Reflections on APL’s World Premiere Tour of Crime + Punishment
by Artistic Associate Tyler J. Polumsky


“I went back to Ohio… But my city was gone…”


Entrance to The Balch Street Theatre, home of New World Performance Laboratory (Akron OH) | Photo: Joseph Lavy

Entrance to The Balch Street Theatre, home of New World Performance Laboratory (Akron OH) | Photo: Joseph Lavy

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sang that way back in October 1982, on a B side, in lament for her hometown – Akron – and the changes that had turned the serene beauty of her childhood home into something unrecognizable.

Three and a half decades on, I also went [back] to Ohio, but my city was not gone. I went [back] to Ohio, but my family was not gone. No, no. My city was found, my family was there with me, and it just kept growing. For me, nothing was unrecognizable. It was, in fact, as if it was just waiting to be discovered.

There in Akron, you see, just west of downtown, is a little place on Balch Street.* Maybe a little run down. Maybe a little dusty. More than perfect for a theatre company to have as its own home.

A home is a vital thing for making our art. Not to be scoffed at. And this home is far more than most companies I know have.

“Ay… oh… way to go…”

Tyler Polumsky as Raskolnikov in the world premiere of Crime + Punishment | Balch Street Theatre, Akron OH | Photo: Margaretta Campagna

Enter New World Performance Lab.

NWPL is the kind of company you would expect to find in Europe. They are a well-established company. They have been cultivating and culturing their own audience for 25 years. Most of the core ensemble members have been working together for decades. They have their own space. They make art. They do not seem to care much for many of the fancy follies that theatre companies in big metros break themselves on. They have their own terms and direction, and it is Art. They are an intellectual and spiritual pillar of a community. Ten minutes with any of them is enough to make that clear.

Imagine designers who can take a pile of urban waste and turn it into minimalist stagecraft confection. Imagine a board op who prefers to run the light board manually because “The operator needs to be following and working with the actors, live, as a partner, on any given night.” Imagine actors who will let themselves be eaten alive by mosquitos before they will stop their training. The kind of folks who would jump on an actual boat with a pocket full of change, third class, en route to Europe, with dreams of working with Jerzy Grotowski unannounced — not only doing it but going on to become among his closest collaborators.

Imagine leaders who throw the doors open for you so you can premiere your show, who share their wine and guest rooms at home when it’s time to rest, and who put coffee on the next morning so you can get back to it.

 “Ay, oh, way to go…”

So here, naturally, we from Akropolis Performance Lab, tired and road weary, jolly as ever, in this old community hall, in a beautiful and versatile space, surrounded by some excellent brothers and sisters in art, dug right in and premiered our adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime + Punishment to an audience hungry for theatre built on sweat, blood, and dynamic creativity rather than popped out of a can.

Tyler J. Polumksy as Raskolnikov | Crime + Punishment (92017-18) | Balch Street Theatre, Akron OH | Photo: Margaretta Campagna

Tyler J. Polumksy as Raskolnikov in the world premiere of Crime + Punishment | Balch Street Theatre, Akron OH | Photo: Margaretta Campagna

in the world premiere of Crime + Punishment

in the world premiere of Crime + Punishment

It went well. How could it have gone otherwise, really, in such an inspired place, among inspired people?

APL and NWPL felt to me like long-lost siblings. This surprised me even though I knew APL’s co-founders were founding members of NWPL before moving to Seattle. The reunion of such things is profound, marked by joy and a mutual curiosity peppered with excitement.

We know ourselves by knowing each other, it seems.

And when you have an audience that has been cultivated, educated, and prepped for all of your experiments — an open audience, hungry for the resonating thought and questions your work will provoke — well, that is when theatre is really ready to happen.

And it did.

“…All my favorite places…”

Shortly before we went, a friend joked to me that going to Ohio to tour a show would be like going to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where I had spent 10 years with the Ilkholm Theatre. I understood the dig: it’s not New York. Very clever.

“…My city had been pulled down… reduced to parking spaces…”

The thing is, he was right. He just wasn’t right in the way he intended.

“…I was stunned and amazed…”

What I found [back] in Ohio — what I have found in my artistic home with APL and recognized as equally potent in NWPL — is a little thing called inspiration (a little, ilkhom, if you are up on your Uzbek). The main ingredient for true Art. Actual artists who are busy being humans … not people just busy trying to be “Artists.” A space that is begging for a life and roaring back in unexpected places. A theatre that functions as a human institution rather than merely a civic or historical one.

