There were a couple of good examples this week of why arts management can be a tough gig. I’ve never worked in this field but I know several people who have. In every case, they are committed people with a passion for the arts. I am sure that is true for subject of this post too. More’s the pity.
I think arts management would be a fascinating job but, I imagine, there is no end to the headaches. There is never enough money. Nothing will make everyone happy. It’s like I imagine a politician’s job being. You spend a great deal of time listening to people complain while, simultaneously, asking them for money. And that is when it is done well. This week’s examples are situations, where, to a large degree, the criticism was warranted.
Milwaukee’s Alchemist Theatre cancelled its production David Mamet’s Oleanna after its opening night performance because it received a ‘cease-and-desist’ letter from Dramatists Play Service. DPS represents Mamet’s work. The C&D letter was prompted by the theatre company’s decision to cast a male actor in the female lead role. The rights to the play contractually prohibit changes of this type.
Coming out in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, the play is about sexual politics and the abuse of power. Mr. Mamet wants it performed in the context in which it was written.
The theatre company issued a statement saying:
“We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.
“We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result, of both Ben and David Sapiro’s talent, and Erin Eggers’ direction.”
Well that sounds idealistic. Their argument fails, however, in two critical areas. First, there was a contract that specifically prohibited this and they chose to do it anyway. That being the case, it’s difficult to blame Mamet for shutting them down. They did that to themselves.
Secondly, ‘gender neutral’ casting is almost always a gimmick. There are roles where the gender of the character is irrelevant so the character could be either male or female but if the character needs to be female, the casting of a male actor in the role must have some agenda. Maybe the director is trying to make a point. In this case that apparently was creating a transgender subtext. Maybe it is a vanity project for a performer. Maybe the company is hoping the cross-casting will generate some attention, some buzz, some, dare I say, controversy, which might boost ticket sales. None of those objectives are necessarily bad. The thing they have in common is they are not the playwright’s objectives.
Alchemist Theatre got a lot of attention for their production. News of local Milwaukee productions of 20-year old Mamet plays doesn’t usually reach the Southwest. It’s too bad their decisions limited it to only one performance.
On the subject of inappropriate decisions by those in arts management, the Metropolitan Opera announced it has cancelled its “Live In HD” broadcast of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. The 1991 opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship, Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. During the incident Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair bound, Jewish-American tourist was brutally murdered by the hijackers and his body was thrown overboard.
Bowing to pressure from Jewish and Israeli advocacy groups, most notably the Anti-Defamatinn League, as well as members of the Klinghoffer family, the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb announced the “Live In HD” broadcasts have been cancelled. He also cancelled the radio broadcast. The Met is moving forward, however, with the scheduled live performances at Lincoln Center. In his statement, Gelb said;
“I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic.” But he added that he’s “also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
I have never seen The Death of Klinghoffer. Neither have the overwhelming majority of those protesting it. I understand the controversy and sensitivities of those who are passionate in their objection to it. Those viewpoints should be heard and considered seriously. Whether addressing the sensitivities of those who object to the opera is sufficient reason to deny others access to seeing it and making their own decision is a much larger question. I think the bar for censorship needs to be set pretty high. I would rather those opposed to the opera protested it by not buying tickets, by picketing performances and by taking out ads condemning it. Then when I saw the opera I could decide whether or not I agree with them. The Met feels only Lincoln Center audiences can get trusted to make that decision for themselves.
For the purposes of this post, I am less concerned about the controversy (art should be controversial!) than the compromise. If the opera is so offensive or so dangerously inflammatory that it should be banned throughout the world, why are there eight performances in Lincoln Center? Alternatively, if the issues of freedom of artistic expression and freedom of thought are such compelling arguments that ‘the show must go on’ in NYC, why isn’t that the answer for the “Live in HD” audiences across the U.S. and Canada, and all the other countries where the Met
sells tickets and solicits donations shares the power and beauty of opera.
This ‘half-a-loaf’ compromise by the Met sends a mixed message to advocacy groups and artists but a very clear one to the HD audience.
To advocacy groups who feel their sensitivities are more important than the freedoms of artists and patrons; “Come on in! We may not give you everything you want but we’ll find someone we can throw under the bus to appease you.”
To artists who might trust their work to the Met in future; ‘Come on in! ‘We won’t actually support your work but you can count on us to do the bare minimum necessary to claim we do.’
And to the “Live In HD” audiences who contribute tens of millions of dollars in revenues each year; ‘Yeah, um, sorry about that. Our commitment to the arts doesn’t really extend too far past the corner of 65th St. and Columbus Avenue…unless we’re asking for money. We’re really a local arts organization for people who live within commuting distance of Manhattan.
When the Met’s representative calls us to renew our membership I’ll pass. I won’t be rude but I will tell them why. It won’t be that big of a deal to the Met. We don’t give them that much money. I’m sure the 3500 people who attend the Saturday matinees in person can pick up the slack for the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised HD viewers. You know…all those little people sitting out there in the dark.