Hey Alan, Here's an interesting question for your readers/artists/writers. This weekend, Man of La Mancha opens at Bloomington Civic. Planting Shelly opens at Workhaus. Snowman opens at Open Eye.
We might get to only two of them. What should enter into what choices are made to review, for a major newspaper?
-- Graydon Royce, January 26.
I wish the Star Tribune would review everything – from the punk kids right out of college to the Guthrie to the touring production of Fiddler on the Roof to drunken street performers by the Stone Arch Bridge. I wish that I opened the newspaper and every week was like the Fringe Festival. “There’s that show! And that show! And this show! O my!” So many productions exist every weekend; it’s possible. I don’t care if each review were only 100 words each. I want the excitement, thrill of discovery, sense of ridiculous good fortune and civic pride that I get at the Fringe Festival.
Being an adult, however, I understand this is not likely to happen. Newspapers are cutting back, not expanding, and no matter the size of the review of the show, you can’t decrease the amount of time a paid writer had to spend watching it. It is neither a mature nor a practical answer.
Graydon’s question presents a honest dilemma in a world where real resources are limited. Let’s assume for a moment that those resources should be allocated on reviews (rather than profiles, exploratory features, investigations, trend analysis, artistic analysis, or other arts journalism). Because critics are journalists, I suspect that they, or their editors, are going to want to review either the productions with the most “news” value or the ones with the widest audience – Unfortunately, in the arts, where exploration, discovery, and originality are often prized over popularity, mass appeal and news value aren’t always the same.
The Workhaus Collective’s production of Planting Shelly Anne may be the newsy-est of these three productions in the sense that it is the most new. (Full disclosure: I’m a member.) Workhaus is a three year old collection of “locally-based, nationally-emerging” playwrights who have adopted a new model for producing theater that puts the playwright at the top of the production hierarchy (as opposed to the director or artistic director). It’s part of a budding national trend to alter the way new play development works in America. Plus, some of the playwrights produced have been gaining more and more attention in other major cities, i.e., they are new on the national theater scene.
Snowman, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, was created by puppeteer Michael Sommers with writer Kira Obolensky, both of whom have won local and national awards and praise. They are innovators in their fields who have influenced the work other artists create. Plus, they – and Open Eye Figure Theatre in general – can be counted on to create something new, in the sense that you’re not going to see anything like it anywhere else.
On the other hand, Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of Man of La Mancha, a real classic of American musical theater, will probably be seen by more people than will see the entire run of either of the other two shows, combined. In fact, its lack of newness is a part of the reason why it will attract so many people.
Is it the job of the arts journalist to report about the unique, daring, influential or potentially explosive new work that an audience might not find otherwise, or is it the job of the arts journalist to cover what people seem to care about most (assuming that sheer number of tickets sold is a good indication of what most people care about most)? Should the critic uncover an unexpected event or be where people are going?
Once upon a time, a critic’s answer to these questions had a demonstrable effect on the theater community. In the 2002 article “Newspaper Critic Shapes Chicago Style,” in Newspaper Research Journal, Scott Fosdink outlines how “the kind of theater [critic Richard] Christiansen liked flourished and flourished so completely that it became known as the ‘Chicago Style.’ The kinds of theater Christiansen did not like dwindled.” According to legend, Frank Rich could close multi-million dollar Broadway extravaganzas with a few negative words in The New York Times.
Today, Facebook, radio, television, blogs, and content aggregator websites have diminished the critic’s power. People use a variety of media to gather a whole lot more information that they use to make individualized decisions that may be more immediately relevant to the particulars of their unique lives. For the latest breaking news, audiences turn to the Internet or television. For the secret, new, cool thing, there are blogs that are often better.
Perhaps this allows newspapers – which, regardless of their current dire economic situations, still have more dedicated readers than any other single, local source – to re-evaluate and reinvent themselves.
I look at a local newspaper because it presents a comprehensive impression of the neighborhood, city, country, and world that I live in. I don’t know why I need to know that Medtronic made record profits, or had record losses, or that there were fires in two abandoned buildings in South Minneapolis last week or last month. I read the metro section because I live in the metro. I can’t do anything about the recent terrorist attacks in India except be stunned by them – and drink up information about them like I’m a lush. President Barak Obama in Elkhart, IN is very far away from the experience of my life, but I read stories about it largely because the world those stories describe fascinate me.
The assumption that I am only fascinated by the newest news is disproved by the attendance at Man of La Mancha, but the opposite assumption, that I’m intrigued by the newspaper’s judgment of another production of Man of La Mancha, is also disproved by that attendance. Because sometimes Bloomington can almost sell out a show before they even mail out postcards.
Old assumptions about the role of newspaper critics don't make sense anymore, so I think Graydon should just choose to review whatever he can write the shit out of.
I have never run out to eat at a restaurant that Dara Moskowitz reviewed, but I read her articles because they make new food sound like an amusement park ride. I have never looked for any advice from Dan Savage’s "Savage Love" column, but I generally get a kick out of reading about the wide world of kink.
Why should reviews be the only editorial parts of a newspaper that actually expect me to behave a certain way after I read them? Why shouldn’t criticism aim to dazzle me with the world as much as the rest of the newspaper does? The sports section doesn't aim to sell baseball tickets and the box score doesn't take up space; most of that section is more or less well-written poetry about the world and sports. I've enjoyed articles in the Southwest Journal simply because they described my neighborhood, regardless of the fact that I never intend to visit that new Tibet bead store that was featured.
Of course, some people still, yes, will use a review to guide their purchasing decisions, but - like the free marketing companies get from coverage - consumer reports can be a happy side benefit of criticism, no matter what. I think that the people who like to read, to be informed, to be fascinated by the world, country, town, or neighborhood in which they live – the people who are the target audience for the rest of the content in the newspaper anyway – these people will read whatever it sounded like a real blast to review regardless of whether that is a bunch of imperious new playwrights, or “dreaming the impossible dream” again, or snowmen and puppets.
What do you think?❦