31 January 2011

A Playwright of Importance

By Kirk Woodward

[Some years ago, while I was doing some research on the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for a university scholar, I compiled a chronology of the writer’s works, including her stage, film., and TV scripts and her novel. The purpose of the list at the time was just to make it easier for me to keep track of the material I was finding for my client, Philip C. Kolin, who was collecting published interviews Parks had given. When that job was finished, I gave Dr. Kolin the chronology in case it proved useful for his work, and last year he asked me if he could use it as back matter for his new book, a collection of essays about Parks he was editing. I agreed, and this fall, that book, Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works, was published.

[Recently, Kirk Woodward, who has an interest in Parks’s plays—he wrote “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” which I published on ROT on 5 October 2009—proposed writing a review of Dr. Kolin’s book for the blog. Since my contribution to Suzan-Lori Parks is so minor, I didn’t see any conflict with running a review on ROT, so I agreed. I think you’ll find that Kirk’s discussion of the book and its essays is interesting even if you don’t already know Parks’s work. I’m pleased to share his thoughts with ROT readers. ~Rick]

Suzan-Lori Parks is widely recognized as one of today's outstanding black women playwrights, but I believe she is more than this. If this were a scholarly article I would have to couch my opinion in objective, academic terms, but since it's not, I can simply say what I think: I consider Parks not (or not just) an outstanding African American writer, but a member of the top rank of American playwrights, along with Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.

I would say that Parks is "one of the big boys" except that a "big boy" is exactly what she is not – she is definitely not "one of the boys," and if she is a "big" playwright, then she is so in a way that differs significantly from that of her famous predecessors.

One of the problems with trying to determine the ultimate rank of contemporary writers is that we may be responding to their transient resonances within our own culture rather than to their fundamental and lasting values. As a result, ordinarily at least a generation has to pass before it's possible to say for certain what sort of lasting value a writer has. (For example, the real nature of the later work of Tennessee Williams, who died in 1983, is only now coming into focus.)

We face this difficulty with Parks, who is very much our contemporary. I may be evaluating her purely in terms of today's cultural norms. So my estimation of Parks's worth may well seem preposterous to future generations, but I'm happy to make the case for her stature now and take my chances with posterity, which won't care much what I think anyway.

Helping me and others to make the case for Parks as a major playwright is a new collection of essays, Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works (McFarland and Company, 2010), edited by Philip Kolin, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and an authority on the work, among others, of Tennessee Williams himself. Kolin, in other words, knows the top rank of American drama when he sees it. Kolin frames Parks's career in an introductory essay, "Puck's Magic Mojo: The Achievements of Suzan-Lori Parks."

Kolin has collected a total of twelve essays, two interviews, and a production history assembled by Richard Kramer, who you may be aware is the proprietor and chief author of this blog. The material in Kolin's book helps not only to underline the stature of Suzan-Lori Parks as a major playwright, but to define in exactly what sense this is so.

How might Suzan-Lori Parks be considered to be a major playwright? Since I've dropped the names of O'Neill, Miller, and Williams, we might begin by considering how her work stacks up against the work of those three writers. However, in that case all we would be doing would be considering, not her own value, but the relation of her work to Long Day's Journey, Salesman, or Streetcar – a very different question.

Parks is her own kind of playwright. (For an excellent look at the wide range of contemporary female black playwrights, see Kolin's Contemporary African-American Women Playwrights: A Casebook, published by Routledge in 2007). In an essay I wrote on "Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks" for this blog (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-america-eats-food-and-eating-habits.html) I said that "If you’re not familiar with her, you should know for starters that her writing isn’t like that of a conventional playwright. Her scripts even look different on the page; words are frequently written out just as they sound, and she uses dramatic techniques that few others use."

If anything I understated the case. So the reader familiar with printed versions of plays by O'Neill, Miller, and Williams may have to do a bit of work before being able to read the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks with ease. Of course the best way of encountering any of these playwrights is not to read their plays, but to see them. On stage too, though, Parks is a startling writer – not that she can be relegated to some obscure corner of the avant-garde. In Kolin's book Jochen Achilles discusses her Broadway success Topdog/Underdog (2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize, in his essay "Does Reshuffling the Cards Change the Game? Structures of Play in Parks's Topdog/Underdog." That play succeeded as a fairly straightforward, linear story, while still, as Achilles demonstrates, embodying a remarkable depth of meaning.

A number of the essays in Kolin's book help us find our way through some of the possibly unfamiliar aspects of Parks's dramaturgy. Jacqueline Wood, in "'Jazzing' Time, Love, and the Female Self in Three Early Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks," carefully steps through Betting on the Dust Commander, Pickling, and Devotees in the Garden of Love to demonstrates how Parks plays with and bends, or "jazzes," aspects of time and history, particularly as modified and distorted by memory. Kolin carries the theme even further in an essay titled "'You one of uh mines?' Dis(re)membering in Suzan-Lori Parks's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom" on the way Parks "challenges the imperatives of white history by recreating, and rewriting, black history through performance" in which history and the past are bent and shaped almost as though they were physical entities.

Nicole Hodges Persley, in her essay "Sampling and Remixing: Hip Hop and Parks's History Plays," compares two of Parks's plays to hip hop music, which in its use of the processes of sampling and remixing provides metaphors for the way Parks writes. Shawn-Marie Garrett leads us through the decision-making process behind one stage production in "'For The Love of the Venus': Suzan-Lori Parks, Richard Foreman, and the Premiere of Venus," and in so doing helps us to see the kind of dramatic possibilities Parks offers in her plays. "A Parks Remix: An Interview with Liz Diamond," conducted by Shawn-Marie Gabbrett, provides a view of Parks from the perspective of one of the most important directors of her plays.

A useful way to examine a playwright's work is to trace a theme throughout the oeuvre. In Kolin's volume, Jon Dietrick's essay "'A Full Refund Aint Enough': Money in Suzan-Lori Parks's Red Letter Plays" traces the theme of money in the two produced Parks plays (In the Blood and Fucking A) that derive their ancestry from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Christine Woodworth, in "Parks and the Traumas of Childhood," examines the way Parks presents the family, and in particular, children and the stresses of childhood, in her plays.

The essays I have briefly noted here take us a long way toward understanding the nature of the dramaturgy of Suzan-Lori Parks. What still may not be so clear is why I should claim that Parks is, not just a good playwright, and certainly not just a "black" playwright, but an important playwright with general significance. Recognizing once again that it really is much too soon to make a judgment about the ultimate value of the works of a playwright who is so very much with us, let me support my claim by making three points.

First, the model for greatness in playwriting has changed. Through the years in which O'Neill, Miller, and Williams wrote their most famous plays, the basic Western model of a play – the basic metaphor for a play – was the Greek temple. This model, of course, demonstrated the enormous influence of Aristotle's Poetics on many future generations of drama critics. A play, the model says, works just like a Greek temple does – through its correct proportions and the interrelationships among its elements.

Playwriting teachers consciously or unconsciously taught this model. The crasser ones presented it as a sort of recipe. One of the results of this calculated approach was the famous "well-made play," a sort of machine of a play that created effects based on a thoroughly calculated plot.

Since roughly the 1950s, a new model of playwriting has slowly replaced the old. (The most famous and perhaps most outstanding product of this new model, Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, was first staged in 1953.) The new model may be symbolized by the Mississippi River. There's a great central channel to the river, and certain boats navigate it regularly. These may be compared to the Broadway play. But the Mississippi is much more than just its central channel. It's also the large and small streams that feed into it; it's the flood plains and the water that sometimes overflows; it's the delta and the delta land, the cities and villages along the shores, the recreational boats and house boats and rafts and docks, the gambling boats and floating casinos . . . .

Today, in other words, we see plays take many shapes, with many kinds of forms determined by many kinds of functions. One shape of play no longer fits all. Parks goes so far as to claim that she doesn't try to plan her work at all. In "An Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks" by Shawn-Marie Garrett, Parks talks about not asking "what's the next right thing to do? I'm not even thinking about that . . . it's just 'Ahhhh!'" Jennifer Larson, in "Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays: A (W)hole New Approach to Theatre," writes about the remarkable play cycle that resulted from Parks’s determination to write a play a day for a year based entirely on whatever idea presented itself each morning.

