Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Star Tribune's Peck responds to Guthrie staffer's rip

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

You didn't think Claude Peck was bitchy only in "Withering Glance," did you?

The Star Tribune senior arts editor contacted me about 14 seconds after I posted about Guthrie communications director Melodie Bahan's "Don't review this," a rip on the dailies' theater coverage.

After noting he'd edited said reviews for 11 years, Peck quipped, "She doesn't like the reviews — and I'm not saying she doesn't like them because they're too negative. She thinks they're dumb, or she's disdainful of them. It really comes across that she wishes she was a working journalist— and I, of course, am so very glad she is not, after reading her weakly argued piece."

Ahem.

Claude Peck
Claude Peck

"Interestingly, Melodie has invited me to come to the Guthrie the week after next to talk to journalists about writing a good review. She invited me to do that. There's irony there."

Mmmwwwrrr!

Um, Claude — how about the merits of her argument? Such as, first-night reviews are hasty and formulaic and emphasizing them does little to capture theater's deeper and most interesting aspects?

"Well, there's a consumer aspect to the review," he acknowledged. "People with limited household incomes are looking for consumer advice about whether this is something they should spend their money on. There won't be a big wellspring of people agreeing with her that we should stop reviewing. None of the papers I see around the country have stopped reviewing."

(Strib theater writer Graydon Royce emphasized this in a email message: "I have not heard a groundswell from other theaters that we eliminate reviews. In fact, they call all the time, asking us to come see their shows.")

Peck continued, "We are the largest newspaper in the state, the largest website in the state and 97 percent of people reading that review would not be attending that play. And for those people, we still want them to read that review. They just want to read an intelligent and insightful piece of analytical writing. But one of the things I want to assure readers who may see this piece is that we will not stop reviewing shows at the Guthrie. And we will not stop reviewing shows at the Fringe Festival. We do both. I've always insisted we do everything from Bedlam [Theater Company] to Broadway."

But it seems like one of Bahan's points is that local reviews, you know, suck.

"That's going to have to be figured out between our editors, and our writers and our readers," he said tersely.

Review quality is a rich vein of discussion (and also a hall of mirrors), but specifics are needed if anything will, or should change. Bahan didn't cite any lame reviews in her piece. But at the same time, she issued a very specific plea for hard-hitting arts journalism with a very specific example: Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s recent demise.

"It takes a long time to build up a debt as large as the one that killed Jeune Lune," she wrote. "But I can’t recall reading a story about their troubles until 2008, the year they announced they were disbanding."

Peck sniffed, "You read about it first in our paper. We got the scoop on it. And it was 2007. We reported aggressively on that story, so much so that we earned the long-running emnity of their entire board and professional staff."

But, I noted, Bahan says the tale had been around for years, and you should've known sooner.

"I can't dissect exactly the year we should have," he replied. "But when we get wind of things, it takes up awhile to develop on-the-record sources. We may hear a rumor through the grapevine, but [a story doesn't run] until we can get someone from the theater or the board of directors to sit down and go on the record with us. That's an exceedingly difficult prospect at times."

He paused, somewhat dramatically: "Very difficult, for example, in the case of the Guthrie, which has had a long reputation of giving the barest minimum of cooperation for our newsgathering efforts."

Melodie Bahan
Melodie Bahan

By this point, I realized this had become a February Festivus — a full-scale airing of grievances. Bahan had exorcised some demons about writers, and Peck was now unloading on subjects: If they plead for tougher journalism, they best not be hypocrites when their own phone rings.

"We recently did a story on Guthrie director Joe Dowling's salary," Peck said. "Melodie made it clear to me in a conference before the story ran that she and the Guthrie would officially participate in no way whatsoever, be of any help with any numbers for that story."

He added, "I told her I didn't blame her, and we would try to newsgather in any way we can. And fortunately, we found board members willing to speak on the record."

