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IRNE's End Brings Disconnect Between Theater Professionals And Critics To A Boiling Point

A theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The end of the Independent Reviewers of New England has sparked a larger conversation about the urgency theater professionals feel for the critics who often help shape the public conversation about their work to reflect the diversity on stage.

After 23 years, the IRNEs disbanded earlier this month, citing an exploding theater ecosystem in Greater Boston that "made it increasingly difficult for our small number of reviewers to adequately cover the field.” The 14-member volunteer theater critic organization had played an important role in Boston's theater world, especially for fringe or small theater companies that are reviewed less frequently (or not at all) by more established journalism outlets. Being recognized by the IRNEs, through their annual theater awards, was often perceived as a stepping stone for early-career theater professionals or small and midsize theater companies.

"We are so grateful to them and we care about the critics putting in time and energy to write about theater in Boston," said Megan Sandberg-Zakian, a Boston-based freelance theater director. She was one of 13 original signatories who penned an open letter to the IRNE awards committee on April 8, urging the organization to diversify its critics and become more culturally attuned to the theater community they wrote about. The letter, which called the IRNE "vitally important to our community" and said IRNE "reviews, nominations, and awards can have a lasting effect on an artist’s or a company’s long term growth," also took the critics to task for a failure to "adequately acknowledge the contributions of women and people of color."

IRNE spokesperson Michael Hoban said the open letter was not the reason the reviewing body disbanded.

Still, the end to the reviewing body has brought longstanding and charged frustrations from theater workers to a boiling point. Theater — on stage, at least — has dramatically changed in Boston over the last decade. Productions are demonstrably more diverse, arguably, than ever before. New generations of theater companies, actors, directors, playwrights and technicians have transformed the landscape into one that's much more reflective of the varied identities of Greater Boston. Classics are reframed with a lens that is more frequently black or brown or that encompasses more expansive LGBTQ+ identities. New plays feel attuned to a youthful ethos that confronts and unpacks oppression and issues of race and sexuality with new language and a renewed intensity.

And yet, the people who help shape the public conversations about plays — and whose reviews live online long after theater productions close — have remained mostly white, male and older.

The letter from the theater professionals, which was posted online the day of this year's IRNE awards, challenged the awards committee — made up of five white women and nine white men — to “consider adapting to the community [they] aspire to represent."

Soon, the letter had gained more than 600 online signatures. The IRNEs did not publicly address the letter and weeks later, on June 3, the group announced it would disband.

For Hoban, one of the 14 IRNE reviewers who voted on the annual awards and spokesperson for the group, the end of the unpaid, loosely organized reviewing group is a major loss to the theater world, especially for early career folks. "A lot of people who are just starting out, they said [receiving an IRNE award] was a nice boost to their career. I don't think anybody ever had the IRNEs on a pedestal. We were a shoestring operation. But I think that the overall positive effect of the IRNEs was really felt and I think there is a big loss for the community."

"We were a shoestring operation. But I think that the overall positive effect of the IRNEs was really felt and I think there is a big loss for the community."

Michael Hoban

"Theater arts are a way that the culture has of talking to itself and good critics keep the level of that conversation aloft," said Joyce Kulhawik, the president of The Boston Theater Critics Association, which puts on the annual Elliot Norton Awards. The group is made up of more established theater critics who often write for major outlets like the Boston Globe, WBUR and WGBH. The BTCA, also made up of all white critics, feels the urgency to expand its lens and is looking for theater critics of color, said Kulhawik.

"[Our wider culture] has always been diverse but now people are acknowledging the diversity of our sexuality and of race and of religion. Everything is much more fluid. People don't just fit neatly into boxes or labels. People are fluid between and among those boxes and labels. So the work is reflecting all of that and we want our critics to reflect that as well." Half the Norton awards this year went to people of color or productions primarily made up of people of color, Kulhawik said.

"[Our wider culture] has always been diverse but now people are acknowledging the diversity of our sexuality and of race and of religion."

Joyce Kulhawik

A changing media landscape, far less tethered to a legacy newspaper model and instead fueled by the demands of the internet, has led to an explosion of cultural online content that competes with traditional theater reviews, while also contributing to fewer, old school positions for early career, aspiring theater critics. It's really hard to find a well-paid theater criticism gig.

I know these challenges as The ARTery's senior editor. Last year, we worked with four contributors who wrote theater reviews for us. In a year, we lost three of them — to retirement and to personal moves and faraway jobs. Recognizing this void, we collaborated with the Front Porch Arts Collective this spring to provide stipends and training workshops to a local, young, diverse cohort of people interested in theater criticism.

But the dearth of varied voices exists industry-wide.

Sandberg-Zakian said the lack of diversity isn't exclusive to the IRNEs, but she felt an urgency to address the issue with them "because of the importance of the IRNE reviews and awards to the small and fringe communities, the very communities where local artists from underrepresented groups (artists of color, deaf and disabled artists, queer artists, as well as female producers, directors and writers) get their start and learn their craft, and hypothetically also where young critics and critics from underrepresented groups should have the chance to do the same."

"We had to start somewhere, and starting at the more grassroots level felt to me more in line with my values," Sandberg-Zakian said.