So, yeah — a little like going [back] to Tashkent.

And why shouldn’t a place like this be found in America’s heartland? All roads lead to Ohio. Check a map. Follow any national election. Read the history. Ohio is at the center — “The Heart of It All!” as the state slogan goes.

What a setting! Deep in the heart of the American Beast, at a historically dire and dark time, APL was making some bone-biting theatre. Right there in Ohio.

I went back to Ohio, and my city was right there.

I went back to Ohio, and my family was right there with me, and growing.

And I’ll go back to Ohio, my pretty countryside.

“Ay… Oh… Way to go… OHIO”

* Built in 1929 as Akron’s Jewish Center, this once thriving building was essentially deserted by 1985. Over the next 25 years it changed hands several times but amid the recession and other complications became more and more run down until, in 2011, Akron Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer published an article calling it a “wreck.” Shortly thereafter, the City of Akron forged an agreement with New World Performance Lab and the Center for Applied Theatre & Active Culture to take over the theatre portion of the building. Since then, NWPL/CATAC have been cleaning up and caring for the space, pursuing strategic repairs, and fostering a new, vibrant community of artists and audiences.
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20 Principles for APL Design (2017)



Visual design is a critical factor in the composition of every Akropolis Performance Lab piece. We are very deliberate in the selection of each element brought in to enhance both the work of the actors and the experience of the spectators, with particular attention not only to cohesion within the production itself, but consistency to the aesthetic principles we’ve developed over nearly 20 years and which form a foundational, minimalist through-line for our entire body of work.

The Glas Nocturne at CATAC Balch Street Theatre Akron OH (Photo: Annie Paladino, 2015)

For the last 10 years or so – in addition to directing – I have acted as scenographer for our productions, in collaboration with our Artistic Associates; determining the scenic, lighting, and costume designs. This throws off some people, who question why no designers are credited, and who wonder if that means we just pull these things together with less emphasis than we place on the acting and dramaturgy. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Every detail of an APL production is a carefully considered aspect of the dramaturgy, approached with equal importance.

This year, we are bringing in designers once again for 730 Steps, prompting me to put into writing those guiding aesthetic principles, so they can be shared and understood by our new partners. And while they are specifically geared toward design in this form, these are the same fundamental principles which guide all aspects of our creative work.

Ecce Faustus at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Ballard WA (Photo: Mark Zufelt 2016)

20 Principles for APL Design

  1. Use as little as possible, but of the best quality possible
    •  based on money, availability, & time
  2. The space is always what it is. The design happens within and in relationship to the-space-itself
  3. Exploit the difficulties and flaws, don’t try to hide them
  4. Don’t provide the spectator with answers. Give them just enough to recognize the questions and draw their own conclusions
  5. Use Real Objects, unless unobtainable
    • Fabricated Objects should be made with the highest degree of craftsmanship and “real world” permanence
    • Theatrical Facsimiles are not acceptable
  6. Everything on stage should be practical. Question anything that is purely decorative
    • Everything should be able to serve multiple functions
      • As it is
      • As it could be
      • As it has never been before
  7. No electronic or recorded sound effects. All sound created by the performers
  8. No Technical Special Effects (fog, strobe, video projection, etc). Whenever possible “stage magic” should be created by the actor or the architecture

    The Glas Nocturne at APL Downstairs Studio, Lake Forest Park WA (Photo: Joe Patrick Kane 2015)

  9. Shadow is at least as valuable as Light
  10. Before using gobos or other effects, determine whether the same result can be produced by an actor or the architecture interacting with the light
    • If not, What is the intent?
    • is it indispensable?
  11. Use unusual angles
  12. Use color sparingly, to maximum effect
  13. Use everything sparingly, to maximum effect
  14. Costumes should never dictate what an actor cannot do
  15. Actor insight is crucial regarding costumes
  16. Light, set, and costumes should stimulate the spectator to develop an understanding of people, place, and atmosphere
  17. Light, set, and costumes should stimulate the actors toward always greater awareness and precision
  18. Light, set, and costumes should provoke the actor, not solve their problems for them
  19. No principle is inviolate
  20. Once conceived, question everything

Seneca’s Oedipus at WSFGC Garden House, Seattle WA (Photo Julia Salamonik 2006)


An Actor’s Early Thoughts on Ecce Faustus

"But you others, what do I see? You are all sitting there with lusting eyes: you free souls, where is your freedom gone?" | Tyler Polumsky as The Bad Angel | Ecce Faustus (2016) | Photo: Mark Jared Zufelt, Aether Images

“You are all sitting there with lusting eyes: you free souls, where is your freedom gone?” | Tyler Polumsky as The Bad Angel | Ecce Faustus (2016) | Photo: Mark Jared Zufelt, Aether Images

This message was written to Joseph and Zhenya early in the rehearsal process for Ecce Faustus. As APL prepares to remount the piece for video and a special one-night-only showing for audience, it seemed like a good opportunity to share these thoughts.

