Paul Birchall’s Got it Covered
Visualizing the Invisible: First Symposium, “Form and Content”
By Paul Birchall
These are tumultuous days for the theater community in Los Angeles, but one thing is for sure: There has never been a better time for the community to draw together for the purposes of thought-provoking self-analysis.
One of the more positive outcomes of the past year has been a concerted effort on the part of practitioners and supporters of our theater scene to define the unique Los Angeles theatrical culture and to develop a strategy for its survival, growth, and prosperity. Several groups have recently formed in an attempt to do this, from the Los Angeles Theater Network (a local think tank) to the Facebook page operated by the Pro-99 Movement. There are many angels and they are dancing most adroitly on the heads of so many pins, theatrically speaking.
Add to these groups the symposia (three forums over three months) started last week by LA Weekly critic and Stage Raw founder Steven Leigh Morris, which seek to articulate and to explore issues confronting the “crisis in arts journalism,” not just in the L.A. area but across the country.
Back in the day, I mighta been one of those hard-boiled newsies, sitting at his typewriter in the copy room, churning out an overnight review, and then shouting “copy!” to the copy boy to whisk the piece down to the editor. Now, like so many local critics, I have found that writing about the theater pays so little that I draw most of my income from work that has little to do with the stage, or with writing at all.
The first Stage Raw-sponsored panel (“Form and Content”), moderated by L.A. Times critic Margaret Gray, brought out several of our local theater critics, an artistic director and a social media specialist to discuss the shapes and sizes of what, in this region, is charitably called “arts coverage.”
The title for the series is “Visualize the Invisible” — perhaps a metaphor for the idea that few in the theater actually give the topic of arts journalism a thought until they need a critic or reporter to cover their event, at which point the power of the press’s bully pulpit is mighty strong.
This first panel’s purpose was to take arts journalism and to apply what in management-speak is considered a SWOT analysis – an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – while the panel on October 23 will discuss arts journalism from the point of view of economics, and the panel on November 23 will address issues of diversity.
Panelist Bill Raden, writer for the L.A. Weekly and Stage Raw, described the importance of long-form criticism, which in the mainstream papers (though not the blogs) is going the way of the dodo. “Theater and its criticism are part of a larger discussion that includes literature, philosophy, and politics,” opined Raden. “Some people call this legacy journalism.”
Panelist Charles McNulty, lead theater critic for the L.A. Times, remarked how he particularly misses the long-form reviews that were able to delve more deeply into the experience and meaning of a play. “I really love a nuanced response to anything,” McNulty explained. “I want to get into the impulse generating the art.”
This, he regarded, is opposed to many other types of criticism, which are either a report card-like discussion of a show’s objective quality or its commercial merits. “We should put aside the ‘business’ of the theater and focus on something more urgent – what energizes the theater.”
After Gray was prompted to ask how we entice people to read long-form criticism in an era “when people read less and less,” Raden riposted that people will always read writing that is good. “Present this material so that it is edited and thoughtful,” Raden noted. And that is what will mark the difference between standards traditionally attributed to print journalism versus uncurated blogs, which are frequently “self-edited.”
Added panelist Tracey Paleo, editor of the website Gia on the Move, “There is no evidence people aren’t reading the long-form reviews (on the web). It’s just there is now so much content floating around.”
Gray moved onto a meditation on “the elephant in the room”, the dire economics of arts criticism, where a thumb’s up Yelp review is about as useful for marketing as a McNulty think piece. “Who is going to pay” for long, deliberate, critical pieces when the fiscal trend is downsizing and trimming?
McNulty pragmatically wondered why the academic community hasn’t taken up the slack, noting that during his years covering theater in the East, he knew of colleges that sponsored critical journals to discuss issues in the arts. Here, in Los Angeles, there’s no such tradition. “Why doesn’t Cal Arts write about arts, dance, and theater?” McNulty asked. “The fit is right. Academics are hungry for visibility.”
Morris also threw the conversation over to the audience, asking what they wanted from their arts criticism.
Gary Grossman, producer and activist in the 99-Seat movement, replied that “we’re looking for a champion. We’re looking to be told where we’re going,” as opposed to a report that’s just a checklist of goods and bads. McNulty responded with a claim that many critics in town would agree with – that he (like any good critic) “gives 100 percent in his writing; and that is how he advocates for the theater.”
Panelist and head of the Rogue Machine Theater, John Flynn, noted that arts criticism has declined partially as a result of the democratization of the Internet. There are a cacophony of voices and not all of them are equal. “There has to be respect for the well-educated professional,” he noted.
Other discussions centered on the old ‘Butts in Seats’ question of how to bring audiences to the theater. The obvious answer is to market via the Internet – but the panel regarded the Internet as both an opportunity and a challenge. “If you want to engage with young audiences, you have to engage them where they are – the Internet is not the enemy,” noted Paleo, though Morris mused that the same information vehicle is ultimately “rearing a generation of lonely people,” due to the lack of connection to the external world. Underlined the pragmatic Flynn, “The Internet is not bringing people into the theater.”
It was fascinating and delightful to be in the audience for this very important discussion of these issues. However, it is even more important to map out a strategy to ensure the success of the arts and their coverage.It is hard to come up with new ideas, especially when we don’t even know where our culture, our technology, or our economy is going.
In many ways, arts journalism is undergoing an even greater threat than theater itself. Media are changing and methods of communication need to adapt to this or die. Discussing this in a symposium is like holding a conference on how to rebuild a country that’s in the middle of an ongoing war: It is almost impossible to reinvent before the war is over. Perhaps we will see where this all falls out when we’re on the other side of all this upheaval.
Note: The next symposium is on the economics of arts coverage, moderated by Margaret Gray, with panelists, Sasha Anawalt, Anthony Byrnes, Sheldon Epps, Charles McNulty, Steven Leigh Morris, and Laura Zucker, October 26 at Boston Court Performing Arts Center. Presented in association with Footlights. RSVP here.