Just prior to the celebrated Millennium, in the waning months of 1999 when everything seemed possible but nothing appeared to be certain, the Plain Dealer threw a retirement party for Marianne Evett, who for fifteen years had served there as theater critic.
The event was held at Windows On The River in the Powerhouse, back when the Powerhouse was a place people liked to go to. The theater community was invited - which I was delighted to discover now officially included me, as Artistic Director of the fledgeling Bad Epitaph Theater Company. The most influential people in Cleveland theater were there, to show respect for a woman who took her role as guardian of taste and professionalism in her purview very seriously.
This was the Marianne Evett who had championed the tenure of Josephine Abady, the end of the residency company at the Play House, and who eviscerated Peter Hackett. She was a champion of the rise of small, semi-professional houses like Dobama and Ensemble. She was not afraid to call out the often sloppy work produced at that time by Cleveland Public Theatre -- as Jim Levin reminded everyone in the room that night he made an unannounced grab for the mic to read a poem he had written for the occasion which may have been written to be amusing, or perhaps simply audacious, but in the end came off as inappropriate for the occasion.
My own relationship with Marianne had been one birthed in awkwardness. In a desperate attempt to get the PD to give much-deserved (we believed) ink to Guerrilla Theater Company, we sent daily, abusive faxes to the newsroom. When the diminutive Mrs. E. finally appeared at our theater to grant an interview (she absolutely refused to ever attend any of our performances) I was admonished and lectured that that was no way to get attention from a newspaper.
Having proved a certain degree of competence over the 1990s and emerging as a thirty year-old with a promising new theater company in my charge, Marianne was a supporter of Bad Epitaph's preliminary offerings. After ten years, I had won over the most important voice in Cleveland theater.
Then we got another voice. Alas.
Twelve years on, with no party, no fanfare, no announcement in the largest daily paper in Ohio (wait, is it?) theater critic Tony Brown has disappeared. Just vanished. He hasn't written a theater review for a month, and I understand there still are plays going on around here. He's not tweeting, there's nary a peep from the man who has proudly invited controversy from that first night when he was introduced at Marianne's farewell party and we all sat on the edge of our seats to learn who would be creating the first draft of Cleveland theater history in the 21st Century.
"Criticism is by its very nature adversarial," he warned us, "Let's mix it up."
And mix it up he did. Sometimes literally. I need not elaborate. But where does that leave us? For the past several years I have been poring over old newspapers to learn my Cleveland theater history, history written by the critics. All theater history is written by the critics. And in Cleveland those critics have loomed large, from Tony Brown and Marianne Evett, Peter Bellamy and Tony Mastroinni (who double-handedly closed a Play House production of Lysistrata after three nights and got at least one person fired), Arthur Spaeth, Archie Bell and the legendary and much-beloved William F. McDermott ... for over a century, newspapers landed on doorsteps and people looked at them over breakfast or took them to work and there was a name attached to the opinions which told you which plays to see and which to avoid.
And today, there is no one. The theater people know the names of those who write about theater today, but no one else does. The PD gives as little space as possible to theater, doling it out to stringers like Don Rosenberg and Christine Howey. There are a few blogs dedicated to theater criticism, I would be interested to know what their traffic actually is, it can't be much. They certainly aren't paid.
The problem with theater criticism in the digital age is that the onus is on you to find it. A newspaper had the day's events of your community typed up and put in front of you. If I received a daily paper, I might even know how the Tribe is doing, but I don't. And the average baseball fan is not occasionally confronted by the photo of an actor doing their business with a writer telling you what to think about what they are doing.
Who will speak for Cleveland theater?
November 21, 2011 UPDATE.
January 1, 2012 UPDATE.
March 28, 2012 UPDATE.
Showtime in Cleveland: The Rise of a Regional Theater Center