Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More Questions for Critics

As promised in the previous post about the Critics Panel that was held on Tuesday evening, I’ve sent the remaining audience questions to the critics and compiled their replies here.

"Sam [Hurwitt] made a comment about newspapers being able to reach those who are receptive but not inclined to seek out arts coverage. In the future of new media, how do the panelists think arts journalism--or marketing of theatre companies--can reach those who are receptive but not inclined to seek out arts coverage?"

Robert Hurwitt: Good question. Wish I knew or even had a clue. It's why people like me have trouble envisioning a world without newspapers -- and why I continue to read them and never even think to look at any online coverage unless someone points me to it.

Chloe Veltman: Aggregators like the iTunes podcast store are a great place to browse an extremely diverse range of commentary on everything from dog racing to David Mamet.

Jean Schiffman: Regarding reaching potential audiences through arts journalism, I think it's what we talked about--new media. Facebook, Twitter, etc. Regarding marketing theatre companies in general, let's not forget the best means ever: word of mouth. I go to my local Peet's almost every morning and have gotten to know a fairly large group of other regulars there. Some read the reviews in the Chronicle, some don't, none read reviews elsewhere--but all of them ask me what I've seen lately and what I recommend. And I hold forth. I've taken three of them (separately) to see shows, and many of them now go to theatre based on my recommendations. I wonder if audience members could be given incentives, or greater incentives than they are already getting, for talking up shows they like to their friends and acquaintances?

"Do you have metrics for what part of the paper people are reading?" "If you have a blog, what is your readership in terms of demographics and/or numbers?"

Robert Hurwitt: I don't know how the Chronicle tracks such things except for the obvious, number of hits (and appended comments) on the Gate. The main feedback I've heard for the past 10 years about demographics comes from focus groups.

Chloe Veltman: My blog gets about 1,000 hits a day.

"Are your publications planning to develop their web presence and arts coverage?"

Robert Hurwitt: Yes. The Chronicle has been way out ahead, I'm told, in establishing an online presence with the Gate and it's my impression that a lot of planning and work is going into developing its future. I have no idea what the thinking is in terms of changes to our online arts coverage at this point.

Chloe Veltman: SF Weekly is not planning on developing its arts coverage; not sure about web presence. I'd like to develop my coverage on Arts Journal further but I need to find a sustainable business model first. The other publications I freelance for don't show too many signs of expanding arts coverage.

Jean Schiffman: Web presence yes, arts coverage no.

"What can theatres do to keep arts coverage available?" "What can theatre companies do to help you? If not a letter-writing/email campaign, what might work?"

Robert Hurwitt: All I can say is that the more the editors are made aware that the readers want more arts coverage, the more likely they are to put resources there -- the emphasis is on readers, and potential readers. And, as you may have noticed, almost all papers want and print as many Letters to the Editor as they can get.

Jean Schiffman: I can't think of anything other than encouraging your audiences to write letters to the press in response to reviews (or lack thereof) and getting your press releases to us in a very timely manner, and with all the information therein. Many of my press releases arrive too late, and without all the necessary details.

Chloe Veltman: Encourage foundations about providing philanthropic support to people who write about the arts, e.g., bloggers. For example, artists who serve on the TBA CA$H grant committee might consider providing bloggers and podcasters with support.

"Arts journalism isn't the main focus of news journalism. So what is journalism currently doing in this area? Example: earlier this year I saw a fellowship in this sector."

Chloe Veltman: Some small efforts are being made to at least begin discussions about the field, mainly driven by philanthropy, e.g., National Arts Journalism Summit held on October 2 in LA; Andy Warhol foundation paying $30,000 to each of a number of bloggers in the visual arts (so far no one to my knowledge has stepped up to the plate for theatre journalists or other disciplines). More broadly, journalists are starting their own websites, etc. But oftentimes this is motivated by the fact that they've lost their jobs on newspapers rather than from deep-seated desire to be entrepreneurial.

"What can artists and arts administrators do to encourage the perpetuation of professional criticism?" "Writer credibility: bloggers and artists who also review and comment?"

Robert Hurwitt: Keep us honest. I think it's important to make the distinction: While editors may get their backs up when they think a theater is trying to engineer campaigns to get more coverage for its work, no one in the news business should ever take offense when theaters, directors, actors, designers, playwrights or anybody else writes or emails or phones to point out an error in our coverage. This point probably needs to be made in the Bay Area because there was a powerful editor in the '90s who became so protective of one of her critics that she threatened several companies with reduced coverage when they had the temerity to ask for corrections of errors in his copy. She is no longer in the business, that kind of practice is a violation of good journalism ethics and that is not the practice at any paper I know of.

"How do you decide what to cover?"

