On February 8th, 2023, playbill.com published an article by Margaret Hall, entitled “Physical Assault Vomit in the Aisles, Stalking in the Streets: Why Audience Misbehavior Has Gotten Out of Hand”.
The article consisted of interviews from Front of House staff on Broadway, whose compelling testimonies created an unignorable narrative: the culture of Broadway theatres and their patrons is unsustainable, disrespectful, and at times dangerous. It was met with immediate buzz and urgent discourse. On Friday February 10th, 2023, the article was pulled from playbill.com. It will be edited, and re-published at a later date. Below is an excerpt from the original piece:
“Tessie, a former actor turned front of house worker, began working at a family friendly musical in the winter of 2021. Since beginning the position, they have been “spat on, shoved, had my ass slapped, and been screamed at more times than I could count.” Still, they consider themselves lucky; one of their coworkers was shoved down a staircase by an irate patron, resulting in a serious hip injury.
Remarks Tessie, “It’s terrifying. Since when does taking tickets and leading people to their seats involve blunt force trauma?” They recalled once, a patron spat on them after being told to pull up their mask when face coverings were still required during the pandemic: “I mean, honestly, how was I supposed to respond to that? I just stood there dumbfounded, unable to understand what had just happened. Like, isn’t that technically a biological weapon threat?”
This is an incredibly essential piece of journalism, and Hall gave these stories a responsible framework, noting we do not take studies or data on these incidents. Speaking from my own experience, this means first person accounts become our leading data set.
The accounts in this piece are symptoms of the economic and cultural weaknesses that plague our industry, and show how the people most affected are the ones with the least protection.
My fellow journalists seem to suddenly be asking all the wrong questions. What was an opportunity for discourse about inequity, hospitality, and safety in our theatrical houses has become a watercooler conversation about why this article was pulled. The focus needs to be put back on the people that matter.
The Daily Beast did what they do, they took something mid and made it salacious. It’s truly clickbait and a distraction, and I won’t be linking it here. Onstage blog, a platform I deeply respect, while their coverage is more thorough, let their readers down in one key aspect: they underestimate Diep Tran. Chris Peterson of Onstage Blog writes:
”Tran had done a fabulous job of bringing a new reporting style, interviewing, and industry coverage during its dullest part of the year. If this is what they could do from Dec thru Feb, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen when the season started heating up.
Well, throw all of that out the window now.”
Excuse me? Are we saying that because of one article being pulled for an edit, Diep Tran is now suddenly powerless? This is why, even though I started my own outlet I was sure to acquire bylines in newspapers, journals, and trade magazines so I could know how the editing process worked.
The truth is, Tran has been shoving important stories through completely white-staffed and owned publications her entire career. She’s amplified my writing and frameworks through those portals as well. The question isn’t whether or not Tran can do her job. That’s frankly patronizing for someone at this phase of her career. The question is, why are we allowing this to pull focus from the central issue of Front of House mistreatment, and how can we support Tran and let Playbill and its CEO know we WANT these stories?
I want to know why publications are still censoring themselves at all. Have confidence in your patrons, that once called in about their bad behavior they will do better, rather than finally leave you for the AMC Theatres for good.
I want you to know, the deletion of the article is not a solitary incident, it’s regulatory across our field. At Rescripted we only have autonomy because I own the publication, and are accountable solely to the community that funds us. My fellow journalists feigning surprise at this phenomenon is frankly laughable.
I have had material scraped from the internet when the subject of my criticism, someone with more power than me, complained. It did not lessen the impact of my work. More often than not, editors at other publications choose not to publish writers like me in the first place, because we are usually calling attention to violence and inequity perpetrated by their stakeholders. Tran is a rare exception to this rule.
The experiences of the people – the heroes – that work in front of house deserve to be witnessed and recorded. Playbill’s staff knows this, the CEO knows this, Diep knows this, Hall knows this, or the story couldn’t reach publication. Unless someone isn’t doing their job … and that someone does not seem to be up the editorial chain.
Hall and Tran followed all of the necessary channels, and only when the piece received attention, was it then pulled from playbill.com.
What happened next was a Google Doc sprung up with an exact copy of the article, quickly circulated among the industry. This is a regular occurrence with material that is edited, censored or pulled. I wish I could have told corporate at playbill.com that there’s no way to delete the footprint on something with this much velocity without a professional “information specialist.” Furthermore, people are responding to the story because it’s true, or an experience they share, not because they can’t believe it. They will have strong feelings when you take it down, and they themselves will feel silenced. Editing the article does not have an effect on silencing its present impact.
The future impact of editing this article is potentially severe. One of the reasons I began Rescripted is because only white men historically have been in charge of archivism and historical record keeping. Rescripted is a living archive centering underrepresented views, and in the patterns it weaves over years, will help us identify cultural contributions that would otherwise be overlooked or forgotten entirely. Theatre is a naturally temporal art form. Entire histories are erased if they are not witnessed and recorded.
I’m very hesitant to critique people I know little about. So when it comes to Phil Birsh, CEO of playbill.com I will respond only to the content of his comments in the daily beast article. His comment that “no one is being flayed” does give the vibe that he feels merciful for not whipping people to get his way. Also, the idea that a white man would say he’s made sacrifices to be in charge of such a large and profitable business and so deserves to control information is disturbing.
What I do know is that I have watched Diep Tran make a journalism career basically out of thin air. She’s a peer yes, but she’s also the first woman of color many of us knew that was high profile in theatre journalism. That is because whether she is at NBC News, Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, or The New York Times, she knows how to pick stories that matter to people. Tran’s history as both an editor and writer has been strong, with a keen eye towards representing voices that usually go unheard. I look forward to seeing where she takes the website in the future. Personally, I’m really excited by the content so far.
Playbill is lucky to have her making an imprint on the world. The onus here is on the owners. I hope that we can recognize how witnessing these front of house stories could generate a positive conflict that has the potential to catalyze necessary change. I hope my fellow journalists with more investigative power will pick up where Hall’s brilliant journalism left off, and continue to amplify this issue. When members of our community tell us that their jobs are unsustainable, and even dangerous, we need to listen. Full stop.