After the piece ran, he says she wrote him an email "comparing that story to a Molotov Cocktail tossed into an already fearful community. And yet we did see the news value in that story: Dowling was making more than any New York not-for-profit theater director or any regional director — even discounting a one-time $100,000 bonus, he was at the top of the heap nationally. As the economy was heading into the shitter, we felt that was some news we wanted to write about."

(Royce again: "Arts organizations are not always eager to talk about what goes on behind the scenes. That is not criticism. It is a stone-cold fact.")

At the same time Bahan offered up Jeune Lune, she complained that "the very sporadic stories that do get reported are disproportionately about money — or the lack thereof — and therefore focus on only the large theaters."

Given the Dowling piece, Bahan's critics point to this an example of axe-grinding, but I asked Peck to give me examples of in-depth writing about something other than cash. He cited two off the top of his head:

"We use multimedia as a platform, we did a wonderful video of Bain Boehlke, his life as an actor and this play about an older actor. Intercut scenes from play with an interview with Bain. It was a very beautiful, and sensitive and deep profile. We just did a lengthy package on another actor, James A. Williams, another long life in the theater. Really interesting life, and he's become one of the national experts doing August Wilson plays."

Bahan did give credit to the Strib for keeping two theater writers — sort of mindboggling when you consider all the other places the paper has cut. Peck said he appreciated her noting that, and credited management for retaining a commitment to this local arts beat.

"In the last 10 years, there have been between 70 and 100 people with some kind of 501c3 status going," he noted. "It's a lot of small theaters, but we also have an active commercial and touring scene, the Chanhassen, suburban theaters."

Nevertheless, he was still simmering as things wound down, so I couldn't resist jerking his chain a bit. We should now expect an escalating vendetta between the Strib and the Guthrie, right?

"Not at all," Peck said cheerily. "I'm very much looking forward to their Kushner Festival. I went to see him speak in Hopkins last Friday, and I can't wait to see his new play, and I can't wait to see his musical again, which I loved in New York. We want to really cover it. We want to cover it in depth. Of course, there are questions of access, or cooperation, getting into rehearsals ..."

I could practically see his devilish look at the other end of the line.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Comments (15)

I would like to point out that I consider Quinton Skinner's theater reviews awesome. I don't think Bahan ripped him, but I'd like to cite him as one thing that's right in the review community.

Are there enough journalists left to dedicate the kind of resources necessary to the stories Ms Bahan wants written?

Congratulations to the person who created the photo illustration atop this post.

There is only one common denominator here: CJ!

What do Ian McKellen and Visanthe Shiancoe have in common?

Each got lots of "extra attention" from the Strib for...

Ms. Bahan, you can't fight "the Glance"!

Agreed on the graphic at the top of the story. Credit line says Corey Anderson. Plus the illustration improves on reality, since the letters on Guthrie's marquee posts (or drama chimneys) are oriented vertically -- they stack in a way that's hard to read.

I don't want to get into the topic of "newsworthiness" since I have always believed the way newspapers decide what and how to cover is one of the great mysteries of life. But as an entity that receives public dollars, the Guthrie's finances are a matter of public interest, should the public decide to take an interest.

My impression of the Star Tribune's coverage of the Guthrie has been gentle. In it's review of the Guthrie's new downtown theatrical mausoleum, Minneapolis' first and hopefully last example of post 9-11 architecture, as I recall the Strib mostly confined itself to the observation that the new building provides a great location from which to see the river. In Royce's mildly kind review of the recent Guthrie production of a minor early Shakespeare comedy which seems to be the same production they do of all minor early Shakespeare comdies, was I the only reader who thought the really scathing review was left in the computer, or possibly just circulated in house?

In spite of his prickliness, I have to say "Advantage: Peck"

And yes, nice photo-illustration Corey.

I'm with Mr. Foster. If Ms. Bahan can't stand the heat, she should get out of the kitchen.