My claim, then, is that if we are to estimate Parks's stature as a writer, we have to abandon our assumptions that a great play must resemble Death of a Salesman or Oedipus Rex. It may; or it may not. Greatness is not the result of following a formula.

Second, everybody has to write about something. Parks is black, and she writes extensively (although not exclusively) about the black experience, in ways noted throughout the essays in Kolin's book. Some may be tempted for that reason to pigeonhole her as "a black playwright." To do so is to confuse subject and theme.

The characters in Shakespeare's plays, no matter where his plays are set, are Elizabethans. This fact, though, has never hindered others from immersing themselves in his plays. I am not saying that the themes of race and history in Parks's plays don't matter; I am saying that all worthwhile plays, even apparently abstract ones like some of Beckett's, take us through the specific to the general. In the words of the eighth century Chinese poet Li Po:

That art is best which to the soul's range gives no bound:
Something besides the sense, something beyond the sound.

So third, I claim for Parks that:

She shows us the soul's range. I don't mean for a minute to minimize her role as a black playwright. I only want to emphasize that she leads us to open our eyes, minds, hearts, souls, in ways new to us. Rena Fraden, in her outstanding essay, "Everything and Nothing: The Political and Religious Nature of Suzan-Lori Parks's 'Radical Inclusion,'" demonstrates how Parks's works reach as high and as wide as their author can manage. Parks gives us history, but she also expands and explodes history.

"Parks," Fraden writes, "like God, or Shakespeare, creates worlds and characters to populate them." The source of her stature among the highest rank of our playwrights, I believe, is not that her intentions are so large – we know what is paved with good intentions – but that she lives up to them so well. The reader who needs a further example of the reach of Parks's scope might want to read Glenda Dicker/sun's essay "Demeter, Persephone and Willa Mae Beede: Suzan-Lori Parks Gets Mother's Body" an almost dizzying tour through an astonishing wealth of sources, allusions, and themes.

It will be fascinating to see how Parks's work progresses. She has done a certain amount of "commercial" work, as discussed in Charlene Regester's essay "The Unconscious and Metaphors in Suzan-Lori Parks's Screenplays of Girl 6 and Their Eyes Were Watching God" on the very interesting Spike Lee film Girl 6 and other pieces, and Parks is reported to be working on other such projects, including a musical about Ray Charles (Unchain My Heart) and the refashioning of Porgy and Bess into more standard musical theater form. Immersion in commercial theater has its risks as well as its rewards, of course, but I suspect that Parks will see such enterprises as challenging opportunities for growth (both hers and ours), and as adventures.

Reviews of her most recent plays indicate that many reviewers still have no idea what she is up to, what she is trying to accomplish. A typical approach is to label her work as too abstract, as though it were not so well grounded in real experience, and as though a play should always be "realistic" in the literal, everyday sense. Those reviewers might profitably read Kolin's book.

My own hope is that Parks will continue to expand her horizons, and in the process help us to grow along wth her. That, I claim, is Parks's particular kind of greatness.

[Parks’s next play to come to New York is scheduled to be Unchain My Heart, The Ray Charles Musical, which tried out as Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007. It was originally expected to open at a Shubert theater this fall, but it has been postponed because of a business dispute and the new opening date had not been determined. Unchain My Heart, with a book by Parks and Charles’s music, won’t open until after spring 2011.) In November, however, the press announced that Parks will be collaborating with composer Diedre Murray to rearrange the Gershwins’ score of Porgy and Bess to move it from its operatic roots more towards musical theater. The new production, authorized by the Gershwin Trust, will open the 2011-12 season at A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in September 2011. In addition to these projects, Parks has several screenplays, for both film and TV, in process as well.]

26 January 2011

The Power of the Reviewer—Myth or Fact?: Part 2

[This is the second and concluding part of my report on the power of reviews to close or perpetuate productions. As we’ve seen, with judicious planning and selling, producers can overcome the effects of bad reviews. Here are some of the ways they do that.]

COUNTERMEASURES: MARKETING

If reviews have real power to drive audiences into or out of theaters, then there ought to be little producers can do to counteract this effect. Theater history teaches that this is probably not true, since there have been dozens of shows panned by reviewers that have gone on to become popular successes. Many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works have been long-running audience-pleasers after receiving cool critical appraisal. There have also been plays, like Wilson’s Joe Turner and Steppenwolf’s Grapes of Wrath, that closed quickly after receiving good notices.

The data seems to indicate that shows can overcome mixed and poor reviews, but seldom outright pans. The More study indicates that “the pans are strongly associated with the shortest runs.” Of the plays that received unanimously bad reviews, seventeen, or 51.5%, closed within a week, and the average was 41 days. This isn’t surprising, assuming that unanimity among the reviewers might suggest that the public, too, would find the play bad. But what of the middle ground—shows that receive neither pans nor raves? Producers acknowledge that such shows can be run against mediocre press. Norman Kean expected mixed reviews for A Broadway Musical (a single regular performance on 21 December 1978) and he was prepared to run the show under those circumstances, and other shows ran successfully after mixed press, The Wiz (1672 performances, 1975-79) and Deathtrap (1793 performances, 1978-82), for instance.

What keeps these plays afloat when others founder? According to Clive Barnes, “it . . . boils down to the procedure known as marketing, or the gentle art of luring posteriors into seats.” The producers are prepared to sell a weak show in various ways that can overshadow reviews. Alexander Cohen related that his production of Baker Street from 16 February to 14 November 1965 “was pretty bad, but we did a merchandising job on that show which was enormous. It ran for a little more than a year on the strength of the merchandising . . . .” According to Cohen, 6 Rms Riv Vu (247 performances, 1972-73) “wouldn’t have lasted until intermission” if it hadn’t been for marketing.

The first hedge against failure is a big advance sale. The bigger the advance, the longer a show can run at a box-office loss until it finds an audience—if there is one. That saved both The Wiz and Deathtrap until word of mouth caught up with the box office; the lack of a big advance sank A Broadway Musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera was sold out for nearly a year before it even opened in New York in 1988, indemnifying it even against pans across the board; the success of Metamorphosis over its luke-warm reception was also partly due to the $1.4 million advance. Miss Saigon, imported by mega-musical promoter Cameron Mackintosh, had a $39 million advance when it opened in April 1991, and was pulling in a weekly gross of $710,000. In its sixth season, it was still running near capacity despite “widely divergent” notices. Though an advance sale doesn’t guarantee success after poor notices—Ballroom, a flop in 1978-79 (116 performances), had a two million-dollar advance, and still closed quickly—it’s so important, according to Bernard Jacobs, the Shubert’s late president, that

[m]ost shows that close immediately are either inadequately budgeted or have spent monies in excess of what they’ve budgeted to the opening night. If a show is properly financed, it will have enough money to survive for at least a few weeks in order to see if it will catch on.

Advance sales require an advance press. Paid advertisements are the mainstay of this end of the business, and television has come to play a large part in this area. The famous case of Pippin (1944 performances, 1972-77) marked the beginning of the big television commercial for musicals. Warren Caro of the Shubert Organization described the incident:

[Pippin] started off in a rather uncertain way, then came to be highly successful for a period, and then took a big drop. We thought that was going to be the end of it. But the producer came to us, saying that he thought the way this show should be conveyed to the public was through television advertising, not through the usual, stale newspaper advertising. So we created a marvelous television commercial which increased sales spectacularly and really had the effect of turning that show around from a downgrade run to the most successful musical on Broadway.

More than advertisements are necessary to presell a show, however. Before any reviewer sees the first performance, the play must be brought to the attention of the prospective theatergoer. News items, some manufactured, some real, sell a production to its potential audience even before its official opening. A case in point is the 1991 opening of Miss Saigon. There was so much press coverage of the controversy over casting British actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian; the consequent struggle among producer Cameron Mackintosh, Actors’ Equity, and the Asian community; and Mackintosh’s threat not to open the show at all, the production was a box-office bonanza independent of the critical response, which was mixed on the show but high on the individual performances. Good press agents can also arrange tie-ins with stores and businesses and other publicity stunts to attract or keep attention on their shows. The 1988 Off-Broadway musical Suds, for instance, connected with TWA, then a major air carrier, which featured a one-hour recording of the show’s songs in its in-flight soundtrack, and Procter & Gamble, which bought 2,000 tickets for an employee incentive program. The increasing need for publicity beyond newspaper ads and television and radio spots created a demand for a new member of the theatrical team: the promoter. More than just press representatives, promoters concoct stunts such as giving free tickets to the 1989 production of Lend Me a Tenor to people who sang an aria, awarding free admission to the 1000th performance of the original 1987 Off-Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy to anyone named Daisy, hosting an “I Am Rappaport” evening at I’m Not Rappaport in 1985, holding a frog-jumping and “huckleberry” pie-eating contests for the 1985 Broadway début of Big River, and offering discount coupons for 1987’s Teddy and Alice in supermarket ads. These are often silly gimmicks, but they create publicity and attract audiences, particularly those that aren’t dependent on reviews.

