The Playgoer: Bloggin' Stuff

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bloggin' Stuff

I try to steer clear of Theatre Blogging Inside Baseball. But I can't avoid offering my two cents on a certain tempest in a blogspot that made some noise over the internets this week.

First there was the Time Out New York special Theatre Issue. (And, yes, I am a freelance TONY contributor.) First, I'm grateful for the shout-out in the spread's (web-only) blog list. And I enthusiastically recommend their spotlight on some underappreciated master thespians of the New York stage. Although, I'm surprised they left out the irresistible item that two of their "Playbill Bunnies" Liz Marvel and Bill Camp are married! Or are they not anymore? Do tell, guys...

But some bloggers have taken umbrage at item #3 of their"20 Dirty Secrets about New York Theatre"

Beware the blogotainmercial.
You know that clever theater blog you bookmarked, the one with inside dope on the edgiest shows and artists? Be careful—it might be a PR tool. Marketing departments have offered drama bloggers free seats to write about hipster-skewing plays such as Pig Farm and Dying City. Mind you, theaters don’t demand positive write-ups; they just want the cool-kid buzz. Blogs to trust: George Hunka’s Superfluities, Isaac Butler’s Parabasis and Jaime’s Surplus.

I have to admit I'm a little concerned about any reporting (no matter how well intentioned) that feeds perceptions as all bloggers as disreputable amateurs with no ethics and no taste. And TONY theatre man David Cote has been as staunch an advocate for the bloggers as there is, including moderating two panels I've appeared on, as well as hiring me and others to freelance.

So I'm worried that less blog-savvy people may take the wrong idea from this. And that it conflates several very different issues. First there's the distinction between an independent blog (like this one) and an institutional blog promoting a particular company or a commercial site linked to a particular show. Steppenwolf and Seattle Rep, for instance, both have blogs, but neither is hardly crude p.r. Broadway shows have sometimes put an actor's blog on its official site, too. But who's going to be fooled by that?

Then there's the difference between a critical blog (like this one) and a fansite. Last July I commented on a more plausible "payola" case, reported in an "Arts & Leisure" article. If "Wedding Singer" rounds up self-proclaimed "gossip" sites and swag-happy fans with websites, that's very different that saying "Please come review our show."

I still don't understand this question that came up at both blogging panels I did--and that seems to come up in all press accounts of blogging--about whether free tickets compromises bloggers coverage of shows. Huh??? Does anyone ask Ben Brantley? Now some might suggest it does compromise Ben Brantley (or at least the New York Times) to have any quid-pro-quo of tickets for coverage. And perhaps things would be more "clean" if newspapers and legit media outlets properly bought the tickets to the events they covered.

I know I for one can't afford that. I also know I do pay for quite a lot of what I see. Basically I review things I'm able to see--whether that's through free or discount ticket offers of all kinds (I'm on a lot of mailing lists, let's say) or in cases where I just want to see the show badly enough to pay full price (rare). So I'm really, really wary of any generalizations about how theatre bloggers get their seats. And so should you be.

On this issue, I have to say, I find myself at odds with my virtual colleague Isaac Butler. I do appreciate Isaac's concern with ethics and, more so, appearance of ethics. Anything bloggers can do to foster a reputation for legitimacy is good, and good for me personally. But when Isaac starts insisting that we should only accept free tickets when we ask for them--not when the theatre approaches us--just baffles me. Seems like a distinction without a difference to me. I suppose if I accepted all free tix offered me, I'd be something of a whore. But I don't. If I get an email from a press rep or theatre about something that genuinely interests me, why not see it and review it? After all, that's what the big boys do.

Isaac is to be applauded for engineering a "bloggers night" at Pig Farm, but for me to achievement there was getting the Roundabout to acknowledge bloggers at all and treat us like press. At the time I actually hoped it would lead to more invitations later, putting us more on a footing with regular press, but it hasn't. And I still think that would be in Roundabout's--and other big companies'--interest, especially for their new work and other youth-oriented or commercially riskier shows.

The blogosphere had a successful follow up to this with Lincoln Center and Chris Shinn's Dying City, which was aided by Shinn's own links to many bloggers and organized by Mark Armstrong. Given all the connections we had with this show, we bloggers were asked a lot on this one if we were influenced by the free tix. To which I respond: with Dying City I would have gladly flashed my CUNY ID for a $10 student ticket for this. Maybe I can be bought, but not for as cheaply as ten bucks. Give me some credit please.... Again, this was a show for which it was only smart of Lincoln Center to treat us as press, since bloggers much better represent, speak to, and indeed may even be more read by the ideal audience for this show than even the New York Times. (As the growling, sleeping LCT subscribers attested during the preview I attended.)

The second kerfuffle this week has something to do with the new Adam Rapp play, Essential Self Defense at Playwrights Horizons. I missed some of the early details, but essentially the story begins with Charles Isherwood's scathing NYT review, which really did become the talk of the town amongst indie theatre artists. It was a big deal because--as was spelled out in a recent Time Out profile of Rapp--the youngish playwright may be a hero downtown, but this was his debut at a "respectable" nonprofit subscription-based company. Needless to say, Mr. Isherwood--already a favorite pinata of the blogosphere--did not help his reputation as a boogeyman of new writing and downtown theatre. In sum, the impact of this was much greater than the usual thumbs-down. The critic definitely seemed out to cut the celebrated playwright down to size.

