The Agony and the Ecstasy of Thom Nickels.
I suspect that someday soon we’ll all catch our breath from this election season and laugh. That’s the only thing I can hope for all of us, in this year in which terms like “Bernie Bro” and “Shillary Supporter” are slung about like so much mud; where real-life friendships have slipped into precariously brittle and hostile territory; where justifiable concerns over campaign funding and reproductive rights and income inequality have morphed into political darts, hurled with vigor and shattering the occasional feeling or two. The raw nerve of the country is fraying, and jarring us all. But whether you’re preparing for the revolution or you’re hashtag-with-her, whether you’ve yet to research transgender bathroom laws or you’ve already picked Carly Fiorina as your running mate, whether you’ve signed up for your #WomanCard or secretly think Hillary’s got one and playing it, whether you’ve raised your voice at friends in late-night debates or just de-friended your Trump-lovin’ uncle …. at least on one single issue, we stand united: Thom Nickels is the absolute worst.
If you have no idea who I’m talking about, you’re not alone. I had never heard of the man until about twenty-four hours ago. A post authored by Nickels began circulating in my Facebook feed entitled “Philadelphia’s Diverse (and Zany) Theater Communities,” a Huffington Post blog which was hate-clicked, hate-liked, and hate-shared by the working members of this particular zany, diverse, and indignant community. (A community of which, it should be stated, I am a member).
It’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it for yourself, but suffice to say, amongst the digital spaces of damn near anyone who’s ever collected a paycheck from any part of the Philadelphia performing arts community, all internet hell broke loose.
Nickels manages to embody the spirit of every Scooby-Doo villain, waving a cane and shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. He bemoans the “sweats, yoga pants, and Home Depot look” that has become prevalent amongst theatregoers these days. He grumbles about being pushed out of the way from the chicken kebabs at the opening nights (not that there’s enough food at these things anyway), and calls out “how quick the Millennial-heavy audience is to huddle in peer group cliques during the post show reception.” He didn’t appreciate the audience’s laughter in moments that he deems unfunny (probably “on weed,” or perhaps they’re plants); there are likewise just too many undeserved standing ovations these days. Under Nickels’ particular crossfire is the Wilma Theatre, whose recent production of An Octoroon was apparently so ageist and cultish that … well, actually, I’ll let this paragraph stand for itself:
At least 70 percent of any Wilma audience is in their 20s or 30s creating one of the most ageist theatre receptions I’ve ever witnessed. Older but no less ardent Wilma supporters that evening were heard to exclaim “I’m not feeling this reception at all!” I have one thing to add about that reception: Perhaps the real octoroons that evening was the over 35- crowd.
I hate to waste my breath on the obvious, but leaving aside the accepted truth that every regional theatre in America would make a deal with the devil for an audience base composed of 70% millennials, here goes: you probbbbbably shouldn’t use a racist antebellum-era term to refer to your disappointment that you lost out on the chicken kebab shuffle.
It’s poorly constructed, hastily edited, ill-informed, and misguided, and I could waste time telling you why, but plenty of others have done that work for me. I’m much more interested in a bigger question: how did a sloppy, misinformed blog post provoke a digital uproar amongst so many of my talented, confident peers?
I’m not exempt from that group, by the way. I posted a comment. I hit “like” a bunch of times. Hell, I photoshopped a picture of artistic director Blanka Ziska, American-Beauty-style, atop a pile of chicken kebabs.
It’s not for explicit love of the Wilma, or An Octoroon. I saw An Octoroon. I didn’t love it. I appreciated much of it — I thought the performances were wonderful, I thought including house band Ill Doots was a masterful directorial stroke, and those live chickens onstage were everything — but if I’m gonna be honest, I walked away knowing that many of my peers felt a very strong artistic resonance to that particular piece, and I just didn’t feel the same way. I thought the script could have withstood some trims and cuts, I wished that I could have seen it in a much more intimate venue, and I became frustrated that only the male characters had the ability to pause the action and comment on its meaning, wondering if perhaps the playwright neglected to adequately address gender in his quest to unpack race.
You know, here’s the thing about that play, though: all of my problems with it boil down to it wasn’t the play that I wanted to see. The play that I wanted to see was like twenty minutes shorter, had one or two lines in there that more directly connected the themes of the piece to the contemporary issues that still dangerously resonate, and unpacked this tangled knot of race and gender just a bit more. That just wasn’t the play I got. It doesn’t mean my critique isn’t valid, and it doesn’t mean that those people who loved it unconditionally are wrong. It just means that my own personal metric of evaluating art is different than yours, which is different than your friends’, which is different than, say, Toby Zinman’s — although to further complicate the de-facto assumption that artists and critics are oil and water, I agree with what she says about 95% of the time. That’s including the times that she’s called me onto the carpet for subpar, sloppy work: I hear her points, and I usually agree. We all get to have our opinion. That’s kind of the point.
