Theater commentary: Burnt Norton – The Arts Fuse

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By Bill Marx

This year’s Elliot Norton Awards ceremony, due to COVID-19 restrictions, was virtual. Congratulations to all the winners.

In 2018 I wrote that I would ask the Boston Theater Critics Association to do the right thing and take the Elliot Norton Award away from Israel Horovitz, given November 30, 2017 from the New York Times report on multiple accusations of sexual harassment, which included references to my 1993 boston phoenix articles that contained allegations of abusive behavior by men towards women. I kept that promise, but no action was taken. I think it’s time to stop the demand. Israel Horovitz died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 81.

You would think that the rise of #metoo could have changed mindsets and spurred action. But BTCA politics are as conventional as they taste. Here is the most recent statement on this I received from BTCA President Joyce Kulhawik:

We are not canceling the ELLIOT NORTON AWARD to Israel Horovitz at this time.
As we condemn the assaults he has been accused of, we have awarded the award to honor his work and legacy as co-founder of Gloucester Stage Company. This clearly does not extend to his personal behavior.

I have argued with this weak reasoning in previous columns. A number of major arts organizations have decided to pull the playwright’s work following the nine sexual misconduct allegations made against Horovitz in the New York Time article. A Google search indicates that Horovitz’s artistic “legacy” is nil. (I await the BTCA’s lamentations for the loss of the American theater.) The Gloucester Stage Company, which Horovitz co-founded, delves into his “legacy.” So what does the BTCA honor? Aside from his fear of making a statement that suggests he cares about the health and well-being of Boston’s theater community?

I will therefore leave it at that. Years ago I attended a conference where BTCA members Joyce Kulhawik and Jared Bowen testified to the power of empathy in theatre. The worried duo extolled the power of plays to put us in other people’s shoes, broadening our sympathies. But it is obvious that this empathy does not venture beyond the four walls of the theatre. Horovitz’s “personal behavior” hurt the Boston theater people, many of whom are still active and still suffering. In this case, separating the work from the behavior of the artist is hypocrisy.

It is also, I believe, a sign of the BTCA’s indifference to matters of pressing concern to the future of Boston theater. The Elliot Norton Awards will continue, of course. But they’re moldy the second they start gathering dust on the resumes of performers and institutions. Many Tony Awards are given to shows that are still on-going, but the Norton Awards are strictly past. By the way, does anyone under 40 know who Elliot Norton was? Do they even know the members of the BTCA, given the dwindling arts sections of our mainstream media? Does the Elliot Norton Awards carry any weight except for the over-sixty ensemble?

How could the BTCA make itself more relevant, or at least die gracefully? How about dealing with contemporary issues? Many of the committee members are geriatric, but so am I, and I’m keeping my aging eyes and ears open to what’s going on — and how important it is to the theater. America’s top scene critics in the past were much more than consumer guides, spouting blurbs. An observation: this last task becomes problematic for the members of the BTCA. I worry about the state of the Syndicate (the critics of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in boston globe, WGBH and WBUR). A recent publicity explosion from the opera scene praising his show A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder content of them introductory texts by critic Terry Byrne, one of the boston globe, the other from WBUR. Can’t the union find more than one critic to say the same thing? He’s usually good at that sort of thing.

In addition to praising (and sometimes blaming), critics have a responsibility to contribute to the cultural debate, to raise issues that concern artists and society. The BTCA could address, rather than evade, controversial topics. Host debates, online or offline, or post comments that invite feedback from the Boston arts community.

Here are some suggestions:

1) In a recent Substack comment, Ted Gioia noted that “the most taboo subject in the arts is how people pay the bills.” He went on to detail what is “the real end result: creative pursuits are increasingly turning into playgrounds for those with family money, usually parents or a working partner/spouse. It’s not very glamorous, so it’s usually not mentioned. And journalists won’t ask about it either. They prefer to focus on successes, not on life in the trenches for the artist who works on a daily basis.

Some evidence to back up his claim:

A survey of over a thousand visual artists found the median income to be less than $30,000, about half of typical household incomes in the United States. I note that 63% of respondents had art degrees, but on a scale of 1 to 10, they rated their education a mere 5 in preparing them for a financially stable career.

And they have good reason to complain. Only 19% earned more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to place them below the poverty line than in the middle class.

Hopefully they didn’t take out a lot of student loans.

In the post-COVID era, we are seeing a frightening amount of consolidation. As Boston’s big theaters (i.e. the Huntington and ART) become more powerful, they become more and more predictable. During this time, small troops disappear or are absorbed by other companies. It’s unhealthy for theatre: we desperately need the independent voices of artists who don’t respond to the ‘content’ demands of donor and funding elites. How can low-level theater artists support themselves in the face of such hostile economic conditions? How to encourage alternative stage work? Perhaps, given what Gioia says about the importance of marriage, philanthropic foundations (such as the Boston and Barr foundations) that want to help artists should create some kind of marriage agency that organizes meetings between creatives and the well-off.

Boston critics should comment on how more performing artists on the fringes “can’t pay the bills” and demand solutions. Otherwise, the theater will continue its path of homogenization.

2) In my recent review of SeasicknessI asked if “climate change is as catastrophic as predicted, will Earth’s survivors have the luxury of preserving literature, music and theater? They’ll have a lot of other things on their mind, like finding water, food, and a cool place to live. What role should critics play given that the climate crisis is extinguishing life on the planet faster than scientists predicted? The status quo will not suffice. This catastrophe will have an impact on the arts, on the theater – why don’t our theater critics discuss this obvious fact? Why is there so little about when, or if, our theaters will go green?

Perhaps the reluctance to address the issue is because some of the sources funding the arts, especially the megabanks, are doing their best, investing in fossil fuel companies (and making empty promises to the contrary ) to diminish the chances of humanity. Talks like “Success Through Building a Diverse Community” are much needed, but this is a time of political, environmental and social urgency. Wealthy American professionals, argues Catherine Liu in virtue accusers, are far too comfortable talking about “prejudice rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than exploitation”. We need to broaden the conversations and broaden the range of productions. Theater critics should sound the alarm. They should do more than judge the merit of individual productions, but ask why certain vital topics and playwrights are excluded. And why they shouldn’t be. The fuse of the arts has its influence – but we all need to participate to help shape what appears on our stages, including NPR and the boston globe.

What will ensure obsolescence? If the BTCA members continue to take an “all that is, is fair” attitude on the Boston stage. Why just tread a well-worn path? Take a chance, comment on the challenges around us, including contradicting some of the points I’ve made here. Consider me an “alarmist”. What do you have to lose – apart from insignificance?

To note: My title “Burnt Norton” is taken from the title of theater critic Arthur Friedman – taken from TS Eliot – for his review of Elliot Norton in the Cambridge Express In the 1980’s.


Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of artistic fuse. For just over four decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast and online. He has been a regular theater commentator for national public radio station WBUR and the boston globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine which in 2004 won an online journalism award for specialized journalism. In 2007, he created the artistic fusean online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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