I am a bit sleepless. Working on text, and stepping through sequences in my mind.

So, I am writing to tell you how genuinely enamored I am with our work.

Ecce Faustus cuts deep. It is a complicated text; based on tried and true classical literature, neither profane nor vulgar in content–though the message is one that strikes straight to the bone of the profanity and vulgarity of the human condition in our time (perhaps throughout all of time).

Sitting and listening/reading the text, observing the shapes of the action, I begin to see what amount of devastating efficacy we can bring to this story.

I know we have a long way to go before these themes begin to sound out and resonate with the intended genuine depth, but I have no doubts that this group of artists will get there.

As I lay my head to sleep, I am grateful for the opportunity to endeavor with you all on something of this calibre and in which I can find a great worldly meaning and value. Faust is a story to be told, again and again, now more than ever.

Indeed we are all Faust: selfish, self absorbed, and self centered. It would almost be a cruel joke were it not disappointingly true….

I have always believed the theatre to be a spiritual endeavor first and foremost. I am glad to not be alone in this and overjoyed at an opportunity to convey a deeply meaningful story to anyone that would hear it–and with a group of artists who are not afraid to delve so deeply for the sake of spiritual wealth.

Thank you,

Ken Griffey Jr & the Aesthetics of Function

Ken Griffey Jr - August 27, 2008

Ken Griffey Jr – August 27, 2008

The Kid.

Baseball legend. Seattle’s defining superstar. Generational talent. All of these terms are routinely used to describe Ken Griffey Jr, one of the greatest sports players of the ’90s. For baseball aficionados, watching Griffey play baseball is akin to listening to Montserrat Caballé sing Ave Maria. But why is this so? And more importantly, why should theatre artists care?

Sure, there were the layout game-saving catches. The singles he turned into triples with speed, guile, and vision. The bullet-like, perfectly timed throws from across the field. More than all this, though, it was the swing.

In an era drunk on steroids and raw power, of McGwire and Sosa hitting 60, Griffey was right there, keeping pace alongside them. The fluidity of that bat’s passing through the strike zone could just as easily turn a low and outside two-seamer into a home run as turn a high change-up into a line-drive single. Griffey had a swing that Bobby Valentine (one of the most infamously irascible coaches in history) famously called “perfect” (Stone). Jay Buhner, his teammate with the Mariners, said Griffey would “…call his shots all the friggin’ time. We’d all shake our heads” (Stone).

That swing was magic, more than just effective; it was beautiful.

Kant argues that our judgment of beauty emerging from an object of perception – or in this case an action “ . . . arises on the achievement of a purpose, or at least the recognition of a purposiveness” (Burnham). For Kant, purpose “is the concept according to which it was made” (Burnham). Purposiveness however has an “intrinsic purpose” whereby “a thing embodies its own purpose” (Burnham). There is a particular and mischievous delight in thinking that because the “universality and necessity” of artistic judgments “are in fact a product of features of the human mind” (Burnham), we could just as easily apply our idea of beauty to actions as something like Kant’s sunset or a painting by J.M.W. Turner.

Griffey’s swing didn’t dazzle Bobby Valentine because it was so effective. In fact, I’m sure it would have been the opposite when he coached for the Rangers. Griffey’s swing stood out since there is “pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable” (Burnham).

The act of hitting a baseball is a functional movement. It serves a very real world purpose. While this feat can be described as impressive on its own, there are all sorts of examples of other people (Nelson Cruz) hitting balls very far without the action’s being particularly beautiful. So why is Griffey’s swing so beautiful? Bobby Valentine again: “Once you start your swing, people talk about transferring your weight. I always thought his transfer was impeccable, the way he was able to stride, and have a good stride, and yet stop his weight as he was going forward so he could transfer all that weight to his front foot, get off his back foot, and stay balanced as he translated all that energy to the bat” (Stone). All of this boils down to being able to do something extremely well with style, a little bit of “extra” that adds something not essential, yet not extraneous to the basic action. “Griffey got into the box, and it almost looked like he was dancing” (Stone).

