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What Was That? Into the Woods, Morgan James, and Theater’s Intense Case of Socialmediaphobia

Remember that time an actress tweeted her distaste for the first preview performance of Into the Woods and the internet exploded? That was crazy, right? Although it seems like ancient history, it was only two weeks ago. And while we’re all grateful that the brouhaha has died down to a barely-there whisper, we still can’t help but wonder: How in hell did that even happen? And why on earth did the story end up on Playbill, The Huffington Post and even across the pond in The Stage and The Guardian?

To give you a little recap: On July 24, actress Morgan James—last seen in the recently shuttered revival of Godspell – tweeted her distaste for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods, a show that opens tonight at the Delacorte Theater.

The responses to her Tweet fell into one of two camps. Some people seemed to think it was rude (not to mention bad for her career) to tweet such harsh, unfiltered thoughts. Others seemed to think theater is subject to enough external criticism already, and thus, should never be attacked from within.

But is Morgan James’ career really a matter of profound public concern? Sure, various members of the Into the Woods cast and creative team, or the Public Theater may not want to work with her in the future. But will this really cost her work? This is Broadway, after all: If she’s talented enough, that’s unlikely. And are strangers really all that worried about her career prospects? Doubtful.

So, then, was it really about how theater should never come under attack from within? Because let’s be real, it’s hard to believe anyone thinks the criticism of one single theater artist is ever going to destroy any single piece of work. Stephen Sondheim himself publicly huffed and puffed and tried to  blow Diane Paulus’ Porgy & Bess down, and his attempt failed—at least according to the Tony Awards. And the notion that theater actors can’t or shouldn’t have opinions in public, ever, is just unrealistic.

So what gives? How did this tweet end up splashed all over the theater news media? After all, this isn’t Stephen Sondheim writing in to the New York Times. And Morgan James is hardly the first person—actor or otherwise—to tweet negative opinions about a show.

Well. On some level, people reacted because reading James’ tweet just felt shitty. Her target of choice—a much beloved and respected not-for-profit theater company—was crappy. And it didn’t help that her timing was crappy, too. Not only was Into the Woods not yet open to the public, but it had just performed its very first preview, after a very short, weather ravaged rehearsal period.  No one in theater likes to see a show criticized so very early or in so very public a fashion.

And that is the heart of the matter, right there. Sure, the content of James’ criticism itself may have struck the match, but it was the very public place in which she chose to express that criticism that lit the fuse. More than anything, her dissenters were weary of the very public nature of social media as it relates to theater.

Social media automatically gives anyone with internet access and an opinion an instant audience. In the case of Morgan James—whose following is more than twenty times the size of the average Twitter user—that audience is thousands of people. James didn’t seem to recognize that her words had real weight, and could end up just about anywhere—including the pages of The Huffington Post. Well, either that, or she just didn’t care.

There’s a huge amount of fear amongst theater creative and marketing folks that social media isn’t just a soapbox but a ballistic missile, one that can’t be controlled once it’s left the launch pad. As bloggers, we grapple with their concerns all the time, but those fears sometimes extend to the entire audience. James struck at the heart of that fear. Her negative opinion was (more or less) heard around the world.

The ultimate irony here is that James’ tweet only landed in places like HuffPo and Playbill because people attempted to stifle her online opining. All the actors, composers and other theater artists who publicly told James to shut up actually handed her the most high profile moment of her career. They made their own worst fears come true.

Of course, social media can carry positive messages as far and wide as negative ones. No one ever balks when someone says they love a show – especially not the show’s marketing team, or the leading man. But we can’t have it both ways, and the James Debacle makes it clear that trying to stifle online conversation – negative or positive – often backfires.

But it also begs the question: In a world where we all have the ability to instantaneously disseminate our opinions to an audience, what kind of responsibility does that create? And as theater fans and practitioners alike, do we have a responsibility to fair and constructive when we Tweet (or blog, or update our Facebook status)? And even if we do, how many of us actually feel the weight of it?

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Caroline August 9, 2012, 8:14 pm

    I just can’t get over the idea that Morgan owes it to someone to not express her honest opinion on the show because she’s “part of the community”. Theatre people are basically made of snarky commentary. Not to mention, putting yourself out in public means you are going to get opinions, even negative ones, which you’d think this group (none of whom are new to this business) would have grown some thicker skin by now.

    This can’t be the first time any actor ever tweeted that they didn’t like a show.

  • BRice August 10, 2012, 12:33 am

    I asked the same question when the story hit Riedel’s column and Huffpo. Apparently her agent sensing an opportunity got a publicist on the case. I think the phrase is “there’s no such thing as bad news”. So people who wouldn’t know her name now do. If she’s not in LA doing the ’rounds’ already she will be soon. I think other theatre pros found it insulting that she said ‘musicianship is dead’ Did she not see her own show? While i’m hearing ITW is ‘Meh’ Everyone I know who saw Godspell thought it was GOD AWFUL – i didn’t want to waste my money.

    • Caroline August 13, 2012, 6:10 pm

      Interesting. Everyone I know who saw Godspell loved it.

      • Seth Christenfeld August 15, 2012, 10:57 pm

        You must not know many people, then.

        (Disclaimer: I did not see Godspell. I have no opinion of my own on the recent production.)

  • JimmyD August 10, 2012, 10:55 am

    I don’t know why it became a big (?) news story. I think she made a mistake, talking shit about a shows very first preview. I saw somewhere that her first apology (not that one was needed) was one of those, “I’m sorry… for the ruckus this caused.” followed by a second on, a few days later, where it seemed that a fellow theater person explained why it’s in poor taste to be overly critical in previews, let alone, the very first preview.
    Maybe someone tweeted shit about her after Godspell’s first preview?
    If I’m not mistaken, the first preview is basically the first full run through with a paying audience? And that audience usually understands what they’re getting themselves into.

  • David Levy August 10, 2012, 2:41 pm

    I think there’s a big difference between expressing your opinion and expressing your opinion in the tone in which she did. I wonder, had she tweeted “First preview of Into The Woods: boy, have they got a lot of work to do!” if anyone would have even noticed. She upped the stakes with the way she said it, and while none of us in theory should care if she alienates future colleagues, we do in the same way we worry about Alice Ripley being crazypants or Tiger Woods being an adulterer. Comes with the territory of being a public figure, no matter how minor.

    Meanwhile, whatever the effect on James’s own career, I think stirring the pot got more people talking about this production sooner than they might have otherwise. Anyone who follows Playbill.com or Broadway.com or any of the rest know there’s not enough actual theater news on a daily basis to feed their pages, so can we really be shocked if “theater” sites that routinely report on the goings on of American Idol contestants picked up this story? Despite the lukewarm reception of the show itself — personally, I think James was right in her assessment — it’s filling up every night and was able to extend before the reviews came out. Oskar Eustis should send Morgan James a muffin basket.

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