Last July, the drama critics of New York were dealt a blow to their pride and influence when all 100 or so first-nighters were thrown, part and parcel, from the Tony Awards voting pool, where they had happily dwelled alongside producers and actors since the 1963-64 season. (Traditionally, first nighters are also automatically Tony voters.) The reason? "To avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists." Upon hearing this explanation, critics who were merely stunned and hurt suddenly became blisteringly indignant. Feldman was among the most vocal. "The excision of this voting block represents a step backward in the seriousness of the awards," he wrote. Perhaps the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, the two bodies that administer the Tonys, were listening. Last week, the Tony leaders made another stunning announcement, saying, "We recognize that the recent decision to rescind the votes of the press was perceived as a slight against journalists, and in particular the working theatre critics," and welcoming members of the New York Drama Critics Circle — all 20 of them — back into the fold. Feldman, who has been president of the Circle longer than any previous member, spoke to Playbill.com about the organization's roller-coaster season.
Playbill.com: The announcement from the Tonys, folding the members of the New York Drama Critics Circle back into the Tony voting pool, came as a surprise. Was this something you and the League had been working on for a while?
Adam Feldman: No. I think it was something they had been thinking about for a while. The first announcement really came as a surprise, in July. I think a lot of us were really gobsmacked by that. A lot of people wrote critically about that decision. I think [the Tonys] have been trying to reassess this year whether that decision was really the right one for them. I think they did listen to some extent to some of the concerns that were raised by us and others, and they decided they would dial it back a bit. Now, this compromise solution does not reinstate most of the people that were cut.
Playbill.com: No. Just the 20 that belong to the Circle.
AF: Exactly. So really it's just restoring a fifth of the number cut. But it's a step in the right direction. I hope that they remain open to more steps like that. Because I think that the official rationale for the excision of this contingent from the voter list got it exactly wrong.
Plabybill.com: The idea that critics suffer from a conflict of interest, both reviewing and voting for the shows?
AF: This is a group of voters where in a given year you have producers literally voting for their own shows. To say that we have a conflict of interest is absurd. I actually think quite to the contrary. I think what we bring to the votership is a lack of conflict of interest, a lack of financial or emotional investment. I think that makes us a more independent contingent. 100 voters out of the full membership was a big slice. I wonder how it will affect the awards, whether it will have a measurable effect. It's very difficult to know. But it's my guess that this contingent, in the aggregate, has probably helped some smaller shows. And I think it would be a loss if the Tonys got measurably more commercial by our absence.
Playbill.com: In the statement the Tonys put out, they said, "We believe that the selection of the New York Drama Critics' Circle is consistent with our policy of authorizing independent theatrical organizations (including labor unions and creative guilds) to determine which members of their professional constituency may vote." Couldn't "independent theatrical organizations" also apply to the Drama Desk and other critical bodies?
AF: It could. Playbill.com: So why just invite back the Circle?
AF: They don't really want to invite that many people back, I think. And the Critics Circle, if you're going pick any group, it's the most established group. And it has sort of the most, uh...
Playbill.com: Important critics?
AF: Yeah. Institutional weight behind it. I think, after the debacle of their initial justification, which was roundly and correctly rejected, they offered a number of other rationales, primarily that the press list was too long, it was bloated with people who weren't seeing the shows. They wanted to address that. But it was too complicated, there were too many names and they didn't want to individually adjudicate which of these people really belonged, and which did not. And rather than try to make those decisions and insult half of the people, they just decided to cut everyone. Personally, I think there were other factors involved, but I think it's clear they did not want the full 100 or so people. And this is a step in the right direction to restoring some of those people. Would I like there to be more people? Absolutely. I indicated that in our meeting and they were receptive to the idea of having an open dialogue about it in the future. I think the appeal of the Drama Critics Circle is that there is a very set membership and set criteria [for membership] that they don't have to administer.
Playbill.com: When the Tonys decision was handed down last July, it seemed like another move toward the increasing marginalization of drama critics. Critics have lost a few positions on the past year or so. Did it seem to you that this was a thing that concerned the League and the Wing?
AF: They were regretful that it appeared that way.
Playbill.com: Did they really think it could have possibly appeared any other way?
AF: I think they "underthunk" it. (Laughs) I think they regret the way it was handled. And they were quite gracious about that in their statement. I doubt that their intent was to give personal offense to any of us. But I wonder still, as I wondered in summer, if this is to some extent part of an effort to decrease the power of the press. It is manifestly that in the context of the Tony votership. That is what it is. It is the erasure of the press. I can't judge their motivations, but the effect of it was certainly that, and it was perceived that way, and I don't think necessarily incorrectly.
Playbill.com: So, will the Circle critics vote for this season's Tonys?
AF: We will not be voting for this season. There's a Tony rule about not changing rules in mid-season. We will sit out the season, and vote again next year.