Following Her Own Script

If you’ve been reading someone for 18 years with pleasure and respect, at some point you probably should say so. So here’s to Hedy Weiss. If she’d just gone to work for the Tribune, Chicago’s theater industry would be clapping her on the back. She didn’t. It’s not.

“The Tribune demographic has a lot of theatergoers,” says a local drama boss who asked to go nameless. “Theaters large and small report that getting a glowing review in the Sun-Times while they’re trashed in the Tribune means the phones won’t ring.” Freelance drama critic Lucia Mauro says that when she showed up at obscure little theaters for the Sun-Times they “were happy to be getting coverage in a daily.” Now that she’s there for the Tribune they’re “really ecstatic.”

Weiss was a face in the crowd this month when the League of Chicago Theatres threw a party for Michael Phillips at the Embassy Suites. Phillips came to town from LA to follow the retiring Richard Christiansen as the Tribune’s chief drama critic, and he got a welcome due a rainmaker. “He’s important to the people who run the theaters because he’s a new voice,” explains Carrie Kaufman, managing editor of the trade paper PerformInk. “They’re happy to have somebody who hasn’t seen all of their shows and made up his mind about who they are.”

Kaufman gave Phillips an introduction of her own. Last Monday night they sat on the stage of Bailiwick Repertory for 90 minutes, and he fielded questions from her and an audience of about 90 theater people. “He’s the Tribune, and the Tribune carries a lot of weight,” says Kaufman. “Some of the smaller theaters will say the Reader is more important to them, and if they get a bad review in the Reader people don’t show up. But a lot of the midsize and larger theaters rely on a Tribune review to bring people in from the suburbs.” Theater advertising, which the Tribune has largely cornered, underscores that paper’s preeminence.

Can the Sun-Times be as unimportant as everyone’s making it sound? Marj Halperin, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, wonders. “I do think they reach more of an audience than they get credit for,” she says. But she can’t prove it. A publicist who works with a lot of small non-Equity companies says, “I’m not too crazy about the way arts people deal with the Sun-Times. If they don’t get a review in the Sun-Times they feel miffed and slighted by a major paper. But they rarely advertise there. They don’t accord the Sun-Times as empowering as many butts in seats. I’m not sure they’re right.”

Hedy Weiss isn’t sure they’re right either. “I just got a call,” she says, “from somebody I wrote about saying that when my piece appeared they managed to sell out their show within hours. This is my theory about the Sun-Times: People use it as a kind of an almanac. I think it has a very direct reader-user kind of relationship. I can’t tell you how many calls I get.”

I’m no judge of Weiss’s power to plant butts in seats. What I can vouch for is that she writes about Chicago theater with intelligence, passion, and energy. “She writes a phenomenal number of reviews,” says Halperin. “She writes thoughtfully, not trying to be clever or witty. It’s a shame that she hasn’t gotten the kind of attention that Richard has and the Tribune has.”

So has the League of Chicago Theatres ever thrown you a party? I ask Weiss.

“No, but I’m not new in town,” she replies. “I’ve been here forever. This was considered a revolution.”

Her point is that Christiansen has been a fixture for more than 30 years in Chicago, and decades ago he was championing the young artists doing the strange things in unlikely places that put Chicago theater on the map. “The league is an advocacy group– which I guess is the arts word for a lobbying group,” Weiss continues. “You lobby the people who are going to vote for you.”

Vote. As in praise and support.

“Frankly,” Weiss continues, “I think it’s better to be as disassociated from the whole community as possible. Aside from that, I think socializing is not a good policy for the obvious reason, which is critical distance.”

Just as the Tribune passed over its own backup critic, Chris Jones, when it named Christiansen’s successor, it passed over Weiss. She talked to the Tribune but wasn’t offered the job, and she tells me she wouldn’t have taken it. “I’m not really a corporate person,” she says. “I have a lot of freedom at the Sun-Times. As you get older, freedom is more and more valuable.”

