by John Stoehr
The day after City Paper ran a rather negative review of Defiance, we saw this item above on page 19E of the Post and Courier's Preview on Feb. 28. At first glance, it's a review. But it's not. I'll come back to that in a minute.
Defiance is the current production of the Village Playhouse on Coleman Boulevard. Its opening, on Feb. 22, marked the highly anticipated Southeastern premiere of John Patrick Hanley's play, the second in a planned trilogy that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt.
Defiance is set in Camp Lejeune, N.C., a marine barracks that experiences race riots, even rape and murder in the early 1970s. Playhouse organizers talked a lot about how this play would resonate with Lowcountry audiences — because of our history of racism and white violence, our affinity for the military, and allegiance to institutional authority.
Our review, written by William Bryan, was subtitled: "Defiance suffers from lack of authenticity." The P&C review read "local reviewer raves about Defiance."
So what, right? Critics disagree. That's the way it goes.
Problem is, both reviews were written by William Bryan.
Yeah, let that one sink in for a minute.
Some backstory: Will Bryan writes for the City Paper as well as for his own website, called Lowcountry Stages.
Lowcountry Stages is more or less a handbook, an audience field guide to theater in Charleston. Emphasis is put in information more than criticism.
For City Paper, Will writes reviews of local theater productions with emphasis squarely on criticism. We want a strong voice to say what's what in local theater. We provide information, of course, but we also privilege an authoritative view. (Update: I should note that Lowcountry Stages features reviews written according to the standards of Lowcountry Stages, which are different from those of City Paper.)
So how could two reviews be written by the same person?
Easy. One of them wasn't a review, but it looked like one.
The item we saw in the Post and Courier is actually an advertisement. It was purchased by someone, perhaps the Village Playhouse. I don't know. What I do know is that the ad featured text lifted directly from Will Bryan's Lowcountry Stages. And the text was used without his permission.
I know, because I called Will after seeing the ad. I wanted to know if he was involved. The ad, made to appear like a review, cited Will in very small type at the bottom. It's well known that Will writes for us. So the ad challenges City Paper's credibility by raising the question: Is Will's opinion up for sale?
The answer is no. When I called Will about it, he was surprised. He didn't know what I was talking about, but he was clearly concerned. This kind of treatment not only challenges City Paper's credibility but his as well.
Will Bryan's reputation will survive as will City Paper's. The real owner of the problem is the Village Playhouse. This kind of thing can only undermine the theater company's credibility with its audience. It's deceptive to buy an ad and make it look like a review. It's unseemly to use a person's intellectual property without his permission. And then there's this: The P&C ad didn't include the entire review. It excluded the fact that Will Bryan gave Defiance three out of five stars. If he had raved about the play, he'd have given it four or five out of five.
Worst of all is this: When I went to see Defiance on March 1, I left thinking that I'd just seen a very good production. But as I was leaving, I noticed photocopies of the P&C advertisement were put on display (with the "Paid Advertisement" label at the top cropped out), as if it were a rave review that the theater wanted patrons to see. I heard a woman ask, "Is this the review?"