The Playgoer: Panel Follow Up

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Panel Follow Up

Thanks to all who attended the CUNY Prelude Theatre Bloggers Panel Saturday, and to those who participated, namely:

David Cote, moderator (Time Out, Histriomastix)
(Update: note David's own post-panel post)
Alexis Soloski, Village Voice (not a blogger, but if you read the Voice you're reading her)
George Hunka, Superfluities
Isaac Butler, Parabasis
Tweed and Sharkskin Girl from Obscene Jester

I hear it was recorded, so, with luck, I'll be able to link soon to an MP3. Imagine adding that to your stairmaster routine...

There's nothing I want to dissect from the discussion. Instead I'll merely make use of the fact I have a blog to now monopolize time and say two things I didn't get to say.

1) First, about the New York Times... As was to be expected, the paper became a target of various comments over the 90 minutes. Prompting one friend of mine in the audience to remark afterwords: "Gee, you guys really don't like the Times, do you." (Of course, George is a good egg and a loyal freelancer, so this does not implicate him in any way!) If there was time to be asked about this more directly I would have said something like the following: The Times is not evil. But there are bad consequences to it reigning for so long as the only and, hence, authoritative, source in covering the NYC (hence, alas, American) theatre scene. The Voice and Time Out have certainly been providing more varied and often higher quality coverage. But they're only once a week. So one good contribution blogs have been able to make is offering some daily alternative to the Times. Note I say "alternative" not substitute. I could also say complement. I myself continue to read the Times Arts page slavishly. (Obviously.)

You'll often hear old timers complain about the disproportionate clout of the Times critics by reminding us that New York used to have a bunch of dailies, so the critics could battle it out, and a playgoer could get a variety of perspectives the morning after. Of course, we do still have many dailies offering many reviews. But the Daily News and Newsday seem to have lessened their commitment to daily reviewing, the Post is just taken less seriously by theatregoers because of its association with sports and all things Murdoch. (In short, not our kind of people?) The Sun is a welcome addition to the scene, with its vigorous arts coverage and younger theatre critics. But there too, a fiercely right-wing political agenda of its editorial page turns many theatre people off the paper in general. (Though I say that's not at all a reason to shun the arts section.)... Maybe we're just in a self-fulfilling prophecy situation where the Times is most important because the Times is most important. And maybe this will go away if only PR firms and readers make the active choice to look to other choices more. But until then, I feel no guilt in aggressively offering alternative views--sometimes even correctives where necessary--to the "paper of record."

This alternative is necessary not because the Times is evil (which again it isn't) but because the Times can only do so much, and because the Times is a business that will do what's in its profit interest, not necessarily what's good for the artform. That's their job, and we've seen the Arts page there move more and more in that direction as the future prospects of large print media newspapers get dimmer and dimmer.

The theatre community is too serious a crisis to depend on a one-paper state any longer. It limits debate, limits readership, which, in turn, limits attendance. We should all be loud and clear that theatre is not just for New York Times readers any more. And even those readers (who are, let's face it, the intellectual and cultural elite) are now getting only a sliver of what's out there.

2) One specific alternative kind of coverage blogs can offer is the very old idea of the theatre column. When you look through the theatre pages of old newspapers you'll see little boxes like "On the Rialto" or Leonard Lyons' "The Lion's Den." These were often not much more than gossip in a Winchell-esque fashion. Today, we have the more bland Times' "Arts, Briefly" which is devoted to all the arts, as well as Pete Dougherty, apparently. Actually the closest we have today is Michael Riedel, and notice it's the Post that sees the value in him, not the Times. (The Times ditched their Friday mainstay "On Stage and Off" a few years ago.) Sure Riedel is gossipy, but it's good honest gossip, at least. Not gossip and pr dressed up as a respectable "feature." Sure columns have always been used to disseminate pr. But at least there's a name and a point of view behind it. The column does not hide behind a veil of respectable journalistic objectivity.

So I must say I enjoy the idea resurrecting the regular, daily theatre column. Like the op-ed page in politics, the column can include both reporting and opinion, both fact and speculation. In other words, after you've read the front page, now let's talk the way people really talk about things. Ideally, informed people. There should be space for such writing in all subjects--especially the arts. The theatre is not being well served by the limited kinds of coverage, not to mention limited outlets. If print media decide the column no longer makes sense as an allocation of space, that the rogue opinion of one of your writers serves your arts interests less than consumer-oriented reviews and characterless puff pieces...then to the internet, I say!

I suppose I may invoke the column as an excuse out of the responsibilities of "real" journalism. After all, I'm not a journalist by training, experience, or practice. But it is true that professional columnists do their share of true reporting, whether it's calling newsmakers for comments, or being on the receiving end of tips and leaks. In short, I doubt I could ever aspire to the proud journalism of, say, oh, I don't know, a Robert Novak. But I do take to heart that if I am to be serious about the idea of the column, then it's worth me making more of a stab at it. And I'm happily surprised at the good results I've been able to get so far, and the respectful response from those I've plied for information.

But I also maintain that the column is a form in itself, to do as much, or as little journalism with as one pleases. As to the validity of that, I can only let readers decide...

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