The Sun-Times shucked its freelance drama critics last year to save a few bucks, and now if Weiss doesn’t do whatever she thinks is worth doing it doesn’t get done. Her turf is the theater–and then some. She also reviews dance. She writes occasionally on architecture. And then there’s foreign affairs–Weiss took a leave in 1996 to live in Berlin a year and wound up writing a series of articles on the state of Europe.

A self-described “struggling artist” in New York who danced with small companies, taught choreography, and wrote some to pay the rent, Weiss came to Chicago in 1980 with a boyfriend expecting to stay a couple of years. She got a job teaching movement at the Goodman School of Drama–now the DePaul Theater School–and began freelancing for the Sun-Times. She got over feeling homesick for New York and decided to stay. In 1984 the Sun-Times put her on staff.

In her early days she was a sucker for anything by Steppenwolf, and the mid-80s weren’t that company’s golden era. “When I moved here,” she says, “I’d become disillusioned with theater in New York. Steppenwolf was burgeoning, and it really turned me around–and I said so. But that was a long time ago, and now they’re [just] another group. If anything, I could be accused of being a black-box admirer–the smaller things.”

The ones she gets to. “Many weeks I’m out every single night,” Weiss says. “Last week I went to two plays on Sunday and a play on Saturday.” Even that schedule can’t get her to everything, but she construes her spotty coverage of fringe theater as a good thing. “Quite frankly,” she says, “I think a review legitimizes a theater company. There has to be a little bit of struggle, I think. There has to be a little bit of testing of them for their own good before they’re immediately covered.”

Like serious film critics who have to give stars, Weiss doesn’t think much of the Sun-Times rating system, which requires her to judge each production as “highly recommended,” “recommended,” “somewhat recommended,” or “not recommended.” As a gimmick that makes it easier for theaters to promote a Hedy Weiss rave, the system’s good for her and good for her paper. But she wants to be read all the way through, and she should be.

“My whole philosophy of reviewing,” she says, “is that I’m trying to give in a very concentrated form some idea of what it would be like to be there, what kind of energy and fire is on the stage. The best reviews are very spontaneous. Maybe the hardest thing to review is something decently done but unexceptional.”

What’s the state of dance in Chicago?

“In the last five years I’ve been seeing some really good changes, between the Joffrey and a more sophisticated Hubbard Street and the really ambitious things they’re trying to do at the Athenaeum and the Dance Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Auditorium….It’s going to take time. But there’s an audience, and it’s a really important audience. It’s young, it’s hip, it’s multicultural, it’s in some ways extremely adventurous and cross disciplinary. It’s maybe a very important audience, and it’s somewhat untapped and underserved.”

Crimes Against Humility

Prisoners of war have rights under the Geneva Conventions that Washington believes its “detainees” in Guantanamo Bay should do without. One is the right to remain silent, another the right to go home when the war’s over. Now that 158 enemy troops captured in Afghanistan have been shipped to Cuba, where the Red Cross protested their being photographed shackled, the rest of the world wants to know what the United States intends to do with them. The rest of the world, in the view of much of the American press, is a pack of sanctimonious molly-coddlers. For a singular opinion, I called Milwaukee attorney Steve Leopold.

“They’re being treated infinitely better than I was treated,” Leopold said. “I went directly to war criminal.” Leopold was a Green Beret captured in South Vietnam and held four years, ten months, and 23 days–by his count–until all American prisoners were released in 1973. His family never knew he was alive. “I didn’t see anybody from the Red Cross until three weeks after the peace treaty was signed.”

The Geneva Conventions did Leopold little good, and he wouldn’t think of applying it to the prisoners from al Qaeda. “They have no standing under the Geneva Convention,” he told me. “These people are international terrorists. These guys are so bad it’s like nobody has said a word about using daisy cutters over there, and that is a really vicious weapon. If we used napalm, which nobody uses anymore, nobody would say shit. What they did was 20 times worse than Pearl Harbor. That at least was a military attack from military aircraft flown by military pilots in military uniforms. These people have no rights.”

