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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.

By Marc Fisher |  June 16, 2006; 7:50 AM ET
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Comments

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What's with your animus toward Dan Snyder? Did he run over your dog or something? It's a somewhat random line of logic from Arena Stage usher to Dan Snyder's media buys.

And why are you certain that he bought them to control what they say rather than to use them to make money? After all, if they are "fawning" no one will pay attention to them and they'll just be a waste of money. Do you really believe that Dan Snyder would waste his money rather than trying to accumulate more of it?

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 16, 2006 8:57 AM

How in the world does Dan Snyder's creation of a radio network rise to the level of an attack to free speech? Is it your opinion that the MSM should be the only gatekeeper of truth? If he was saying, for example, that WTEM had to go away then you might have a point. But that is not what is happening. As most people with experience in a particular area can relate to, the "Press" often gets details wrong and it is entirely understandable that Dan Snyder does not want to rely on reporters as his only vehicle to interact with his customers. Do you believe that the WP should have a monopoly on information?

Posted by: Lane | June 16, 2006 9:08 AM

My god, you two are clueless! Are you aware Snyder pulled Wash Post season tickets because he didn't like what was written about him? To Danny, I say--if you don't want ppl to write you're a jerk, well, don't be a jerk.

Posted by: Michael | June 16, 2006 9:23 AM

Michael--

And exactly why should the Washington Post get free tickets to see the Redskins when everyone else on earth has to pay through the nose? And, anyway, what does that have to do with Arena Stage ushers?

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 16, 2006 9:35 AM

Kat:

They weren't free tickets -- they were reserved season tickets that were paid for. Little Lord Dan-tleroy pulled the season tickets and put them into the pool for the "waiting list". He wasn't taking away a free perc, he was attempting to punish an organization that he thought was being critical of his leadership skills, or lack thereof.

The analogy is that the Snyder case is one where someone who can't stand the slightest whiff of critical speech becomes petty and punitive -- just like the person at Arena Stage. Pretty straight-forward analogy.

Posted by: Do your research... | June 16, 2006 9:47 AM

Well back to the point of the post . . .

Marc, I know you've already given out your "yay" of the week during yesterday's chat, but how about a "special yay" to Arena Stage's management? Sure, Ms. Philbin herself should probably get a "nay" but it sounds like her bosses immediately rectified the situation. No "mistakes were made" apology, just a clear-cut "we screwed up please come back" statement. If only other management-types and image consultants understood the power of that. Maybe it's sad that my standards are so low, but it's refreshing to see this.

I'm still not going to see the play, though.

Posted by: OD | June 16, 2006 9:58 AM

I think personal blogs are Internet graffiti. What purpose do they really serve?

Posted by: June | June 16, 2006 10:08 AM

Do your research...

Wow. He moved the Post out of the stadium and down to the end of the waiting list? That sounds pretty petty of Mr. Snyder. And, it doesn't seem to have helped with his coverage in the Post, does it?

Maybe he'll learn from the Arena Stage and make a heartfelt apology.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 16, 2006 10:44 AM

I hope that Maddrey's blog entry made it clear the show she saw was not the final product that ended up on opening night. It's great that she has strong opinions about theater, but it's irresponsible to post an opinion that might potentially affect the show's business, if her opinion is no longer relevent to the current version. That's what previews are for--to see what works and what doesn't.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2006 11:17 AM

I'm still getting over the fact that the only movie she ever walked out of is History of the World, Part 1.

Posted by: Mr. Jones | June 16, 2006 12:20 PM

I saw the play in Preview also, and a lot of people walked out after intermission. This is actually pretty common, even at the Kennedy Center, and I never understand it. Don't you want to know how it ends? And On The Verge is a play where the first act is really setting up a conceit for the final act, which was very, very funny. Too bad for the walkers. They missed all the jokes that were set up in the first act. And hooray for Arena for showing some class, something sorely missing in this town.

Posted by: Dianne in DC | June 16, 2006 12:35 PM

First, Maddrey noted that the performance she saw was NOT a preview and that audience members (including her husband) had paid for their seats. Nonetheless, even if Philbin were correct and it was a preview, where's the etiquette rule that says that the previewer may only publicize their positive thoughts and must reserve their criticism because after all, "it's only a preview." More importantly, now we must also consider that there's a good chance that Arena management has also lied about tweaking the performance as well. It might very well be the same rubbish that Maddrey scorned.

