The Wall Street Journal’s Uncultured Culture Critic

Joanne Kaufman was here...

Joanne Kaufman was here…

In a jaw-dropping essay for her employer, The Wall Street Journal, alleged culture critic Joanne Kaufman proudly and candidly disabuses readers of any misconceptions they might have had regarding her qualifications for her job. She is not merely unqualified, but willfully, shamelessly, spectacularly unqualified. In a smug screed in which she admits to habitually walking out on Broadway shows at intermission, Kaufman reveals herself as lazy, arrogant, disrespectful of artists, and most crippling of all, to be afflicted by the attention span of the average Twitter addict.

“Don’t ask me what happened during the second acts of “Matilda,” “Kinky Boots,” “Pippin” and, reaching back a few seasons, “Boeing-Boeing” and “Billy Elliott, ”  Kaufman boasts.  “Really, I have no idea. But I am nothing if not cosmopolitan in my tastes, or distastes—French farces, English musicals set in gritty industrial cities, and American entertainments involving Charlemagne ’s Frankish kin.”

You can read her entire piece here; if the Journal doesn’t fire her, it is run by fools. “I’m of the “brevity is the soul of wit” school and of the belief that only a few bites are required to determine that you just don’t like a particular dish,” she happily admits. “My ideal night in the theater runs 90 minutes without an intermission (it is best not to put temptation in my path), which means that Shakespeare and I don’t tend to see a lot of each other.” This is the culture writer, remember. Yet she is admitting to membership in the lazy, sound-bite, bumper-sticker, multi-processing, distracted, ADD-addled public that has caused writers, playwrights, producers, book publishers, film-makers and song-writers to dumb down, redact, trivialize and simplify entertainment in an accelerating death cycle: plots don’t make sense, explosions start early, subtlety is forbidden, and no issue, thought or topic that can’t be fully explored in the time it takes to do a load of laundry is going can find its way on stage or screen. The Journal’s culture writer doesn’t have the time or interest to sit through King Lear, Hamlet, The Ice Man Cometh, or Death of a Salesman,  or to view all of “Seven Samurai,” “A Man for All Seasons” or “Gettysburg”—hey, a movie about one of those short Civil War battles for Joanne, please: she’s got a 15 minute segment of “Robot Chicken” to catch. And why should she care if she’s rude and dismissive to writers, directors, designers and actors, reducing their craft to the equivalent of speed dating? She’s not paying for it:

“I’m privileged and I know it. Because of my profession, I get a pair of free tickets to many entertainments: theater, movies, concerts, opera. If I leave at halftime I lose nothing, say friends who, using logic that befuddles me, feel they need to stay until the end of a show they abhor in the name of getting their money’s worth.”

 Nothing except half the artistic product that she was given the tickets to experience. (Could this be why all of James Lapine’s books for Stephen Sondheim shows have great first acts and then crash into incoherence and boredom in the second? To keep philistines-in-culture-critic-clothing like Kaufman hanging around until the final curtain? Well, at least that’s an explanation.)

 Nothing except the chance to make responsible use of a ticket that middle class Americans who can’t pay the obscene prices charged on Broadway would love to have, or to give to a child so he or she could experience live performances that weren’t vomit inducing, like “Peter Pan Live!”*

 Nothing except the opportunity to give a fair measure of respect to actors and others who have worked long hours and devoted passion, intelligent and craft to create a complete artistic creation, not just half of one.

The president of Actor’s Equity, Nicholas Wyman (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend from college, and I am a great admirer), himself a distinguished performer, posted a letter of protest from press agent Rick Miramontez, which the Journal wouldn’t publish. It said in part…

“I have been representing plays and musicals for more than three decades, and in my role as press agent I have handed out tens-of-thousands of free tickets to members of the media. While the general public plunks downhard-earned money for the pleasure and privilege of witnessing the world’s greatest stage talents flaunt their craft on Broadway, members of the press corps are traditionally given pairs of “press tickets,” gratis. The face value that any given production gives away to the media during designated press performances around the time of its opening is somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000. The hope, of course, is that those free tickets will yield coverage, and that coverage will convince the general public to plunk down said hard-earned money. But there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, between the productions I represent and the members of the media I invite that coverage will be forthcoming. There is, however, a tacit agreement that these works will be considered, thoughtfully and seriously, in their entirety by those who accept the tickets.