Later efforts have borrowed from Hollywood marketing techniques. 1990’s Accomplice showed a one-minute trailer at 250 movie houses proclaiming, “Not coming to this theater; not coming to any motion picture theater . . . .” and Miss Saigon taped “The Heat Is On: The Making of ‘Miss Saigon,’” made in 1989 from the London production, which aired on New York television. All these efforts, if judiciously applied to a show that has an audience somewhere, can help it overcome poor reviews, but experts estimate that they have only three to four weeks in which to turn things around at the box office. Given time “to let the notices cool off,” as advertising executive Harry Golden put it, the public can be made to forget bad reviews, then a well-planned publicity campaign can reverse the negative perception.

David Merrick may have been, in former New York Times reviewer Frank Rich’s estimation, “the master of . . . producer’s cunning in our day.” He delighted in tweaking reviewers and theater journalists, once posing as an audience member after a performance of Cactus Flower in Philadelphia in 1965 so he and press agent Harvey Sabinson could be interviewed on television by Tom Snyder. After praising the show, Merrick gave a signal to another press agent who cut the power line, blacking out the broadcast. To generate interest in his production of 42nd Street, Merrick postponed its official opening, kept the date secret from the public, abruptly scheduled or canceled previews, and finally, on opening night, announced from the stage the death of director-choreographer Gower Champion, a fact he had kept secret all day from both the public and the show’s cast. Later, when 42nd Street moved from the Majestic Theatre across 44th Street to the St. James, Merrick had the chorus girls do their “We’re in the Money” tap routine across the street on the huge coins used onstage. Meanwhile, he managed to keep both marquees so that 44th Street was bracketed with 42nd Street logos. After the show moved, when Phantom of the Opera had become the hottest ticket in town, Merrick began holding the curtain at the St. James for fifteen minutes to lure disappointed ticket-seekers at the Majestic into 42nd Street. To promote this, dancers roamed Times Square with sandwich boards proclaiming, “David Merrick is holding the curtain for you” and singing, for the matinee (the lyrics were altered again for evening performances):

Come and meet
Those dancing feet
If you come past two
You won’t be blue
‘Cause we start at two-fifteen!

An indefatigable showman, Merrick kept 42nd Street in the public eye and running for 3,486 performances over eight years (1980-89), now the twelfth longest run in Broadway history.

The presence of a big-name star, even one from such a non-theater world as ballet, can only help attract theatergoers. Baryshnikov’s non-dancing debut was a huge selling point for Metamorphosis, attracting audiences from many unusual sectors of the public; Legs Diamond’s run despite devastating criticism was likely due to the presence of late pop singer Peter Allen. (Ironically, after Allen’s death in 1992, the musical The Boy From Oz, 2003-04, based on his life and music, opened to poor reviews itself but ran for 364 performances on the strength of the draw of Hugh Jackman, the star who played the singer.) Joe Turner’s failure might, by contrast, be attributable to its lack of stars to help transfer its great regional success to Broadway. Star power, in fact, is an important marketing asset. In contrast to Joe Turner, Wilson’s Fences ran for 526 performances for its initial Broadway production in 1987 and 1988, grossing $11 million in its first year, a non-musical record. It closed precipitously three months after setting that record, however. What happened? Fences, which won New York theater’s triple crown—Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award—was sold and made its reputation based on the mesmerizing performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson. When Jones was replaced in February 1988 by Billy Dee Williams, the production began to fail almost immediately, closing at the end of June. The same phenomenon occurred with D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game which opened in 1977 with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as the elderly, card-playing couple. Cronyn left the show first and was replaced by E. G. Marshall in June 1978; Maureen Stapleton came in for Tandy in September, and the play closed in December. In neither case were negative reviews responsible for the drop-off in attendance, but the departure of first-rank stage stars impeded the producers’ abilities to sell the show. As we shall see, star power also made Sunset Boulevard a hit in 1994 but ultimately brought the production down not so much because the first star performer, Glenn Close, left the show—she left in June 1995, almost two years (and two leads) before the New York production’s announced closing—but because Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t find enough available female stars of Close’s stature and talent to keep filling the role. More recent productions foundered, according to common wisdom, because of the lack of big names among the cast (the Neil Simon revivals in 2009; Next Fall, an Off-Broadway transfer with excellent notices, in 2010; and Neil Labute’s reasons to be pretty, a success Off-Broadway in 2008 and a Broadway flop in 2010; Finian’s Rainbow in 2009), even with good reviews or previous track record. (There are also many accounts of shows that did well even with star names in the cast.)

Even with a sufficient advance in the till, other means are necessary to make the public aware of the show and bring them into the theater. Among the marketing techniques producers use, James M. Nederlander listed theater parties, subscriptions, half-price ticket booths, and “two-fers.” “Another merchandising gimmick,” he said, “is to book a play for four or five weeks and then start advertising ‘last four weeks’ or ‘last three weeks.’” Gerald Schoenfeld added to this list credit-card sales and telephone reservations as ways of making it easier to come to the theater, and Warren Caro included benefits sold to organizations, mail-order and group sales, and Ticketron. Newer measures include Internet sales, direct-mail marketing, marketing research, and the programs of the Theatre Development Fund which, among other services, operates the TKTS booths at Duffy Square and lower Manhattan, sells discount vouchers, and provides a 24-hour telephone information service (and now a cell-phone app for information about what’s available).

In the mid-1980’s, producers began using techniques borrowed from manufacturing. One such technique, intended “to figure out how to woo an audience,” is market research conducted before a show opens. Producer Marty Bell of 1986’s Precious Sons, credited as the first production to try this, acknowledged, “We wanted to get a handle on the audience so that whatever the critics said wouldn’t matter.” Bell and co-producer Roger Berlind surveyed potential theatergoers before deciding on ticket prices and advertising targets. Unfortunately, the show’s producers made several wrong calls based on the research, such as targeting the wrong prospective audience, and the show ran only from March to May. Still, the idea of using pre-show market research caught on and has become part of the web of techniques used to counter reviews.

Another approach of recent seasons has been specific-market targeting: selling a show directly to a particular audience through specially chosen outlets and media. This tactic came to the fore in 1988 with the marketing of productions to black audiences. The producers of Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Gospel at Colonus, and Sarafina! adopted “extraordinary measures” to attract a special audience: “hiring marketing experts with experience in reaching black corporations, schools, churches and social clubs, . . . sharply reducing ticket prices, . . . suggesting sermon subjects to ministers in churches that have sponsored group visits to Broadway.” Michael David, producer of Gospel, especially “worked the gospel shows in Harlem” to reach his target audience. David also established an outreach office to “help to bring in the ‘other’ audience to Broadway—not just blacks, but Pentacostals, Hispanics, Jews, students.” According to Richard Bruno, head of Gospel’s outreach program, they even cross-referenced passages from the show with Biblical verses to help ministers prepare sermons.

The church community played a crucial role in this scheme. When the Lincoln Center Theater Company transferred Sarafina! to Broadway in 1988, Director of Marketing Thomas Cott acknowledged they, too, made contacts there. Furthermore, along with taking ads in the black press, LCTC broadcast a commercial in which the cast sang “an infectiously joyful version of the Lord’s Prayer.” Lincoln Center used the same strategy when it opened the rediscovered Zora Neal Hurston-Langston Hughes play, Mule Bone, on Broadway in 1991. To address another overlooked segment of the potential audience, the producers of Rent, the 1996 rock up-date of La Bohème that was the season’s biggest hit, aggressively marketed the show to the young, urban, and hip. Ten-dollar tickets were offered to those who lined up outside the theater’s box office, a sure way to create a crowd since the show was otherwise sold out, and the show was advertised in subway trains—not on the platforms like films and other Broadway plays—with visually arresting placards taking up whole cars.

