Friday, July 13, 2007

Some Thoughts on Theater Coverage

I know there's a lot of stuff brewing in the OOB community around the reformation of the Showcase Code, something that I wholeheartedly support, and as soon as I get my tush in gear enough to send another email to Paul Bargetto, apologizing for my inability to come to the event at CSC last Sunday (I had to write some reviews), I hope to be able to play some sort of formal role in the process, perhaps dealing with some research issues and the hoped-for development of economic-impact information that would show just how strong, in dollars and sense, the OOB community really is. (If you refer indie theater community, that's fine by me, but it's not at all a phrase I'd ever use. Moreover, I don't think the issue has anything whatsoever to do with either branding or naming conventions.)

Anyway, I was riding the W train home to Astoria the other night, and I had stuffed in my bag a copy of this week's New York Press (which I read for all the obvious reasons -- to read what I've written for that week and also to see what my friend Jerry Portwood is putting into the paper), The Village Voice (which I read...well, I don't really know why...boredom?), and the New York Observer, which is my weekly guilty pleasure.

Anyway (anyway), something the community had better start to think seriously about is not so much how difficult it is to get press, but what the community is going to do to persuade media outlets to wake the hell up to the community in some meaningful way. I don't know how many of you kept up this week with the Q&A the culture editor of the Times, Sam Sifton, was having on, but I frankly found his answers flippant in the most egregiously condescending way, and I hope some of you noticed that the Times didn't even bother to select many theater-related questions in the first place.

Here's another reason I'm thinking about OOB and media. Reading the Voice this week, I flipped forward quickly, as always, to the theater section...excellent piece by Alexis Soloski on Morning Star (which is probably the biggest piece the Peccadillo is going to get for this production); good coverage of a play at HERE, of Doppleganger at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, of James Rasheed's Professional Skepticism at the Abingdon, and of the Potomac Theatre Project's repertory (which I wrote about in Back Stage before anyone else did), plus David Ng on The Civilians' Gone Missing, if a few weeks late. To look at what coverage there is, I guess it's not bad, but our standards and expectations have fallen, too, let's remember. It just isn't remotely proportional to the amount of work that's out there, even in July.

None of this is revelatory; I know that. I mean, if I were from Butte or something, it might be seeming as if I'm leading up to something revelatory, but anyone who knows how much media coverage of theater has shrunk certainly knows that this was, comparatively speaking, a good week for the Voice. Then I flipped to page 57 and stumbled upon J. Hoberman's excellent piece on the Woody Allen film Manhattan. This is what journalists and critics of the old school would classify as a critical "appreciation" or a "reassessment" piece, and there used to be lots of them all the time, before advertising (or the lack of it) became such a great hulking behemoth as to vanquish such pieces 99% of the time.

Yet the Voice, for reasons I cannot fathom, ran the piece. It runs 1,243 words -- and the reason for it is because there's a weeklong revival of the film (through July 19) at Film Forum. Now, I know Film Forum advertises, but it isn't as if you're going to find the theater section of the Voice devoting 1,243 words to anything -- not a new play, usually (Michael Feingold usually will mix reviews of two productions into one piece), and a quick cut and paste tells me that Alexis' piece runs 743 words.

So here's the thing: What do we do about a major alt-weekly which, like all newspapers in this worrisome journalistic time, undoubtedly measures the level of ink it can provide to its writers by the level advertising yet, at the same time, devotes an inordinate amount of column inches to a 30-year-old film playing in just one theater that you could just as easily order from NetFlix?

It seems to me that OOB has to figure out how to flex its muscles in such a way as to leverage better coverage out of such publications. That includes Time Out, by the way. I'm talking about banding together in such a way as to literally attempt to hurt publications financially if they do not change their editorial viewpoints.

I know my colleagues will read this and say I am committing professional suicide. But I don't think so. I think the problem is that OOB is too scared to demand change. Or is it?

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Anonymous said...

Well... I run a pretty well-respected OOB theatre company and I can tell you: 1. I've spent the entire Spring listening to new board members and funding professionals talk about other OOB as "your competition" and 2. y'all media types can be very jealous of each other - I've been told to my face by a senior VV editor that I haven't gotten an Obie in my decades of work because the Village Voice doesn't like the fact that my company's so well-covered by the Times and usually favorably... he said we had become, after early interest from the Voice "too uptown." So, I wish it were as easy as banding together with my OOB sisters to take down The Man but... this is the Big City and we're... competitors? What would you have us do, Mr. J - multi-company subscriptions? What if my audience tells me they just don’t like some other perfectly valid OOB co.'s works? Shall I not… rejoice therefore? I’ll expect unified enlightenment from the OOB world when such wonders as spell-checking in a blog comment window occur…
Yours, Lucretia

Leonard Jacobs said...

Thank you for your whiny post. The first thing you might do is stop hiding and quivering behind a cowardly pseudonym and state who you are. The second thing you might do is realize that the problem is that too many of you are hiding behind pseudonyms and whining about bullshit like not getting your Obie because someone at the Village Voice doesn't like the fact that you're covered in the Times. The third thing you might do is realize that, to some extent, I wasn't directing my comments toward you but toward OOB brethren who can't get the Times to even recognize their existence. The fourth thing you might do is understand that the problem is one of groaning self-interest -- everyone talks a good game about OOB as a community, but when push comes to shove, everyone is really out for themselves, and anyone with a leg up on anyone else can just go to hell, and the result of that is that it only perpetuates the problem of media outlets going out of their way to ignore OOB as a whole, and increasingly so, in favor of huge Voice stories about films from 30 years ago. Waaaaaaa, you didn't get your Obie, waaaaaa. Your poor dear. Either acknowledge that you have it better than a lot of people or shut up.