And I think the building is both an architectural disaster and in the wrong location. Really the Walker should have moved to the river, and the Guthrie should have remained at the "foot" of Minneapolis' "Broadway" of theaters on Hennepin Avenue.

As the editor of MinnesotaPlaylist.com, I’ve got to encourage people to read Melodie’s entire article on our website rather than only the snippets and interpretations here. For one, while we recognize that her position at the Guthrie is the reason for Minnpost’s interest, the article is clearly not a defense, manifesto, or treatise from or about the Guthrie Theater.

As she makes clear, disappearing and/or unsatisfying arts journalism is a national problem – and while this may not be the best time to talk about it, it may actually be the only time left. Second, you’ll see that she does in fact provide some examples of the type of writing she wishes to see more of (while of course not giving out story assignments). While Frank Rich is certainly the most notable, she also talks about a Chicago journalist named Christopher Piatt. About his work: “There was a story examining the overwhelming whiteness of professional theater in Chicago that didn’t just bash the established companies for the homogeneity, but actually looked at the causes and offered solutions for both theaters and audiences.” To say she’s afraid or against reviews would be to consciously misread the statement, “I’m not against theater reviews.” The point is that too great a focus on reviews has probably made it too hard for arts journalists to do the type of stories that may in fact have more impact.

Certainly, with all the upheaval in the media (and arts) worlds right now, we find this a point worth considering rather than dismissing out of hand because of where she works or the nature of her job.

On our website, you’ll also notice that we pick an important theme within the performing arts community to explore each month. Melodie’s essay was an excellent way to initiate a part of the discussion on media coverage of the arts, but we consider it only the beginning of a conversation. (If you login, you can read comments from our audience, which is predominantly performing artists.) In fact, critics like Graydon Royce, Dominic Papatola, Quinton Skinner, and Camille LeFevre sat down with us for a comprehensive video interview into their own thought processes and efforts that we will be posting later this month.

As Editor of TwinCityScene.com I also have to empathize with Bahan. This line struck me:

"Local theater critics are journalists first. Journalists are storytellers, and there are thousands of stories in this large and active theater community that just aren’t being written."

Storytelling is really expensive, really really really really really expensive. A typical writer will want to devote hours to create their story, to set an atmosphere, cue the players and finish on a climax that will somehow convince the reader it was worth it to read. Hardly anyone can afford it and I tell writers often don't do it, don't do more than you need to because I know as a journalist myself the time and effort needed to make that one story the best it can be. Whereas cooks try to barely kiss the food with flame, writers wish they could simmer for days on end to produce the right text.

Now how could a world full of wonderful arts coverage happen? Bahan forgets one thing, not all of us have the windfall of public dollars or the access to it. How dare she complain about running with a story on Joe Dowling's salary? How dare she suggest writers are not heroic enough? Who is subsidizing her job? Who is paying for her to do what she loves best? I feel like she is suggesting writers "on their way out the door" give up on old school newspapers and do their quality journalism for free, give it away in blogs because its the right thing to do. She says this while basking in the safety net of taxpayer money. Dare I suggest the Guthrie should take an across the board pay cut and actors become unpaid.

There is only so much hypocrisy I can read for tonight. Good night.

Has we entered self-victimizing phase of this discussion yet? You know the one where each side start accusing the "other" or "the media" for all that upsets them? The one where each side starts saying, "No, you punched me first! No you did... no you did..."

Ms. Bahan raises some good points in her essay for the web that the coverage in local newspapers (why restrict your criticism to them when broadcast and radio is even worse) is shallow and full of boosterism for the theaters and players in the Twin Cities.

The Guthrie participates in promoting this kind of coverage as much as the printed media falls prey to it with the arts advocacy always smiling happy to support coverage. Afterall, didn't the Guthrie just have a special event to have patrons bring their dogs into the theater?

I just don't completely get the righteous indignation of all humphf about this story. One communique I received on this story urged me to go counter the media's attitude, as it was paraphrased, "...to be happy and shut up." That's putting words into mouths.

