“Is my crime that I do it, or that I ‘fessed up?” the writer asks me. “I mean, whose dog did I poison?”
I’m speaking with journalist Joanne Kaufman, who prompted conniptions among the drama classes last week. A veteran freelance writer who contributes theater-related feature stories and profiles to the Wall Street Journal, Kaufman published an essay headlined “Confessions Of A Broadway Bolter.”
“I recently saw three Broadway shows in a single week,” the piece began. “Actually, as is my unfortunate tendency, I’m overstating things a bit. To be scrupulously honest, I saw half of three Broadway shows. Intermissions came and I went.”
Among the shows she’d one-acted were the Sting musical The Last Ship, the Blythe Danner vehicle The Country House and both Kinky Boots and Matilda. “I’m embarrassed by how unembarrassed I am,” Kaufman confided. Consequences? “There’s a risk in leaving early, of course,” she wrote, “not the least of which is being spotted and caught out by the press agent who provided me with the tickets in the first place.”
Well. I mean Well! You can imagine the response from the Broadway commissariat. On his popular blog The Producer’s Perspective, Ken Davenport invited the WSJ to relieve Kaufman of her duties and give those assignments to “someone who actually gives a sh@t.” Absent such a move, he wrote, “I’d love to believe that the Broadway Press Agents and Producers will no longer give Ms. Kaufman comps to shows, but that won’t happen…We’re not going to stop giving you tickets, Ms. Kaufman. We’re on the other side of an abusive relationship. You insult us, neglect us, and then you brag about it. But we’ll still invite you to our bed.”
One of those press agents, Rick Miramontez, distributed a letter whose umbrage I quite enjoyed and which he says the WSJ declined to publish: “I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a chump for having accommodated the woman so many times over the years,” he fumed. ” ‘Joltin’ Joanne’ Kaufman makes it sound like an unbearable hardship to have to sit through the entirety of a Broadway show…Well, let me be the first of what I hope will be many press agents to unburden ‘Joltin’ Joanne’ from her hardship. She will never be invited to another show by my office.”
Before I go one step further, I must say that Joanne Kaufman is a journalist I like and admire enough to have commissioned work from her across many years, and that Miramontez is a dedicated professional with whom I have had dealings also across the decades. Indeed, I was cheeky enough to tell both of them I wish I’d edited their copy instead of seeing it after the fact.
Neither Kaufman nor her editors, for example bothered to make it clear that she has never and would never leave a show early if she was working on an assignment. She isn’t a critic (though she poked some pretty criticky jabs in that essay, which I’d have removed). For many years I edited a famously grumpy New York critic who sometimes took pleasure in boasting about a show so bad he’d left at intermission — only to flare in anger when I told him fine, but no way was he going to write about that show.
As for Miramontez, I believe it’s the duty of every press agent to do everything, no matter how outrageous, in the service of promoting a show, just as it is my obligation as a journalist to resist. Rick is non pareil in the tooting of horns, but he knows darned well that Joanne Kaufman is at this very moment working on stories about some of his clients. So enough of that silliness. Please.
However, that’s not to dismiss the issues Kaufman’s column raises, including the purpose of the WSJ in publishing it. Confessional journalism is a tricky business, and it usually backfires. A colleague I deeply admire at the New York Times wrote once that he would henceforth recuse himself from reviewing the work of a certain playwright, because he’d never liked anything that writer had written. Brave? Perhaps. But announcing that an artist is incapable of changing my mind — or of changing, period — doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve seen enough shows to know my mind can change in Act II (not always for the better).
The column also touched on the very complicated business of the free tickets we — critics and reporters and editors alike — accept to do our jobs.
“I’m not a critic and I would never leave if I was in the line of duty,” Kaufman said. “That would be like a surgeon leaving in the middle of the operation.” Setting aside the notion that her observation gives new meaning to the phrase “cutting remark,” this makes sense. Kaufman adds that she often does pay for her own tickets, especially for shows that might spark interest in a story as yet unassigned.
“The objections to the column seemed to fall in two camps,” she said. “People in the business, who feel they are wasting their money, and impassioned theatergoers who say they would never ever leave a show, no matter what. I understand both points of view, though I’m not wedded to either side. Is the problem that I’m leaving, or is it that I’m getting a free ticket? I find that interesting. Publicists have called me to say ‘You have no idea how many journalists leave at intermission, and Tony voters.’ Am I not doing my job? I think that’s more for my editors to say.”
As far as those editors are concerned, Kaufman’s column was a huge hit. (Note to the writer who had barely put down her paper before emailing Kaufman’s editor with a C.V., a pitch for her job, and the assurance that she would never leave a show at intermission: Sorry.)
As for Miramontez, Kaufman says, “His rage seems, um, theatrical. If he wants to put on a show, I promise I won’t leave at intermission.”
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