So This Bird-Boned Racist Gets Booted From a Theater…

The Shit-Canning of Hedy Weiss and Consequent Reduction in Arts Coverage in Chicago

So back in June of last year, I wrote THIS ESSAY in response to yet another racialized bit of fear-mongering masking as theater criticism. Now, the Sun-Times, Hedy’s paper, has announced the elimination of her position, and, presumably, the abdication of consistent theater coverage and criticism to the Tribune.

The outcry about the slashing of this kind of journalism in a theater town as vibrant as this one WOULD be legit, IF the journalism in question had reflected and responded to this vibrancy. But it hasn’t. It has failed to keep pace with the proliferation of voices and viewpoints making theater, or the erosion of the traditions and social mores surrounding the consumption of theater, or the brutalities of economics and privilege that have consolidated and polarized the making and consumption of “legitimate” theAYter to a milky white minority lolling on its bed of disposable income, and the making and consumption of “fringe” theater to a wild-eyed band of the stubborn who cling to lively art in shared space with other humans in the face of a digital world intent on placing each of us inside our own algorithm-ed pod.

Theater journalism — in this town, anyway — has stayed recalcitrant, it has and will remain entrenched in its antiquated conception of its role and its inflated sense of its own importance. If you’re shitting yourself right now cause you have a show opening next month, and you’ve got your hopes pinned on the dozen or so Schaumburgians and Lake Bluffaloes that’ll summon the intrepidness required to make their Ugg-footed way to your storefront theater in the dead of winter WHEN THEY ARE FULLY CERTAIN THEY WILL BE SHOT FOR THEIR TROUBLE because Hedy gave you the rave you’re hoping she will, forget it. Fuck ’em. Fuck their cowardly, can’t-parallel-park-for-shit asses. Fuck their clinging-to-vestigial-prestige-bestowed-by-dying-media red-faced fuckery.

Hedy and her ilk do not speak to the art-savvy, art-enthused world. And they haven’t for a long-ass time. She and the chief critic of the Tribune write reviews not of the work before them, but of their own fanciful notions of what that work ought to be, or, in Hedy’s case, the work’s relationship or lack of one to the increasingly byzantine structure of her many overlapping fears and prejudices. As I noted in my first essay, the job of the critic is to meet the work on its terms and to assess how close it has come to what it is attempting. In this sense, we have been without criticism in this town for a long time — where the Reader once regularly published long reviews that attempted not only to respond to the work being reviewed, but to nest it within a cultural context — cite its antecedents, draw threads of connection to other artists, pieces, movements, etc. — now, though, in response to the many pressures befalling print media, they at most give capsule synopses with precious little in the way of analysis or anything that might legit be called critique. And Time Out Chicago, which came of age in the internet age, never included long reviews, so there’s nothing really to lament there.

You know who you should pour all your marketing muscle into, in terms of pull quotes and opening night comps and so forth? Ada Grey — and while not everybody can be self-possessed enough to start posting theater reviews (dictated to her parents, initially, I think) from the age of 6 or whatever, it IS vital, I think, to do what you can to invert the bullshit power dynamic, here — if YOU, as maker (and by extension you organizations presenting the work of makers) can for fuck’s sake quit Oliver Twist-ing your cupped hands to collect the dander of renown that you’re able to shake loose from traditional media (“But the circulation of the Sun-Times is ever so much bigger than the readership of Ada Grey, though. So it makes more sense to keep them happy,” you’ll say. Sure, true. But how much of that readership is made up of drill press operators from Tinley Park who wouldn’t set foot in a theater if a gun was pressed to their temple? And how many readers of Ada’s reviews are actual theater-going people that are constantly on the lookout for recommendations for the next thing they see, since they will always be seeing some other show as soon as they’re able? And as an art form that’s largely perceived as dying, or at least extraneous, how much sense is there in allying yourself with media forms that are dying, or at least increasingly inconsequential? If the cast of your show troupes down at the ass-crack of dawn to tape a segment of one of those local morning shows, how many asses in the seats does that lead to for your performances that weekend? You could count ’em on one hand. After you’ve lopped off a few fingers, probably.) The thing that gets people through the door for live theater — a means of passing an evening that’s growing to be increasingly exotic, an oddball pastime that your average civilian will recoil from, conjuring as it does grade school mortification (we are all Ralphie Wiggum playing a tree, badly, in some agonizing and overwrought school play) or dutiful and dreary cultural chore-dispensing (“We’re going downtown to see the goddamn Nutcracker because that’s what your mother WANTS us to do, that’s why — now comb your hair and get in the goddamn car!”)

Look, you can continue courting these assholes. You can also wait on the train platform for a Pullman porter to fetch your valises. And, heck, enjoy a phosphate from the soda jerk nearby the station. In his paper hat. After you’ve enjoyed some of the dazzling and unexpected jokes of Mr. Bruce Vilanch. Or no. Maybe don’t do any of that. Since these things have been rightly laid waste by the by the Leveling Sweep of Obsolescence.

But look here: if you dummies cannot follow without apology the bread crumb trail of enthusiasm leading away from your door, and you keep chasing after the kind word of a monolith pressed into wood pulp, then you are a willing participant in your own demise — you are the dodo pounding out of the brush toward the musket fire of the Dutch who’ll hunt you to extinction in like 40 minutes, you big gawky imbeciles. If you cannot make strides away from the foot-worn trough of this well-traveled path of precedent, to overwrite this map that no longer pertains, then you’ll wind up another cautionary skeleton for the next dime store Indiana Jones who lacks the goddamn imagination to strike out in a new direction. Then eventually the gulch is stacked high with idiot adventurers. Because each was compliant enough follow the arrows on the faded signs. Then one far off day, Johnny Jet Pack will touch down and mutter over your corpses “There’s a lush valley right over that ridge, you fucking stooges,” and go write a dissertation about your avoidable demise. And get fucking tenure. On your backs. Your dumb, dead backs.

Are you living in scary times? You are. But times have been fucking scary since we huddled in caves around a guttering fire gnawing on elk bones. Times are never not scary. That’s no reason to remain scared. Cinch up your belt, lace up your boots, and walk in some new direction, away from the maladapted giant sloths of media — they have no goddamn use for you, and the vestigial benefits you reap from them grow more ghostly by the day. Stop participating in the fallacy that they wield power. They do not. Or, if they do for the moment, it is because you have bestowed it upon them. Withhold it, this power, like a pouch of embers on your belt, as you step off the path worn bald by too many feet and make your way into the brush. There are brambles and there is uncertainty, yes. But the path — smoothed to the point of feeling inevitable, maybe — has been pressed into the earth by the paws of lemmings. And leads only off this cliff and into the frothing maw of the sea.

Step lively, now. And away from it.

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Ian Belknap

Founder WRITE CLUB. Essays, satire: Rumpus, Chicago Trib, Chicago Reader, American Theatre Mag, etc. Partner & I sold pilot to Sony-Tristar writerianbelknap.com