After four seasons covering Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre, Jonathan Kalb's weekly reviews will no longer appear in the alternative newspaper, The New York Press. Replacing him will be...no one.
According to Kalb, the editors told him back in February that they wanted to remove theatre criticism because it seemed "boring." "That put me in an uncomfortable position," Kalb told Playbill On-Line. "I'm a member of the Drama Desk nominating committee and as such, I'd made a commitment to see everything. We came up with a compromise in that, since March, I've had a monthly column that ran till the season was done, so I'd still get into things." Ending his final column in the current issue, Kalb wrote, "Explaining to me that they feel `the theatre is boring,' the editors have decided that they no longer wish to devote regular space to it."
Asked about the termination, Kalb told PBOL that editor John Strausbaugh broke the bad news and characterized it as a "group decision" of all the editors, including editor-in-chief and CEO Russ Smith, associate editor Andre Slivka and managing editor Lisa Kearns. "Understand that none of these people go to the theatre," said Kalb. "So John tells me, `We got together and we're wondering how we can make our paper more exciting. We looked at the paper, and the theatre didn't seem exciting to us. Theatre is boring.' He said that twice. To me, that's like somebody saying, `I don't love you.' What am I supposed to say? `I don't think so?' Are they saying you make the scene boring in your writing? Anyway, it felt like a fait accomplit. And I'm the kind of person who doesn't argue in a situation like that; somebody's basically saying `goodbye.'
"Now I hope to write, somewhere, about my position that serious criticism is important, but I didn't want to stand there and argue... I feel as though I do have readers. I was speaking in Berlin last year and somebody came up to me and said, `Are you the Jonathan Kalb who writes for New York Press?' So I don't know what [Strausbaugh] is saying. He's saying `Russ and I and Andre don't go to the theatre, so it doesn't mean anything to us.' And the paper is basically what is interesting to these particular people."
Kalb, author of "Beckett in Performance" (Cambridge University Press), "Free Admissions" (Limelight), and "The Theatre of Heiner Muller" (Cambridge University Press; soon to be reissued in paperback by Limelight), joined the New York Press in October 1997 after ten years at New York City's other alternative weekly, the Village Voice. There he'd won the George Jean Nathan Award for his reviews and his Beckett book. At the Voice, Kalb admittedly chafed at being an also-ran critic in a publication where Michael Feingold has become an institution — and can therefore overshadow other critics in space and power. "I was one of the main sub-Feingoldians," Kalb said, "and there's no place to go at the Voice. If you're one of the `other' critics, you get 500 words. That's a very small block of space. The Voice has these capsule reviews — why did they need a real critic to do that? When I first started at the Voice, they'd send me to something and then ask how many words it deserved. Now it's bass ackwards the other way. The whole culture is fit into pre-capsulated units, and maybe that's one of the reasons the season's boring. "When I was offered my own column of 12-1600 words at New York Press," continued Kalb, "and I could see whatever I wanted, that was a wonderful amount of space. At the Voice there's no opportunity for anyone but Michael; there are many people who've been frustrated there. The theatre benefits from Michael's presence, but he shouldn't be the only critic. I guess by being at New York Press, I thought I was providing an alternative view."
Considering that alternative nature of the Voice, not to mention the generally Liberal-Democrat dispositions of most critics and arts-related people, the automatic speculation is that Kalb might have been ousted because he was out of kilter with the New York Press' proudly right-wing agenda. "It was always a very strange place for me to be writing considering the politics of the owner [Russ Smith]," Kalb told Playbill On Line. "But the other side of that conservatism is that Russ really wants to have people who know what they're talking about. So if he's going to hire a theatre or film critic; he wants them to be able to have the space to really explain what they mean. I give him credit for being interested in serious criticism. For all the Voice's lefty politics, it's a paper where the first question in every article is `How long is it? How much can be cut?' There are certain disgusting politics to that very situation, which acquiesces to the dumbing down of everything. As such, I don't have rancor in my heart for Russ Smith. When he covered the theatre, he let it be covered seriously.
