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.



At October 19, 2009 at 9:54 AM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

I think Robert Hurwitt's answer on how he decides what to cover is a bit odd. Right up front, he says the No. 1 determining factor is venue size:

"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"

Now, these three venues, especially SHN's Best of Broadway, tend to produce internationally recognized work. Using ACT as an example, currently it is staging a Noel Coward show, followed by David Mamet's recent Broadway success "November," followed by Martin McDounough's "The Cripple of Inishman" and wrapping up the year with "A Christmas Carol."

But in the same paragraph that Mr. Hurwitt cites venue size as a key determining factor, he goes on to say this about why he does not cover famously recognizable shows:

"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."

So I guess my question is, if these big, famous, touring shows are already so well known that they really don't need the paper's attention (SHN's "South Pacific" has the line "Winner of seven 2008 Tony Awards" on its poster), why does everything that gets staged at these venues immediately get covered?

While I don't understand that aspect of Mr. Hurwitt's response, I do appreciate his preference for covering new work, and think that new work is vital to any art scene anywhere. But again, I think his answer is a bit of a double edged sword in that because new work is generally staged at smaller venues, it stands less a chance of being reviewed.

Just some thoughts, but I really do appreciate each critic's honest response to these tough questions, and taking the time to answer them thoughtfully. Also, thanks to TBA for putting this together and to the critics for participating.

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