Not all of these efforts translated into long runs. Fences ran over 500 performances in 1987 and ‘88, but apparently because of its star’s draw, not the marketing of the play itself; Joe Turner closed after just over 100 performances, and Gospel only ran 61 performances and 15 previews. Only Sarafina! was a long-run hit despite an unknown cast and author, South African Mbongeni Ngema, running 81 performances and 36 previews at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater and 597 performances and 11 previews at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. Mule Bone was scheduled for a limited run, so there’s little correlation between its reviews, which were mediocre, and the length of its run. According to Anne Cattaneo, literary manager for Lincoln Center Theater, their targeted black audiences responded to the company’s outreach despite the poor notices in the mainstream, that is ‘white,’ press. This assertion, however, is hard to prove. Nonetheless, the tactic having previously proved useful, it was tried once again. Rent, of course, didn’t need to overcome reviews. It was universally praised in the press, both in its Off-Broadway try-out and its subsequent transfer to Broadway. It also received perhaps unwanted publicity when the young creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly on the eve of Rent’s triumphant Off-Broadway opening. The tactics, nonethelss, all have become part of the producers’ arsenal to defeat bad notices.

Professional marketing firms to “help producers pinpoint who their audience is and how it evolves” have become a permanent part of the commercial scene now. Exploring new or untapped resources and outlets for advertising, using targeting strategies more familiar to toy companies or automobile manufacturers, and focusing on non-traditional audiences, firms like Fourfront, which handled Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk and Full Gallop on Broadway and touring companies of A Chorus Line and Master Class, reach a “younger group and present [a client’s] image in a fresher, more arresting way.” Commonly, their aggressive marketing techniques bypass the usual forums and attract potential spectators who don’t regularly read theater reviews in the mainstream press such as cable television viewers, readers of niche magazines and alternative-press publications, and commuter-rail riders. Ads and other features on the Internet, whose audience often doesn’t read newspapers, are also becoming more common even for mainstream commercial theater.

Fifty years ago, a play could survive if it played to a few thousand customers a week—perhaps 75,000 in all. The break-even number’s now risen to nearer a half to three-quarters of a million. Such costs now prevent the producers and backers from gambling on a risky play or accumulating the necessary advance sale to keep a moderate but promising play running long enough to overcome negative press. The increasing costs also result in higher ticket prices, causing potential playgoers to think long and hard about what they will spend their theater dollars on. According to the Shubert’s Schoenfeld, the audience base for commercial theater shrank because of the overall cost of going to the theater. The result is a stronger reliance on good reviews, known as “money reviews,” for success, but not because the reviewers have usurped so much power. The situation’s arisen because of the people who control the economics of the industry, including the unions, stars, producers, and real estate owners.

Another marketing tactic that producers have been using for some years has compounded the reliance on reviews and reviewers. William Hawkins, who was the review writer for New York’s now-defunct World-Telegram and Sun, blamed the press agent who

more than anyone else epitomizes the process by which the Critic has been forced into his position of influence over the theatre. He is the “Master of the Quote.” Quotes seem to sell more tickets these days than any other single element of the theatre.

The “quote ad” has put the producer right under the thumb of the reviewer—a situation the journalist didn’t create. According to City University of New York professor Glenn Loney, himself a critic, this particular phenomenon is relatively new to the business of theater. David Belasco used quotations in his publicity, but they weren’t excerpts from reviews; he made them up himself and ran them unattributed (“Miss X is wonderful!”). Producers didn’t begin quoting heavily from the reviews until the 1930’s, and the practice didn’t become common until the 1940’s. There is, of course, the now-infamous 1961 case of David Merrick and Harvey Sabinson, producer and press agent for Subways Are for Sleeping who found seven average New Yorkers with “exactly the same names” as the major daily newspaper reviewers, treated them to elaborate dinners, got them to praise the mediocre show in “the most laudatory phraseology,” and then published a big newspaper ad quoting them under the headline, “7 Out of 7 Ecstatically Unanimous about Subways Are for Sleeping.” The trick was that Merrick had to wait for Times writer Brooks Atkinson to retire before he could pull off the hoax “[b]ecause in all this world there is no other man with that name.” (Most of the papers caught the ruse before publishing, but the Herald Tribune didn’t and ran the ad in the early edition on 4 January. In the interest of integrity, the hoaxers ran photographs of the substitute critics along with their quotations, and many readers and some critics were amused at the joke. Others were incensed. The real reviews were mixed, but Subways still managed to stay afloat until July before closing.)

The quote ad has, by now, become so common that no producer can sell even the most popular, critically acclaimed production without excerpts from the reviews in his advertisements and commercials. In fact, quote ads are generally the only way non-musical plays are advertised on television. (Ironically, despite the Shuberts’ claim that Alexander Woollcott wrote biased criticism of their shows, he demonstrated during the suit that they’d been using quotations from his reviews in their advertising. The confusion, by the way, arose because, until the New York Times gave Woollcott a byline after the controversy with the Shuberts began, his reviews, like most others at the time, appeared uncredited.) Today, the practice of using press quotations is so common that New York has a law to protect reviewers from blatant out-of-context quotation. During the 1984-85 Broadway season, there was a suit regarding Lawrence Roman’s Alone Together because of just such misuse of quotes in its advertising.

IMPLICATIONS

In the final analysis, a play opening to generally good reviews usually doesn’t need much merchandising, and a play that opens to generally bad reviews may not be salable—though there are exceptions to both of these axioms. As the More study indicated, the reviewers’ influence, if it exists at all, is at the two extremes. In the middle, where most plays stand, reviewers have little definable influence. Whatever influence they do have there can be countered with judicious business and marketing tactics.

Furthermore, if the statistics from the various audience studies have any validity, there’s additional indication that reviewers may not have the power usually credited to them. The New York Cultural Consumer, though only dealing with non-profit theater, stated that only 17% of the audience surveyed rated reviews an important influence on their choices, and that only 9% relied on reviews for their theater information. Even the League of New York Theatres and Producers’ study showed that, though more than half the Broadway audience read reviews, only 20% felt they were a major influence on their choices. Of that number, even fewer—16%—agreed with the statement, “I usually follow the critics’ views when deciding to see a Broadway show,” and only 2% agreed “completely.” That suggests very strongly that even the most susceptible audience—commercial theatergoers—may be far less influenced by reviewers and criticism than most people believe.

None of this is conclusive, but it does raise some interesting questions. The studies and surveys are inadequate to determine with even the remotest certainty how much reviews influence attendance, and they don’t deal at all with how those reviews are used. The opinions of journalists and producers regarding the putative influence of reviews are nothing more than perpetuation of the myth, and have little real value in determining the truth and extent of the influence. The very fact that shows close because of bad reviews begs the question, since producers close their shows on the assumption that audiences will stay away because of the notices. Economics notwithstanding, the producers have rarely tested the theory and allowed word-of-mouth to work, though there’s anecdotal evidence that it can.

This issue has in no way been satisfactorily examined; exploring the actual effect of reviews on real audiences requires extensive inquiry and follow-up. With proper funding, a survey of commercial audiences should yield some statistics that would be both enlightening and valuable.

[Most of the data regarding commercial productions and their audiences concerns the Broadway theater. Besides the fact that there are simply more commercial shows there, they’re also more susceptible to the influence of reviews because of the competition for essentially the same audience. Still, much of the information that pertains to these productions is also true, though perhaps on a smaller scale, to other commercial shows. With regard to the reviewer and the critic, despite my personal feelings about the distinction between the two, unless otherwise noted, both terms here refer to the writer or broadcaster of daily notices about current theatrical productions.

23 January 2011

The Power of the Reviewer—Myth or Fact?: Part 1

[A number of years ago, I became curious about the proposition that producers closed shows when they got bad reviews because they believed that that meant audiences would stay away. I decided to see whether this belief was real or apocryphal. I combed through the literature and the field studies of arts that relied on published or broadcast reviews, I found all the surveys and statistical analyses I could. I have from time to time rechecked the record to see if new studies or surveys have been published, but the last time I updated my data, George Wachtel, then Director of Research for the League of American Theatres and Producers (now the Broadway League), informed me that there’d been no industry-wide studies of press or reviews since the League published its 1980 study. In other words, however old my statistics are, they’re the newest available. Here’s Part 1 of my report.]

