Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Musings: Serving Two Masters – when the day job wins
I have been thinking about what the life of a theater critic is, these days. Times, in the cliche phrase, have certainly changed. In the era of plays like “Arsenic and Old Lace” or books by Jean Kerr (remember “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”?) a critic’s life was hectic but glamorous, and theatrical criticism could – at least in various entertainment capitals – become a full-time profession. That was when newspapers were the way in which people received their news, for the most part, and theater even beyond Broadway and Neiderlander touring productions could actually afford to advertise in them.
Not so today. Even in the generally smaller, more suburban papers I’ve worked for, the change has been startling and disturbing. For example, early in my career as a critic the Pasadena Star-News, though already owned by the comparatively hands-off Knight-Ridder Group, had a stable of writers on theater, dance, film, and the specific arts of classical, operatic and popular musical forms, put out an entertainment magazine every Sunday, and ran reviews thick and fast – even doing overnight publishing for shows close to home. Already they didn’t pay much for their “stringers” who did much of this coverage, but at least they devoted lots of space to the arts.
Today most surviving papers are parts of large chains owned by single media companies (pretty much all, nationwide, belong to one of the Top 20, a startling number to the top 10 or 11), so in general independence or variety of expression is out. The company which now owns the Star-News owns somewhere around 10 papers just in Southern California alone. One theater critic serves several papers (I serve at least 3 and often more). Anything national is purchased (or sold) through syndication.
Some features editors (I had one like this, at one time) decide what art forms people are still seeing, and may cater only to the most popular. I actually heard from that old features editor (now gone and not mourned) that nobody went to the theater anymore, so there was no reason to cover it – that I was only writing for them because I was grandfathered in, and if I left the paper(s) I would definitely not be replaced.
Now – sadly – as papers shrink, the first things to disappear are entertainment pages. Once daily, in the papers I work for now one is lucky to have entertainment featured more than once a week. And almost no paper has a full-time, or even generously part-time critic anymore. But this is the newspaper business, which has been declared more than once to be a dying art form itself. Okay.
What does this mean? First, of course, it means that much of the writing about local arts has gone electronic, where the new audience is. It also means that – with rare and celebrated exceptions – those who have gone electronic do so on their own time, and not for money – as a sideline based more on their love of the art form than anything else. In other words, many critics, including me, must have a day job.
And this is its own dilemma. What about those times when the day job’s demands overwhelm the deadline-rich life of the critic? To whom is one master?
Certainly, those who invited a critic in to review deserve to hear what that person thinks, particularly if the work is good. That’s the advertising most of the many small companies in this area can afford: mention in writing somewhere, where it can be tweeted or referenced on Facebook, or quoted in publicity. They risk the negative of course, yet still give free theater tickets to those who critique, in the hope for analysis, but also in the hope that this will create conversation about what they are doing and, as Derek Jacoby said about appearing in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, “put people’s bums in the seats.”
But – and this is the point here – theatrical criticism, by and large, isn’t what one does for pay around here. Sometimes the demands of mammon outweigh the desire to sit and write about art. Sad though it is, people like me who have mouths to feed and a roof to keep over someone’s head must bow to the demands of the job that pays the bills even when it means letting down the theatrical companies one wishes to honor.
This has happened to me three or four times since I began this blog, most recently regarding the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of that Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse, “Cats” in La Mirada. Work was intense, and I didn’t even answer the invite until late. I saw the show, and found parts of it resonated in a way I wished to write about… and then I was beset with deadlines and paperwork at that ever-present day job which were both time-consuming and exhausting.
You cannot imagine how frustrating it was to come out from under those other demands and realize that my review, if I wrote it now, would appear even online after the show has closed. My fault, certainly, but caused by the attention I must put into my other life.
Now, I do realize that much of this is something I need to solve myself: mapping out a time frame taking me from view to review in as economical and practically possible a way as I can. And I also realize that, at (I hate using this phrase) my time of life, it is just possible that my energy level – my after-burners, as I have always called them – have somewhat diminished. Still, even for those who have not boxed themselves into my corner, this is still a dilemma.
Which comes first when there is not time for full concentration on both: art or eating?
This morning I was listening to a commentator on the radio extolling the greater Los Angeles area for the huge amount of arts organizations and artistic endeavors this part of the country contains. And, of course, this is true. It is also true, as it is for journalism as a whole, that access to credible information about local goings-on is becoming tougher to create and to disseminate, for this same region.
So, I am working to get myself more organized – to plan out my work life, my family life and my theater/writing life so they each have enough time devoted to them to flourish. I will keep going even as the pay and outlets dwindle, thanks in great measure to having this blog available. Still, even though that myopic editor is long gone, I wonder if the papers I write for would replace me if I left. Sad to say, stringer though I am, given budget constraints both of money and space, I rather doubt it.