Playwrights Horizons must have really panicked about the results of this chance they took with an edgier playwright. (Yes, for Playwrights Horizons, Obie-award winning Adam Rapp is a risk.) So they, smartly, shifted their marketing strategy with ads defying Isherwood and actually quoting bloggers! (Although not identified as such: just "younger critics" with oblique references to links to further info.)... This led to the impression that bloggers were getting behind the show in general, which led some to ask if Playwrights Horizons was orchestrating this. Rumors (fostered by an ill-informed Culturebot post) even spread about free beer and other enticements.

Now this was all a surprise to me. Frankly I was beginning to ask: where are my tickets, Playwrights? Funny enough, their marketing dept. actually had been reaching out to me and other bloggers with their previous two shows (including the very unhip Richard Nelson Frank Lloyd Wright biodrama). I was tempted but ultimately passed on both due to other assignments and deadlines, and the shows frankly weren't the most interesting to me. But on the Rapp show I have heard nothing. Have the Playwrights people actually researched me enough to learn I'm over 30! That I write a lot of negative (or should I say "critical") reviews? Ok, I flatter myself. But my point is, there was no clear blogger-blitz for Essential Self Defense, as far as I could see.

Again, I still want to see it, folks! And you close next week. Better hurry with my payola.

(Or at least a better discount. I hope they realize even the current $40 offer is out of the price range of Rapp's fan base. Perhaps in this context, the subtext of Isherwood's review could more charitably be read as "sure it's fine at $15, but is it worth full Playwrights Horizons prices?" In other words, has the ticket price adversely affected the reception?)

Anyway, whatever dispute there was seems to have been settled, or at least quited down. Even Gothamist chimed in, and Isaac wraps up here and here. (The comments sections on both Gothamist and Parabasis offer even more debate.)

In brief, let me offer, then, this alternative to the Time Out "warning." If you're reading a theatre blog and have questions about the potential biases of the blogger, then give it a few days so you can read some of what he or she is writing. You'll learn soon enough if this is a voice you trust, warts and all. It won't be a "secret" for long if the blog is just a shill or striving for a more autonomous criticism. As for biases and conflicts of interest, I find bloggers are all too happy to exhibit their prejudices! We don't have editors telling us not to use the first-person pronoun. None of us have circulation figures or subscriptions to worry about, so alienating readers isn't that big a risk. Yes, some have ads (including me) but my policy toward them is to keep writing whatever I want and let them decide if they still want to advertise here. (Yes, they even try to sell "Tarzan" tix here, believe it or not.) And besides, the ad revenues quickly go into buying all those tickets I'm not given for free.

It will still take a long time for anyone writing online to successfully claim an equal "legitimacy" to print--despite all the Jayson Blair stories and all the Ann Coulter columns still running out there. But while I myself take blogging seriously--are we really at the point yet where we need a code of ethics on a par with major newspapers and news networks. Has the debate over how much someone paid or did not pay for a Pig Farm ticket really risen to the status of a certain paper's complicity in selling us on "Weapons of Mass Destruction"? It's theatre folks, not war policy. One should know by now that blogging--like theatre criticism online or off--makes no pretence of objectivity. You're getting an opinion, not an intelligence briefing. Yes, you probably want an informed opinion over an unqualified and/or bought-and-paid-for opinion. But perusing a few short blog posts will probably tip you off to the difference in no time.


Patrick Lee said...

Your post puts it succinctly into perspective; the most level-headed editorial on the subject(s).

Just as a matter of record: I was contacted by PH to see Essential Self-Defense and I did accept the offer. (When I'm invited to see a show and I can schedule it, I do. Period.) Unless a "blogger-blitz" can be achieved with just a couple of bloggers (I believe Rocco, at WhatBlows, was also invited) you are entirely correct.

Statler said...

Thanks for taking a very sensible look at an issue that is going to become more critical as more attention is paid to blogs in general and review blogs in particular. While it's great that some theatres/companies are moving towards treating blogs with the same respect as traditional media, this does bring a lot of potential problems with it. Would you rather read a review by someone who is part of the theatre "scene" or is there a benefit of being on the outside looking in?

The free ticket issue (or lack thereof) had caused a slightly different problem with my own Scottish based review site - View From The Stalls

As all of our tickets have to be paid for we choose our shows carefully, only seeing shows that we have more than a reasonable hope of enjoying. As a result the vast majority of our reviews, although identifying flaws, tend to be mainly positive. This became an issue recently and we felt the need to address it in an "editorial" piece - "Are You Positive?"

As for complementary tickets, I don't have any real problem with reviewers - print or online - accepting free tickets but i would like to see it declared either in individual reviews or as part of a stated reviewing policy. Sadly I can't see myself being flooded with ticket offers any time soon, but there are certainly times when it would be very useful such as August's Edinburgh Festival where the temptation to see and review so many shows quickly has an financial impact.

Playgoer said...

According to the front page of the Times today, EVERYONE's talking about blogging "ethics" (or just "etiquette ")now. So something's in the ether now.... Hope it wasn't anything I did!

Statler said...

LOL. Seems a bit unfair to highlight blogs for this given that it seems to be a much lesser problem for blogs than for wider discussion forums - not to mention Usenet which even I find a scary place to visit!

That said I do personally subscribe to most of the policies suggested and as a primarily review based site where criticising others is part of the "job" it would seem a little churlish to object if people bite back now and again.

Anonymous said...

What about freedom of speech? It is amazing how much this changes.