Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

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!

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