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    Posted February 4, 2009

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Where have all the critics gone?

Arts Coverage Shrinks in Tough Times, Theatres Seek Alternatives

By Michael Sommers

You might think there would be one bright ray amid the nation's economic gloom, at least as far as the theatre is concerned: Fewer drama critics. But like vampire bats, many still cling to the rafters, trying to evolve in precarious times.

Multiple ills confront a suddenly old-fashioned newspaper industry struggling to reformat for the 21st century's fast-changing technology and tastes. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News are among numerous jeopardized publications, while major chains like the mighty Tribune Company are filing for bankruptcy protection. Some smaller journals already have folded.

More than ever, newspapers are reducing the physical size of editions, scaling back reporting scopes and sharply cutting staffs through attrition, buyouts and layoffs. It's bad news for many theatres who rely heavily on features and reviews and can't afford expensive advertising.

Around New York and Los Angeles, in particular, some long-time pundits have been replaced by wire service opinion -- or not at all. Elsewhere, most news organizations continue to chronicle theatre as editors make do with a smaller crew of multi-disciplinary staffers and freelance writers.

Yesterday's staff critic often is today's freelancer. Christopher Rawson just took a buyout at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after 25 years as its chief theatre critic. But he still assesses the regional and New York scenes on a freelance basis for the publication, contributing sporadic blog items plus a weekly column.

"There will always be critics," maintains Rawson, chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association, declining to estimate professional casualties. Rawson and other colleagues maintain that current editorial trends emphasizing local news mean the arts will remain in the mix.

Looking ahead, Rawson predicts significant changes in the job. "In the new world of journalism, you will have classical musical critics who'll be spending half their time covering other disciplines," Rawson asserts. As for himself, Rawson says he continues to review the theatre both for the sheer love of it and to hone his craft in the evolving blogosphere. "The big difference is that I am spending two nights in the theatre every week instead of five," he remarks.

Similarly, over at New Jersey's largest daily, where he was among 151 newsroom staff who accepted buyouts late in 2008 (full disclosure: including me), Peter Filichia continues to cover statewide theatre as a freelance critic-writer for The Star-Ledger. "I've grown emotionally attached to the New Jersey theatre over the years so I am delighted to do it," says Filichia, who also remains a popular columnist for the Theatremania website.

As with the Post-Gazette and other publications that have eliminated employees, remaining Star-Ledger writers are expected to stretch themselves to fill in the blanks. Or otherwise skip certain events.

Although many newspapers employ an ever-smaller unit of full-time writers handling a wider range of assignments, it's actually nothing new for critics to report plenty of features and industry news as well as forge opinions. In recent years, they have added blogging chores. "To maintain a career these days you have to be an all-round hand at the arts - theatre, dance, visuals, every kind of music," says Misha Berson, drama critic for The Seattle Times since 1992.

Yet in this transitional period as news organizations try to remain economically feasible while gradually shifting their content from print to online versions (a challenge both in terms of web format and writing style), the shrinkage of actual page space is acute. Online coverage somehow does not offer the same bang as print for showbiz attractions. "Every writer is competing for space. It's harder these days to get the arts on the cover," notes Michael Grossberg, critic for The Dispatch of Columbus, Ohio.

This trend has not pervaded the country entirely. "We're good for right now," says Margie Romero, communications manager for Pittsburgh Public Theater. "But who knows where we'll be six months down the road? It's too soon to know what Chris Rawson's semi-retirement means for us."

The LORT company's local premiere of the mythological spectacle METAMORPHOSES has attracted the usual number of advance stories from the area's two dailies, the alternative press and several local TV outlets. "Maybe that's because it's a new show here. I don't know if we'll get such serious coverage when we do A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN in the spring," admits Romero. In the meantime, like many publicists, Romero has begun inviting independent bloggers. "We are treating them like the regular press," she adds.

But the increasing number of bloggers has yet to make a significant impact on the theatre scene. "I'm afraid bloggers are voices already talking to the choir," says Donna Law, managing director for Orlando Shakespeare Theater. "It's good they're there but they don't help us reach out to greater audiences." Even the blogs attached to news organizations don't yet attract major traffic. Although his Ohio daily has a 250,000 weekday circulation, Grossberg's blog for the Dispatch gets between 5-6,000 hits monthly.

"As things change in the future, hopefully certain bloggers will be followed by plenty of readers just like old-time critics and columnists -- but we don't see that happening so far," observes Dan McMahon, director of marketing and public relations for Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera. He still harbors reservations about the critical standards and savvy of self-employed bloggers. Like others, McMahon further worries that potential reportage will be lost as more publications cease or operate with fewer staff. "Having less coverage and relying more on word of mouth puts extra pressure on the show itself," he notes.

Sheldon Epps, artistic director for Pasadena Playhouse, agrees. "Good reviews help, but word of mouth is what really sells a show," he says.

McMahon believes that artists can boost media by cooperating more with his department. "Actors will have to be less choosy about doing publicity," he says. "They need to realize that maybe they really have to do that interview with the little Podunk paper or get up for that 7 a.m. visit to the local TV station."

"Besides their work on stage, actors should try to be ambassadors of good will for their theaters," says Epps, adding that Leslie Uggams has been precisely that for Pasadena's current STORMY WEATHER salute to Lena Horne. "Actors need to be the face for their productions. Actors are the ones audiences want to see."

Even as news organizations struggle with it, the latest technology offers extra possibilities for actors, remarks Melodie Bahan, director of communications for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which like other companies has created its own snazzy website. "We make our own content for it. We don't see that as a replacement for outside journalism, but it helps tell what we do," she explains. Bahan regularly invites actors to contribute blog or video bits to the Guthrie site. Last season, performers depicting the mechanicals in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM were given a video recorder and returned later with a "hysterical" piece for their show posted on the site.

In these tough times, the publicists recommend actors take the fullest advantage of Facebook and similar social network outlets. "They represent a wonderful opportunity for artists to promote themselves and their projects," says Bahan. Drama critics as we know (and love-hate) them may be something of a vanishing breed, but that's no reason for actors to rest on the laurels of old reviews.

Michael Sommers is a former AEA staff member who began writing about the New York theater scene in 1981. From 1991-2008, he was a "First Night" critic and writer for The Star-Ledger, covering Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. A former President of the New York Drama Critics' Circle, he also served on the judging panels for Equity's Clarence Derwent, Richard Seff, St. Clair Bayfield and Joe Callaway Awards.

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