This post originally appeared on Howard Sherman’s blog.
Let’s start with the basics: no one can possibly prevent critics from reviewing shows if they want to do so. Whether it’s requested or even imposed by a theatre company, a venue, a rights holder, or an author, members of the press—just like the public—can always buy a ticket to a theatrical production and express what they think. To actively prevent members of the press from entering a theatre is at least foolhardy if not potentially discriminatory; to prevent anyone from writing or broadcasting their opinion is a denial of their rights to speech. Just so we’re all on the same page.
That’s why a recent press release from the Wooster Group and the Los Angeles venue REDCAT quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest. It stated that the license granted to the Wooster Group for the REDCAT run of the Group’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Room, beginning tomorrow, contained the admonition: “There may be absolutely No reviews of this production; e.g. newspaper, website posts etc.” It also appeared in a press release issued by Wooster and REDCAT, after an opening paragraph which stated, “Samuel French, Inc., which manages the United States rights for Harold Pinter’s work, restricts critics from reviewing the world premiere of the Group’s production of The Room at REDCAT.”
Very little angers and piques the interest of the press more than being told what they can’t do, so it’s no surprise that following the initial word of the issue coming from the website Bitter Lemons, both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did features on the ostensible critical blackout. But there’s more to the story as recounted in both of those articles.
In short, the Wooster Group acquired a license for “advance” presentations of The Room last fall, at their home the Performing Garage in New York, where it played an extended run in October and November of 2015. At the time the Group announced that engagement, press releases issued by the company spoke of a planned “premiere” at REDCAT, a return run in New York, and plans to make The Room the first of a trilogy of Pinter productions (the Wooster Group has subsequently spoken of plans to take The Room to France).
But Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French, which licenses Pinter’s work in the U.S. on behalf of the Pinter estate’s London agent, says that the announcement of any presentation beyond the original New York license caught the company by surprise. The Wooster Group has confirmed that they had not secured licenses for any of the subsequent engagements beyond November 2015, with their general manager Pamela Reichen writing in an e-mail, “Our plans to do further Pinter pieces besides The Room were preliminary and tentative when we first announced performances of The Room in New York City. We did not have specific dates for these further productions, and so had not yet made an application for rights to Samuel French.”
Both parties agree that they began discussions about future licenses immediately after French learned of the company’s plans, but the pace and substance of those negotiations and terms are in dispute. What is not in dispute is that by the time rights for the REDCAT engagement were completed, the prohibition against opening the production for review was in place.
When this first hit the press, Lazarus issued a statement that read in part:
Samuel French is licensing agent representing the wishes of the Harold Pinter estate. The Wooster Group announced the Los Angeles production of Pinter’s The Room before securing the rights. Had the Wooster Group attempted to secure the rights to the play prior to announcing the production, the estate would have withheld the rights.
Lazarus maintains that the Pinter estate had not been prepared to grant any subsequent license, because the British agent had lined up a “first-class” production in the UK, which had an option for a U.S. transfer. Lazarus points out that French could have simply said no but said his company persuaded the U.K. agent to allow the L.A. production, with restrictions. “We said yes because they begged,” said Lazarus, “They said, ‘We’ll lose money.’” At first the license was written so as not to permit any promotion of the production, but that was scaled back to being a limitation on reviews.
Queried about the “no reviews” language, Lazarus says that French “made it clear what we meant: Don’t invite the critics and don’t provide press tickets. We were under no illusion that the press couldn’t buy a ticket and that if they did so, it wasn’t a breach of contract. We weren’t denying freedom of speech.” That said, whatever the content of the conversations were, the suggestion of a press exclusion in stark black-and-white contract language appeared much more blunt, and seemed even more so when deployed in a press release verbatim. Lazarus allowed that in the future, should such stipulations be made, the language will be more specific.
In the Wooster/REDCAT release, Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT, says that the review restrictions were “highly unusual and puzzling,” adding that, “This attempt to restrict critical discussion of such an important production in print and online is deeply troubling, with the potential for severe financial impact.’” In fact, review restrictions have become increasingly frequent, for any number of reasons. Just last summer, Connecticut critics were strongly urged not to review A.R. Gurney’s Love and Money at Westport Country Playhouse because the show’s “true” premiere was to take place immediately following its Connecticut run at New York’s Signature Theatre. Several years ago, national press was “uninvited” from the premiere of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide at the Guthrie Theater once a commercial producer optioned the piece. Major press was asked to skip The Bridges of Madison County when it was first seen at Williamstown Theatre Festival. I can think back almost 30 years to a time when, in my capacity as p.r. director for Hartford Stage, I pleaded with a New York Times critic not to attend a production there, even though local press had attended.
