Sunday, December 16, 2007

Media Culpability

There's been a subject I've been wanting to broach for a while, but haven't really known how best to get into it. For one, it's a potentially slippery thing that could go in all sorts of directions and for another, I'm in an odd situation since I'm "part of the problem" but also have very little true power in terms of changing the situation.

But Andrew Hamm's recent posting on the new RichShakes blog brought it to the fore for me again. That, plus the fact that my lovely son informed me that I am now the company scapegoat at "A Christmas Story" because Style hasn't published a review of the show yet, even though Mary B was at opening night. So somehow, since I hold so much sway at Style (HA!), I'm now being held responsible.

I have many reactions here. One is that I'm happy that among the things my son is getting from his theater experience is an expanded vocabulary; 'scapegoat' isn't a word that comes up in casual conversation around our house. (Also, for any "Xmas Story" people out there reading, I know that this is all in good fun -- RCoop told me that Eric Evans used to be the scapegoat so I am proud to wear the mantle shed from such a noble head...)

The other is to feel defensive on behalf of Style and (in reference to Mr. Hamm's post) any other media outlet that has chosen not to review a show. There are dozens of factors that an editor and publisher have to balance and that determine what shows up in print and what doesn't: number of ad pages, timing of publication, perception of urgency, availability of art, etc. My lovely wife used to be an editor and it could be pretty tortuous at times for her to make cuts one way or another -- not unlike a director having to cast a show and turn down many worthy auditioners.

But on the other hand, I have been oftentimes befuddled and not infrequently angered at the coverage theater receives here, from all the possible outlets. It's ridiculous to have to wade through the obituaries to get to the RTD's theater reviews that seem to never appear in the Flair section anymore where things like movie and music reviews appear. And it's annoying that Style's theater reviews often don't get published until the week the show is closing. And as far as the other alt-media in town, well, theater might as well not exist.

But on the third hand, I have my own little part in this drama and haven't always done all I could do. When I first started reviewing, I wrote more than 50 reviews a year -- I saw a show a week on average! With previews and occasional features, there was usually something theater-related in every single Style issue. Now I see maybe a show a month and it's not even the Arts editor's fault; I just don't have the space in my life to do it. And there have been times that I've rolled my eyes (at least) and downright balked (at most) when I've been asked to, for instance, review "A Christmas Carol" for the 5th time. There are shows I like that I haven't seen twice -- I'm not going to get too excited at my 7th "Anything Goes." As much as I feel sorry some times that Daniel Neman has to review stuff like "Gigli" and "Blade: Trinity," a movie reviewer generally doesn't have to watch anything he doesn't like twice.

I think there is a chicken-egg deal with theater and the media: theater doesn't get much coverage because there's a perception that it's not that popular and it doesn't get any more popular because the media doesn't let people know what's out there (or they put out the wrong stuff -- y'all see the TD's listing of plays from about a month ago in Friday's paper?) From what I hear anecdotally, the media had a great deal to do with the growth of the theater scenes in Chicago and Seattle. Some reviewers yelled loud enough until the audience started noticing -- and then they actually showed up at the shows. So what's the story in Richmond where there is a pretty darn lively professional theater scene, at least two very well respected college theater programs, and you can't even get the papers to review all of the professional mainstage shows?

Like I said, I could talk this issue around in circles and I'm not sure where to go from here. Andrew has expressed his frustration and I think it is a fair point. Anyone else want to chime in?


hoosier steve said...

Great topic Dave, and I wish I had more time right now to respond to your actual question. All I can really say is that it is much worse in smaller communities.
I'll let rick talk about Lexington if he wishes, since I am no longer there. Currently I live in an even smaller community. Our one critic, who is also deeply involved with the community (this goes beyond simple conflict of interest), also happens to be deaf and almost completely blind. I know that my lighting designs could on occasion stray into the "Squinting Dim" as Roy once called it, but I don't have a chance with this guy. Luckily we are the only real game in town, so my theatre gets decent coverage. But when smaller companies try to get going, forget it, there is little to no coverage. The fact that Richmond has both Style and the J&C reviewing and offering coverage beyond simple reviews is something.
Can't write more right now, I have to go finish digging out of the foot of snow we just got.
Steve Koehler

Andrew Hamm said...