As much as I always enjoyed reading Frank Rich when I lived and worked in New York, my colleagues who were opening off and off-off Broadway plays there loathed his reviews and feared his mighty pen. The NY theater critic could close a show overnight and vanish millions in investment. They wrote unfavorable reviews of play not out of distaste for the work of playwrights or hatred of actors and talent, they did so out of respect for their readers.

As Brian Lambert warns: be careful what you ask for Bahan.

But I do agree with Bahan that the community could greatly benefit from a more in depth coverage and discussion of all the arts and that starts at home. The Guthrie's own web site is at best superficial and trite. They started a section called "The Blue Blog" and it is nothing if not hastily-written, pithily little plugs and nothing like the dramaturgical depth and scope it SHOULD be.

I don't see the Guthrie practicing a dramaturgical function in reaching out to the community and engaging them both educationally and in the processes of staging the literature of theater in a community context whether it be Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, August Wilson or Heiner Müller.

Sure, the Guthrie PR offices print posters, send out press releases, and the theater offers general classes in writing, dance, voice, acting, stage combat but not in an appreciation of the literature of the theater, in the specific craft of bring a particular play or work to the stage. I saw this and participated in community arts engagement while living in Europe. However, I find it all too easy just to scapegoat "the media" as everyone is want to do these days and not truly get to the crux of the matter.

Ms. Bahan, if you want to community to engage the works of the theater in depth than you must engage the community in a deep investigation of the dramaturgical process and the literature of the works you are doing on your stages. This is a two-way street.

So....is Peck a Clod?

I’m not remotely surprised that Peck and Royce are getting defensive. The relevance of arts critics seemed to come under heavy scrutiny about three years ago --- I first became aware of it on public radio. The gist of the discussion was that critics feel they’re providing an invaluable service and most everyone else could care less. Now in a time of economic crisis, the critics are the first to go. Big surprise.

When you look at the whole history of theater, the concept of one elite voice speaking about a play’s merits on a mass scale is a relatively new one. Shakespeare and Marlowe’s works were critiqued but not by some 16th Century version of Graydon Royce. The plays were discussed in pubs and in letters and in classrooms.

Maybe what’s bothering Royce and Peck is that’s the way plays are still being discussed, (albeit with electronic assistance) and we may not need them as much as they think we do.

Actually, reviews are needed as much as next day sports stories are. And for arts enthusiasts, they're read with the same amount of scrutiny. Was this my experience? Maybe Eric doesn't get out much.

Being a "critic" is a thankless job. Truly one of the most thankless.

However, I cannot help but take exception with the shallow and stereotypical notion that the art, film, restaurant, or theater critic is "not needed." Just as an earlier comment asked: "Why do we need a sport reporters account of the game the day after?" That seems to be one of the most unneeded stories of all.

Yet, sports reporting and arts criticism have been and will be with us longer than anyone here can imagine. It goes back to the Greek amphitheaters and Roman Square and all the way though to Times Square. The need for criticism or, let's just call it what it is, intellectual thought and discourse, transcends printed and electronic mediums but its "usefulness" is always the function of the opine of its announcers and criers of conspiracy or thought control.

One cannot help but notice a stark contrast in the level of contempt in American culture for thought and intellectual pursuit in general by comparison to other countries, Certainly, as many in our culture are descendent from Europe or sought their education there we often compare ourselves to British, French, Italian and other Northern European cultures. But I'd venture to say almost any country in the world I've traveled to South of the equator has more respect for criticism and intellectual thought than we do here.

These discussions of "usefulness" operate under a set of assumptions people keep pretty close to their chest. What is the purpose of a critic? How do we know if they are 'needed' or not?" I'd say most who exclaim the critic is not "needed" have some unstated notion of what constitutes their need -- to sell, promote, direct, dissuade or persuade... for instance.

Perhaps for Eric, all he needs is the weather report in the morning. Are they effective, useful, or even accurate?