This week, in the waning hour of a panic attack, I checked my phone between bouts of jagged crying to discover that a stranger on the internet had called me a cuntbucket. Left a lengthy comment on my blog to explain the origin of the word “cuntbucket,” that it was a term created by the author for just such entitled millennial twats like myself, that I was worse than a whore, who at least works for the money. You’re a cunt and a whore, you stupid stupid girl.
I laughed. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, but there it is: I laughed, because of all the things that had happened to me that day, in a moment when I desperately craved comfort and safety, there it is, right there in my inbox, plain and simple: you’re a cunt, said the stranger. You’re a cunt.
I think this is a useful analogy for explaining why everyone in my community, myself included, temporarily lost their minds over the Thom Nickels situation.
A lot of us share this experience: we fall in love with theatre, many of us young and impulsive and passionate beyond words for an art form that we know has been dying for centuries, that is hopelessly irrelevant in an era of Netflix and apathy. We disappoint our parents, who warn us about the improbability of success in this field, who don’t want their babies to grow up to be waiters; we work crappy job after crappy job after crappy job to pursue this intangible goal, sometimes making art that we know in our hearts is crap, too. We say that we’re happy when we’re not, because to admit unhappiness is to admit that your sacrifice was for nothing; we push forward until we quit or we keep pushing. We study. We read. We learn. Some of us make a living at it. Most of us don’t. We try like hell to support each other despite competing with our friends for paying jobs, constantly questioning if we’re good enough, smart enough, thin enough, talented enough. Some of us quit. Some of us keep going. We make work that we think is meaningful and have it destroyed by critics, playing to empty houses. We show up for performances anyway. We make work that we’re not so sure about and are hailed as brilliant and beautiful: we take it, because we are so tired and the compliments fit like a warm winter coat. Some of us quit. Some of us keep going. Some of us wonder if we’ll ever buy a house, ever have a child, ever pay off our loans, ever get out of debt: can you hock a Barrymore Award? We slowly realize our mentors and models for success don’t have their shit together either, and it scares the hell out of us. We read about the world falling to pieces and try to make art that is meaningful, art that matters, art that will change things. We mostly fail, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. We struggle. We try, damn it. We do the best that we can.
And then someone writes a blog in a national publication telling you that your art isn’t good enough, someone who dares say that while abusing the powers of spell check and sentence structure, and yeah, man. You laugh, and it’s the kind of laugh that isn’t funny-ha-ha, or funny like we’re “on weed.” You write a mean comment. You flex your intellectual muscles. You rise up and swarm up around one another because it’s easy to rip the arguments to pieces, and you’re just so excited to tear your teeth into this one because this one is easier than having to explain why you still give a shit about this art form, why you don’t have a 401K, why it’s harder than you thought it would be, why you’re still doing what you’re doing when the benefits don’t always seem to outweigh the price.
All of that is, I think, true. At least, that’s my truth. You’re entitled to your own opinion.
Here’s the nagging part of this that still gets me, though.
Is the purpose of critiquing this article to genuinely change Thom Nickels’ mind? To encourage a man so irritated by the changing tides of his city’s cultural community to broaden his perspectives, to embrace art that challenges rather than entertains, to let him know that there are other playwrights out there than O’Neill and Stoppard and name-another-dead-white-writer? To ask him to deeply consider that when you take the time to put your fingers to the keyboard and put those words on the internet, those words have the potential to hurt?
Or did we react with a thousand mocking comments simply because it feels good to be right?
I’m letting you know that I think it’s the second one. I’m also letting you know that I’m not judging you for it. I get it. That’s what motivated me.
That’s also why I didn’t let it go.
I know I almost definitely should have. That’s the typical line of thought on this: don’t dignify the absurd with your time and energy. I’m almost certain that I’ve put more careful thought into this response than Nickels put into the original piece itself.
But I’m genuinely curious to see if there’s a way to engender a real dialogue. And I don’t think the answer is to make art that is safe and bottom-line friendly, and I don’t think the answer is to stop making art, and I certainly don’t think the answer is to take to heart this other post by Nickels bemoaning the lack of “real artists” in Philadelphia.
There are big questions hovering here, big questions about why art matters and what stories should be told, questions about the gulf between audience and artist, questions that are thorny and intertwined with centuries of white male privilege, questions that also have to circle around a society that doesn’t treat its elders with respect. I don’t have an easy answer for any of this. I don’t even have an easy answer for “Will this article change Thom Nickels’ mind?” I don’t even know precisely what it is that I want his mind to change about. His thesis isn’t easy to find.
Theatre, at its core, is about unpacking and understanding empathy. It’s at the core of all the work that we do. Putting yourself in the shoes of another human being, and trying to imagine the world through a new perspective. Even someone we don’t particularly like or agree with.
As someone who has been called a fair number of names on the internet by people who just wanted to be right, it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t feel great to be on the receiving end of it, either. Even if it’s deserved. Especially then.
Today, let’s be right. Tomorrow, let’s be thoughtful, in whatever ways we can.
And let’s keep making art.