THE ISSUE

In “Reviewing a Play Under Injunction” (4 April 1915), the New York Times reported the following incident:

Beginning the day after there had been printed in The New York Times an unfavorable review of “Taking Chances,” a new farce presented on March 17 [1915] at the Thirty-ninth Street Theatre, Alexander Woollcott, dramatic critic of The Times, received several indirect notifications that he would thereafter be excluded from all theatres under the control of the Messrs. Shubert.

. . . .

Last Thursday evening the Shuberts executed their threat against Mr. Woollcott by excluding him from Maxine Elliott’s Theatre when he presented purchased tickets entitling him to orchestra seats.

Woollcott, arguably the most famous theater reviewer of his day, had bought tickets to Edward Locke’s The Revolt because the Shuberts, the most powerful producers in the country, had already ceased sending press seats to the Times for him. When the producers prevented a legal ticketholder from entering the theater, legislation was proposed in Albany making such action illegal. This may not have been the first case of a producer taking action against a reviewer, but it may have been the point at which their adversarial relationship solidified. Within days after J. J. Shubert and two house managers physically blocked Woollcott from seeing the play, the reviewer, backed by his paper, got an injunction prohibiting the Shuberts from keeping him out of their theaters and sued them under the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Times publisher Adolph Ochs canceled the Shuberts’ advertising, sued them for “prior restraint of the press,” and awarded Woollcott more space, a byline, and a raise. Within a few weeks, the injunction was lifted, Woollcott and the Times eventually lost their suits, and the Shuberts were able to bring pressure in Albany to defeat legislation prohibiting them from denying entry to any law-abiding person, but by that time the damage to the producers’ cause had been long done. All the New York papers lined up behind the Times, and Woollcott was thrust into the forefront of New York theater journalism and the paper began its rise to its present-day prominence.

Despite the Shuberts’ eventual victory in court, the battle ended badly for the producers: “The power of New York theater critics . . . was confirmed by the time the curtain came down and the Shuberts conceded,” reads one subsequent report. The question is, How did reviewers get this power, and is it based on fact—or assumptions shared by the producers and the general public? How much, in fact, do theatergoers rely on reviews to decide about going to a show?

THE POPULAR BELIEF: THE PRODUCERS

Of one effect there’s no doubt: producers do close shows because of poor critical response. Producer Joseph Kipness said simply, “I found there’s no sense fighting if you get lousy reviews. You can’t fight it,” and former New York Times review writer Brooks Atkinson wrote, “When the notices are particularly bad, most producers close without further exploitation” of the show’s audience-drawing potential. The presumption is that bad reviews will stop people from coming to the box office. The problem is that it is a presumption. It has seldom been tested, since most badly reviewed shows close so quickly no one can see them. It’s simply “conventional wisdom” that bad reviews kill ticket sales.

So sure are producers that reviewers can damage a play’s run that several in recent years have taken to a new tactic—or a variation of an old one. In an echo from the 1915 Shubert-Woollcott clash, some non-commercial producers have begun to run shows in previews, to which the press isn’t invited and, by convention, cannot write about, virtually until the show’s scheduled to close. Some theaters outside of New York City adopted a policy of inviting only local reviewers to productions and actually refusing seats to New York-based or national writers. The message is, of course, that these producers are so sure that reviewers’ opinions will adversely affect the success of their shows that they have become irreconcilably hostile even to their presence among the theaters’ audiences.

The curious thing about all this certainty is that it has been questioned very little, either by the producers themselves, or by independent research.

Hundreds of audience surveys are, of course, conducted for every type of presentation, but few deal with the commercial theater audience, and even fewer ask about reviews as anything more than a way of finding out what’s playing. Most are quite old—little of the data has been updated since the 1980s—and none delve deeply into the matter, not so much of whether potential theatergoers use reviews, but how they use them. This leaves a great gap between the actions of the producers and the provable facts upon which those actions should be based.

THE POPULAR BELIEF: THE REVIEWERS

The other side of this issue—what the journalists believe their power is—is addressed in the United Church of Christ 1969 survey, “Criticism and Critics in the Mass Media” by the Louis Harris organization. This survey didn’t address the audience’s use of reviews, but it did examine the reviewers’ own opinions about their influence, concluding that “the critical profession believes they have considerable impact . . . .”

To the broadest question, whether or not the reviewers think “the public really pays attention to criticism and is affected by it,” 87% said yes. Only 5% said that the public pays no attention to criticism, and 8% said that it “depends on circumstances.”

When the reviewers were asked if they have too much, too little, or the right amount of influence on the public, most naturally responded, “the right amount.” However, in the national sample, 30% felt that they have too little; 11% felt they have too much.

“Overall, then,” the report concluded, “critics and editors see criticism as having impact on the public educationally, economically, and in terms of political and social attitudes.” It must be noted, however, that these were the reviewers’ subjective responses on their own work. There’s no proof that the public really agrees with these opinions; even many prominent reviewers don’t agree on their influence. Rocco Landesman, then editor of Yale/Theatre (now Theater magazine) and now Chairman of the NEA, wrote that “Drama critics . . . have an inordinate amount of power within their field, for no other art depends so heavily on the brief quotation for the ad and marquee.” Even the late Nation review writer Joseph Wood Krutch asserted, “That the professional reviewer wields enormous immediate and practical influence is plain enough from the growing tendency of managers to close, at once, any production which has received generally unfavorable notices.”

On the other hand, a considerable number of important review writers don’t feel they have much power or influence. The late New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr, for instance, was once asked, “[W]hy are producers so taken with the ‘myth’ of critic power? ‘Because,’ he says with a laugh, ‘they are fools.’” The late Clive Barnes, arguably the most influential reviewer when he was writing for the New York Times (he was reviewing for the New York Post at his death), said at the time he held the Times post:

I don’t think we make a play fail. A play fails because it fails. There are so many other factors in a run apart from the critic’s notice. . . . The reason a play fails is because the producer took it off.

THE POPULAR BELIEF: THE PUBLIC

The debate between journalists and producers about the power of reviews could go on forever. The only judgment that matters must come from the public who reads or hears the reviews, and then decides to go or not to go to the theater. This is where there’s so little information. Many people believe that the reviewer has great power over what runs and what doesn’t. In The Season, a survey of Broadway in 1967 and 1968, William Goldman wrote that “the critics’ importance . . . is enormously variable from one kind of play to another. But, in any case, their influence is considerable . . . .” Despite this statement, Goldman’s estimation indicates the conflicting reactions among the general public: elsewhere in The Season he wrote that the Broadway reviewers “are individually meaningless in their importance to the theatre.” He even cited a study showing that only “20% of New Yorkers and 10% of out-of-towners say they’re chiefly influenced by the notices. . . . It’s probably fair to estimate roughly that one person in six [16.67%] attends a production because of critical enthusiasm.”

According to the study Criticizing the Critics, little research has probed this question, but one report confirmed “that critics’ opinions were a relatively unimportant factor in people’s decisions to go to a play or film.” Another Harris study, for the Associated Councils of the Arts, recorded “that about 60 percent of the more than 3,000 people interviewed said critics’ reviews were of minor importance in affecting their choice of entertainment fare.” In a survey of the way audiences hear about a performance, statistics showed that only 28.9% rely on newspaper stories, including reviews. This, however, isn’t the same as basing a choice on a review, and the survey didn’t single out reviews as a separate category.

The truth of the assertion that reviews lack influence is suggested by several cases of Broadway shows. First, in June 1988, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone closed after playing 105 regular performances, despite “almost universally enthusiastic” reviews and designation by the New York Drama Critics Circle as the best play of 1987-88. Producer Elliot Martin reported, “I read the notices on opening night and I presumed there’d be a line the next day around the block. But it didn’t happen.” Word-of-mouth, apparently, wasn’t “uniformly favorable.” The same was true of the Steppenwolf stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which received “overwhelmingly favorable” critical response and won the best-play Tony in 1990 but still closed after a scant 188 performances and 11 previews. Conversely, when Mikhail Baryshnikov opened in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the play got generally “mediocre reviews.” Despite this, and “the usual disinterest in more serious drama,” it set box-office records in March 1989, playing to 93.9% of capacity. In more recent seasons, Broadway and Off-Broadway have both seen plays which, despite receiving excellent notices, had foundered at the box office because there were no star names in the casts.

