As the Editor-in-Chief of a site that features reviews, it's not every day that I find myself criticizing a critic. However, while the vast majority of critics all over the world stay in the lane of ethics when it comes to reviewing various productions, some seem to weave in and out of bounds.
When critics go too far, whether it be personal attacks, invoking vendettas, body shaming, etc, they deserve to be called out for it. It takes one to know one but these individuals can wield incredible influence on indicting the quality of a play. Those who mishandle that, should be criticized just as much as the productions they're writing about.
So without further ado, I give you "When Critics Go Too Far". We've already done one on Chicago's Hedy Weiss(who thankfully is out of a job). Today let's look at Jim Ruocco of CT, who chose to trash certain local theatres in the midst of praising another one.
Last week, the Warner Theatre wrapped up its community production of the musical "Once". The show was widely praised by virtually every critic that saw it, including Jim Ruocco on his blog "From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2".
In his review, Mr. Ruocco made sure to mention the quality of direction by Sharon Wilcox. However, in his comments, he pointedly decided to put down another theatre in the process. He stated,
"It's her vision and her interpretation from start to finish. This is not the $3.50 version of a musical you'd find down the street in Thomaston at Landmark Community Theatre. Here, you get an artistic vision (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, musicians) that cries Off-Broadway or National Tour. "
As a writer and critic myself, as I'm sure you can imagine, there are thousands of ways one could compliment a production without putting down other theatres in the process. What annoys me is that the comparison between theatre isn't necessary. But the addition of it comes off as petty and moronic. It should also be noted, that as someone who has seen multiple productions at Landmark, their productions often rank as some of the best in the state. I hear their latest production of "Cabaret" was quite good.
But he wasn't done there.
A bit further down in the column, he goes after Landmark Community Theatre again, as well as other theatres. He states:
"The set design by Stephen C. Houk is Broadway caliber on every level without the big Broadway budget (take note: Phoenix Stage Company, Seven Angels Theatre, Landmark Community Theatre)."
Again, the insertion of his dig at the three theatres is so unnecessary that it's borderline bewildering. Is his saying that the three theatres spend too much on their sets? Not enough? Or is he just being a dick and insulting the design of their productions in general? Tough to say.
While I don't know the exact reason why Mr. Ruocco chose to go after these theatres, it's not impossible to imagine that there is some sort of vendetta he might have against them. (Full disclosure: Mr. Ruocco hasn't reviewed a production at Landmark since last year and Seven Angels and Phoenix reviews don't appear anywhere on his site.) If that's the case, those issues should never be included in a review of another theatre's production nor impact reviews in general. Every critic knows this. Mr. Ruocco likely knows this because he's no amateur blogger. He's the former Theatre Editor for the Waterbury Republican-American. So, in a way, he knows what he's doing when he inserts his childish comments and should know how unethical it is.
So why do it at all? No idea. But that's not where this story ends. In fact, it gets a lot more confusing.
Obviously, the publicity team at the Warner Theatre couldn't promote the show by using a review that slandered other nearby theatres. Noticing that Warner wasn't sharing the review on social media some of Mr. Ruocco's "friends" started going after the Warner. Here is a screenshot of one of them.
There are a couple of issues I have with Mr. Weatherby's comments. First is the fact that he goes after the Warner simply because they didn't share Jim's review. The second is that I believe Graham Weatherby is a nom de plume for Jim Ruocco which he used to go after the Warner. I have asked Mr. Ruocco about this and he refuses to answer my question, which is suspicious and telling. It's also not hard to deduce once you look at some of the other questionable accounts connected to Jim Ruocco(if you have enough time look at Buster, Shy, Tucker and Alain, and don't forget to utilize Google Image Search).
But while creating non de plumes isn't rare on social media, the way that Mr. Ruocco is apparently utilizing them is a knock on his credibility as a critic of theatre.
So why does Mr. Ruocco do this? Tough to say since he won't answer my questions, but judging from his behavior on social media, it implies to me he's looking for attention to his own blog. Take for instance his trend of posting when he is going to see performances he's planning on reviewing:
To be quite honest, I've never seen a critic post exactly what performance they are planning on attending because no critic would find such action as appropriate. Given his years of experience as a critic, this tactic is simply just to gain attention to his blog. Which, speaking as a blogger myself, there are a million of other ways to go about this.
Some might say this is no big deal, but keep in mind, local theatres sometimes rely on such publicity to help sell tickets and carry their seasons. Depending on what the critic says, theatres will promote it all over social media. It will also be read by the cast and crew wanting to know how they were seen in the show.
If a critic is so willing to enact vendettas within his reviews and go as far to use fake social media accounts to instigate them, it puts a lot of things in jeopardy. First, it puts the theatre, in this case, the Warner, in an awful position. Second, it could destroy the confidence of the performers/crew who are all doing this as volunteers in the first place. In this situation, I'm sure the casts and crews of Landmark Community Theatre are none too happy.
Look, I'll be completely honest and say that myself and OnStage Blog haven't been perfect either. I'm not 100% casting stones here. We've made mistakes in the past with some of the ways we sought attention in the beginning stages of this site.
Judging from some of my writing, in particular, I'm pretty sure I'm persona non grata at Hole in the Wall and Downtown Cabaret Theatre. But while I don't see eye-to-eye the leadership of those theatres and I'm positively sure they don't like me either, those issues stem from Editorials or personal reasons and never have they once crept into our reviews. I have a strict policy of letting our critics write how they want when it comes to their reviews and I do not mention any thoughts I may have about the leadership of those particular theatres.
And because I know some of you are going to go there, this isn't me slamming another critic in hopes of getting his press comps. Our policy with reviews is based on what we are invited to. We don't seek out press comps with local shows. If they want us there, they ask and if we're available, we'll show up. Anyone who has asked me over the years knows that I feel that the more bloggers and critics, the better. But they have to do write responsibly. That's not happening with Jim Ruocco.
All of this is quite the shame. Had Jim just stuck to writing his reviews, he would have been fine and become a valued resource for local theatres. Because otherwise than being over-the-top positive with his praise, he's not a bad writer. But his lack of judgment and shady tactics should be a red flag for any theatre who considers granting him press comps to their performances in the future.