When Eve Ensler was a guest on "Theater Talk" earlier this year, the animated discourse that ensued between author of The Vagina Monologues and co-host Michael Riedel sparked an outcry among some viewers. Riedel, the theater columnist for the New York Post and a self-described "conservative Republican," sparred with the playwright and women's activists over her Obie-winning collection of stories about women and their bodies.
"I was coming at it from the right-wing angle, and she gave it right back to me," Riedel, 33, remembers. "It was fun and we became friendly about it. But some of the viewers were absolutely appalled."
As a result of the encounter, the "Theater Talk" phone line recorded what Riedel describes as "the best angry calls" the show ever received, including one message from someone promising to punch the journalist if he ever encountered him. It's an anecdote Riedel shares with a sense of pride, since that's precisely the type of rambunctious debate he and co-host and executive producer Susan Haskins aim to incite on this weekly PBS theater show, seen in New York on WNET Channel 13 as well as in Boston and Hartford, Connecticut.
"I so often disagree with Michael, but I see the strength of having a little controversy," says Haskins, 50, who regularly comes across as the more compassionate of the duo, comparing "Theater Talk" to CNN's high-spirited political debate show "Crossfire." "It made it more interesting than if I'd been interviewing [Ensler] and gone, 'Oh, sisterhood, here we are.'"
With that experience as something of a prelude, the edition of "Theater Talk" that Haskins and Riedel will tape on March 13 at the CUNY TV studio in Manhattan may well be akin to "The McLaughlin Group" times two. Riedel and Haskins have assembled a panel of six authorities from a cross section of the theater world to tackle a colossal topic: "The State of Theater, 2000."
Taking part are Roundabout Theatre artistic director Todd Haimes, Side Man playwright Warren Leight, New York Times theater columnist Jesse McKinley, commercial producer Daryl Roth (Wit), New York magazine critic John Simon, and 1776 and Titanic book writer Peter Stone.
And, for the first time, a studio audience will be able to talk right back to hosts and guests. The public can also purchase tickets for the taping, which will benefit the not-for-profit program.
Riedel is interested in seeing how the disparate panelists respond to one another. "I want the critic to tell the playwright that when he goes in and writes a bad review it's nothing personal, it's just what he does for a living, and I want the playwright to say how wounding it is," he says. "I want Daryl to say how difficult it can be to get some of these plays on, and I want Todd to talk about how hard it is to raise money, that he has to sell the name of his theater to American Airlines. I hope everyone is feisty and is opinionated and is not afraid to debate the other person."
In seven years and about 250 shows, Riedel and Haskins have found their share of guests willing to do just that, from playwrights Neil Simon, Paula Vogel, and A.R. Gurney to actors Matthew Broderick, Elaine Stritch, and even Dame Edna. Producers and critics are frequent visitors, but Riedel and Haskins would like to see more guests from shows they've trashed, such as Footloose, come on to defend their work, as Victor/Victoria producer Tony Adams did in 1997.
"We're not entirely popular with all the powers that be in the theater world," Riedel concedes. "I'd like to interview Hal Prince, but I don't think he'll ever come on the show because of some of the stuff I said about Parade."
After beginning life as "Inside Broadway" on public access television in Manhattan in 1993, "Theater Talk" moved to PBS four years ago. For Haskins, producing the show is a full-time gig, which she does with an annual budget of approximately $70,000. Haskins and Riedel say they're careful about not accepting money from sources where there could be a potential conflict of interest. Producers are off-limits, as is the Shubert Foundation because the Shuberts own a throng of Broadway theaters.
Haskin and Riedel agree that at this point one of their goals is to see other PBS stations around the country pick up "Theater Talk." Off-screen their relationship isn't that different than it appears on TV. Riedel is the more assertive one, while Haskins is more understanding of the artistic process. "We're basically the same on television as we are in our daily lives," says Riedel. They're relaxed and casual in each other's company, and realize that their repartee is as much fun for some viewers as the topics and guests.
And that free-spirited but civilized atmosphere they feel has contributed to "Theater Talk"'s success. "We make fun of everybody in the theater, but we make fun of ourselves," Riedel muses. "Though we can be snarky, I think our love of the theater really comes through."