BY CHRIS CUMMINS
Last week, The Huffington Post published a piece by writer/gadfly Thom Nickels entitled Philadelphia's Diverse (And Zany) Theater Communities, in which he attempted to eviscerate the current Philly theater scene by mentioning a lot of things that don't actually have any correlation to the merit of productions. Among them: the way audiences dress, or the amount of food available at post-opening receptions. In the piece, he also gave the Walnut Street Theater a kind of backhanded compliment by comparing its continued success to that of Disney World's, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Walnut prides itself on being a mainstream theater — so much so that every Playbill issued there features a statement from President and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard that clearly states, "Whenever the Walnut has strayed from a populist program, the theatre has gone bankrupt." There seems to be a lot of general disdain here, but not too much reflection on issues that could potentially yield intelligent discourse, like whether or not local theater has become too insular and what, if any, lasting impact the Fringe Festival has upon the theatrical community at large for the rest of each year.
As you can expect, the theater scene took notice. In an articulate (and far more cogent) piece, blogger and Philly theater regular Katherine Fritz called Nickels on the carpet, skillfully deconstructing his criticisms in which he tried, and failed, to take down the theater scene, which in his mind is apparently centralized around the Wilma Theater. Which in itself tips his hand: Part of the fallacy of Nickel's argument is how he ignores the diverse works being done by small companies like Azuka and 1812 Productions, which is unsurprising since earlier posts by him -- including the infuriating Is Everyone Really An Artist? that Fritz also points out -- paint him more as the Stu Bykofsky of Philadelphia arts writing then anything else.
The above leads to the following question: Is The Philly theater scene's disdain for Thom Nickels actually proof of how dire the need for better arts writing here really is? We suspect this is the case. Quick, name a prominent Philly theater writer. Other than Toby Zinman and Jim Rutter, who else comes to mind? We wish not to leave anyone out, as we are in this biz ourselves. Tell us Philly, why can't there be a higher standard to which we are all held, ourselves included. For if there were, then the Thom Nickels posts like the one that caused this kerfuffle would likely be a whisper lost in the applause.