Who's Afraid of Hedy Weiss?

By David Himmel

This essay here doesn’t need backstory or frame of reference. If you’re reading this and don’t already know about the recent hysteria surrounding Chicago theater and one of its longstanding, long-despised critics then you’re best to stop reading here and choose from any other Literate Ape story. Or log off and go for a jog.

Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss out of makeup.

Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss out of makeup.

I admit that I do not see enough theater to know, off-hand, all the ins and outs, nooks and crannies, good guys and bad guys of the trade. And despite being an associate artist of a try-hard, on-again-off-again theater company, I don’t read much about the business or follow much of its happenings. And until the petition asking theater companies to cease providing comped tickets for Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss, I had never even heard her name, nor read a single review she ever wrote—that I’m aware of anyway.

And that’s because I don’t care. I don’t read critics. Not for theater, or music, rarely for film and only accidentally during the peak of an Adderall high will I read a book review. Mostly, I don’t care what the critics say. And I don’t want them and their opinion to get in the way of me forming my own.

OK, that's not entirely true. I do read critical reviews of such things more often than I just admitted to above, but that’s mostly only after I’ve seen the production, listened to the album or read the book. I treat critical reviews as I would an informed discussion on any topic. I read (or listen) and consider their opinions against mine. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. Sometimes the critic says something that makes me reconsider my original thought on the thing. And sometimes the critic is a bit of a jackass and says some unnecessary and maybe even mean spirited things.

But so what? What do I care? I’m not easily offended, and so, in place of where I otherwise would be offended, I conclude that that person is simply an idiot. And then I move on. I'm smart enough to know better than to give idiots agency.

I’ve done my best to follow the recent stirring over Weiss and her long career accused of racism, sexism and other crimes against humanity on social media not because I enjoy the sort of shit storms the Internet creates but because many of my friends and acquaintances are actors, writers, directors, producers, set designers, et. al. And really, I suppose, I’m one of them, too. Plus, I’m a curious sort, so I wanted to understand what was going on in my friends’ world and what was going on in my city’s theater and journalistic scenes.

It turns out, there’s not a lot.

One argument against Weiss and her brand of critique I came across was that—and I’m paraphrasing here—in theater, the artists and the critics must work toward the common good of supporting the art and the effort of those who created it and the all-inclusive nature of the stage. And that should be obvious bullshit.

The artist makes art. The critic deconstructs that art so that people who don’t understand art can try to pretend to understand art. The artist and the critic are not on the same team. They are opposite sides of the same coin. And the opposite sides of the same coin can never see eye-to-eye.

Yes, the artist needs the critic to review the show so that it can be promoted and people will hear about it and buy a ticket and come sit still for 90 minutes and hopefully be entertained. And the critic needs the artist to create the art so that the critic has a job. But that’s it. That’s the contract.

There’s the old adage that if you believe the good reviews, you must then believe the bad ones, too. My approach has always been to just buckle down and do the work and let the viewers or readers decide. Let the ticket sales speak for themselves. Or better yet, let your standard of quality speak for itself.

Yeah, a bad review sucks. And from what I can tell, having read a few of Weiss’ archived stories, including the piece she wrote about Pass Over—the one that set off the latest fury—she’s a crusty old lady who has built a career supported by and indulged in by crusty old people. She's out of touch, narrow-minded and cartoonish in character. I don't intend to excuse her or cut her any slack, but Weiss is a product of her industry.

We all know that Big Theater in Chicago is geared toward Weiss and her ilk. She’s writing to her audience. And yeah, she’s probably less comfortable watching a play that involves people of color or of any sort of sexuality beyond straight with no chaser. But isn’t that the gripe from many in the Off Loop theater community? Big Theater doesn’t really support the artistry of theater, it supports the successful art that rises to the top. It gives the masses what the masses want. And the masses are made up mostly not of artists but of consumers. And consumers are simple creatures. There’s no other way to explain the success of Cats.

Actors who refuse to perform when Weiss is in the audience? That’s cool. I respect your personal protest in the name of fair and reasonable critique. Well, I mostly do, anyway. Because I do feel sorry for the patrons who will miss the opportunity to see you perform simply because a public bigot with a Sun-Times business card is occupying a seat. Refusing to perform when Weiss is in the audience is a little like letting the terrorists win, isn't it? Theaters who don’t send her free tickets? That’s cool, too, I guess. I’m not quite sure on that one. If you invite one critic, you ought to invite them all, even the ones who may be nasty, close-minded or just plain hateful. Hell, I’ve always invited the Reader to my shows and the Reader seems to get off on giving tepid reviews of almost everything in town.

But so what? It’s a critic. Fuck critics. We could still make art without them. They can’t do a damn thing without us. Remember that. But if you’re going to encourage the relationship, you have to commit to it fully. By inviting only the critics who won’t dump on you, you’re no better than Trump saying he’s a great president because Breitbart reported it.

"You take the good, you take the bad. You take them both and then you have the facts of life. The facts of life." It sucks, but it's the business we're in.

So you say Weiss is racist and elitist. Yeah, well, fuck her then. Unfortunately, she's not going to go anywhere. She's going to keep her job despite the quality of her work. But if the audience reads her review and decides to come to your show, that’s still a good thing. And hopefully, that audience will form its own opinion on your show and its actors, etc. And if the audience reads her review and decides against coming to your show, fuck them, too. They’re probably not the people who would enjoy it in the first place. Your art isn’t for everyone. Neither is mine. Despite how good a play is, a bildungsroman about hard times in the gay, black community—or anything that greatly challenges honky and wholesome conventions—is not going to inspire change in the mind and heart of the Wilmette grandmother on a theater date with her Lincoln Park daughter. OK, it might, but just as Weiss does, you have to consider the target audience.

And along the same reasoning, Weiss’ dribble—I won’t call it art, it’s barely journalism—isn’t for everyone either. Let the old hag come to your show or not. Make her pay for a ticket or not. If you’re going to invest in what the critic says—good and bad, reasonable and racist—then you’ll want a critic who says something. And Weiss, for all of her flaws as a critic, at least says something every now and then, even if it's horrible. You could get a review from the Reader. And no one cares about that, not even the Reader.