Robert Hurwitt: There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in general it boils down to my sense of a show's news value with some input from my editors. On rare occasions, an editor will suggest that I cover something I hadn't been considering a priority; more often, an editor will tell me there won't be room for as many reviews as I have scheduled or ask me to write an article that means I have to sacrifice one or more reviews in order not to work overtime (the paper rarely wants to pay overtime for arts coverage). News value partly depends on the size of the venue, which is one reason why every ACT and Berkeley Rep show and most Best of Broadway offerings will be covered, except when it's a show that's been here often before making yet another return. I prioritize certain theaters based on my sense of their track records and/or local or national profiles. So I try to cover every show at TheatreWorks, Cal Shakes, San Jose Rep, Marin Theatre Co, the Magic, Aurora and those companies, and as many as I can at SF Playhouse, Intersection, Shotgun, Lorraine Hansberry and a number of other companies. When it comes to the many other companies I have to choose between for the few remaining slots in my calendar, I tend to give priority to new work -- partly because 1) I believe that's more newsworthy than another staging of a show that's been seen here before (especially if it's received several stagings and/or is often done); 2) I think the creation of new work is one of the distinguishing features of Bay Area theater; 3) I've probably said all that I have to say about "Cats," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Cabaret," "Stones in His Pockets" or many others; and 4) I believe that any of those shows, and many others, are well-known enough already that they don't need the help of a review to attract attention.

Chloe Veltman: For SF Weekly: With rare exceptions the decision is partly governed by editorial restrictions, i.e., shows that have a run of at least a month and happen in San Francisco (rather than other parts of the Bay). Beyond that, I cover whatever to me looks interesting. Could be an actor/director/designer who's career intrigues me, a production of particular topical significance, an unusual reconstruction of a classic -- in other words, some esthetic ideas that make the play look like it stands out from the pack.

Jean Schiffman: I go through all my press releases well in advance and choose all the shows I want to see. Then I submit that list to my editor and she usually agrees to have me review half or less. I don't know how she makes her decisions. But I go to all of them anyway. I generally choose what I want to see by a variety of guidelines. Certain theatres, both large, mid-sized and tiny, I like very much and want to see everything they do pretty much no matter what. Beyond that, if actors I really like are in a particular show, I'll want to see it. Ditto for directors. I prefer to go to new plays rather than plays I've seen many times--although of course with really great plays I'll go to see many versions of them, especially if they're being done by a theatre whose work I like. Among the new plays, I look for plays by playwrights I like, or emerging playwrights that I've heard about. If I've seen a particular play within the past year or so, I'm unlikely to want to see another version of it.

That’s all for now, but there’s certainly a lot here to discuss, and if the conversation really takes off, I’ll be writing new posts on it.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet the Press

Last night Theatre Bay area presented a Critics Panel, generously hosted by Brava Theater Center, and I'd say a good 50-60 people didn't let the day's weather deter them from attending.

The panel included Robert Hurwitt (Chronicle), Karen D'Souza (Mercury News and Bay Area News Group), Chloe Veltman (SF Weekly and lies like truth), Robert Avila (Bay Guardian), Jean Schiffman (Examiner) and Sam Hurwitt (Marin IJ and Theatre Bay Area). Chad Jones, former Oakland Trib critic and Theater Dogs blogger, moderated. I also jumped on the panel at the last moment.

Overall I'd say it was a pretty good panel: the critics were generous in their answers, the audience asked good questions and most of them seemed pleased with the event. Now, I've been with Theatre Bay Area since about 1999, and this panel is at least the third such critics panel we've had in all those years. One panel was instigated by then-Callboard editor Belinda Taylor and associate editor prince Gomolvilas when the merger of the Chronicle and Examiner was imminent and we feared that we would lose either Steven Winn or Robert Hurwitt as a critic, when we really needed to have two critics. At another critics panel a few years later, Joe Brown, then editor of the Datebook, literally brought the head of the Little Man as a sort of metaphorical sacrifice. And who could forget the critics dunk tank soon after, where Joe wore the head of the Little Man in the dunk tank! And where Robert Avila read, in the dunk tank, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty.

But here's what was different: When we held the first critics panels, advertising was still decent (especially compared to today), subscriptions were steady, and so it seemed possible that we could try to convince arts editors and newspaper publishers to expand coverage. How can we do that today? Papers are collapsing, and the arts section isn't the only section that's getting smaller. All of the sections are getting smaller, all of the news staffs (business and sports included) are being decimated. Is seems completely unrealistic to think that we could ever expand coverage in the short term. Yet, it seems equally impossible to come up with a solution to save papers--how many stories have we seen across the blogosphere from Arts Journal to Slate to the papers themselves, etc., on how to do this?

So, clearly this wasn't going to be a problem we could solve in two hours, nor was that the point of the panel. We plugged the panel as "find out how to get coverage in the face of declining coverage." Well, generally, the answer is the same answer it's always been: pitch stories, meet deadlines for press releases, don't ask the Chron on Wednesday to cover your event on Saturday, be aware of news in the area and what's really newsworthy (having a female director for the first time in your company's history is not newsworthy nowadays--or it could be, but not in the way that you want), have photos.

We only got through a couple of questions from the audience (written on paper and handed to Chad), the first being the usual "how can I get you to come to my show?" that sparked a 15-minute conversation. Then, the harder questions, like "If we don't have newspaper reviews, what have we lost?" (Not, what have theatre companies lost, but what has the public lost?)

