Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Theatre criticism and serendipity

At first glance, it may not mean much to the average theatre fan that Variety has laid off critic David Rooney. Variety is a trade publication and unless you're in show business, or an especially devoted fan, you probably don't read it.

But as this Playbill article mentions, Rooney is merely the latest addition to a line of theatre critics who've been let go by more mainstream publications, replaced by freelancers if they're replaced at all. (By default, Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press is probably the most influential mainstream theatre critic in the United States.)

I know there's the argument that criticism hasn't declined, it's simply changed, gotten more dispersed and democratic with the advent of blogging. There are more theatre critics nowadays, not fewer.

Well, bloggers can pick up some of the slack and we do have a role to play. Our passion for theatre goes a long way toward keeping the conversation going. We can be a great source about what's going on in New York and elsewhere and our reviews are widely read.

But as I see it, there are a few obstacles to theatre bloggers taking over the world:
  • we're preaching to the choir, people come looking for us because they're already interested in the subject; (Does anyone aimlessly browse the Internet?)
  • few of us, even on a great day, reach as many people as a TV station, radio station, magazine, newspaper or their Web sites;
  • since most of us don't blog for a living, we pick and choose what we write about. We don't have an obligation to cover everything in our communities.
All of this may not mean as much to Broadway or to a major regional theatre company that will still get coverage, that have built-in audiences.

But what about the small company just starting out? How does it get noticed? What about a theatre in a community where there aren't a lot of theatre bloggers to pick up the slack?

And there's one more thing that troubles me about the decline of general-interest criticism. Our culture has become so decentralized, with everyone wrapped up in their own little sources of information, that we've lost the opportunity for serendipity.

That means there's less chance we'll come across something we've never heard of, never thought about reading or attending or listening to, but our curiosity has been piqued. It means there's even less chance that a non-theatergoer will hear about the theatre.


Monica Reida said...

I had this problem when I lived in Iowa. (Actually, I still have this problem in Iowa.) A lot of the theaters are small companies, many are community theaters and most people in Iowa only go to the theater on a rare occasion. I decided to use my blog to try to tell people, "Hey, there's a really great production or a really great theater that you should check out."

Some of the theaters like to court the bloggers, others don't; the same thing occurs in the Chicago. But there is the chance that you will court non-theater goers.

Esther said...

I guess I'm just bemoaning the fact that the places we go to get our cultural news are so spread out and niche-oriented. And the people who say well, bloggers will just replace mainstream theatre critics are being shortsighted, for the reasons I mentioned. I know of a couple other Rhode Island bloggers who occasionally write about theatre but not on a regular basis. If it weren't for traditional media, there would be "no" regular theatre coverage. I agree that there is a chance you'll reach a non-theatergoer with a blog but I still feel you're mainly just reaching the people who are looking for theatre to begin with.

Linda said...

This is a great post and I agree with you for the most part, except that major publications tend to cover all Broadway and off-Broadway, but just a handful of off off Broadway shows. Some of the smaller shows only get covered by bloggers, but like you said, those who read those blogs are probably already theater fans.

Anonymous said...

I share many of your concerns about the decline of mainstream theatre criticism.

However, I don't know that I agree there is less chance for serendipity as a result. There may indeed be a greater likelihood of a non-theatregoer browsing, say, a whole print publication, including the Arts section, and stumbling upon a play, a reading, etc. by virtue of the contents being right there in front of them in one neat and tidy source. But with so much newsprint now online, it seems even less likely a non-theatregoer is going to click on the Arts section.

If someone wakes up one weekend and decides they need more art and culture in their life, I think they will search online for events in their area, and a new form of serendipity may well occur, whether it be finding a city event source, an e-version of a paper with event listings (even if lacking reviews), or one of our blogs. Not to mention the fact that theatre bloggers don't always write exclusively about theatre, and people may find our blogs because of a recipe, a rant about politics or culture, or who knows what, and then be exposed to theatre in the process.
Anyway, important topic. Thanks for discussing it.

Esther said...

Hey Linda, thanks for the comment! I think you're right but New York and a few other big cities might be special cases because there are so many people writing about theatre, on blogs and elsewhere.

I guess I was thinking more in terms of smaller cities.

For example, there was a women's playwriting festival in Providence a couple of years ago that got some coverage in the daily paper and maybe the alternative weekly but that was it. I didn't write about it, I didn't even know about it.

Blogging is a hobby for me, I don't have to be up on everything happening in my area regarding theatre. But when it's part of your job, that's different. So in that sense, I think smaller theatre productions can benefit when there's a full-time, professional critic covering the beat.

Also, even if I had written about it, my blog reaches 50 or 100 people. The daily paper reaches 150,000.

Esther said...

Hey, dramadaily, thanks for the comment! I appreciate your joining the discussion.

Yeah, you raise a good point. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter may provide opportunities for serendipity that I hadn't thought about.

I'm sure there are bloggers who aren't focused on theatre but may mention it once in awhile. And it may have more of an impact.

Also, I just remembered this. I wrote a post recently about a Boston Red Sox musical being produced this spring at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

I tweet all my blog posts with a link and the Red Sox Twitter feed picked it up! So I may have reached a whole group of people who never would have found out about the musical.

Bob said...

They way we get information is forever changed. It's no longer organized by "sections" or "chapters." Instead, we rely on "feeds" and "alerts." It's highly fragmented, and I don't think traditional media sources have caught on how to adapt. So, instead of changing their publication models, they're firing deeply skilled editors and writers.

It's sad.

Esther said...

Thanks, Bob! What makes me sad is you lose someone with a vast institutional memory. You make it hard to earn a living doing something that used to be a profession, a steady job with health care and other benefits. No matter what our job, it would be scary if we were all turned into a bunch of freelancers. It's not an easy way to make a living.

Anonymous said...

Hi Esther,

I love reading your blog, as I think I have said in the past. What concerns me about the loss of legitimate theater critics, and I guess I'm referring to writers who know how to write about theater in a constructive way, through some schooling and long practice, is similar to your concerns. The whole picture won't be covered in a systematic way. And the people writing in blogs may not have the whole picture as a concern.

I'm old enough to remember Elliot Norton, who the prize is named after. Mr Norton not only reviewed a play, he gave the writers ideas of how to fix it, and he knew what he was talking about. It is much harder to find that kind of criticism now. And much harder for a critic to be alloted that much space now.

Even in newspapers, the folks left writing criticism are not overall, as knowledgeable as they should be. So even if the reach the same people, the people aren't getting the same information.

It is a sad state of affairs. I'm sure the blogs will fill some of the holes, and I hope something else fills the rest, or theater won't continue. There are too many casual audience members for this system to cover them all.

Kathy Boyce

Esther said...

Thanks so much Kathy for the kind words and the comment! I agree - there's nothing like the expertise and skill of someone who covers a subject regularly.

Of course I remember Elliott Norton, too. I wasn't a theatergoer growing up but I used to love watching his show on PBS!