Anonymous said...

True, I do have it much better than most. But, I got it largely by fending off the bullshit of my so-called OOB sisters. Can't tell you how many of them still owe me money for one thing or another or have stabbed me in the back when my back started to peek just a little above the horizon. More to the point, you seem to be pretending to have forgotten that OOB was always a place of artists striving for something more, some step up the food chain. We all want to be Torchsong Trilogy and start out as three small plays in a basement somewhere (OOB), consolidate into a an OB, pick up and Obie, and then move on to B'way. It is the dream that fuels our spirit. If we acknowledge each other as a community, we'll be forced to admit the truth: New York City just has more community theater than most places, and we're it. Mr. J, who in God's dear name would use their own real name in the "blogosphere" as you call it? Blogosphere? Looks like a kind of nasty, petty thunderdome to me. You people don't know how to just talk politely about anything. And with that I'll head on back to reality and talking to people face to face about things. My experiment is done here.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I'm glad your experiment is done. Perhaps now you can go off and get an education, and learn how to properly spell Torch Song Trilogy.

I haven't in the least forgotten, by the by, that OOB is place for some to graduate from, but your Pollyannish vision of doing plays in a basement, "consolidation" into OB (what does that mean?), winning an Obie, and then "moving on" to Broadway is probably the reason you're stuck where you are. Such fatuous dreaming that is, as if you had a clue about how this business works, which I thought, at first, you did.

The one thing this "nasty, petty thunderdome" has going for it is the opportunity for dialogue, for disagreement, for constructive engagement, for change -- and it starts with being open about your identity. You won't admit who you are because you already know your cause is probably lost. Given your attitude, that shows the market pretty well doing its job. Best of luck.

parabasis said...

Hey Leonard,

Some interesting points here. I think people would be more willing to flex muscles if they (we) thought they (we) had any. What ways do you (or other readers) think OOB theatres could get together on this?

Anonymous said...

Leonard...I'm in agreement. Any interest in coming to the next Dish meeting and discussing it?

Leonard Jacobs said...

Hey Parabasis/Isaac,

I think the first problem is the idea that there aren't any muscles to be flexed. It's an Alamo mentality that assumes the cause is lost. I think OOB has economic muscle, artistic muscle, muscle in numbers, and loud voices -- all must be used in order to affect change. The precise manifestation of those muscles is up for grabs. I just think people have to stop whining about the lack of OOB media coverage and start doing specific, credible and coordinated things in order to change the situation. All whining does is promote stasis.

Philucifer said...

I know it's kind of silly to even bother, but I want to respond just for a moment to something Lucretia said, because it's endemic these days:

"You seem to be pretending to have forgotten that OOB was always a place of artists striving for something more, some step up the food chain. We all want to be Torchsong Trilogy..."

While I don't mean to imply this just isn't true -- I see it quite a lot -- not every company or artist who works in OOB has this mentality. And it drives me FREAKIN' NUTS that this is the common (mis)perception, not only from the outside, but quite often from the inside as well.

Yes, OOB began with artists wanting more, but it sure wasn't a step up the food chain. How often has a production from La Mama been to Broadway? Was The Living Theatre out there to systematically take over 42nd Street one production at a time? And Joe Cino was, I suppose, working to be the next Nederlander, right? What they WERE doing was looking for a place to do work they believed in, with the freedom to do it the way they thought it should be done.

One of the best things about this community, at least in my opinion, is that there's plenty of room for those who are practicing their craft with an eye on a more mainstream career, AND those who are digging in for a life-long residency of bringing stories to the public that are deep and challenging in both subject matter and presentation. Those kinds of stories -- by necessity, and quite understandably -- aren't going to appeal to a large demographic, except under very rare circumstances. Yet OOB is both large enough and diverse enough to accommodate both of these, and everything in between.

And for God's sake, can we please stop using "community theatre" as something derogatory and dirty? It's insulting to your community -- the audiences and colleagues who work with and support you on a regular basis.

-- Patrick Shearer
Nosedive Productions

Jen Ryan's Brain said...

Bubbe, you are correct --as usual! I hate to accuse mainstream media of being elitist (!) but that's what happens when the PR companies control what gets reviewed, and not the editors.

Anonymous said...

As someone who spent the last 2+ years researching OOB's first 20 years can I just underline what Charlie noted - OOB did NOT come about as a place to develop future Bway shows. Quite the contrary, but times have changed, and there's nothing wrong with that either.

And while I have no problems with VV, TONY or even NYT, I do lament the passing of a different kind of press. There have been publications like OFF and Other Stages that once covered the downtown scene - theater-specifically. And maybe they didn't get anyone an Obie, but they played a vital role in our community theater, and cultivated some of our better current critics.

Theater-speicific small publications grew a wing of our community that is growing nowhere today, but online. I mean, we're all fortunate to have (though we know their critics should be tougher on us), but there needs to be much more.

The only other hope that I see are the bloggers. The talent is here, if not the attention-span. I wonder if a team of bloggers couldn't rule our community faster and easier than a nation-wide play production (though I know neither are easy). I'm just saying, if we're not allowed to whine, don't we have the tools and talent to begin solving this important issue ourselves?

Leonard Jacobs said...

Patrick -- I totally take your comment on community theatre. It is one of the various things that made me utterly, totally nuts over "Anonymous/Lucretia." I think he/she is a putz.

RLewis, everyone is allowed to whine, but if it is whining for the sake of whining, if there is no solution creation, then it is a waste of energy. And that's one thing I just don't support.