I remember going to see Pina Bausch’s final piece of choreography at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010 entitled “ . . . como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si …” and being dazzled by the dancers’ simply walking around the stage. It was just walking. There wasn’t even a particular aberration of the movement, but it mutated from sensual to unnerving in an instant, yet never deviated from the essential action of needing to carry each individual dancer’s body across the stage. Bausch’s dancers floated with, like Griffey’s swing, “ . . . this dance of balance that performers reveal in fundamental principles common to all scenic forms” (Barba). The shift of balance is not done simply for itself. It is a functional movement—a functional movement that is nevertheless enacted with a certain style and specificity, a little something extra that transforms it from basic action into beautiful action.

Theatre is constantly faced with a tension between establishing something real, while simultaneously establishing something beautiful. In day-to-day existence, people strive to “ . . . follow the principle of minimum effort, that is, obtaining a maximum result with a minimum expenditure of energy” (Barba). In performance, the performer is faced with the particular problem of making actions “ . . . which do not respect the habitual conditionings of the use of the body” (Barba). The audience wants to see something real, as in action that accomplishes something verifiable, and yet is also something that has a little flair. Flair that isn’t added on or layered but that is central to the action. There is a subtle shift of focus by the actor not only from the effective and skilled execution of the action but towards something greater.

Whatever that greater thing is can be left open, maybe even unknown explicitly to person performing the action. Étienne Decroux, the father of corporeal mime, is described as having a “ . . . lion inside him and his technique kept it at bay” (Barba). When we see truly incredible performance on the scale of Griffey’s willfully distributing balls about the field, or Bausch’s dancers gliding across a stage, we see not just the action itself, but what they are pointing towards: the lion in the quote about Decroux.

Such mastery over technique hints at a different aesthetic experience that is called by Kant the Sublime, which “names experiences like violent storms or huge buildings which seem to overwhelm us; that is, we feel we ‘cannot get our head around them’ ” (Burnham). People find these actions awe-inspiring because they relate beyond the actions themselves towards a rational idea that is absolute in some way: “Extra-daily techniques . . . lead to information” (Barba). True expression of genius can be called “beautiful, but in addition is an expression of the state of mind which is generated by an aesthetic idea” (Burnham). Information that gets communicated from functional movement at the scale of Griffey seems to relate less to a quotidian idea and more towards something that has a capital letter in front of it.

For years that bat gliding through the strike zone enraptured millions. But it wasn’t just how good Griffey was at swinging that bat; it was the way that he was good at it that made it so special. The real trick is to be able to do that on stage when the performer only has to pick up a teacup.

Trevor Young Marston was an Akropolis Performance Lab Artistic Associate from 2014 to 2016, appearing in Pomegranate & Ash.

Works Cited

Barba, Eugenio. The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology. Trans. Richard Fowler. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Burnham, Douglas. “Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016.

Stone, Larry. “For Hall of Fame-bound Ken Griffey Jr., it all started with the swing.” 5.1.2016. Seattle Times.

Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Plates. The plates printed by the Photo-Gravure Company. Philadelphia, 1887 / USC Digital Library, 2010.

Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Plates. The plates printed by the Photo-Gravure Company. Philadelphia, 1887 / USC Digital Library, 2010.

Je Suis le Fils de Quelqu’un

Je Suis le Fils de Quelqu’un:
A reflection on touring The Glas Nocturne to Akron OH, November 2015

By Joseph Lavy

“You have the song. You must ask yourself where this song began.” ~J. Grotowski


I can’t seem to write the post I want to write.

I want to write a long meditation on heritage and homecomings;
about artistic fathers and family re-membered
over coffee and broken bread;
how the past and the present converged
over wine and rillettes
and how a bottle of aquavit can almost reach the Hour of the Wolf.

I want to write a treatise about the fallacy of linear time

and a Thanksgiving hymn of gratitude
to my colleagues for their faith, talents, and work,
to our hosts for their hospitality,
for artistic homes;

a cry of deep joy
sprung from meeting the challenges of
transforming our performance from one sort of
intimacy to another,
without loss or sacrifice;

a profound parable
of returning and laying it all on the line
before those people–visible and invisible–
who matter the most
and who prove that you are not a vagabond
but that you come from some country,
some landscape
which is still there
and which is you
near or far.

