To the editors:
I could not help but be interested in Mike Miner’s recent Hot Type piece on Tom Riccio’s “parting shots” about the Chicago theater community [September 9]. As Tom’s artistic coordinator for the first two years of his tenure in this city I had a unique perspective from which to watch his relationship with both the theater community and the city as a whole.
Although written with a good deal of affection, Miner’s article clearly illuminated the basic flaw in Tom’s approach to his work, a flaw which eventually sunk both him and the theater which he was hired to guide. It is a flaw that was also apparent two days after his arrival in Chicago when he told the Page 10 section of the Sun-Times that Chicago theater lacked ambition and churned out mediocrity–an opinion he was able to offer without the benefit of having seen much, if any, local work. Tom was always willing to prejudge and form impressions based on little or no information if that prejudgment favored his preconceived opinion.
I was particularly taken with the comment Tom made about his never getting “in sync” with Chicago. The statement implies that attempts were made to do this. From the day Tom arrived in Chicago he made it clear to us that he saw his mission as that of an outsider. He then used that position to comment about the people of Chicago very unfavorably and, I believe, insultingly.
The comments Tom made came in the forms of choice and interpretation of the subject matter. We were treated to views of Chicagoans as illiterate gangsters (Little Caesar) and post-nuclear animals incapable of intelligence (Betawulf). Women were invariably viewed as ball-busters (Rubber City, The Stranger in Stanley’s Room) and victims somehow deserving of their violent fate (Titus Andronicus, Betawulf). These views were continually backed up by his negative comments in the press and at the League of Chicago Theatres retreats about the “backwardness” and “stupidity” of both the artists and theater patrons of Chicago.
Tom is and always has been quick to make the statement that Chicagoans have a “midwestern sensibility,” that somehow it is important for us to shed our “staid” ways and become . . . Become what? At no point in my time with Tom did I ever know of him to suggest an answer to this question. His interest was never in either the question or the answer. He only seemed interested in the graphic depictions of our “wasted lives.”
Certainly, it is the job of an artist to examine the human condition but such examination requires at least a modicum of interest in the fate of man. Tom’s work never probed that so much as threw up on it. Whatever frustrations he may have felt with us were thrown back in our faces in undigested chunks, as if the depiction of our vileness was somehow the sole purpose of art.
The tragedy of Tom’s tenure in Chicago was not that we did not understand him although the true answer is just as banal. One night, after a series of particularly savage critical attacks on The Stranger in Stanley’s Room, Tom cornered me in the basement of the Organic and asked me to go over the scenario he had prepared for Betawulf and to make it more “commercial.” He also asked with a genuine naivete why the critics hated his work and why the audiences never seemed to come around. I gave no answer but have many times wished I had simply said that it is impossible to gain people’s acceptance when you spend all of your time and talent on hurling insults at them.
The great irony in all of this is that Tom was right in many ways. The theater community is in terrible trouble at the moment. Many theaters are making only safe choices and their administrations are dissolving in the morass of misplaced priorities and childish political game playing. The Organic, at least during the period when the Greenhouse was functioning, offered the opportunity to explore the situation and give constructive help. When Tom dismembered that program he also dismembered the opportunity to have a positive effect on the community.
The only point in the article where my sympathy was aroused came towards the end when Tom characterized the citizens of Fairbanks as “fundamentalist Christians and liberal granola crunchers.” Sadly, it made me think of the old maxim, “Those who do not heed the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.”