I felt badly that we didn't get through more questions, or that we didn't discuss the harder questions more fully, so what I'm thinking is that I can post some of the questions here, or that I can email them to the critics, get some replies and post them here too. Stay tuned.

And special thanks again to Brava Theater Center for its wonderful hospitality!


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lucky #7?

Travel + Leisure ranked San Francisco as the 7th best theatre town, on a list of 30, behind Houston and Cleveland. Hmm, how do we feel about that?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Building Cultural Participation From Sea to Shining Sea

Over the past two days, I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be part of a small group invited to convene as part of the Project Audience program in Chicago. (To my Chicago friends and family, I’m sorry I didn’t see you – we were sequestered and didn’t breathe outside air for the entire time. Sorry….) Project Audience, funded by the Mellon Foundation, has been going on for just over a year now, with virtual monthly convenings for the last six or so months. I was one of 28 participants in that community to be invited to attend this in-person convening, and I’ve got to say I feel truly fortunate to have been chosen (especially having now come out the other end of it with positive action in sight).

This program is a unique collaboration between the Mellon Foundation’s arts program and another funded program there called Research in Information Technology. This is the first collaboration of those two programs since RIT was founded in 2000. Project Audience’s goal is to facilitate a community of practice (that is to say, a community of action, not philosophizing) to tackle the continuous and problematic lag between the audience development needs of the arts community and our late-adopter stance on new technologies. The participants span the globe, from New Zealand to England, with many of the arts services organizations and certain consultants, individual organizations and other interested parties in the US also in the mix. The goal is to, through this community of practice, develop a community-source (i.e., open source) tool or tools with an eye toward revolutionizing the way we as arts and culture organizations develop and maintain our audiences. And incidentally, the goal is to only do it once, nationally, collectively--a substantial shift from the current de facto model in which organizations in different communities huddle in their garages with their heads down creating new solutions without checking about to see if others are also working on that problem.

There’s some irony in the fact that convening a national group to tackle a complex problem once instead of many separate times is so revolutionary, but there you go.

It turns out that these RIT processes actually encompass three distinct phases, each of which is contingent on successfully finishing the prior one (and submitting a new grant application demonstrating your success). This convening culminated phase 1 of the project, which essentially is the phase during which the needs/goals/fears of the community at large are hashed out and the very slight skeleton of a next step is collaboratively created. It’s been a daunting, at times frustrating, but ultimately rewarding time.

Having come to Chicago with a limited and hazy understanding of this project (a haziness that it turns out was shared by many of the others there at the beginning), I had doubts about the ability of organizations from Theatre Bay Area to to CTG to Seattle Opera to the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission etc. to come to a consensus on anything of such scope, especially given that we arrived to what was essentially a blank canvas knowing neither the scope, nor the intended targets, nor the timeline. Over the last two days, much of that has crystallized, and that which hasn’t has been consciously shelved until later.

As an introduction to the convening, Diane Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation admonished us to think beyond selling tickets and look at using art to create long-term, sustainable connections and conversations between people and people, people and art, people and institutions, and institutions and institutions. Through Project Audience, which currently has over 180 members providing their voices through the online forums, discussion strings and conference calls, we will actually develop (not just talk about developing) new cutting-edge technologies (still undefined) to break down the barriers between ticket streams, customer relations, community building, conversation and arts making. It will be available at a low cost and will be owned by the community, and it will be open to augmentation by anyone who has the expertise and inclination to try.

Project Audience is meant to raise the bar--increasing audience involvement, attendance and ownership of art and culture on a community by community basis. The involvement of Mellon, particularly through the RIT program, is exciting because, thus far, in the nine years the program has existed, it has shepherded 50 projects to fruition, and all are still functional (two-thirds independently, having finished their funding cycle with the foundation). All this to say, and rather excitingly, that this will happen. Anyone is eligible to participate in the forums and public interactions of Project Audience, though that schedule is now up in the air as we transition into Phase 2: the development of a community design process and workshop to actually tackle the logistics of this project’s creation. At each transition (from Phase 1 to 2 to 3), the leadership on the project changes, so Alliance for Audience and ArtsFund, which shepherded Phase 1, are stepping aside and a nine-member volunteer committee (of which I am one) is currently figuring out how to assign organizations to take their place. We will, in the next week or so, be creating materials to select a steering committee which will submit the grant to fund Phase 2 and will oversee its successful completion during 2010.

To learn more about Project Audience, I encourage you to visit I’ll be writing more about the learnings from this past convening in the next few weeks, and in the meantime you can register to take part in our Tangler online discussions. There are many voices on the conversation already, but the goal of this project is to be pan-arts, pan-geographic, pan-size, pan-budget model, pan-experience in scope, so everyone is invited to take part. This new technology, after all, in whatever form it finally takes, will be created for, and rely on the buy-in from, large swaths of the arts industry. I’m proud to have been involved, and hope (and expect) that Theatre Bay area’s participation will continue.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Most Produced Playwright

Congratulations to local playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb for having the most produced play in the 2009-10 season--nationwide! See American Theatre's list here.

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