Possibly the ultimate ruling on this question comes from a theatergoer on line for discount seats at the Theatre Development Fund’s TKTS booth in Duffy Square. Asked by a reporter if she knew who was David Richards, the New York Times’s chief review writer who’d just resigned his position, she asserted that she didn’t. Furthermore, she said she didn’t “really go by [a reviewer’s] opinion.” When it came to theater advice, she’d “rather hear it from a friend of mine.” Probably for this woman at least, aside from word-of-mouth, the half-price ticket was more of a motivating factor in her decision than the published views of any reviewer.

THE DATA: AUDIENCE SURVEYS AND STUDIES

Most available audience surveys and consumer studies that dealt with theater at all frequently saw it as one element in a broad spectrum of entertainment or cultural outlets. A few surveys did ask if reviews are an important factor in the spectators’ decisions about seeing a show, but none went further to determine how prospective theatergoers use, read, or base decisions on them. If reviews have the power to close shows, the logical presumption is that would-be spectators read them and then follow the recommendations of the reviewer. Where, however, is the proof of this contention?

The most useful audience survey was A Study of the New York Audience of the Broadway Theatre, prepared for the League of New York Theatres and Producers (now the Broadway League). This 1979 study divided the theater audience into four components according to theater-going habits. Among “Traditionalists,” described as “older” and “veteran theatregoers,” reviews were both a major source of information and a major influence. This group made up only 24% of the Broadway audience, however. The largest portion of the audience was the “Entertainment Seekers” who made up 35% and were the “oldest group” who’d been “attending theater over 10 years.” Reviews were neither a prime information source nor a major influence for this group, but they attended theater less often than the Traditionalists.

The group most nearly related in size and attendance frequency to the Traditionalists were the “Theatre Enthusiasts” who made up 23% of the audience. These were “younger” and “below average in years of attendance”; they “read reviews, but [are] not strongly influenced” by them.

The smallest group, 18% of the regular audience, were the “Dispassionate Theatregoers” who were also the “youngest group,” many of whom were “new patrons” of theater. The study found that reviews were a minor source of theater information for this group. In all, less than 20% of all theatergoers rated reviews a major influence on their choices.

In an audience survey by the League in 1990 at a performance of City of Angels, 46% of the respondents said they got their theater information from reviews, but only 34% said the reviews were a major influence on their decisions. The largest group, 58%, was influenced by “a friend”—in other words, by word-of-mouth. “A friend” was also the source of theater information for 66% of the polled audience.

Another interesting and useful study wasn’t an audience survey at all. In 1977, More magazine published a ten-year study of reviews by the then-major New York theater journalists to establish a statistical connection between the critical response and the length of a production’s run. The study hypothesized:

[I]f the critics had no power, then there would be no correlation between their reviews and the length of run. Shows panned by the critics would be just as likely to have long runs as they would be to close Saturday night. Conversely, if the critics had absolute power, then every play panned would close the morning after and every play raved would make a fortune for its backer.

In fact, they found that

when the critics expressed a strong negative or positive opinion about a play, there was a marked correlation with the length of run. Of all the pans written by all the critics that we examined, nearly three quarters of them were of plays that closed in less than 50 days.

The statistics for the opposite end of the scale weren’t so clear: only 32% of the rave reviews went to plays that ran 500 days or more. Where the reviews were mixed, the results were even less significant, giving the very clear impression that “it is at the extremes that [the reviewers] exercise what power they have.” The study determined that, all the reviews taken together, the difference between how well plays do when they’re panned or raved is significant. Significant enough, particularly at the negative end, to warrant the conclusion that the reviewers wield more power than they’re willing to admit. (Though there’s no concrete evidence to support this, it seems possible that theatergoers put more reliance in pans than raves, avoiding the former but not necessarily flocking to the latter. Of course, it’s easier to point to a show that was closed because of its reviews than to one that ran because of them, and though a short run’s obvious, a long run’s somewhat harder to define.)

There is, however, a flaw in the study’s logic. These statistics only prove an apparent correlation between the reviewers’ response and the length of the show’s run; it may be a case of post hoc, non propter hoc. The authors didn’t consider the obvious possibility that producers, faced with bad notices and convinced of the reviewers’ influence, simply closed the shows. Neither did they entertain the possibility, however slim, that the shows ran or closed not because of the reviews at all, but because the potential audience decided independently that they were good or bad shows.

[Return to ROT for the conclusion of my report on the power of the reviewer. I’ll pick up with some examples of the marketing techniques that producers use to sell their shows in the face of poor notices. Look for Part 2 in the next few days.]

18 January 2011

A Year in Korea

By Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, who’s contributed various columns to ROT over the time I’ve been publishing it, was, like me, an ROTC cadet in college. I went in the army about a month before he did and while I ended up in army schools for 19 months and then an overseas assignment in West Berlin, Kirk was quickly assigned to duty in South Korea where he was stationed between 1970 and 1971. He sent me a slightly edited version of a memoir he composed based on letters (quoted below in italics) he wrote home during his tour in Korea. If some of this reminds readers of a couple of popular novels (plus a movie and a TV show), you’re not alone. ~Rick]

[I have edited this document and changed one or two names. Unfortunately, young Lt. Woodward treated his later self poorly by refusing to date most letters at all, so a lot of the sequencing here is guesswork. I know, though, that the narrative begins in 1970. –KW]

I flew from Louisville to Seattle, where I saw Mt. Rainier in the distance, to Anchorage, which was cold and dismal and just an airport, and to Tokyo, over so much ocean. . . . I flew that last, long leg on a US Army freight plane with some rather temporary-looking seats in it, a plane built for flying and not much else. I remember my surprise when we were told in Anchorage to board “officers first” and I realized I would be one of the first to get on the plane. I woke up at one point in the middle of the night; the surface below me was absolutely flat and the moon enormous in the sky, like something in a Duanier Rousseau painting, and I realized that the flat surface was the vast ocean – one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

We bunked together in Seoul, and at this transitional stop I realized that behind the scenes a sort of lottery was taking place that would determine where we’d be sent. It started to dawn on me that a really, really bad place to be sent would be the DMZ, which at that time, as today, was a cold, barren, dangerous location. Somehow that didn’t happen, and my orders sent me instead to Camp Carroll Depot, about 2/3 down South Korea, at a little town called Waegwan.

CCD was built on the side of a magnificent north-south valley that runs up the middle of Korea, with a big highway in the center of it and rice paddies in a quilt along both sides, and everywhere else in Korea, for that matter. The bachelor officer quarters, four functional brick buildings, looked over the valley. From there you walked down a long winding road down a hill to the main gate of the Depot, past a few huts and several chickens (“I’ve never been this close to a chicken!” a colleague exclaimed one day), about where the Village – bars and houses – began.

Turning left and going in the Depot, the Officers Club was up the road on the left, the USO club on the right, and, further right, the Y-shaped Headquarters building. Stretching out and to the right were several vast repair facilities, storage buildings, and warehouses. It was, I’ve told innumerable people since, a little like being stationed in West Virginia. The US Army had been in Korea so long that everything felt more permanent than not.

I began to get the feel of the place. I wrote home:

Have seen a lot of Korea recently. Went to Taegu last Thursday; it’s about half an hour from here, the third largest city in Korea. Saw a part (a small part) of the market area, namely the area where people sell fabrics. I also visited a place called the Inventory Control Center (ICC), which controls all supply operations in the area, including me. I visited two men named Mr. Brown and Mr. Kagi in the Electronics Section, and they’re both crazy. They would speak in alternating sentences for a while, each one in turn picking up where the other stopped. Then suddenly they’d fly at each other in a wild argument, shouting and interrupting and pulling books off shelves and waving them. Then suddenly they’d resolve the discussion and return to me, alternating sentences. This went on for half an hour and I never did find out what I wanted to know. Mad.

