For Your Consideration: Theatre Artists and the Moral Code of Social Media

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

This week, a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page caught my eye. The friend in question, after multiple auditions and callbacks, had failed to secure a role in a production. When some admittedly rough footage of the rehearsal process was released this week, said friend, a usually supportive and unfailingly kind individual, fueled by some combination of career disappointment and genuine dismay with the state of the production, posted up the footage with a short, snarky epitaph. 

As with any great unpopular opinion, a small swarm of mildly to highly outraged fellow actors quickly pounced on the post and denounced it with some words about the mean-spiritedness of it all, arguing that in the already difficult landscape of the performing arts, artists within that realm should support and not publicly lambast one another. Subsequently, my friend, whether moved by conscience or just trying to get his notifications to stop, wound up removing the offending post. Shortly thereafter, he replaced it with a note about how in the future he would consider the ramifications of his words and do better to respect the sanctity of our community. 

Now, aside from the fact that, I, too, felt the footage was less than great and was somewhat mollified to know that someone else shared that feeling, the difference between us is that I happened to not go public with my feelings that day. But as a journalist, a person who gets paid to write about theatre and gives the occasional bad review with no repercussions, the whole thing left me wondering about the nature of criticism within our industry. The principle of “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all” has been drilled into most of us since birth, but should that principle be upheld more so in the case of theatre artists critiquing other theatre artists, and if so, to what degree?  

A few years back Broadway actress Morgan James came under fire for an unkind tweet regarding the Shakespeare in the Park revival of, “Into the Woods.” Many, including fellow actor, Matt Doyle, and composer, Scott Alan, took the stance that as theatre artists it is incumbent upon us to support one another and that with so much criticism of the performing arts that exists, it should not be those within the industry tearing down the work of others.

While it is true that the theatre is very much a tight-knit family and a little respect does go a long way (particularly in terms of keeping one’s reputation afloat), is it truly an unspoken law that theatre artists are expected to completely reserve any and all criticism, even in the face of subpar work? Shouldn’t members of such a critical industry have a thicker skin when it comes to these sorts of criticisms? And, in terms of the community as a whole, do private interactions count or is this merely a social media issue? 
We are all familiar with the passive ruthless cattiness of the theatre community. We have all done the mean girl thing. We have all been part of one conversation or another where actors, directors, and entire productions have been ruthlessly torn down. Arthur Laurents talked shit in letters, Michael Riedel makes a living out of stirring the pot, and even Sondheim had a very public go at the revival of Porgy and Bess in The New York Times. Given the fact that the level of negative discourse that goes on behind closed doors (and in front of them) within the theatre community is borderline medical fact, is there a certain amount of pretense in all of this sanctimony? Would these same comments been received with such vitriol had it been made in a more intimate setting?

Some would argue that the intent, tone, and timing of these comments would make all the difference in how they’re received. Sure, both Morgan James and my friend could have done better in how they chose to express themselves but that doesn’t seem to be the argument here. The issue at hand is negativity of any sort coming from within the community. And so, by that standard, IS there a good way to go about this or is it just purely verboten?

So, this week’s column is less of a column and more of a cogitation for inquiring minds everywhere. Social media: Friend or foe? What is the line of decency when it comes to theatre artists critiquing other theatre artists?