"We get this idea that alternative papers have to cover a certain field of culture, like the Voice and New York Times," added Kalb. "We feel that theatre, too, should have blanket coverage. But the editors don't see it that way. It's more a reflection of personal taste."
Asked if the bugbear of all editors — advertising space — might have also been to blame for the decision to end theatre coverage, Kalb noted, "I said [to John Strausbaugh] `I know my column never brought in a lot of advertising.' He said, `That doesn't matter to me. Though I know it matters to other people at the paper.'"
Though busy directing The Measures Taken, a rarely-staged Brecht play, at Hunter College, where he'll become chair of the theatre department in the fall, Kalb hopes to find another criticism gig. "It wasn't easy to find New York Press," he said. "I don't anticipate it'll be easy to find another place I respect."
Before Kalb joined New York Press, the paper had run a "He Said, She Said" theatre column for about a year in 1995. The authors were Sarah Schulman, a Guggenheim-winning playwright, and Don Shewey, a veteran theatre journalist (NY Times Arts & Leisure section) and editor (7 Days, Soho Weekly News). Shulman and Shewey would both see a show and then offer, in print, their agreements and disagreements on its merit. The piece had started in the gay publication LGNY, with Shewey then offering it to the New York Press.
Schulman echoed Kalb's compliment that New York Press allows writers to say what they want without the intervention of management. However, she also picked up on a distinct privileged-us vs. underprivileged-them tone at the weekly. "When we came to New York Press," Schulman told Playbill On Line, "one of the editors said to us `we have no gay, no theater, no sports. When you guys are here, we've got the gay and theater covered, and all we'll have left is sports.' It was a shockingly white-male straight office. I hadn't been in that situation in some time. They didn't even talk to me; they talked to Don. And when we were fired, they called him and didn't even offer an explanation, no warning. They didn't even call me."
Shewey told Playbill On-Line little explanation was given for the termination apart from Strasbaugh saying, "You didn't succeed in making theatre any less inherently boring than it already is." Though he didn't recall instances of his co-writer being ignored by the Press editors, "I do think it's common courtesy," added Shewey, "that if you have two columnists being fired, you speak to both of them, not just one."
Asked if a particular column or incident sparked the dismissal, Schulman surmises that over the course of their year at New York Press, "We'd had a lot of gay content; we weren't covering `gay' theatre, but we also weren't hiding the gay content involved onstage and backstage with most play productions in New York. It was something people didn't write about, and telling the truth about it made [the editors] uncomfortable. Especially since there was no other gay content in the paper. One week Don went on vacation, and I wrote a full column about Cherry Jones, who was then in Night of the Iguana. I pointed out the lesbian subtext in both Iguana and The Heiress. We concluded that it was the content of my final column that upset them."
That said, Schulman had had no prior run-ins with the New York Press editors. "One time they asked me to shorten something, but not because of content," she told PBOL. "Still, our world view was contrary to theirs. They're so right wing; they're famous for editorials on, you know, why homeless people are terrible... After they stopped "He Said, She Said," they brought Nora Vincent to write a gay column — a right wing neo Conservative, if you can imagine. Then they got rid of her and got Kalb. I guess `gay' and `theatre' are the same category in their minds."
"They'd never given us any feedback or inclination that they were unhappy," continued Shewey. "There was zero editing at New York Press. There were three people running the show; it's very pathetic. They don't want to be bothered. And they pay people virtually nothing — Sarah and I would split $200 per column; I don't know what Jonathan was getting. We agreed to something like a six-month trial, and it stopped the minute it was over. I do think it's peculiar that they thought theatre was so boring, yet two months after we were let go, they started advertising for another critic. Mimi Kramer did some pieces periodically but for less than a season. Then Jonathan started and had quite a long run there. He did some really excellent work."
Calls to the NY Press were not returned at press time. The May 9 issue of the newspaper did include some theatre reviews; however, they were part of a column by Claus Von Bulow, who visited London and reported on the theatre he saw there.
— By David Lefkowitz