Sunday, August 30, 2009

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Deep within the sporadically fascinating correspondence between representatives of CenterStage and Roy Proctor, you can find this exchange:

CS: “[This] is very interesting and a wonderful piece for the book depicting exactly the type of historical activity we want to commemorate.”

RP: “I never saw this book as a matter of the commemoration of historical activity, whatever that means, and I was never told that that was its intent, either.”

To me, this exchange pretty much captures the essence of this spat: two parties that had very different goals and who both realized way too late in the process that they were on different pages. If I had to pick two words to sum it all up, I’d have to go with “miscommunication” and “unfortunate.”

As he is wont to do, Bruce Miller has written an exceptionally even-handed blog post about the conflict with a “Viva la difference” theme that reflects many of my sentiments about the whole thing. And maybe most of the world (or at least Richmond) has moved on from this and really doesn’t care to hash it out any more. That’s fine.

But what still holds fascination for me are the suppositions and tendencies evident in the back-n-forth between the two parties. When I first read about the situation, I was ready to chock this up to another public miscue on the part of the CenterStage folks, trying to spin history and quash negativity. Being at least marginally a journalist, I was all set to take up the side of Mr. Proctor and defend his journalistic integrity.

But I have been on both the hiring side and the "being hired" side of the client/freelancer equation and, looking at things in that light, I find that neither of the parties in this situation are blameless.

It seems clear (to me, at least) that the CenterStage folks had no idea what they were getting with Roy and even approaching him to write a piece of marketing (which is what they wanted, not a piece of journalism) was an error in judgment. Having secured Roy’s services, they seem to have compounded the error by not being specific in exactly what they expected from him – an error I’ve seen many clients make and that can lead to all sorts of confusion and frustration later on in a project. Any number of folks could have steered CenterStage to one of the other equally talented writers in town who could have delivered exactly what they wanted, but nobody did. Unfortunate.

Peruse the correspondence, however, and you get a sense of a writer who does not appreciate being edited, even a little. I’ve had clients tell me to toss out entire pieces, reorder and rework large swaths, and focus more distinctly on this or that, for whatever reason. And, as an employee being employed, and as long as I’m not lying or committing slander, I’ve generally done what I’m told. Instead, Roy responded thusly:

CS: “The focus on TheatreVirginia on page 2 and 3 feels like an unnecessarily large part of the narrative.”
RP: The demise of TheatreVirginia and its place in the Richmond CenterStage scheme of things is one of the most dramatic chapters in the entire saga of Richmond CenterStage…I think the length is justified, and I oppose changing it.

Excuse me? Your editor tells you to cut, you cut. Or you quit and forfeit your commission.

Beyond this kind of testy exchange, there is also some professorial editorializing in Roy’s responses that, again, seem to me wildly out of place in a client/freelancer relationship:

CS: “We have a fear that the number of mentions of the News Leader and RTD are so numerous that the copy reads as a recount of newspaper clippings. Is there a way to minimize the number of mentions?”
RP: “Newspapers, with their day-in-day-out, on-the-spot, you-are-there reporting, are an incomparable source for the kind of writing we’re dealing with here. They reveal the truth and essence of a situation in a way that any number of after-the-fact interviews with image-conscious people or document perusals cannot.”

Again, excuse me? First there is the simple editing thing: the editor says fewer clips, generally I would tend to say OK, I’ll cut some clips. Furthermore, I do a lot of historical research as part of my graduate program and, while newspapers are undoubtedly an invaluable historical resource, they have their own inherent biases, some of those biases making them virtually useless in historical research. Also, they are only one source among many. But perhaps most relevant in this situation: if I’m going to give my client a lecture, I tend to do it in a slightly more friendly tone.

But my favorite exchange of them all is this:

CS: “Can we not refer to CenterStage as ‘costliest?’”
RP: “Again, why? I have a vast knowledge of Richmond theater history going back to the building of the New Theatre in 1784, and Richmond CenterStage is indeed the most expensive and extensive arts project ever achieved in downtown Richmond. I oppose changing it.”

This is a clear case of CenterStage trying to mince words and dodge the thornier aspects of a project that has had its problems from the start. But Proctor’s response where he talks about his “vast knowledge of Richmond theater” (is he talking about firsthand knowledge of the 1784 theater???) is dripping with ego. Whoever the people were that were laughing and chatting amiably when this project started, these people are clearly not the ones interacting anymore. The naked intent of the marketer had run head-on into the naked ego of the veteran journalist. If Mr. Proctor wants to write a journalistic history of CenterStage, he is still free to do so and maybe a publisher will buy that book. But that doesn’t seem to be what CenterStage thought they were buying.

