ON February 22 The Australian published an interview with Barry Otto about his role in The Kreutzer Sonata, a State Theatre Company of South Australia production due to open the following week as part of the Adelaide Festival. It would be new STCSA artistic director Geordie Brookman’s first production in his new role. So, a worthwhile story: big-name actor, new artistic director, Adelaide Festival slot.
On February 27 The Australian reported the news that Otto had pulled out of the production. He was ill, with exhaustion cited as the reason for the withdrawal. Renato Musolino was asked to accept the role of Pozdnyshev and gutsily did so. He would, naturally, have to go on with script in hand. Presumably STCSA considered cancelling the first week or so of performances, but decided to press on. A difficult situation for all concerned, to be sure. And a story worthy of running in the paper. It would be perverse to suggest otherwise, given that the production was considered newsworthy in its original state.
Otto had performed in two previews in front of an audience, and an audience member, Bridgette Dwyer, approached The Australian’s arts editor, Ashleigh Wilson, with a piece about what she had seen. He accepted it and it ran online on the 27th. This piece has created a great deal of commentary, mostly adverse, on Twitter.
Some have questioned the merits of Dwyer’s perceptions, which is fine. Anything published is up for debate. More troubling are suggestions that the piece should not have been published at all.
One criticism seems to be that the Otto performance was a preview and therefore off-limits (Twitter is a boon to mankind, but not the easiest forum in which to have detailed debate). The convention – and it is a convention only – is that critics wait to be invited to what is billed as opening night and then write. In the theatre that may follow a week or so of preview performances, sold at a lower price to the public. It’s a convention usually adhered to; everyone knows where they stand. You pay less, you may see an undercooked show. Opening night comes, ready or not, and the critics weigh in.
But there is absolutely nothing to prevent anyone from writing about the show at any time, within the boundaries of the country’s defamation laws. It’s a public event. You don’t have to be invited to the show to win the right to comment (Dwyer bought her ticket). Adelaide paper The Advertiser bought a ticket so it could report on Thursday’s show (it “opened” on Wednesday). This drew an unwise March 2 tweet from STCSA: “We know we’re reviewed in today’s Tiser. They bought a ticket Thurs night (which they did not tell us beforehand) after being asked to wait”.
Unfortunately for STCSA The Advertiser is under no obligation to tell anyone it intends to cover a news event. They had been asked to wait; they elected not to. The ‘Tiser would have considered the news value for its readers a rather more compelling matter than a theatre company’s wish to control comment.
Furthermore, The Advertiser’s Louise Nunn reported an STCSA spokeswoman as saying there would be no reduction in ticket prices. So looking at it from the convention point of view, the show is definitely open. You can’t have it both ways. (STCSA invited critics from Saturday night onwards; The Australian‘s Murray Bramwell will offer his thoughts in Tuesday’s paper and earlier online.)
This isn’t to say I don’t sympathise with STCSA and especially with Otto; it’s a depressing situation for everyone. It’s difficult – but that doesn’t mean hands off.
Journalism can’t be conducted at the whim of those being covered. In arts journalism there is a huge amount of effort spent by organisations on story and image control – you can talk to this person but not to that one, you can do it Friday week but not tomorrow, we want to see the photos before you publish or you can’t have access, we’ve given the story to another publication and so on. OK, that’s part of the cut and thrust. But arts organisations shouldn’t be surprised when occasionally things get away from their control. Arts journalists aren’t on their payroll, available only to spread the good word and cover up the bad.
Which brings me to what I think is the second thread of criticism of The Australian’s decision to run a piece about Otto’s performance. It’s that the arts and artists need protection from horrid journalists who delight in pulling everything down. I hope I’m wrong about sensing that from the Twitter conversation. Such a view does the arts no good at all. Apart from being fantastically way off the mark, it gives ammunition and comfort to the enemy. Those who think the arts are precious, out of touch with real life and unwilling to accept any criticism will have all their prejudices confirmed.
By the way, the ‘Tiser gave The Kreutzer Sonata an extremely positive review. I wonder if STCSA will pounce on laudatory phrases for use in its advertising?
Disclosure: I am a former arts editor of The Australian and currently national dance critic for the paper.