*As of November 18, 2015, the NY Times has restored crediting designers in their reviews! Thank you for your support – and please take the time to thank them as well.*
I am a sound designer for theater. This means that, when someone who doesn’t work in my industry asks me what I do for a living, it takes four sentences just to establish the basics. This is not a job anyone would chose for the glory, fame, or respect it brings from the tens of young designers around the country who know our names.
In short, I’m used to not really caring too much about who notices and acknowledges my work. Which makes me wonder why exactly I have gotten worked up over the latest insult delivered to those of us who make theater professionally by the New York Times.
It seems that the editorial staff over there has decided to stop publishing the small block of text that at one time led the reviews, and then migrated to bottom of the page – that block that lists the director, playwright and design team in the paper. Of course, those who read that paper online noticed that design credits vanished some time ago on the Internet – a bit of quick research on their current “Reviews” page reveals that Ben Brantley’s 10/21/09 review of the re-opening of Avenue Q includes full production credits, whereas Jason Zinoman’s 2/17/10 review of Black Angels Over Tuskegee lists the writer, director and cast, but no designers. I’m guessing it was a New Year’s change – nothing written in 2010 or beyond seems to list the designers online. Happy New Year’s – you don’t matter any more!
In full disclosure – the last time I read a New York Times review (before writing this article) was when one was mailed directly to me by my agent, with a “Check it out!” sticky because I was receiving praise from the critic. It’s not just the Times – I’ve pretty much given up on ever seeing the kind of theater criticism I most admire – writing like Eric Bentley’s, or Michael Feingold’s – where entire social and theatrical movements are considered when discussing a play, and where the writer endeavors to understand not only what the creators were trying to accomplish, but analyzes how and where each of them succeeded or failed. Once Michael and the Voice parted ways, I just stopped reading contemporary theater criticism all together.
So why should I care?
I spent a while wondering. It’s not because, traditionally, it’s just considered right to credit the people who make a work of art. It’s not because many recent dialogues within the community have been about a movement towards inclusion, rather than away from it. It’s because I’m scared by the recent revival of the auteur theory of theatermaking.
I know that playwrights face lots of challenges. Shitty odds, lots of opinions, producers who want established writers and guaranteed hits – it sucks. Casts are getting smaller, risks are getting fewer, and let’s not even start in on the race and gender equity issues on our national stages.
And it’s a tough row to hoe for directors, too – I think theater directing and Presidential politics are the only fields in which you can be called a wunderkind at the age of 37.
But there’s a movement afoot that places the writers and directors on a star far above the earth – as if these mystical creators summon worlds from their imaginations, and deliver them, through the actors, to the awestruck audience. I don’t believe this movement is led by writers and directors (aside from David Mamet, of course, who believes that everything that appears onstage is just an extension of his massive… ego) – I think it comes from the grad schools, who seem to spend a lot of time teaching writers that their vision is the sole vision, and critics, who don’t seem to understand anything about the way shows actually get made. And I think it’s dangerous – for writers and directors, and eventually, for all of us who care whether or not theater to continues on as living, vital artform.
A roommate once told me that after the auteur theory got back to Orson Welles (who was their hero), he never made another great movie. Because he started to believe that he was truly making all of this magic by himself, with the physical assistance of a few “technical folks.” And then he started trying to conceive and direct every aspect of his movies, which led to his downfall. (I don’t know if this is true – but it makes a clear point, so I’m going to believe that Tisch film studies kid from 1992.)
I believe that the highest calling of theater is to create connections – living, vital, breathing connections, between the audience and the production. Empathy. Passion. Fear. Hope. Belief, terror, pity, transcendence. A shared experience that cannot be created in any but the live arena. There is a give and take that at the core of all theater, born in the first stories enacted around the fire, the first masks worn by human-gods in Africa, Greece and Japan, the first chants of rhyming text. The actors are the main delivery mechanism, and they are conveying all of that magical power through the tools provided by the designers, guided by a director, speaking and singing words or music imagined by the writers and moving as envisioned by the choreographer. All of these artists, together, create a collaborative whole. The full team brings not only their artistry, but their personal experiences and visions – tools that help broaden this crucial connection. The dramaturgy, the vision, the tapestry of mood, environment, narrative and feeling – these are all contributions that can only come from a team.
So, when a newspaper that fancies itself “The Paper of Record” decides to leave only a partial record of how a production happens, what’s the takeaway?
That the show being reviewed wasn’t an ensemble-driven creation. That fewer people are needed to make great art. That somehow, what you see onstage sprang, Athena-like, from the minds of these writers.
As an example, the NY Times review of Hamilton offers an entirely uncritical few words about the designers, and (online, of cousre) no credits at the end. The only mention of design, over the two pages of Ben Brantley’s rave review, is:
“They wear the clothes (by Paul Tazewell) you might expect them to wear in a traditional costume drama, and the big stage they inhabit has been done up (by David Korins) to suggest a period-appropriate tavern…”
I know that those designers, along with Nevin Steinberg (sound) and Howell Binkley (lights) spent hundreds of hours in the room with Mr. Miranda and Mr. Kale, as they envisioned the show, the world, the connections that would be made to the audience. Hamilton was in workshops for five years. And, luckily for the world of theater, all of my friends who know Lin Manuel tell me he is incredibly conscious of the dialogue with designers, and I know he is super supportive of his creative team. But what if he wasn’t? What if, after In the Heights, he had started believing in this auteur crap? Maybe he wouldn’t have known to use and embrace the collaborators that helped him create such a sensation. And then maybe, just maybe, Hamilton wouldn’t have evolved as far as it did, over years of workshops and discussions, of sketches, dreams and ideas. And if that had happened, then, tragically, we might not have such a great, complete, powerful work of art currently playing in New York, changing and challenging the way mainstream American theater thinks about hip-hop, rap, and race. I’m not saying Lin Manuel Miranda couldn’t have written Hamilton without his design team – he could have, and I believe he would have. I’m saying the production about which everyone is raving would not be what it is without designers. Because a production is not a script. A production is a complex, living, breathing, interacting event, placing the script in an evolved, detailed, highly considered environment. The New York Times is not reviewing a script. They are reviewing a production.
And while I don’t actually believe that the New York Times is all that powerful on it’s own, like it or not, it is a role model for arts pages around the country, and it is read by academics worldwide.
Theater has evolved over the years, into a beautifully collaborative form. Let’s honor that collaboration, rather than dismiss it. Let’s help all of those aspiring writers to know that there IS a team out there, ready to support their play, ready to help expand, deepen and broaden their visions. Let’s help remind those who teach playwrights that those writers can be stronger as part of a team. Let’s leave a record of all of those who helped raise these evenings in the theater to a level of magic and wonder.
Or, if we can’t be bothered to do that, let’s at least have the dignity to hand out four or five lines of credit where credit is due.
If you want to write to the Times editorial staff, you can do so here:
Danielle Mattoon, Culture Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Heller, Theatre Editor and Deputy Editor for Arts & Leisure: email@example.com
Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Chairman & Publisher: firstname.lastname@example.org
The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018