The Playgoer: State of "Theatre Journalism"?

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

State of "Theatre Journalism"?

I've excerpted this from a piece on classical music by Bay Area critic and musician Robert Commanday--but with all references to music replaced by theatre terms. See if it still rings true:

The great newspaper disappearing act is having a horrendous effect on the responsiveness, awareness, and involvement of the public. This is happening in [theatre] as in other areas, but not just because of the reduction in reviews. While reviewing [theatrical] performances is fundamental to the [theatre] critic's job, it's just part of it. The field is more properly described as [theatre] journalism, because it incorporates many functions besides reviewing. [Theatre] journalists write advance pieces to arouse public interest in coming events, cover [theatre] news in the local community and around the world, and produce columns or "think pieces" that discuss issues relevant to music and its institutions.

This last, the "think piece," has taken the biggest hit. You likely will look in vain for a [theatre] essay in the weekend paper. If a Sunday [theatre] article is to be found, it will be an exception and probably an advance or "puff piece," meaning a celebrity interview....The think piece, in contrast, can be on any musical subject — a significant [play], [playwright], or [theatre company]; an issue or controversy; an unusual or provocative upcoming event or a notable [theatre artist] involved in it — so long as it is a thoughtful discussion involving interpretation, history, or analysis. It is not an article that is essentially a recycling of publicity material.

Then there's the decline of investigative [theatre] journalism, the hard news that [theatre] critics should be responsible for. It was the first to go, and it has all but disappeared. When you read the obituary of a [company] and learn about its bankruptcy, that is usually when you first discover that the [company] had been in trouble for a long time. The reporting on those facts should have occurred long before, but in fact the coverage of the ineptness of the [Artistic Director] and the incompetence and inattention of the board never appeared.

Well, just when I would say "Hence, bloggers!", Commanday turns skeptical about the internet as a cure-all:
The indifference of publishers and editors, coupled with the digital revolution, has changed all that. Will the Internet and blogs make the difference? It doesn't seem likely, first because information read on the computer screen does not engage and hold the attention as closely as printed material; second because in traversing a newspaper, many readers become drawn to stories they had not been looking for, stories they may not click to on a Web publication. I would like to think that a good percentage of audience members would regularly take the extra step to go to the Internet to check out the review of what they had just heard in the concert hall or opera house, especially when the newspaper doesn't cover it. That may happen in time...but for most people it's not an automatic or habitual response yet, not the way turning to the appropriate page of the newspaper used to be.

Fair points. Blog readers--and internet surfers in general--are a pretty self-selecting group. Then again, I wonder if these different habits Commanday describes are generational. It would appear that Googling is already a more commonplace way to look up information on current events and happenings about town that "traversing a newspaper." At least for those under 50.

For the full--and undistorted--version of Commonday's argument, see his SF Classical Voice.

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