In the end, I agree with Mr. Miller: this is not a fight with a clear winner. But it’s also an instructive example to everyone involved in this venture – and I include all Richmond-area artists, writers, and citizens in that cohort. It’s easy to see CenterStage as the “big bad” here and I’ll be the first to say that I think many –maybe most -- of the ways that this project has been pursued have left me scratching my head.

But there is plenty of ego, prestige, influence, and plain old money on the table here. There’s a lot at stake. When that’s the case, even a simple client/freelancer relationship can be fraught with complication and nuance that blurs the simple good guy / bad guy dynamic into a murkier post-modern stew of intention, misperception and clashing purposes.


Anonymous said...

I always thought we should have built an aquarium downtown instead of a theatre.

In my humble opinion, this is Center Stage's chapter 1. Their history begins when the first show opens. What came before should be recognized in a time line fashion, without bias. The minority who knows or cares about the "truth", or personal interpretation of it, are welcome to his or her own opinion.

The true test of the projects success will be the audience that comes to support the venues. We should do everything in our power to welcome these patrons to come and enjoy themselves.

Let them come without without bias or predetermined thought to enjoy the future of theatre downtown.

It would have been fun to see dolphins. They never dissapoint.

Enjoy you retirement Mr. Proctor. You've earned it. Please remember ommision is part of commision.

As the Dolphins say: "take the smelt that is dealt"

Jeff Clevenger

Drippy Egos Everywhere said...

I think the term "dripping with ego" perfectly sums up BOTH sides of the coin - Mr. Proctor AND the CenterStage foundation. Both want what they want, and both aren't willing to budge. So fine - call it a draw, and both sides admit to being stubborn and extremely childish. The fact that any of this is being played out in the media is very eye-opening to the public, indeed. And to those of us who are not stupid, we know that CenterStage has much to cover up to save face, and that Mr. Proctor has an extremely big ego.

The point is this - the Carpenter Center is now renovated, and we now have a performing arts center. Let's just hope whomever is running the show does so correctly, and that this is a good thing for the city in the long run. I am looking forward to those doors on Grace Street opening on September 12.

Frank Creasy said...

Thanks Dave for summing up the back and forth on this issue. But you know, it seems to me if anyone wants to dig up all the "dirt" on the Center Stage project, why would Roy think he needed to include that in a book when his former employer's archives (among others, including STYLE) had already thoroughly documented it? That seemy side of it, including Doug Wilder's rampage on the foundation, and everything right up to the opening event, is well worn territory. God knows I had no intentions of buying that book, and I'm very much involved in local arts - so I'm not sure who would have ponied up bucks for that tome. I guess some might have bought it as a Christmas gift slightly more interesting than another necktie.

The whole thing with Roy just smacks of sour grapes, one side of the story versus another, and no one got what they wanted. Tired of it, moving on, expecting most everyone else except those directly involved are doing the same.

Will Center Stage succeed? Time will tell, and I REALLY hope so. I plan to support the efforts there. But in the end, I don't think the project's success or failure will have anything to do with an unwritten book. If anyone DOES ever write the book about it, this whole episode should rate no more than a footnote at best. Let's put it under the "Whatever" category, and refocus on helping Center Stage revitalize downtown Richmond.

Anonymous said...

We're all hoping Center Stage will be a huge success and help to revitalize downtown Richmond. Of course, we had the same hopes for Sixth Street Marketplace.

I think it's not a new building we need, but a new mentality. The arts need revitalization as much as downtown. It's not the package, but what's inside the box that will determine the success of Center Stage.

Competing against Netflix, Hulu and plazma TVs, the arts in general are due for a makeover. If we don't figure out how to gain the 25-45 year old audiences of today (and keep them coming back), it won't matter how shiny the seats are. "If you build it, they will come" is a dumb concept. Build the product, build the audience first. To borrow a line that got Obama in some (silly) hot water, "You can put lipstick on a pig..."

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but be struck by the title. Forgive the departure from the true subject...I just wondered if anyone ever answered the question from the Artsie nomination post...have the nominees been notified? I have to assume not...knowing several that have not mentioned receiving any official sort of notice, i.e. an email, and given that nominees were encouraged to send an email to an address so they'd receive logistic information.

Talk about a failure to communicate - don't assume everyone reads your blog. Take the time to at least contact the producers and ask them to send the messages...they have these odd pieces of paper handed out to every company member of a production...called a "Contact Sheet." I'm sure you've seen one before.

Wouldn't it be embarrassing to have someone win who wasn't there because they didn't know they had been nominated???

Anj said...

Roy, pass some grapes to Anonymous