There has also been a slow erosion of trust over the years between some in the theater community and the IRNEs. Sandberg-Zakian points to at least one review and online comments from former IRNE reviewer Thomas Garvey that people complained were racist. (WBUR was unable to reach Garvey for this story.)

Another person who took issue with Garvey's reviews, Company One Theatre co-founder Shawn LaCount, said that in 2010, he told the IRNE Company One could not attend the awards until they dealt with the problematic reviews. "Many were coming from a place I would consider racist and sexist," LaCount wrote in an email. "For years artists of color have left Boston for other cities because they didn't feel safe, connected or appreciated here. It isn't the city or the arts community I wanted to be part of."

Garvey was suspended from the IRNEs in 2010 for the review in which he implied a black female playwright was only allowed to do work because she was "sexy and connected." He resigned over a year later in the spring of 2011, after mounting pressure from theater leaders who complained of Garvey's problematic takes.

Another IRNE reviewer, Alan Chase, was accused of sexual assault by a young actor, Evan Gambardella, who said Chase used his influence as a critic to manipulate him. Chase, 71, was charged this month with indecent assault and battery on a person in connection with the incident. In a recent phone interview, Gambardella said he didn't  think to notify the IRNE committee of the alleged assault in 2012, when he said it happened. But Gambardella did notify police and the Boston University School of Theatre.

Gambardella said he was surprised to learn of the IRNE's assertion that members had not heard of Chase's alleged assault until the spring of 2018, when Gambardella posted about it on social media. Soon after, Chase resigned from the IRNEs and members wore black to the annual awards in support of Gambardella, Hoban said. The IRNEs also participated in StageSource's work to create resources on sexual harassment in performing arts spaces, according to Hoban. Chase did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In another incident, longtime IRNE member Larry Stark once publicly wished illness and death on a theater company's then-press representative. "I think I said (in person, not in writing) that I hoped she would burn in hell after dying of a slow, painful, debilitating disease. And I still hope that will be true," Stark said in an email last week.

"Given that [a Garvey review] happened nine and a half years ago and he was suspended for making those comments by the founder and that the other comment is from [Larry Stark], who, while revered, is kind of known to be a bit eccentric, I don't think that that's the overwhelming evidence that the IRNEs are somehow a problematic organization in and of itself," said Hoban.

But for Pascale Florestal, a director and member of the Front Porch Arts Collective and original signatory of the letter, the IRNEs not only missed the mark too many times, but, unlike the Nortons, seemed to be operating outside of standard journalistic ethics. She and others called for the IRNEs to lay out a transparent process and framework under which they operated. "We didn't really even know how these reviewers were selected," she said in an interview.

Hoban said criteria for the loosely connected, unpaid reviewers were that they had to see 50 shows a year (he admits they made an exception for Stark) and be associated with some sort of publication or blog.

Since the announcement of the IRNE's disbandment, 11 of the original signatories penned a follow-up statement expressing regret for the timing of the original letter, which was posted the day of the IRNE awards.

"While our collaborative intention is clearly stated in the original letter, we understand that the timing of its release, on the day of the IRNE ceremony, was perceived by some as more of a calling-out than a calling-in. That impact was not our intention," the statement reads. Florestal said the timing had more to do with balancing everyone's schedule than anything else.

The original letter left a bad taste in Hoban's mouth, who said some IRNE members were devastated. "There is no reason for us to respond if they can't give us the dignity of reaching out to us [directly] instead of just putting something out into the ether and hoping that we see it," Hoban said.

Florestal said the group of artists who penned the original letter were not an organization. They were individual artists airing concerns — concerns that more than 600 people seemed to agree with.

For Hoban, the 600-plus signatories of the original letter are not emblematic of a pervasive discontent with the IRNEs. "If I saw that petition online and I was a member of the theater community, I would have said to myself, 'Who can be against diversity?' " he said. "And I probably would have signed it. I'm a petition signer. I know I get all these progressive things all the time and I sign them."

But Kulhawik, the president of The Boston Theater Critics Association said the huge support the letter received appeared to be a testament of how resonant the message was across the board.

"I was kind of amazed," she said. "I would say that so many theater artists signing that letter said there must've been a real general or pervasive sense that the IRNEs were not responsive to the community." Kulhawik said she can't imagine the BTCA disbanding if they'd received a similar letter.

"I am hopeful that together — old guard and new, well-versed in the conversation and those just entering — can build something that draws on all of our experiences."

Megan Sandberg-Zakian

Florestal said she hopes something "more nimble and responsive" can replace the IRNE awards. Theater advocacy organization StageSource has sent out a survey asking community members what kind of system of recognition could come next.

Sandberg-Zakian hopes this moment can lead to compassionate conversations around theater and criticism.

"I'm a Gen X-er. I can see the incredibly valuable groundwork that those who came before me have laid, as well as the exciting new vanguard being forged by those ahead of me. I'm also a queer Armenian-Jewish woman with 20th-century genocides on both sides of my heritage; I know that trying to obliterate the past is dangerous. I am hopeful that together — old guard and new, well-versed in the conversation and those just entering — can build something that draws on all of our experiences."

Related:

Maria Garcia Twitter Senior Editor, The ARTery
Maria Garcia is the senior editor of The ARTery, WBUR's Arts and Culture Team.

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