But Leopold also believes that the world’s extraordinary sympathy for the U.S. just now is something this country could easily squander. He thinks the U.S. can’t keep its prisoners indefinitely. The Afghans should be interrogated and turned over to the Afghan government. And because they’re international terrorists, the al Qaeda members ultimately belong at the Hague. “That’s where they sent Milosevic. The rap is, if they murdered Bosnians or Kosovars then they get sent to the International War Crimes Tribunal. If they hit our buildings, then to hell with the war crimes tribunal–we’ll try them. As a lawyer, I’m not sure how legal that is. We’ve had 50 or more years, from Nuremberg to the Hague, of ‘This is how we’re going to do this stuff.’ If now they’re going to abrogate that because, gee, Americans are getting killed–well, that’s OK, but we should realize the Chinese will do something like it in 20 years.”

From press accounts of battles that journalists aren’t being allowed anywhere near, Leopold has his own idea of how the war in Afghanistan is being fought. “It’s fascinating that this is a Clinton war run by Clinton methods, and these sons of bitches got in office claiming Bill Clinton was a stupid son of a bitch. We haven’t captured anybody worth a shit. We got the Northern Alliance to fight for us, and they don’t want to. They don’t know where the fuck anybody is. These are painful memories for guys from Vietnam who were advising the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam].

“We keep saying we’re willing to take casualties. But we either knew before we approached Tora Bora that these guys had left the country with their significant others, or we really fought this as a Clinton war, like Kosovo, from 15,000 feet.”

The low number of casualties has been welcomed as proof of the irresistibility of American military tactics and firepower. Leopold learned in Vietnam that light casualties can also mean failure to engage the enemy.

News Bites

Like Hollywood, the press simplifies history. Especially when reporting on lively doings out of town, it doesn’t like to get bogged down in ancient whys and wherefores. Last Friday the New York Times took a look at the “striking political spectacle” of three Republicans running for governor of Illinois by running against the Republican incumbent. George Ryan, the Times explained, “was forced to forgo a run for a second term after being tarred by a federal investigation that uncovered corruption in the state’s driver licensing agency. He was not personally implicated, unlike a score or so of people in his administration, but his poll numbers are bumping along the bottom.”

That was enough back story for the Times. The newspaper of record from a faraway city didn’t see a need to explain that the licensing agency is controlled by the secretary of state’s office, that Ryan was secretary of state when the corruption took place, that a crony oversaw the corruption, which involved licenses exchanged for bribes that freshened Ryan’s political fund, and that because of all the foregoing Ryan is in the eyes of many Illinoisans implicated up to his eyeballs.

The Tribune Company has answered the defamation suit filed against it by sports agent Steve Zucker by arguing that Zucker is making a mountain out of a molehill. Zucker had objected to an item in the Tribune’s now vanished “Inc.” column, which last June reported “our stunned disbelief to see Zucker trying to get past three different checkpoints” at the memorial service in Evanston for sportscaster Tim Weigel. “Each time, he was politely turned away,” reported “Inc.,” which called Zucker “the last person we expected to see” at his ex-client’s service, given their “legendary falling out dating back many years.”

Zucker asked the Tribune to retract the item and filed suit when the paper refused. His suit called the item “completely false.”

It wasn’t, says the Tribune Company in a motion to dismiss the suit. “His complaint read as a whole makes it clear that he does not deny the acrimony that existed between him” and Weigel. As for the meat of the “Inc.” item, which had Zucker trying to crash an event he insists he went nowhere near, the Tribune Company says it did him no serious harm. “There is nothing defamatory in stating that, despite years of dueling, upon Weigel’s death Zucker wanted to be a part of the sportscaster’s ‘tearful, joyful memorial service.’…Zucker may be embarrassed or have his ego wounded over the Article, but mere hurt feelings and embarrassment are just not the stuff of which defamation suits are made.”

At least both sides can agree that the date of the “Inc.” item in question was June 25. I don’t know why. It ran on June 22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.