Dear Mr. Beam:
Your March 31, 2008 column, “Downturn’s upside” was disappointing. It was clever, but it wasn’t funny and it misses the mark.
In your first paragraph, you aim directly at the Huntington Theatre Company and, by proxy, the entire Boston arts community by suggesting that attending the arts is an “obligation from which the recession has officially freed us”. There are many among us who would, not so cleverly, disagree. Theatre enriches our lives, brings us joy, pushes us to examine life’s dilemmas, and sustains us through difficult times.
What you’ve done in that paragraph is what marketing staffs for any arts organization do: Find pull quotes to promote the performance. In the very same sentence that you claim to love the Huntington, you tip the scales by highlighting negative quotes from reviews:
The Huntington Theatre called the other day, trying to interest me in Richard Goodwin’s fabulous new play, “Two Men of Florence.” (“Dense speeches, stock characters, and heavy-handed displays of stagecraft” – Globe reviewer Louise Kennedy.) I love the Huntington, and who doesn’t want to spend a couple of hours watching “good actors . . . wasted on caricatured cameos” (Carolyn Clay in the Phoenix). But I had to say no. It’s the recession, you see.
Curiously, the online version of your article has no links to the reviews which would provide easy access to the whole story, or more importantly the context. In this world of abbreviated thoughts and truncated communication, context still counts for something.
We are in a recession; individuals, families, and nonprofit organizations are hurting. Theatre Communications Group recently released the results of a phone survey (“The New Normal” pdf) reporting that “[v]irtually every” one of the 495 theatres questioned will be cutting their operating budgets by between 5 and 30 percent. Furthermore, theatres with an endowment or an invested cash reserve are reporting losses of between 15 and 30 percent. This is not an easy time for any nonprofit theatre company. Everyone is sacrificing; some of necessity more than others. Theatre may be a luxury in hard times. And all theatre is not created equal, or as Hamlet said of the players “they imitated humanity so abominably.” But even with shortcomings, as every school child knows, “the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
The recession has not “freed” anyone from their “obligation to attend the theatre”; it has made it more relevant to go, to explore the human experience from the safety of a dark room in a cushy chair, occasionally not so comfortable.
Leave the reviews for those who actually saw the performance. Reading the New York Review of Books, instead of the book only counts at cocktail parties.