Today I received this anonymous email from someone obviously upset about my recent cover story on Mitchell Cushman, director of the current site specific show The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs (And The Repudiation And Redemption Of Mike Daisey).[briefbreak]
Normally, we don't publish anonymous letters, but the points raised by this theatre artist caught my attention and made me think.
Is SummerWorks full of its current artistic director's National Theatre School friends? Is the Fringe only beneficial to the already-known or gimmicky? Do publicists and executives swap access for coverage?
And am I and my NOW colleague Jon Kaplan responsible for protecting theatre's chosen 1% while there are others far more worthy of our attention out there getting no ink, reviews or coverage?
For the record, we decided to put Cushman on the cover before the This American Life retraction story broke. He's an artist we've had our eye on for some time - from his work on the Paprika Festival onwards. And obviously, we weren't the only people in the theatre community impressed by his 2011 production of Mr. Marmalade.
The Daisey play, and its subsequent scandal - plus Cushman and co-curator/actor David Ferry's decision to use it in their adaptation of the piece - only made the story more complex.
Obviously the email writer is clever - s/he even made up an attention-getting return email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and amusing name (B.I.T.T.E.R.)
If the writer applies that kind of creativity to a future show, who knows? Maybe he or she will be on our cover soon.
Dear Mr. Sumi,
I present you with what is surely your favourite thing - an anonymous note from a disgruntled reader who thinks he knows better than you!
I am writing in reference to this week's feature on Mitchell Cushman, and the show he is currently directing. I feel compelled to express my discomfort with your article, and to attempt to respectfully articulate a defence of this feeling.
I have worked with Cushman, a nice young man who has yet to earn very much, professionally speaking. Suffice it to say that early opportunities made available to him have strengthened his resume considerably, which in turn opened up the kind of opportunities mentioned in your article - among others. Add the serendipitous controversy around Mike Daisey's show and behold: a front page "wunderkind" is born.
I really don't mean to pick on Cushman, or anyone in particular, so let me contextualize my frustration: I have spent more than a decade working closely with playwrights, producers, technicians, actors, directors, designers and theatre artists of all stripe, independent and professional, some (only some) of whom have incredible talent and unyielding drive, and have given every piece of themselves, worked themselves into bankruptcy for the kind of attention that NOW Magazine can bestow.
Consider: theatre opportunities in this city are well-guarded. Summerworks is now almost exclusively the province of Rubenfeld's NTS friends; of late, The Fringe is only beneficial to the already successful and the gimmicky, and access to festivals like Best of The Fringe and Next Stage is controlled by a small group of insiders infamous for selecting their own producing partners, spouses and Beer Tent friends for these opportunities. (I presume you know many of the same examples of this phenomenon as I do, so I won't mention any names here).
But there is no appeal to, or dialogue with these bodies, under threat of being labelled bitter or undeserving, or of being moved to the margins of professional consideration - graylisted, if you will. Things are equally difficult further up the professional ladder, of course, but here is the bottleneck - here is where promising talent gives up on Toronto, or on the theatre altogether. And here is where journalists like yourself can make a difference, can seek out the better, more interesting artist instead of, if you will, the shinier one. There are hard-working, worthy artists out there without unfair access to industry and media professionals - and therefore without fair access to the same. Theirs are the applications that were ‘seriously considered', the Fringe shows that were not reviewed (or, god help us, reviewed by interns). And they deserve more of your attention.
I don't need to restate the importance of NOW Magazine's coverage to emerging artists in Toronto: it is simply unmatched. But this week, NOW's theatrical headline hails the decision not to cancel a show - one with money invested in production and a seismic glut of media attention already headed its way. And this is no new phenomenon - I have worked for years with several independent publications in this city, and I know full well the pressures and considerations that go into these decisions. You and I have both seen writers and editors choose their friends and collaborators for coverage, and put undo pressure on MEs and EICs to feature these pieces - to say nothing of the pressure and influence exerted by publicists and executives seeking to swap access for coverage. It is my familiarity with the subject of your article gives me still firmer ground to stand on, and compels me to voice this long-held belief. I would be lying if I said that it was mine, alone.
And so, my request: In your future reporting, and at your next editorial meeting, please consider the value these column inches might really have to a truly exceptional artist yet to be discovered, and weigh against it the merits of everything being considered.
I apologize for my anonymity; please understand that I am thinking of my own career, as someone who has worked on several projects that have been mentioned in your pages, and who is hoping (and working!) to receive such attention again in the future. It would be unseemly to draw any attention to myself or my collaborators through such cynical means. I simply think that my argument is valid, exemplified by your article, and worthy of your consideration.
Thanks again for your time, and all that you do for Toronto's theatre scene. I'd really be interested in your thoughts, if you would be so kind as to reply (in private, of course).
Begging: Investigate Toronto Theatre, Encourage Reform