect this same process is being applied to what we see on stage.

The one positive note about this apology is that I prompted me to read Lily's article and its accompanying thread, so thanks for that.

I agree completely. I feel you, Polly, were performing your editorial role perfectly in posting Lily's article and thank you for doing so. I have to sigh a little whenever I see how much energy is given over to apology and back-tracking whenever a critique is put forth. We as a culture are so afraid of offending, always looking for harmony. I like harmony as much as the next person, and am a bit of coward, but I get really excited, my heart flutters a little even, when someone dares to say something really honest. Even if I disagree with them. Sometimes critique involves saying something 'negative'. Sometimes things need to be said in order to bring about awareness or for any change to occur. But we are mostly afraid to say anything. Why? Because the minute you do you get blasted! Having said this, it does behove the critic to be sure that senseless insult or insensitivity have no place in an honest and challenging text (I am speaking in general, not about Lily's text), while bearing in mind that challenging something is always provocative.

Gawsh, it IS hard, isn't it. I struggle with this each time I try to frame observations into some kind of assessment. I think the Socratic "gadfly" is important, but it is so difficult to be one. Positive inquiry. Constant questions. Compassionate curiosity. We try, we try.

I'm very happy to see this thoughtful and heartfelt post. Why is "positive inquiry" so hard to execute? As a teacher I fear it's something we're not doing such a good job of teaching as a practice, as a process. I go back again and again to M.H. Abrams' three modes of critical response: the descriptive mode, the analytic mode, and the evaluative mode. It's essential, he says, to pass through the descriptive and the analytic modes before venturing into the evaluative. I know you all know about this, but I find it deep and useful. Beginning in a reactive place, not grounded in open-eyed observation and interest, we abandon the difficult task of positive inquiry. Tone springs from reactive attitude, not open questioning. Reactive judgment is easy. It's fun. It's American! Thanks to Polly for all the work she's doing to help us define and practice positive inquiry. It's really really hard.