I have theatre friends in both Chicago and Seattle who can speak to the truth of what you said about the local media taking the reins in growing public awareness about the theatre scene. In an increasingly media-influenced culture, we have to acknowledge that perception, for all intents and purposes, is reality. When movie reviews make the front page of the "Flair" section and theatre reviews are published in the obituary section, it's much more than an unfortunate allegory, it's a statement that this community doesn't value any artistic endeavor that doesn't cost seven-plus figures to produce. It doesn't matter that this isn't strictly true; it only matters that this is the impression that is clearly given. The subconscious information given is often more important than the conscious; artists and advertisers know this.

The fact of the matter is that most of the small theatres in this town (meaning almost all of them) spend their extremely limited budgets on actors, directors, and rent: in short, on producing plays. Advertising is often an exorbitant expense. A review of a good show in Style is like a full-page ad, and attendance always rises sharply after such a review.

I understand that editors have an incredibly difficult job, I really do. But it seems to me that when a reviewer attends the show opening night it's not unreasonable to expect that the review will appear sooner than the Wednesday before closing weekend, three and a half weeks later. I understand that it's hard to juggle all the information that needs to get into a particular issue of a weekly, but it seems obvious to me that publishing the review of an opening night performance closer to opening night than closing night should be very high on the list of priorities in determining what goes into which issue.

This brings me back to Chicago and Seattle. Success for the theatres means more work for the theatre reviewers and the publications their work appears in, doesn't it? So why do I so often get the impression that covering theatre is an afterthought or an inconvenience for Richmond's local media?

None of this rancor is addressed to you, Dave, or Mary. You've both shown yourselves to be more than just reviewers; you're advocates for the arts. I try to be one, as well. Someone tell me what I can do that I'm not doing already to improve this situation and I'll do it! How can we work together to understand and help each other?

(glsshs1492 will be chiming in any second with no capitalization of punctuation to complain about how this topic is boring.)

Anonymous said...

Let there be no doubt that if a football game made headlines, a review and play-by-play would be in the paper the very next day from the sports writers. Sports gets its own section, and feeds the entertainment needs of one particular demographic of people; the arts feeds the needs of another group. Therefore, equal opportunity should be given to all. There's no excuse for a show to be reviewed on a Saturday night, and not be out by Monday. Again, I agree - not the fault of the writers...but the fault of the publication itself, and its editors.

blogva said...

One thing that might help the situation is to increase the number of stories overall about theater and buzz. When something cool is happening call me. You have a much better chance of getting a story in STYLE if I pitch it than if you email the Arts and Culture editor. This is not a fault on the part of the AC editor it is just that he gets about a zillion emails a day. In the six months I've been writing for STYLE I think one person has called me with a story. If the theater community (aka. You guys) can get me more stories to write than we can increase media coverage wholistically rather than just waiting for reviews.

Theater can also be more visible to the community by partnering with other events. Make sure you have a presence at every festival, parade, 10K whatever. The theater community can do this collectively through RAPT or can do this individually. Does Theatre IV have a float in the Ukrop's Christmas Parade? If not, why not? There is your target audience lined up on Broad Street right where you live.
And if theater arts coverage is lame fight it through letters to the editor. Start a positive campaign when there is a story about theater - write in and say "thanks" for putting that in. The media responds to what the public reacts to. Advertisers respond to what the public reacts to and that makes publications happy. Start another campaign with the RTD and let them know on a constant basis that theater reviews belong in the same section as music and dance reviews.

The last thing I will suggest is to layer your media coverage. When you get a big fat grant don't call the Arts editor call the business editor. When you theater companies hire new people send a photo and a blurb to the business editor. When you do something in the community call the news editor. You must build awareness all over the map. Don't just send out an email press release. You might as well save your time. Make a phone call.
Richmond is generally a slow news town. It is so easy to get coverage here it is silly. If you (ie theater) are not getting coverage it is your own fault.

In regards to when reviews appear in STYLE - it does suck not to have a review out right when a show opens. I know that from both sides of the fence. As a producer I hate waiting to hear what a reviewer has to say. As a writer, I think I look stupid with a review about something that opened weeks before printing. But look on the positive side- in terms of marketing, if you are not spending money on advertising, staggered reviews are good because it keeps your production in the public eye longer. A later review is like a reminder to readers to go see your show. It almost takes the place of repeated advertising.

Hope todays marketing lesson was helpful. I really do want to see the media coverage situation change but it will take a collective effort.

All the best,

Andrew Hamm said...


In the "money where your mouth is" department, I have an AMAZING spring semester of classes and workshops for Richmond Shakespeare and your email address is nowhere to be found, either here on or on Style Weekly's website. I've got a story to pitch. Where are you for me to pitch it to you?