So when your columnist, Joanne Kaufman, penned her piece entitled “Confessions of a Broadway Bolter,” in which she boasts about the sheer number of times she skips out of the theater at intermission (trying, she tells us, not to get “spotted and caught out by the press agent who provided me with the tickets in the first place”). I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a chump for having accommodated the woman so many times over the years. Certainly every audience member, paid or comped, has the right to form whatever opinions they might about any production they see, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect those who attend on press tickets stay for the duration. Would a fine art writer only peer at half a canvas before deciding she’s bored and it’s time to move on? Does a music reporter think he can make an informed decision on an album if he only listens to a couple of tracks? Why would we accept such sheer laziness from our theatrical press?”

The simple answer is : We shouldn’t. Neither should the Wall Street Journal.

*Coincidentally, Nick Wyman could have saved Peter Pan Live!. He would be a magnificent Captain Hook.


Pointer: Nick Wyman

Source: Wall Street Journal

6 thoughts on “The Wall Street Journal’s Uncultured Culture Critic

  1. I don’t know about theater, but In the days primeval, say, the 80s, when the studio publicists still ruled the roost, they had Lists. And not little ones either. The joke word was that if you wanted to stay on anybody’s List (and Macys did talk to Gimbels … or Paramount to Columbia, if that’s clearer to the young’uns), they kept a thermometer to hand — one of the ones with a fat bulb at the end — to prove you had a temp over 104 if you expected to crawl out of a screening with impunity before the end credits rolled. It made no difference if you consistently slammed their product in the media, which some alternative press did on a regular Goliath-sniping basis, (all the while thrilling to the Indiana Joneses and the Ghostbuster sagas alongside their privileged guests), so long as you were talking about what you had experienced.

    This “star reviewer system” came to be common knowledge when there WAS a walk-out by the main critic for the biggest paper in the city … oh, the days of … never mind … and she would have gotten away with ignoring it altogether as it turned out to be a small German independent of niche interest, except that she then ripped the movie to pieces using the press kit material (which had deliberately left out a major twist at the end) after being seen walking out during the first ten minutes of the show.

    It was several weeks before her column had any fresh reviews. Her mail was devoid of comp tickets, invitations to interviews, the usual free-lunch treatment, an object lesson for the rest. After the good graces returned, her singular status was gone permanently: the paper had two young talents who had been panting for a chance ready to share the onerous chores.

    The independent publicists remaining today don’t wield that kind of power … they don’t have to: online competition is fierce but it is highly diversified. There are few press screenings, fewer red-carpet events, rarer freebies of any kind. What you get is as smaller piece of a very much larger pie, and egos reduced to match.

    I am cynical enough to suspect that Kaufman might just have been planning to go it on her own all along, building up a mean-girl following, and that the Journal couldn’t care less, having no particular history of respect for culture or artistry in the first place. The fact that they declined to print Mr. Miramontez’ letter — unless they have already been deluged by similar responses — seems to indicate a sublime indifference. In fact, the editor who passed this piece along must have approved it, no?

    What a shame!

  2. She needs to become an automotive journalist. This is the kind of behavior that is common, and praised in fact, in the auto journalism world. I read a lot of reviews where I doubt the person actually thought about (or even really saw) the car they were reviewing. Many of the reviewers take pride in the fact that they aren’t ‘car guys’ or ‘car gals’ and this seems to be a position auto sites seem to have on staff (the car writer who doesn’t care about cars).

  3. I’m so glad you mentioned “Peter Pan Live!”. I watched it and kept hoping something would go wrong; in a “Noises Off”, theatre schadenfreude kind of way… I’m pretty sure that makes me a terrible person.

    I live in small town midwest and I’m very active in the community theatre here. (I use the term “community theatre” loosely as we have a $600K operating budget and have 3 different productions in rehearsal at any given time. We’re a bit of a big deal in these parts). The entertainment reporter for the local newspaper is new; a recent college grad with a freshly pressed journalism degree. When she first started reviewing our shows, the reviews were awful. Not that she gave us bad reviews, it was just clear that she knew nothing about theatre. It wasn’t long however, before she started making appointments to interview the leads and the director beforehand. She’s started coming early to shows and stationing herself in the theatre away from other patrons where she won’t be disruptive, setting up her camera, and then taking furious notes – for the ENTIRE performance. Now her reviews are well thought out, informative, and do a proper service to the subscribers of the paper. It’s been a pleasure to see her grow in this way.

    That chick from the Journal? She needs to be brought down a notch, or ten, or sent to … Maybe she needs to be sent to small town midwest where she can learn to properly review a theatrical production.

  4. Wow, if this is how the professionals behave, I suppose the idiots who post reviews on Amazon of books they haven’t yet finished (although they intend to) won’t be going away any time soon.

    Considering that these ‘press tickets’ are given out in pairs, I have to wonder about Ms. Kaufman’s guests. Does she drag them kicking and screaming out the door even if they were enjoying the show, or does she just ditch them like a coward on a bad date?

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