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Boston Globe Severs Its Relationships With All But ONE Theatre Critic…

It would appear that Boston globe has buried the lead.

On November 28th, Bill Marx, the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse broke a story on the death rattle of theatre criticism at the Boston Globe.

Apparently due to cutbacks, the Globe has discontinued its relationship with freelance theatre reviewers. The Globe has not released an official public statement on the matter. They have, in fact, remained silent on the issue, save for their vague and self-aggrandizing response to Bill Marx. In addition to this, no other media outlets, such as WGBH or WBUR have reported on this major shift to date. As Marx astutely observes: “These mainstream media outlets play the identical game of minimizing arts criticism. Theater companies are grousing privately, but they are reluctant to speak up with any fervor.”

I have some fervor to speak up with.

First, let’s talk about the one theatre critic the Globe did retain, Don Aucoin.  To summarize his resume: Aucoin is an experienced reporter in the realm of local politics. He was a television critic for a while, is the co-author of a book about Ted Kennedy, he wrote for the Globe’s “living” section for a while, and he was even a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

But do you notice anything missing?

Aucoin has no formal background in theatre. His experience in theatre criticism comes only from his work in other fields, and the time he has now spent on the job. While I am by no means insinuating that formal training is imperative to theatre criticism, I do believe that passion and commitment to the form is essential, which is something that Aucoin seems to be lacking.

Case-in-point: he was interviewed by David Cote (playwright/journalist/opera librettist) for American Theatre Magazine in 2011 for the article Critical Juncture, which profiled 12 powerfully-positioned American theatre critics. Aucoin had a lukewarm response to his role as theatre critic, saying in part that “After three or four years I tend to move on to a new beat.”

While Cote tried to spin Aucoin’s “hard news experience” positively for the article, the question about why Aucoin is even doing this continues to remain largely unanswered.

Last December, Cote followed up his initial article with a look at the differences in the topography of American theatre criticism since 2011. The article foreshadowed the very issues we are facing in Boston right now, citing that “of the dozen journalists, half are gone to retirements, buyouts, or termination.” – to say nothing of the plight of the freelancer—a role which Cote now inhabits (Cote was let go from Time Out New York after 17 years of being on staff) Aucoin numbers amongst the full-time theatre critics who remain, despite being the one with the least experience at the time of Cote’s initial article.

Now, let’s talk about the semiotic and dramaturgical-structural problems this move by the Globe represents.

The move to give Aucoin a monopoly over theatrical criticism raises not only logistical concerns, it also calls into question deep issues surrounding voice and representation. Simply put, through this restructuring billed as a financial necessity, the Globe has endowed yet another white-male voice with a position of almost ultimate power:

“The truth is, most readers aren’t familiar with the names of individual critics – they simply know the reviewer (whoever he or she is) writes for a credible media source.” (Bill Marx)

The public is not actively questioning whose voice they are consuming, but they do trust media outlets like the Boston Globe to make informed decisions about the voices they present. Thus, the identity and background of those in power matters just as much in the world of theatre criticism as it does in the world of politics, academia, or other institutions. Perhaps more so—why?

Because a high-profile theatre critic, for better or for worse, occupies the role of cultural gatekeeper. And what gets through that gate, in terms of theatre, is what shapes mainstream conversations and responses surrounding the climate of American theatre. This isn’t just a small internal shift at a small New England paper—it’s another step towards the homogenization of cultural power in America.

By investing Aucoin with this much positional power, the Boston Globe is making a statement about its values: Who they believe should be in charge of the cultural conversation, and who they believe is best qualified to examine theatrical structures and stories. Apparently, that’s Don Aucoin: a white man with no substantial background in theatre.

I’m not necessarily saying that Aucoin doesn’t deserve a place at the table, but if the table only has ONE SETTING for a theatre critic (wow)… should he really be the person occupying it? He might be a great reporter, but if he is truly a great theatre critic, a great theatre thinker, then he would—and should—be questioning this move himself. He would—and should—be releasing a public statement about what this means for the life of theatrical criticism in Boston going forward, and what he will do to mitigate the immense power he has been invested with.

Don Aucoin:

  • How will you solicit varying critiques and points of view in your new role as singular gatekeeper of reviewed theatre at the Boston Globe?
  • What strategies will you employ to see theatre beyond the scope of your regular beat, now that you are in charge of a much broader and deeper swath of Bostonian theatre?
  • How can Boston theatre-makers (especially those at small companies) be in dialogue with you about the best way to get representation for their shows?

 

We must think creatively about the structures of media and media representation, and a positive shift in the culture in this arena will begin with the theatre makers. Boston University Theatre-Makers:

One of Bill Marx’s proposed action-plans is to stage a demonstration outside the Boston Globe. To stay abreast of these plans, email him at billmarx@artsfuse.org (More information about this can be found in his article).

This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of issues surrounding the life of theatre criticism in America, specifically free-lance and second-string critics. I encourage you to explore the issue more deeply, starting with reading Bill Marx’s article, and the Boston Globe’s subsequent response.

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