“The Story of the Girl,” segment from Akropolis Performance Lab’s The Glas Nocturne,  Saturday, November 21, 2015, at The Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture/New World Performance Lab in Akron OH.  L-R: Joseph Lavy,  Emily Jo Testa, Catherine Lavy, Annie Paladino, and Zhenya Lavy.

The Director, The Actor & The Difficult Task

I often reject during the rehearsal process suggestions and recommendations which arise as quick, easy solutions to perceived problems; usually because they tend to be superficially driven by theatrical practicality and lack authenticity for the moment. Too often, the job of a director seems to be to find solutions to make things easy for the actor. I believe it is sometimes (mostly) the contrary: to present the actor with the difficult task. To create problems that must be continually confronted and confronted, not “solved.” To demand that the actor work through what must be done and not skim over it. Truth and Authenticity are not–and should not be–easy to come by.

When They Take and You Give Reviewer Tickets

Prompted by a question about reviewers that was posted in the Facebook group, Seattle Theater Writers, I drafted a substantial enough response to merit sharing here, as well… especially given a related conversation I took part in with Ohio friends earlier this week.


Out of curiosity and some frustration I am inquiring about the following. It has always been my understanding that there is an informal contract signed between the inviting organization and the reviewer that there will be a review written of the show that the reviewer attended. After a production in which we have had three reviewers come to review it, none of whom wrote an actual review, I am just curious if my understanding of this contract was based in an actual understanding or rather some naiveté. Or if instead it is representative of the seattle freeze of rather than saying people didn’t like something, they just don’t say anything at all. Thoughts?


As a former managing editor of a newspaper and editor of a feature magazine; a sometimes reviewer of theatre, dance, music, art; a doctoral candidate in theatre history & criticism; and a maker and producer of theatre, I have a lot of thoughts on this matter.

Short version:

There is NO circumstance (except, perhaps, death or act of God) to justify any person or organization taking a review comp and then NOT publishing a review (or not publishing the review in a timely manner). NONE.

Additional comments for those with stamina:

