To the editors:
Jack Helbig’s recent review of our musical play, How Could Such a Monster Come to Be?, had a strangely dismissive and angry tone that I found offensive and uncalled for [July 9].
“Abysmal,” “loutish,” “dreary”? Come on, Jack. Our past work (whose past work, by the way, Jack? Maestro Subgum and the Whole’s? Jeff Dorchen’s? The Curious Theatre Branch’s? It wasn’t clear who you were critiquing) was described as always in the past “dancing on the edge of self-indulgence . . . until now, by plan or plain dumb luck . . . didn’t fall off.” Well which is it, Jack? If by “plain dumb luck” you might do well to reconsider your past support of Curious and Jeff Dorchen, and your oft-repeated praise and interest. Perhaps you’ve been fooled all along into thinking our work is “exceptional.” If as you alternatively suggest, a “plan” on our part, a “plan” suggests that we actually know what we are doing and have earned the respect of our audience and peers (of which you in the past have been an enthusiastic member) and that “respect” allows us to experiment and reinvent ourselves. Monster was a chance for the Magnuses and myself (the Curious writers) to collaborate with Jeff Dorchen and the talented eight musicians and performers that make up Maestro Subgum & the Whole. It was Maestro Subgum that produced the show, not the Curious Theatre Branch, which your review never makes clear. We wrote a funny, goofy, silly, late-night musical comedy. There were songs (good songs, by my reckoning) and a cast (good cast, too). Neither of which your review bothered to mention. I enjoy the show, by the way, and am thankfully not alone.
You went on to describe our past work as “intentionally obscure stories,” “sly in-jokes,” coming out of “the hip safety of pomo, boho irony” (a phrase that I’m not sure means anything). These descriptions, sadly, lead me to suspect that even your past positive reviews have really missed out on what we do. Again, who is this “we”? I would say that the four writers, who I assume you’re referring to, write very differently. True, we all write plays that interest us, move us, and amuse us. Individually, that’s what “we” playwrights do. But other than that, these four writers have very different stories to tell, and very different styles in which to tell them. Jenny Magnus writes short, precise, sincere performance pieces (“irony” is not much in evidence). Bryn Magnus writes long dreamy epical pieces, where language is used almost as a filmic tool, images that wash over you. Jeff Dorchen writes highly satirical pieces that are firmly grounded in science fiction and political outrage. My own work is much more grounded in story telling and the emotional landscape of the family. There is not much “hip safety” in any of the work, but rather a vulnerability that, to me, is painfully obvious, and part of the point.
Which leads me to what I consider your job is in the theater. I think it’s only fair that if you expect me to do my job well, and improve over time, from show to show, that I expect the same from you. Your job is to critique the play, not something Jeff Dorchen, Curious, or Maestro might or might not have done in the past. Where did we lose you? In the opening monologue? You were seemingly not able to follow the plot (which was consciously simple to follow), your plot summary was inaccurate at least six times. We know you found something “loutish,” what was it? You thought it “too long,” what should have been cut? Which performances needed work? You didn’t talk about any of them. Which characters did you like? Hate? It was a musical by a musical unit (which is what Maestro is), what songs did you like? How could we have used them better? And on and on. It’s these kind of “notes” that help a playwright, that we rarely hear from you or your peers.
Finally, I was personally hurt by your seeming to speak out of both sides of your mouth about us. You know how difficult it is to do what “we” do, to write and produce consistently original, quality work. We have paid great personal costs to do our work and it is no easier than it was five years ago. The “fringe” theater scene is in a period of crisis with funding cuts, and audiences diminishing in size, the recent closing of the Theater of the Reconstruction, the lessening of activity by Theater Oobleck, Curious’s existence seriously being in doubt because of lack of audience . . . You, as an avid supporter of original work, must realize how important it is to theater in Chicago to nurture its writers. Monster’s biggest offense was that it was intentionally light and too long. You used your displeasure to take a slap at our entire body of work, and that causes us very real harm and loss at the box office. It was unnecessary and badly timed. We work damned hard at what we do and have the respect of our audience and peers because we’ve earned it. You have lost some of mine.