Why It Sucks To Be Tim Sanford (And What We Could Do About It)

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I wasn’t going to chime in at all but with all the folks FB messaging to ask me what I think about the NY Times ArtsBeat blog post on Tim Sanford’s response to audience reaction to Annie Baker and Sam Gold’s The Flick, I finally gave in. NB: I realize that not everyone has been following our work here at Culturebot closely, if at all, so  I will direct you to the following essays for context:

A few familiar phrases come to mind, like “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Tim Sanford, an eminently good guy who tried to do the right thing, is getting nailed coming and going and it just ain’t right. I like Tim Sanford a lot. He’s a really nice guy who genuinely means well. We don’t always agree on theater but that’s to be expected. I appreciate what he does and I think his heart is very much in the right place.  I know he genuinely and passionately believes in and advocates for young writers and new voices. I know that he has given Adam Greenfield enormous leeway to support all kinds of different artists with residencies and other resources, even if it is unlikely that the work will ever be produced at PH. Given the size of his institution and the generally risk-averse  nature of the sector, he pushes more than a lot other folks do, certainly more than he has to.

I preface this whole thing with my personal affection for Tim Sanford because the story I’m about to share might sound douche-y and I don’t mean it that way. I ran into Tim at a Wild Flag concert at Celebrate Brooklyn. Now if he’s at a Wild Flag concert (with Ted Leo and Mission of Burma opening!) he’s okay in my book.  I later realized he presented Philosophy of the World, a show I first saw (and loved!) at the New York Musical Theater Festival back in 2005 and was delighted to see brought to a wider audience. So we’re at this show at Celebrate Brooklyn and Tim and I have a great conversation about dance and music and all kinds of stuff and I realize that like so many people who love and work in theater, he has found it hard to bring those outside interests and passions into his work. The sector itself – both mainstream and “experimental” –  tends to be insular, self-centered and inward-facing. The more you get into it as a professional, the narrower your gaze gets, the harder it is to bring the rest of the world into it. And that’s another essay unto itself, but I digress.

So Tim and I were talking and my friend reminded him that I had this little website project called Culturebot and he said “Oh, you’re a reviewer?” and I almost lost it because – as anyone who knows me can tell you – I hate being called a reviewer, it is antithetical to the very core mission of what I do and have advocated for. So I got kinda snippy and then felt bad because I know Tim didn’t mean anything by it. Anyway, he invited me to see Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit at PH and I started to get cranky about being pigeonholed as a “reviewer” so I told him about my other job – the one that pays my bills – as curator of The River To River Festival and other projects. Tim asked me how I could write critically about work and also be curating it. I said it was complicated but worthwhile and important and I’ll never forget him saying (more or less), “I can’t have a  public opinion, I’m an artistic director.” And I think I said that he should start doing it because he obviously thinks a lot about this stuff and people should know what he’s thinking.

I understood what he was getting at about not wanting to take a public opinion – he doesn’t want to say negative things about young artists that might discourage them and he doesn’t want to be in a position of negatively impacting any playwright, actor or director because of something that he might say, even offhandedly. And normally I wouldn’t divulge something said to me in this context, but I think it bears acknowledging in this instance because in speaking out about The Flick, Tim did something really fucking brave. He didn’t do it well, he didn’t do it strategically, but it took guts and he deserves credit. He’s a public figure at an important institution with a big budget and a major national presence and he actually addressed the audience’s negative reactions to a play (and artist) he cared deeply about. For that, and that alone, he should get a round of applause, not all this negativity.

The problem is not so much Tim’s email as it is the complete lack of a mechanism in the existing mainstream theater world for actually conducting meaningful critical discourse. And the NY Times, consistent with the tone of pretty much all arts coverage everywhere in the United States, chose to frame it in the least productive way possible by saying:

“Asked if he considered letting the play speak for itself, Mr. Sanford said his e-mail was not meant to be a full-throated defense, but rather a means of sharing his thinking with subscribers. “

I think it would be hard to frame that question more insultingly and condescendingly. First off, how snotty is it to ask an artistic director if they “considered letting the play speak for itself?” Do you think he would have sent the email if he hadn’t considered it? Obviously he did, obviously he thought long and hard about it and decided it was necessary and appropriate to respond. Secondly, no play “speaks for itself” – all plays exist in a context that influences and even determines the way they are received. The function of the arts institution is to provide a context for the work to be seen and received in ways appropriate to the artist’s intentions, to create a space where artist and audience meet each other halfway in a shared experience. If mainstream theaters were actually interested in adhering to their missions and truly committed to producing theater as a way of understanding human experience, then they would create structures to have real conversations about the values and ideas behind the work and the aesthetics and quality of the work itself. This situation just demonstrates how off-kilter the whole system is.