  • If you didn’t like the show — and you believe that means there is nothing to be said or that you are doing the artists or the audience some kind of service by being silent — then you do not understand the work, should not be representing yourself as a reviewer, and should NEVER accept a review comp. To be clear: YOU ARE NOT A REVIEWER, no matter how many times you have published your thoughts about pieces you have seen.
  • If an editor pulls the plug on a review due to publication constraints (actual column-inch print issues due to other breaking news or the editor’s own planning incompetence, not problems regarding whether the writer could make deadline), then letters need to be sent to that editor and publisher requesting payment for the cost of the reviewer’s ticket. And if that editor’s behavior continues, and your org pays for advertising, you need to talk to your account manager about pulling your business. (And if that kind of problem is encountered regularly with a publication with which any cooperative advertising is in place, then the advertising cooperative needs to decide as a group how it will handle the publication’s failure to produce to expectation.)
  • Any writer not affiliated with a publication that vets contributors through a hiring/contract and editorial process who is not willing or able to operate with the same standards of professionalism and quality as expected of said publications, should NEVER accept review comps.
  • Whether a writer is publishing on a personal blog or a publication that instructs readers about what to see has NO BEARING on whether they should be exempted from writing a review if they accepted a comp ticket. You took a free review ticket? It’s now your job to produce a review — and to do so in a timely manner.
  • Any reviewer (independent or otherwise) or publication unwilling or unable to PUBLISH a review within days of having seen the production — generally less than a week… as in, by the Thursday before the next weekend… in time to have an impact on the next weekend’s ticket sales — needs to let the producing organization know what the expected publication schedule will be PRIOR to accepting any review comps. No oopsies. The arts sections of publications aren’t generally ruled by the same breaking news variables as the rest of the papers. I always knew a full month in advance, at least, what my arts sections were going to look like. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is full of shit. And independent publishers/bloggers have even more control over their publication schedule so… even more full of shit and, moreover, NOT a legitimate reviewer.
  • Any person who represents him- or herself as a reviewer, accepts one (or more) comps, and does not publish a review is stealing from the arts org — except under my aforementioned death or act of god exceptions. If they don’t produce a review at all, INVOICE THEM for the ticket. They aren’t a charity, but your org probably is. At least if you invoice them you have documentation for writing it off as bad debt.
  • If you are a producing organization, you have a responsibility to know who the reviewers are and whether the “named” online publications function professionally or more “loosely.” Do not give legitimacy to incompetent reviewers or erratic publications by giving them comp tickets. If they’re not capable of approaching your work with critical acumen or intellectual contextualization — going beyond the vapid “I liked it” / “I didn’t like it” garbage we so often see that’s supported by nothing more than plot synopses and a general run-down of the actors (maybe sprinkling in references to other things they’ve been in) — then they are NOT reviewers, they are NOT doing anything more than your well-written press release already does, and they do NOT deserve your free ticket unless you really, truly think it’s worth limiting your potential revenue for that.
  • If you are a producing organization and are about to give a person or publication rep a review comp: (1) You have every right and responsibility to ASK first what date they expect the review to be published. If they don’t know, don’t give them a ticket until they do. If the intended publication date is not going to be early enough to have any impact on your bottom line, tell them, ask them if there’s any way it can be moved up, and if it’s still going to be too late then don’t give them a ticket. (2) With anyone not reviewing for a known, regularly published media outlet, you need to make it utterly clear that you are giving them a ticket only with the understanding and condition that they are going to produce a review – and do so in a timely manner — and that if they don’t, they will be invoiced and responsible for payment of the ticket after the fact.
  • If you are a producing organization and are asked for comp tickets by someone you’ve never heard of who is claiming to be a reviewer, ask for credentials. Do some research. Find out if they’re legit. If they work more independently, actually assess their work (what have they reviewed that you or someone you know also saw?). THEN decide if you want to reduce your revenue by the cost of their ticket.
  • If you are a producing organization, you should never feel OBLIGATED to give more than one ticket to any reviewer. A reviewer can ask nicely — and you can decide whether you have sufficient business reason or ability to give away an extra seat to THAT particular person/publication for THAT particular show — but they should not expect more than a single comp ticket for themselves because it’s all that’s required for them to do the job they are there to do. Their primary purpose for being there is to work — to do a JOB — not to fund their personal date night. And funding their personal date night certainly isn’t YOUR responsibility. I don’t take my spouse to my workplace, and unless you and your spouse work together you don’t, either. Remember: their spouse or date or person reeled in off FB at the last minute is NOT going to write a review and is not going to feel responsible for talking up your show or convincing anyone else to buy a ticket. If you have extra free tickets to give away, give them to the cast, whose friends and family are far more likely to have an impact on your bottom line by spreading the word.
  • Producing organizations need to communicate with each other about people who take a review comp but don’t produce a review — or don’t produce a review in a professionally timely fashion — and EVERYONE should stop inviting those people to their shows. Name names. Those people are not reviewers, they are arts enthusiasts. Let them buy tickets like the rest of us. We should not subsidize their personal entertainment.

For those who may not remember: Joe Boling, who attended more performances in some years than there are days and who, if memory serves me, even sacrificed a relationship to feed his theatre passion — who wrote copious numbers of reviews (all of which called it like he saw it, no squishy “feelings” bullshit pulling of punches) and compiled end-of-year “top” lists that were actually representative of the broad range of local activity and WORTH paying attention to and celebrating — purchased the tickets to every show he attended. Whether he reviewed or not. And he refused to accept a comp even if you begged him to take one from you out of mere appreciation for his project and desire to help support him in continuing the effort. The man bought every ticket.

Let there be no doubt or confusion: We have more ability to shape the critical climate around our work than we tend to think. We need to stop diminishing our work by legitimizing incompetent reviewers and a sub-par critical environment. We need to celebrate and support those reviewers who actually write with critical acumen, who craft quality observations and prose WORTHY of the time and effort we pour into creating our work — and we all know that means supporting them whether their review is glowing or less favorable than we might have hoped.

Last thought for the moment: The two people I consider our region’s top reviewers do this for free. Every now and then you should kick them something via “Tip the Web” or whatever mechanism possible. Not to buy their opinion, but to fuel their capacity and enthusiasm to go on in a difficult and often thankless role.

Strategies for Working with the Media

A friend in Ohio asked a question on Facebook that generated a flurry of discussion, including a lengthy response from me. The critic in question is one I knew well, as I had rejected (for all the reasons JT Buck sites in his inquiry below) his appeals that I employ him as a reviewer both when I was at the newspaper for which he now writes and when I was at the magazine. Given the volume of commentary and general feedback about my remarks, I thought they merited sharing here, as well.


