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Arena Stage played host Saturday evening to some super-wonky yakking that started out with 140-character thoughts on theater but quickly expanded to cover all aspects of theater journalism. Peter Marks, The Washington Post‘s sometimes curmudgeonly lead critic, and Howard Sherman, a former executive director of the American Theatre Wing and prolific blogger and tweeter, took their long-running dialogue off Twitter and into a live setting in Arena’s Kogod Cradle. It was verbose, gregarious, dare we say even a bit weird.
The whole thing started over the course of several months, as Marks and Sherman repeatedly got into it in 140-character bursts about the theater industry, the role of social media, and the nature of criticism. On his personal website, Sherman posted the transcripts of two arguments previewing the in-person showdown. Marks and Sherman had never meet before last Friday, but first engaged each other on Twitter when Sherman saw Marks “say something on Twitter I thought was preposterous,” though neither could recall Marks’ offending statement.
But once the conversation got beyond Twitter’s universal accessibility, Marks and Sherman, moderated by American Theatre magazine editor Jim O’Quinn, went deeper, and it was clear we were seeing a match of wits between a sometimes prickly newspaper-of-record critic and a sometimes unctuous “theater evangelist.”
Well, maybe it wasn’t that epic, but Marks and Sherman each won a few rounds for themselves:
On the Role of Critics: Forgive us if it seems like cheering for the home team, but Marks won this one by default after Sherman accused critics of “writing for themselves.” Not true if one considers arts criticism a form of service journalism, which it totally is. Just as writers and actors do their things for their audiences, critics review with their readers in mind. But only a default win for the WaPo critic? Marks declined to challenge Sherman on this argument, passing up a key opportunity for a knockout blow.
On Mission Statements: It’s close, but we’ll have to give a slight edge to Sherman. Though Marks was right to defend Shakespeare Theatre Company for presenting something as decidedly non-Bard as Fela!, he dismissed the notion that DMV theatergoers value area companies’ specialties, such as Roundhouse Theatre Company’s knack for literary adaptations, Solas Nua’s Celtic habits, or the late Cherry Red Productions’ many depravities.
On Awards: Here, Sherman raced to the defense of his former employer, the American Theatre Wing, which is probably best known outside of Midtown Manhattan as the organization that puts on the Tony Awards. Except the Tonys are a strictly Broadway affair, heavy on jukebox musicals and celebrity casting—Marks couldn’t remember which Jonas Brother will soon replace Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and does that even matter?—whereas nine of the past 10 Pulitzer-winning plays originated in regional theaters. And Sherman was also wrong in saying that the Tonys are the only nationally televised event devoted to theater. In fact, this week, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will, as ever, kick off with an hour-long revue of Broadway numbers. Yes, the Macy’s parade is usually more Jersey Boys than Sweeney Todd, but it’s something besides the Tonys.
On Michael Kaiser: The loser? Michael Kaiser, who last week posted a now-infamous column for The Huffington Post in which he tried to defend “legitimate” criticism from the entirety of the Internet and proceeded to get his ass kicked all over the Internet. “I would love to sit him down and show him how to use Twitter,” Sherman said.
On Leg Patting: Sherman. In making a few of his arguments, Marks tapped Sherman on the knee and arm as if to say, “No, dear Howard, here’s why you’re wrong.” Sherman called Marks out on it, jokingly, to a chorus of awkward laughter. Not that some people in the audience didn’t try to make it more awkward.
The Real Loser: The D.C. theater community. For all the praise heaped on Washington-area companies, directors, and writers, “Theater Beyond Twitter” involved three guys who live in New York.