Arena Stage Slams Blogger Critic, Then Apologizes
One of the coolest gigs in town is being an usher at Arena Stage. You spend a little while before the show taking people to their seats and you see the show for free. What a deal, right? Several theaters around town offer this fine arrangement, and I have friends who've seen many seasons of Arena productions without spending a penny.
Mindy Klasky Maddrey has done the volunteer ushering routine at Arena for 20 years. Last month, she ushered at a performance of On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning by Eric Overmeyer. Maddrey, a novelist who lives in Arlington, didn't like the play--at all. In fact, she disliked it so much that she walked out at intermission, something she had done only twice before in her life. Fair enough--different scripts for different lives.
But then she went home and blogged about her experience. Hey, that's what bloggers do--they write about stuff that happens to them. Walking out of a play is a rare enough event that it was worth writing about. The folks who read her blog commented on her item, and they had a pretty good discussion about walking out on movies and putting aside books half-read.
Then Maddrey heard from the Arena house manager, Marianne Philbin, who told Maddrey that a reader of the blog had alerted Arena to the comments about the play. Arena wanted Maddrey to remove or retract her blog item because, the house manager said, the production had been tweaked and the critics had liked it and Maddrey ought not to have written about what she saw because it was a preview performance.
Maddrey was not amused: "I will not delete my entry, and I will not post comments about a modified production that I did not see," she wrote to the Arena manager. No one had ever told Maddrey that by volunteering as an usher she was giving up her right to speak freely about the plays.
"I regret that Arena never made clear - in the twenty seasons that I ushered - that volunteers were bound by a 'loyalty code' such as some employers demand of their employees," Maddrey wrote. "Of course, I was never paid by Arena; rather, I volunteered hundreds of hours to facilitate scores of productions. I suspect that most, if not all, of my fellow ushers would be shocked to learn that they are expected only to say positive things about Arena productions in all public venues."
Maddrey refused to comply with Arena's request and asked instead that her name be removed from the ushers roster and from the theater's mailing list. Maddrey noted that she had written highly complimentary comments about Arena productions on many occasions. "I am disheartened that a theater that has championed iconoclastic playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Anna Deavere Smith would attempt to censor and manipulate one small dissenting volunteer voice."
Maddrey sent off her note on Monday. The very next day, Arena's marketing and public relations director, Lance Tucker, wrote to her that "We are all greatly concerned about the incident you described. First, I want to apologize on behalf of all of us at Arena Stage. We are truly appreciative of your long support of Arena Stage and would like to try and repair the damage this has caused to your relationship with the theater."
And yesterday, Arena's executive director, Stephen Richard, wrote to Maddrey and copied me, apologizing profusely for what happened: "I want to offer my sincerest apologies for this episode and for how you were treated. This is not the manner in which we expect our staff to interact with patrons, volunteers and supporters."
Richard offered Maddrey and her husband four free tickets to an opening night performance of Arena's next production, and he made it clear that the theater wants in no way to be associated with any attempt to restrict speech. (Full text of his letter is on Maddrey's comment board, here.)
I am disappointed that a member of our staff would attempt to censor your blog entry about our production of On the Verge. Ms. Philbin had absolutely no right to do this and was completely overstepping her authority. Please be assured that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not dead at Arena Stage. There is no "loyalty oath" required of Arena Stage ushers, supporters or subscribers. You have the right to express your views - whether you love one of our productions or not - in whatever forum you choose. Please be assured that I will speak to Ms. Philbin and her supervisors about this incident. I will make it clear that this was totally unacceptable behavior and is not to happen again.
There is always a temptation in any field that is subject to public commentary to try to shape and control what's written and said about you. But as Richard knows and as his staff ought to know, those who traffic in free speech are obliged to stand up for critical expression even--and especially--when it is directed at them. There are, of course, theaters that try to work around the critics by opening shows with long runs of previews, just as more and more movie studios now avoid special screenings of lousy movies for the critics. And we have a professional sports team in town whose owner, Dan Snyder, is building his own network of fawning media outlets--online and on the radio--in an attempt to consolidate control over what is said and written about his Redskins.
It's entirely possible that some theater lovers, moviegoers and football fans will be fooled by such cynical efforts. But many will not, and the ill will that such moves engenders will come back to haunt those who seek to limit the expression of others.
Mindy Maddrey tells me she now plans to accept Arena's apology and return to the theater as an usher. "Mr. Richard's email unequivocally states that the House Manager acted outside her authority, against the policy of the theater," she writes. "His apology to me does not include any attempted restrictions on future speech by me - in fact, he makes it clear that Arena ushers (and supporters and subscribers) have the right to speak freely in all fora. I think that he's done everything that he can to rectify a bad situation."
Maddrey's doing the right thing. I know she'll see some inspiring and revelatory theater--and, yes, the occasional clinker, which I hope she will write about on her blog.
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