Tim’s first mistake was sending an email, which was just kind of dumb. Secondly he let the NY Times write about it and frame it in a really stupid, simplistic and combative way. Third, he didn’t actually talk to the artists (from what I’ve heard) to discuss the strategy – I’ve been told Annie was upset and felt blindsided. And finally – and I’m going to suggest this is due to inexperience – he half-assed it. He could have owned it more, talked more about his process, his decision, how this fits into his vision for the theater; he mostly handed it off to Annie and Sam, backpedaling on how and why he makes programming decisions, not articulating why he is asking audiences to pay attention to new voices and challenging styles.

In Culturebot’s little “downtown” world we commission artists to make work. We don’t know how it is going to turn out, we do the best we can to guide the development process, but at the end of the day sometimes artists deliver a stinker. Personally I would rather see an ambitious disaster than a timid “success”, but that’s just me. In the mainstream world they are much more hands-on with the development process and much more concerned with “results” and making audience-friendly theater. But still, when you are in the business of supporting new work by young artists, sometimes you’re going to be putting things on stage that aren’t to everybody’s liking. Ideally your audience understands that and supports that mission.

Now, I have no idea whether The Flick was any good or not, whether it was challenging to the audience for the right or wrong reasons, but I think Tim tacitly assumed that his audience was on the wavelength of supporting new voices and new ideas – and many of them probably are –  but a few were vocally upset. Instead of talking to those few people individually and then, if necessary, creating an open, public forum to discuss the issues raised by the disgruntled individuals, an email was sent widely and indiscriminately.

This is a blunder that I’m going to attribute to a misunderstanding of new media communications strategy and also to a default habit of thinking about audiences as faceless ticket buyers to be spoken to, not with. This attitude pretty much underpins the mentality of the entire enterprise – the audience is a discrete, anonymous entity, an aggregate of data, statistics and demographics to be strategically messaged for maximum ROI at minimum cost per impression. It is venal corporate marketing thinking applied to the most human and personal of art forms. It is why the mainstream theater world so regularly misunderstands and spectacularly under-delivers on the community engagement front. And after years of being treated this way, audiences have acquiesced. They accept the status quo, not daring to speak up in dissent, approval or even confusion. Audiences are part of the problem because they don’t stand up and make themselves heard. Theaters only hear them by their absence, when they stop buying tickets because they’re exhausted from schlepping to see theater out of a sense of duty, only to be ignored.

So if you say you care about theater and are one of those people who just bitches at the bar after the show, it is your fault. If you are part of the conversation on “criticism” that still revolves around the “failings” of journalism and the lack of “qualified” reviewers, a position premised on outsourcing judgement and critical discourse to “disinterested” parties in The Fourth Estate, it is your fault. If you accept the prevailing institution/audience dynamic as a given, it is your fault. If you are one of those writers or actors or directors who think the audience is stupid and just “doesn’t get it”, it is your fault – and it is your fault if you don’t demand accountability from the institutions around you. And it is especially your fault if you’re a cowardly Internet troll who will say horrible things online and not to someone’s face. This is why Culturebot started The Citizen Critic Project and why we are facilitating more and more “horizontal conversations” in real life with real people, face to face, in real time.

So here are some things that we can all do, collectively, to try and remedy the situation:

1. If you work in theater, make yourself go see something you think you won’t like or is outside of your normal viewing habits, take a diverse group of friends and try and have a thoughtful conversation about it – not a snarky, take-down conversation, a real consideration of the aspirations of the work in question, its merits and failings and imagine what constructive criticism you would give the creators.

2. If you run a theater, create meaningful opportunities for open, honest, direct and thoughtful conversations with your audience. Not panel discussions, not emails, not awkward donors-only cocktail networking opportunities, but real conversations. If you don’t know how to do this, Culturebot is available to help.

3. If you fancy yourself a critic, then don’t default to snark, vitriol, or even worse, blind praise. Question your assumptions and the assumptions of the work, interrogate the frame, investigate the merits and weaknesses and, just as importantly, acknowledge your own biases, prejudices and blind spots. You probably don’t know everything, so don’t act like you do. Let go of your ego investment and respond in service to a larger idea. And finally, don’t bitch about the failures and weaknesses of the current system. Fix it. Figure out what you actually want it to look like, how you want it to operate and get to work.

Because it shouldn’t suck to be Tim Sanford. Artistic Directors should not only be allowed to have opinions, they should be encouraged to speak them publicly. As should audiences, artists and critics. Artists, audiences, critics, institutions – we’re all on the same side and we’re supposed to all be in this together. Let’s act like it.

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