Statement and Question: I just read a review of a local theatre piece in a weekly paper, written by a well-established critic with advanced academic credentials. While the review was positive in its appraisal of the show overall, the production team and audience were still done a disservice. Said review was so full of poor writing (theme misidentified with plot, logical fallacies, factual errors, confusing structure) I actually felt embarrassed for both the author and paper. In a sophomore communications class this would be C work at best. Worse still is that this seems to be a common occurrence not only from that particular outlet, but from several in the region.

We have an amazing arts scene here which requires and begs for intelligent and skilled coverage (both critical and feature) in our local media. Yet such coverage (with some notable exceptions) is too often not available.

So, Question: how should we in the arts community best respond to incompetent critics? Remember that the institution in question does a fine job of relating to the media on the marketing and editorial side. This is specifically a case of a critic who simply isn’t doing the job well, and doing harm to those he’s covering in the process.



As someone who’s worked the media side, the performer/producer side, and the arts advocate side in both Ohio and in Seattle, I offer these thoughts as starting points for actual discussion in your community around the question JT asked:

  1. The media outlets are under no obligation to cover theatre at all, so first it’s important to be grateful that there’s still anyone at a paying publication writing about theatre at all. Send thank you notes after you’ve been reviewed — to both the reviewer and the editor — no matter the substance of the review. Goodwill gestures are not futile.
  2. The media outlets are businesses, and they don’t cover theatre out of any sense of altruism or “greater good of art.” They cover it to the extent that they can make money: that they can secure advertisers willing to pay to support it. This means the arts orgs — large and small alike — should feel an obligation to advertise if they want coverage of the art form at all. (NOTE: Buying an ad doesn’t define the kind of coverage or review they’ll get, and no org should expect it to. You’d be amazed the number of conversations I had with theatre org administrators irate that their production did not receive glowing reviews even through they advertised.)
  3. The large houses need to budget adequately for stand-alone advertising. The small houses need to develop a cooperative advertising model that allows them to pool resources and possibly negotiate better rates.
  4. The PR kit you provide will go a long way to assisting in the quality of the work written about you. Draw out the major themes, structural elements, etc., that you are working with. Point critics in the direction of the historical and critical context you’d most like to see them tap into. Provide resources for further reading. Without descending to empty, unsupported hype and/or hyperbole, help them see your work as part of the larger (state, national, global) picture — not relegate it to the local/not-Broadway/inferior zone. They’re still going to write what they want, but you have done what you can to shape initial perceptions.
  5. I can’t stress enough the importance of cooperative efforts such as mentioned in #3 above.
  6. Develop a professional relationship with the reviewers and arts editors. Appropriate opportunities for a phone call or other communication — with realistic expectations for timing/frequency/significance/etc.
    Ex: If you’re launching a season announcement, it’s not a bad idea to help them understand important community tie-ins, special interest stories, etc, to help them decide if there is justification for a feature in advance of one of the shows’ openings… or which 1 piece of the season (assuming they’ll do advance features on no more than 1, at best, for a smaller house) you think might merit extra attention.
  7. Provide them with plenty of lead time to plan coverage. Unless they tell you otherwise, 4 weeks’ notice isn’t enough. For calendar entries, at least 6 weeks’ lead (gives the media time to process it, and gives you the best shot of having it hit at least 3 weeks in a row before your show opens so it can solidify as a real thing in people’s minds… in general, people need to see things 3x at least before they take action). The media outlets need time to process your info through their operations, decide what/how to cover it, etc. And you want to give them every opportunity of getting any advance coverage they might do published far enough in advance for their readers to have time to fit it into their social calendars if they want to.
  8. Never miss a deadline or ask for special favors (ex: calendar entries, advertising).
  9. Provide quality images to accompany your advance kit and your reviewer kit. A less-than-stellar production with great images is going to have a better chance of good coverage than a great piece with crappy (or no) photography — or images conveying no action or other interest.
  10. Develop a solid, non-media network for effective and coordinated postering, postcard distribution, etc. — as well as communities of visibility and conversation (in person and via social media) around your work. The onus is on you to get people interested in supporting your work, not on the media outlets. But if you successfully generate the right kind of buzz, the media outlets will notice and will want to be part of it.
  11. Don’t expect review coverage for runs of 2 weeks or less. Especially for the weekly publications, it makes little sense for the publication to invest in review coverage of something unless their readers will have adequate opportunity to take action on their review… i.e. still be able to go see the piece.
  12. Be prepared for the possibility that their response to your request for better coverage of your work is something along the lines of “Then do better work.” What does this mean? Always take a professional approach. Work together. Demonstrate that the theatre community is a force, not disjointed happenstance. Exude quality in every element of your administration and interactions with them — including providing the highest quality content and materials you can. Be so good and professional — and helpful in providing them with content/materials that make their work easier — that they really, truly want to help you and to see you succeed.
  13. Be honest with yourself and them about the work you do. Give them reason to trust what you say about the work you are doing. It’s not all good. It’s definitely not all great. Indiscriminate use of words like “brilliant,” “innovative,” “unique,” reads as sophomoric and untrustworthy … and it’s certainly not your place to tell them whether something is going to be the “theatre event of the year.”
  14. Expanding upon #13: Don’t conflate YOUR production with “the Tony-Award winning” production [insert whatever NOT your production accolade you like]. If the thing wasn’t said about YOUR show [ex: “…a laugh-a-minute rollercoaster of fun” ~NY Times], don’t put it on your poster (or in your pr materials unless you attribute it clearly as having been said about someone else’s production). You’ll dupe some unsuspecting community member who doesn’t understand it’s not about YOUR show… who shows up at your venue expecting something of a quality that’s toured from NY and is neither impressed nor amused… and who then relays the disappointment to their friends. You may have gotten a few more people in to see your show, but you’ve done a larger disservice to the rest of local theatre community because you’ve likely driven that person to only take a chance on the big theatre institutions in the future.