A similar thing had happened to me just before, when I’d gone to the Taegu finance office to get a treasury check made from the money left by an Army civilian recently deceased. The lieutenant in the office was furious. “You can’t get a check here! You don’t have authorization! You don’t have (somebody’s) signature! How do I know who you are? What do you mean coming in like this?” Then, with no transition, “Well, take it over there and get it signed.”

It was a couple of weeks before I was assigned to a job. In fact, it was a couple of weeks before anyone knew I was there, which was fine with me. I was doomed as soon as the colonel learned that I was present, a day I postponed as long as I could. Col. Rolman was a florid man with a beautiful head of hair and absolutely no idea what he was doing. He was a wild man, talky and unpredictable, and as the months went on, he didn’t get better, he got worse. He fired people with abandon, then put them in newer and even more important jobs. My buddy Mike Henkaline and I once had a drink with a couple of officers from another post who felt bad because they’d recently been relieved from their posts. We just laughed – we knew people who’d been relieved three or four times in a week.

Here is a report of a conference told from the point of view of a captain who was there. The colonel was red-faced, pacing up and down. Suddenly he began: “We need a SENSE OF URGENCY on this post!” and pointed to a chart at the top of which was written SENSE OF URGENCY in four-inch letters. The colonel went on like this for some time, and my friend the captain finally tuned him out. Then suddenly the captain heard the colonel ask “Col. Pool?” and Lt. Col. Pool said, “I don’t know, sir.” Then the Colonel asked, “What about you, Captain Rowland?” The captain had no idea what the question was, so he followed Col. Pool’s lead and said, “I don’t know, sir.” The colonel turned to the next man and asked, “Do you think I’m responsible for this lack of urgency?” “No, sir!” the man said snappily, and it began to dawn on my friend that he’d given the wrong answer. . . . God only knows what Col. Pool had been thinking about.

At a meeting one day Col. Rolman announced, “What we need is an arsenal of management tools.” “There’s a closet just down the hall we could use, sir,” Major Roberts replied.

Rolman was truly the Management Beast – he knew there were ways an organization should be managed, and had absolutely no idea what they were. He made arbitrary decisions and stuck to them, for as long as a week sometimes, and then made other decisions that contradicted them. He loved meetings – it was Mike, I believe, who attended a meeting at Headquarters, started to return to his job in his jeep, and was called back before he’d reached his office for another meeting that the Colonel had just decided to hold.

On the other hand, my immediate boss at work, and the ranking officer I thought the most of, was the late Major Joel E. L. Roberts, a minister’s son and the most profane man who ever lived (“Fucking abortion!” he’d say. “Sweet Jesus!”), and the smartest and most capable adult I probably have ever met. I think he had joined the Army just to give himself a challenge. It darned near beat him, but the collision was something to see. He tried his hardest to make us ROTC guys into something; I remember how irritated he got that I waved at an enlisted man I knew, instead of making him salute me. Oh, well.

So I finally got my first job at the Depot, which I described in a letter home:

At present – pardon a ROTC lesson – I am Chief, Supply Branch, Depot Shops Division, Directorate of Maintenance. As the system used to be set up there were six shops, doing different kinds of maintenance work, and each one had its own supply room:

Heavy equipment
Armament
Light equipment
Electrical and Communication
Fabrication
Major Assembly

When I arrived, Chief, Depot Shops, my boss, a captain, consolidated all the branch supply units into one Supply Branch under me, adding one more unit to that list of six. But a paper consolidation does not a real consolidation make, so now I am working to create a central ordering system, in our own little building.

A DAC (Department of the Army Civilian) named Crutchfield had always thought there should be one supply office instead of six, and he convinced me, so we found a little second-floor room over a garage and moved desks and chairs, and Koreans, into it. I doubt that I had any idea of the organizational work that would be needed to make this plan succeed, and in any case I didn’t have more than about two weeks to work on it, since I was almost immediately fired, in front of a roomful of glum Koreans. On the plus side, Major Roberts gave me credit, possibly undeserved but I appreciated it, for trying to do the right thing. Later the Depot did, for real, exactly what I had tried to implement.

The nominees for “most fouled up bureaucratic mess you ever saw in the Army” would make a long list. When I arrived at Camp Carroll, for example, I was surprised to see that it had a wall around it, four feet wide, several feet tall, and grey. Not so fast, soldier. That was no wall – well, it was a wall, but an unusual one, because they had to do something with all the fence posts somebody had ordered with the wrong “unit of issue” – maybe you ordered a thousand fence posts with a unit of issue of one, and some guy ordered a thousand, so they got a delivery of a million fence posts. All they could figure to do was ring the depot with them lying on their sides.

The grey that covered them was actually portable helicopter landing pads, designed for use in Vietnam. Unfortunately they were so heavy that they could only be set up by a crane, which meant that an area would have to be secured and developed before the “temporary” landing pads could be set up, making them completely useless. So they found a new purpose covering our wall of fence posts, and a darned fine wall they made, too.

Our Colonel, I may have mentioned, changes personnel constantly – bad on morale, to say the very very least. He also calls meetings at fifteen minutes notice. Sometimes he bawls everybody out. Sometimes he compliments everybody. Some meetings are long, some short. He asks for votes of confidence; and sometimes he makes personnel changes. As we walked into the last meeting, my boss the captain whispered to me, “You’re the new chaplain.” He himself is one of eight Directors of Administration the depot has had since October.

My captain knows a man who worked for the Pentagon and wrote a series of chapters making up a report. As he wrote each one he marked it SECRET. When he finished, they took the whole thing and marked it TOP secret and wouldn’t let him read it, even though he’d written it.

Here are some Col. Rolman stories: he believes in management through meetings and as a result is always calling together three people, an entire directorate, and once or twice the entire depot (in the theater). One time Captain Henkaline got a call to come to HQ immediately with his first sergeant. They arrived to find the colonel’s office, both outer and inner, filled with people. The colonel was yelling on the phone, the sergeant-major was running around finding people. Finally the crowd thinned and the captain and sergeant went in the office. The colonel simply ignored them, didn’t say a word to them, talking to other people, writing notes – not a sign of recognition. After about fifteen minutes of this the captain and sergeant walked out. They waited outside again; other people were involved too, Col. Rice and Sgt. Rouelle; they all waited, and finally they went back inside. “Well, hello! How are you?” Warm greetings from the colonel. Everybody sat down. “Now,” said the colonel, “What’s the subject of this meeting?”

This sort of thing happens fairly often. My major, Major Roberts, was told by his office to return a call from the colonel. “Hello, Robbie,” said Col. Rolman. “What did I want to talk to you about?”

There’s no reason this, and any other wacky Army story, couldn’t be true. We used to say that before we joined the Army, we thought that Catch-22 was fantasy, but that now we knew it was really photographic realism.

For a long time I couldn’t understand why I was given a high rank and a lot of money, while the sergeants, who actually knew stuff and did things, were called “enlisted men” and were basically treated as a different class of people, although many of them were, personally as well as professionally, the aristocrats of the kingdom rather than the lackeys.

Eventually it dawned me that as an officer, and in particular an ROTC officer, I was being paid for one thing: to take the blame if something went wrong, and thus protect the sergeants as they went about their duties. After that realization it all made sense. I had some outstanding sergeants, some ordinary ones, and some curious ones, but I never made the mistake of thinking that I was “better” in any sense than they were.

One time a sergeant allowed me to plan something that didn’t go well, in order to teach me a lesson. I spoke to him afterwards, congratulated him on a clever piece of training, and added that our job wasn’t to train me but to carry out the Army’s missions, and I’d appreciate it if he’d work with me on that aspect of things from now on. We got along well after that.

My favorite sergeant story concerns one of the great ones, a vigorous, completely bald black sergeant with a voice that could shake the roofs. Eventually I was in charge, if that’s the word, of a platoon of about a million men. Since the purpose of the depot was mechanical work rather than drilling and marching around, our platoons were largely administrative structures, but one day the men had messed up and our sergeant formed them up on the pavement and dressed them up one side and down the other, until everyone was shaking.

Then he bellowed, in his largest possible voice, “And now THE LIEUTENANT will talk to you!” I felt like the biggest fool in Asia, especially as I heard myself saying, in a squeaky little voice, “ Okay, men, you heard what the sergeant said. . . .”

