Little Joey Peterson may be only 10, but let me tell you: his acting stinks.

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by Jay Gabler •

SteppingStone Theatre is presenting its annual holiday show, and you will read about the show in the Daily Planet. Jean Gabler (yes, my mom) will be seeing the show this Friday and she will write about it. It won’t be a “review,” though. Why? Robyn Priestley, who handles PR for the company, explained the following to me in an e-mail.

front row seat is the blog of jay gabler, the daily planet’s arts editor. to keep up on the local arts scene, follow artsorbit on twitter and subscribe to arts orbit weekly.

Due to the sensitive nature of reviewing children, SteppingStone has a policy of not allowing “reviews” per se, in that they don’t allow people to write about the children’s actual performances. The philosophy behind it is that they want to shield the kids from anything that could feel like individual criticism, call into question the performance choices, or even give one or two kids praise at the expense of others (even by omission). The guideline is that the reviewers can talk about the show in general, individual kids (insofar as they’re writing about who they are and not about their performances), SteppingStone’s mission and how they pursue it, and the new theatre, of course. I’m sure you can understand the reasoning behind this philosophy. SteppingStone is all about creating community, and expressing the creativity and potential in all the kids that come to perform and learn, without fostering the unhealthy sort of competition, jealousy and criticism that can unfortunately come into youth activities.

This is entirely understandable, but I have mixed feelings about agreeing to these terms. A principle at the heart of journalism is that no source or subject of any story—even a cute little kid—has the right to dictate the terms of coverage. As readers, you trust the Daily Planet and other news sources because you trust that we are independent, that we write only what we want to write and what we feel needs to be written.

Yes, you say, but this is different. We wouldn’t actually call out a little angel (or shepherd, or sheep) for forgetting her lines, would we? Of course we wouldn’t…but when does a young actor cross that line and ask to have his or her work taken seriously? Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for her performance in Paper Moon when she was only 10. Should she not have been nominated, to have spared her the risk of being disappointed at losing?

Theater reviews are news, and in all our news coverage we strive to be sensitive to the age of people we write about. The juvenile justice system will generally not release the names of underage perpetrators of crimes, and as a news organization we are respectful of families’ need for privacy in such situations. We are cautious about publishing photos of, and direct quotes from, children without parental permission—particularly if the child’s full name is to be used.

A child who appears in a theatrical production open to the public, with public program credits, is—with his or her parents’ permission—openly taking credit and responsibility for his or her performance. That’s part of the fun, and part of the learning experience. After weeks of rehearsal, each member of the SteppingStone cast will stand onstage and take ownership of his or her own performance. I’m disposed to write about young actors’ performances in a manner as similar as is reasonable to the manner in which I write about adult actors’ performances—and I encourage other Daily Planet reviewers to do the same.

That said, I recognize that it would in most cases be unkind and unconstructive to single out any child as the object of critical comments. Any actor’s performance is a collaboration with the production’s director and creative team, and when that actor is a child, the director bears more responsibility than with a seasoned adult performer. I had this in mind when I wrote my recent review of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Children’s Theatre Company imposed no restriction such as SteppingStone’s (granted, CTC is a professional theater company employing many adult actors, whereas SteppingStone is primarily an educational venture with casts of children), but still I declined to make specific comments on the young actors’ individual performances. I was a little more candid in private conversations with my friends, but publicly, I respected the need for discretion.

So why did I decide to accept SteppingStone’s terms? Because I was quite certain that the reviewer would not have violated those terms even in their absence—this is my mother we’re talking about, after all—and, frankly, because those terms were tied to complimentary press tickets that our budget would not otherwise have accommodated the cost of. It’s a near-universal practice for theater companies to “comp” members of the press, but normally there is no quid pro quo regarding the nature, tone, or scope of subsequent coverage. Reviews would be much less meaningful if we promised they’d all be positive, and playmakers respect that. In this case, however, I did agree that our coverage would abide by the above terms—and it’s important that you know that agreement is in place. Should it be?

Published on 12/1/08. Photos: Erin Hampe, Nathan Barlow, and Teresa Doran in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, photo by Rob Levine, courtesy CTC; Ryan and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, © Paramount Pictures Corporation. The name “Joey Peterson” is not meant to refer to any actual person.