The playwright Sarah Ruhl (In The Next Room) has written an essay about her choice to stage a review-less production. Ms. Ruhl will direct her work Melancholy Play as part of the 13P. It is a very limited run without previews or press invitations. This aligns with 13P’s mission of producing plays versus developing plays. The goal presumably is to get a play in front of an audience without interference. Ms. Ruhl elegantly defends this artistic process in her essay. And there would be no argument with any of her assertions if it wasn’t for the fact that the audience is being asked to purchase tickets. (I would also add that using the press to promote a play in which the press is not invited could be construed as a bit designing.)
Ms. Ruhl is using 13P to its best advantage and getting experimental with her own play. The addition of live music is adding costs, complications and creativity to one of her older works. Supposedly that is why she asserts; “It didn’t feel fair to me to burden the production team with the pressure of reviews when we were already embarking on something so insanely ambitious given our resources.” There are just a few too many flaws in that assertion to ignore:
- Working in a vacuum is rarely a good idea; art needs air.
- Directing one’s own work is a slippery little endeavor and unchecked can often become what is commonly known as a ‘private behavior’
- Criticism is not the enemy
- Reviews are for the benefit of an audience
Ms. Ruhl goes on to say that “…the press desires more bravery from artists and yet, in its very call for bravery, ends up eliciting timidity because of asrtists’ fear of public opinion.” This may very well be true for many artists (poets and visual artists come to mind.) But anyone who writes for the stage, directs for the stage or gets up on a stage is doing so for an audience (aka public opinion.) Plays don’t hang on gallery walls and actors don’t live on shelves. They come alive in front of an audience. Unlike a gallery or bookstore, there hasn’t been curation for 13P. In fact the very mission of 13P is to avoid the critiquing process that often stalls a play before it can get to production. Discouraging reviews, which in essence are post-production curation, and charging patrons is the equivalent of charging people to walk through studios of random artists. An audience wants to be moved, they want to see something anew, they want to feel as if they are part of the experience not just paying for someone’s hobby.
In the end a review wouldn’t have impacted an 11 performance run of a play in any discernible way. I dare say it is not the production that is being protected here but the reputation of the creative team. Nobody likes being told that what’s important to them is not important to someone else. But real art cannot grow if artists are concerned with being liked. I agree with Ms. Ruhl that there needs to be room to try new things with limited risk. If we are to have any chance of avoiding a world in which the majority of staged productions are the result of a book-to-film-to-stage deal we need to make space for creativity. But surely we are creative enough to do so without asking strangers to blindly support the development of new work. We have workshops, showcases, readings and friends for this reason.