Theft was prevalent on the depot. Just before I got there, in a celebrated incident, a quite sophisticated tunnel was discovered connecting the inside of the depot to the outside (beyond the wall of fence posts). I used to wander around the border areas looking for other tunnels, but never found any. A Korean who sold, say, a distributor could feed a family for a good while on the returns from one, and of course the Depot was full of auto parts, so we were an easy mark.

One day a Korean who I will not name even here because of his undoubted wishes, even though he’s probably been dead for ages, came to me in absolute secrecy and told me that three or four Korean women were smuggling parts out of the Depot under their voluminous Korean dresses (heavily layered, colorful, very ceremonial looking). He drew me a little a map to show me the route they took. I passed the information on to Major Roberts, stressing the need for absolute confidentiality, and he took the map. When I told my informant that the map was no longer in my hands, he nearly had a stroke, and begged me to get it back at once. No matter how much I assured him that Major Roberts was as secure as Fort Knox (I suppose I used another metaphor), he would not breathe again until I had returned the map to his hands. (The women were duly caught.)

We were among other things a repair shop; vehicles from Vietnam would be brought in and fixed. Then they would be put out on the back lot, where people would break in and steal parts. When the vehicles were requisitioned for return to Vietnam, they would be inspected, when it would be found that they were missing parts; they would be returned to the repair shop, and often fixed using parts taken from the vehicles in the back lot; then they’d be put on the back lot themselves, where. . . . I wonder if we ever sent any vehicles anywhere.

In general I admired the Koreans very much, and still do. They were smart and scrappy, and they had achieved in about twenty years what we’d achieved over a couple of centuries of the Industrial Revolution, with all the associated problems, of course.

Well, having been fired, I got promoted, more or less, to my job during most of my time at the Depot, and I enjoyed it hugely, and perhaps was even marginally good at it:

Dear Folks,

I now have a new and theoretically most impressive job: I am Chief of Warehousing, which is part of the Storage Division of the Directorate for Supply and Transportation, and am therefore – again theoretically – boss of some 100 people, four large warehouses, two smaller buildings, and umpteen outdoor storage areas – about 50 – filled with vehicles and all sorts of other stuff. (Following my recent demotion, I have now been wildly promoted.)

One remarkable event took place at the Service Club:

. . . my meeting with Gen. Mike Michaelis, the 8th Army commander and hero of the Korean War. I try not to be impressed by rank alone, but it seems me that General M. is genuinely big stuff. I met him at the Service Club, the last stop on a tour he was making as escort officer for the Asst Sect of Defense for something or other (a pleasant man who talked with the depot doctor’s pretty wife the whole time and seemed happy as a clam). Gen M. interested me more. He seems to have lost weight; he has a large head on a thin little body. He walked by himself to the far end of the auditorium. It didn’t feel right to me that everybody was leaving him to himself, so I followed him, and we had the following conversation:

He asked me if the piano worked. I told him I didn’t know but figured it did. I then asked him how the visit was going. Hated to, but there’d been a lot of apprehension. I really was curious. “Fine!” he said. Pause. “He’s been here three times,” he said, referring to the Dep. Sec. Apparently Gen. M. didn’t see himself as the center of attention. Then, looking at the doctor’s wife: “Who’s that girl?” I told him. Pause. “Doctors’ wives are always the best looking girls, for some reason.” I told him she’d just discovered she was pregnant. “Have you started calling her ‘mother’ yet?” he asked and walked on over toward the punchbowl, literally looking her up and down as he went. That was my meeting with Iron Mike Michaelis, one of the most powerful men in Korea.

The Army provided good training for future business experience:

Had a briefing in my office with Col. Rolman yesterday. I left my notes on my desk and went outside to wait for him. While I was there, the office staff, trying to make the room look nice, took my notes and put them in a drawer, so when I came back with the colonel, major, et al, I found I had no briefing notes. Problem solved by going ahead, courageously but very nervous. . . .

Our CCD story for the week concerns the Lt. in the Plans, Training, and Intelligence office in the HQ Building who called his friend at Military Intelligence on the floor below and, trying to begin the conversation with a funny touch, began, “I just got a call: there’s a bomb in the Head Shed.” He intended to continue and explain that he was joking, but he happened to be fooling with the two-line switch for the phone and at that moment he cut himself off. Panicking, he ran downstairs to try and catch the agent, whose line was busy since he, the agent, was calling the adjutant. The adjutant ran into the Depot Commander’s office; fortunately the colonel wasn’t in. He ran to the Deputy CO’s office, but he wasn’t in either. He ran into the hall to pull the fire alarm but thought of one more Lt. Col. he might ask, and while he was going there, the horrified troublemaker finally caught up with him.

I told my boss the Major today that in a sense the people who should be in the Army are people like E-5s with over 15 years in service, since that kind of person most likely would have no place else to go. He nearly threw me out of the office.

That was Major Roberts again, who couldn’t believe what a civilian I was. I still think I had a point, though.

I inherited Mike’s job as Depot Improvement Officer (he’d had it for two weeks) part-time; there is no evidence that I made the depot any better, but I did put out at least two newsletters, which I’m sure were received with the acclaim they deserved. Part of my duty, apparently, was to fight the use of drugs; I was handicapped in this, I suppose, because I didn’t use any and didn’t know anybody who did, but still we devised a plan, which I described as follows:

For present users – bring down the pot-sniffing dog to do a demonstration – we can get you if we want to. (Implied: take advantage of the Amnesty program.)

For potential users – intra-platoon sports.

Speaking of sports, we participated in War Games around this time. The several-day exercise was intended to help gauge our readiness to withstand an attack by North Korea. We wore field gear the whole time and assembled for strategy meetings, but didn’t actually enact, or re-enact, any combat. Memorable event: Col. Rolman, aiming for the Patton effect (the movie was recently out), pointed to a map, illustrating the various places where we would defend the Depot. Unfortunately it was a map of North Korea.

In the end, the North Koreans won. Please read that sentence again. The North Koreans won our own war game. They beat us rather badly, actually. And they weren’t even there.

A new crane was brought on to the railhead Friday, and the Koreans held a little service of propitiation, bowing down before it and later breaking a little bottle of gin over its bumper; which, as everyone noted, makes at least as much sense as the Army safety program.

We became pretty sure that the Koreans made up this ceremony just to add some spice to the day.

Our chaplain refuses to have anything to do with alcohol at all. The other night, I understand, he sat in the club with a group of drinkers who kept buying rounds. Since he was drinking 7-Up, he soon found he had about six 7-Ups in front of him, all opened and waiting. . . .

Major Roberts, my boss and leader and now Deputy Commander although we have a Lt. Col. and a more senior major, told Col. Rolman that the deputy’s chair was too big for him. “No, no, Robbie,” the colonel said, “you have the experience, the drive, the ability. . . .” “I mean the chair, sir. The chair’s too big.” It was a pretty big chair. . . .

Last night the major and I were watching a floor show at the club. Neither of us were wild about it. The major eyed the tambourine player. “If that guy can jump through that hoop,” he said, “I’ll be impressed.”

Eventually, surprisingly, it began to look more and more like I might actually get to go home.

The transition has been smooth as far as my job is concerned, and I’ve spent this week, when I wasn’t in Taegu, telling my successor what I know. Speaking of Taegu, I’ve been spending some shopping time there. The other day I took a Korean taxi to Taegu, driven by one of those typically astonishing Korean taxi drivers over a road which resembles US 60 from the VA line to Charleston, with half the width of the road missing. The driver – half drunk, born with a quarter of his faculties, resolutely refusing to blow his horn when directed to by a sign, as well as at any other time, cursed from childhood by a bad memory which caused each curve in the road to loom up at him as an awful surprise, though he’d driven it fifty times before. Of such is Oriental fatalism born.

One day at lunch in the Officers Club I stood up and said, “Good bye.” “Where are you going?” someone asked. “CONUS,” I replied, and left.

. . . a dream which was dreamed by a friend who is no radical in any sense of the word. In his dream he was in one of five connected dirigibles, flying over a hilly suburb which reminded him of, say, the outskirts of Pittsburg. He was piloting one of the dirigibles. On the side of each craft was a large sign that read: WHAT DO THEY DO. . . THESE AMERICANS?