And let’s not forget how long Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark spent in previews before much of the press finally got fed up and covered it despite the stated preferences of the production. Whether or not one likes the practice of letting producers decide when reviews are or are not “permitted” (Jeremy Gerard of Deadline, previously of Bloomberg and Variety, stakes out his position in a recent column), and whether one feels the press is honorable or complicit in how they handle these requests on a case-by-case basis, it is hardly a rare practice.
Indeed, asked about how the press was handled in connection with the Wooster Group’s unreviewed advance showings of The Room in New York in the fall, general manager Reichen wrote, “The New York performances were not open to the press. We develop our work over long periods of time that involve work-in-progress showings—like the October-November showings of The Room—at our home theatre, the Performing Garage. We only open a show for review in New York or elsewhere once development is complete. The decision not to invite press to the advance showings was our decision, not a stipulation from Samuel French. It was our intention to open the show for review in Los Angeles.”
In a phone conversation about this situation, Jeremy Gerard of Deadline noted, “There’s no other kind of journalism where the journalist says, ‘Is it OK if I report this kind of story?’” That said, the allowance for theatrical productions to be developed and previewed in front of paying audiences has become generally standard practice and important to countless creative artists, the result of a détente between the natural instincts of the press and the creative process of artists.
It’s impossible not to wonder whether the license was actually being denied because of dissatisfaction with the advance presentation in New York by French or the estate. Lazarus says that’s not the case. “No,” he stated. “This is not a value judgment on the production.” That seems consistent with the account by Reichen, who writes, “We received an appreciative note from the representative of Samuel French who attended an advance showing performance. We have not received any other communication from the estate or Samuel French relating to the concept or execution of our production.”
Asked whether the current denial of right to perform The Room for the foreseeable future after the Los Angeles run would effect their exploration of other Pinter works, Reichen wrote, “Because the rights are not being made available to us, we have no plans to explore other Pinter works. No significant work had begun on them. But our inability to perform The Room in New York or on tour will cause The Wooster Group a significant financial loss. We are a not-for-profit organization, and we fund our own productions. We therefore must recoup our investment over time through long performance runs and touring fees.”
So let’s cull this down to the basics. The Wooster Group entered into an agreement to premiere their production of The Room at REDCAT in Los Angeles without having secured the rights to do so, and predicated company finances on presentations of the work beyond the original advance shows in New York in the fall 2015. Whatever the circumstances of the negotiations for those rights, the Wooster Group moved forward with an additional engagement, and was planning still more, with no assurance that they could keep doing the piece.
In ultimately granting the rights for the Los Angeles engagement, Samuel French, on behalf of the Pinter estate’s wishes, stipulated that the show at REDCAT should not be open for reviews, but with language that can be construed as a broadly sweeping admonition over any reviews appearing, as opposed to being merely that the venue not facilitate the attendance of critics. Could French and the Pinter estate have allowed the brief L.A. engagement to proceed with no restrictions, without materially affecting the fortunes of a “first-class” U.K. production and without the resulting fuss? Sure, but ultimately it was their call.
In accepting the terms as set forth by French, the Wooster Group and REDCAT apparently still bridled at them, and so instead of asking critics not to attend, they issued a media release which implied an actual, though entirely unenforceable, press ban by French.
I would suggest that the Wooster Group and REDCAT, instead of acquiescing to their agreement and abiding by its spirit, issued the press release they did precisely to incite the press to greater interest in covering The Room. Whether they intended that outcome or not, it worked like a charm. It resulted in more national press than a 10-day run in Los Angeles might have otherwise received, and it prompted the American Theatre Critics Association to issue a statement in support of the right of the arts press to cover work as they see fit. Editors are reportedly debating whether or not to honor—is it a ban or is it a request?—the position that the Los Angeles production isn’t officially open for review, even as it’s perfectly clear that they can do as they wish and always could.
Ultimately, the Wooster Group and REDCAT may have won the battle but lost the war, since there won’t be any further Pinter work by the company at this time. But they did, for a time, successfully turn the press account of the situation away from their inability to secure rights on terms they found acceptable into one of press freedom. But the impact of heightened alertness by the press to requests that work be protected from review in some cases or for some period of time may prove detrimental to other companies and productions in the wake of this scenario. I have always supported the right of artists and companies to explore their work in front of audiences for a reasonable period of time before critics weigh in, and will continue to do so; but in all cases, the press will make the final judgment. In sum, I’m not sure this situation was ultimately beneficial to the arts community, because it puts a longstanding, unwritten mutual handshake agreement under the glare of public scrutiny, and the conflict it’s sparked may have far-reaching implications for the form.
Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School College of Performing Arts.