That said, how can anyone characterize this little spat as "an attack on free speech" or "censorship" and expect to be taken seriously? These people are watering down the discourse. When everything is worse than the Holocaust and everyone is the second coming of Joe McCarthy, these concepts lose all meaning. In some parts of the world, blogs really are censored, and their authors are imprisoned or otherwise mysteriously disappear, rather than simply learning that they'll no longer be invited to volunteer at the local theater. There are real evils in the world and we are steadily losing our ability to be properly outraged by them thanks to such perspectiveless blather.

Posted by: athea | June 16, 2006 12:43 PM

Ms. Philbin was wrong and Ms. Maddrey was right, no question. But Fisher's comment, "Hey, that's what bloggers do" sounds like a blanket pardon for anything that a blogger, no matter how immature, irresponsible, or vicious, might write.

How about "Hey, that's what rapists do," or "Hey, that's what politicians do," or "Hey, that's what journalists do"? Politicians, journalists, bloggers, and the rest of us should all be held to some standards of ethics and decency. Having a blog is not a license to hurt people.

Posted by: Ian Gilbert | June 16, 2006 12:52 PM

y'all will love Snyder come February, when after a wild weekend in Miami, the Skins WIN THE SUPER BOWL!

and even if Snyder pulled the Post's season tickets, I'm pretty sure their reporters still get in to the game via their press passes. I know this because I read the articles about the games in the paper. So you're trying to insinuate that Snyder is prohibiting journalists from covering the game, when in fact, he was just revoking a huge conglomerate's perks.

I'm no Snyder apologist, but at least we have someone who is willing to spend gobs of money on the team, who passionately cares about how the team does on the field, and who will never move the team.

Posted by: Jimmy from DC | June 16, 2006 1:04 PM

Bravo to Arena Stage for making amends, but I have to wonder: would they have been as responsive and apologetic if Ms. Maddrey's husband hadn't been a subscriber? Also, what measures have they taken to ensure Ms. Philbin won't be repeating this with someone less willing to take a stand for free speech?

Posted by: fs | June 16, 2006 1:08 PM

Has anyone ever stood in line at a movie, and heard some other patrons dogging the movie your about to pay for? Then you think twice and change your mind about seeing the film and pick soemthing else.
That's what this story sounds like to me.

Everyone is entitled to have their own opinion about anything they encounter. It's not like she's getting paid or something, then it might be a little different. Besides do any of you let blogs determine your way of thinking?

Posted by: John | June 16, 2006 1:13 PM

My only concern is where is her loyalty to the Arena Stage, she sounds very egostistical as if she owns the place.

If her life of 20 years is all she's got then I think this person needs to get out more. However, they didn't need to accept her as a volunteer and during her time their I'm sure Arena Stage has shown their appreciation towards her.

This isn't about her but Arena Stage and protecting performances and performers, when I worked at the National Theatre and they had preview production...we were instructed not to form opinions outside of the building which was understandable and also something I respected of the theatre.

This is more about ego and if I were the Arena Stage I would remove her and let her start paying to see performances that she critics.

This is not about freedom of speech but of pure ego.

Thanks

Posted by: Frankey | June 16, 2006 1:27 PM

"First, Maddrey noted that the performance she saw was NOT a preview and that audience members (including her husband) had paid for their seats. Nonetheless, even if Philbin were correct and it was a preview, where's the etiquette rule that says that the previewer may only publicize their positive thoughts and must reserve their criticism because after all, "it's only a preview.'"

I'm not sure if this was directed at any one post, but just in case:

1)Yes, actually it was a preview, at least according to Marc's post.

2)If by "they paid for their seats," you mean anyone who views the play has a right to their opinion, even though it's a preview, I completely agree. Nevertheless, attending a play during preview does carry the "buyer beware" warning (as any theater-goer knows)--it is not ready for reviews, that is the *point* of previews. You will NOT see a perfect show during previews--pre-views, as in pre-REviews. The shows *needs* the audience to tell them what works and what doesn't, by their response during the show (and sometimes afterward on a blog). No one ever said that response has to be positive, only that she should place her opinion in the proper context--"this show is still in previews and is subject to revision" or better yet "I've been informed the version I saw during previews is no longer what's being shown." That's what responsible blogging is about.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2006 4:31 PM

I didn't see the show in question because I was babysitting for 2 couples who did see it. They are season ticket holders at Arena and all four of them said they wished they had walked out at intermission.

Posted by: lucy | June 16, 2006 7:08 PM

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