Read the original post and full comment thread here:

Mini-Review of Fangs

This time last year, I was working my way through the (digital) stack of original plays submitted to our inaugural “New Year, New Play” Sunday Salon. When I got to the title page of Jim Moran’s Fangs, I thought, “Vampires? Werewolves?” But what I read was something very different — delightful, even. We gave Fangs a developmental reading in January and were thrilled to learn it would receive full production at Eclectic Theater  and would even feature two of the actors from our reading –Samantha Routh and Shane Regan — albeit in different roles. Fast forward to last night, when Joseph and I attended its opening.

One thing I appreciate in Fangs is Jim’s excellence at crafting simple, inherently comedic characters — ably balancing text and space so the actors can really crack them open — with a more subtle approach to humor that yields the biggest laughs… every time. In this production, Ashley Bagwell takes the already wonderfully quirky character of Ed and develops him with such a fullness of presence and action that it’s hard not to walk away without feeling that this smaller role actually anchors the entire show. And Shane Regan takes Toby from his unassuming, uptight beginnings through a complete unraveling that… you should see for yourself. Jim has less success with the other characters, whose banter or attitudes are “trying” to be witty or funny, and through them we feel the playwright trying a bit too hard: these larger characters, ironically, become reduced in such a way that they never transcend caricature. That said, while Joseph and I have endured many a “funny” play of late that delivered few real laughs at all from anyone other than friends/family of the production, Jim’s Fangs succeeded in making us laugh a lot. The character of Ed alone — LMFAO!!!

Want to support new work by local playwrights in a vibrant community of development? Check out Fangs. Want the old-school, small theatre culture legacy of Capitol Hill to survive the neighborhood — and artistic — gentrification? Get out and support Eclectic and the other orgs hanging onto their real estate by the skin of their teeth.

Discussion on Devised Theatre

I started a discussion about devised theatre on APL’s Facebook group page, and it’s generated quite a bit of interest among artists and theatre scholars. The discussion was inspired by Kate Kremer’s August 28 opinion piece on Howlround — my opening remarks are as follows:

This discussion of so-called “Devised” theatre seems to me exceptionally myopic. First, if Devised Theatre arose as an attempt to break away from the hegemony of the Playwright, why interview 3 playwrights to the exclusion of other collaborative artists? Second, positioning Devising against Schechner’s nearly 50-year-old statement about directors violating vs respecting the text ignores nearly 2 generations of world theatre artists who have been “devising” (long before there was a pigeonhole for the work) without violating OR respecting The Text, but encountering text as a single, (sometimes) necessary element in the development of the performance event: For example, Eugenio Barba/Odin Teatret, Slowiak – Cuesta /New World Performance Lab, Raymond Bobgan, Gardzienice, APL, and countless others. 
I wonder if this “New Avant-garde” realizes they’re actually behind the times.


I could add Anne Bogart/SITI Company, NaCL, UMO, Wooster Group, Double Edge…

Join the conversation or just take a look at what’s been written — it’s a robust and thought-provoking read. (Facebook account required.)