Part IV: The Cutting of Press Coverage
This is the fourth and final part to my rambling thoughts on the olden days versus the present day Off-Off-Broadway theatre world, the next generation of theatre-makers and the theatre community (or lack thereof) as a whole. Weird to think that this whole “can of worms” was opened by one outing that took place nearly three weeks ago.
Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the New York Times, as well as other publications, deciding to cut their theatre coverage, the response from OOB theatre-people, and (of course) my unwanted two cents.
This is from an open letter by Martin Denton, founder, editor and chief reviewer of nytheatre.com, given at the symposium:
“…[T]he New York Times unveiled its new arts coverage and dealt a significant blow to the theatre community – especially the nonprofit, off-off-Broadway segment of the New York theatre community, the artists who put on most of the new work in this town and in whose hands the future of American drama and musicals rests.
“What the Times has done is to drastically reduce their print theatre coverage. Their reviews have been steadily decreasing for at least a year. Now, the comprehensive weekly listings that appeared in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section – a full page directory of Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows – have disappeared. What’s especially important is that the Sunday listings were free: theatre companies did not have to pay for these, as they do for the “ABC” and display advertisements that appear elsewhere in the Times. This was a boon to the off-off-Broadway sector, where money is always scarce. Now it looks like this important free resource that enabled small theatre companies to reach a huge audience at no cost has disappeared.
“The Times is not the only media outlet that is reducing coverage of the theatre, by the way. Almost every major New York City newspaper, including weeklies like the Village Voice and the New York Press, has cut theatre coverage in the past year or so.”
Now, I freely admit that this sucks. Abby Marcus from LAByrinth and Vampire Cowboys sent out an online petition to reverse the Times’ position, and I signed it.
However, this is far from the end of the world.
On the Dish listserv there was a big back-and-forth on the subject, and talks about starting up a magazine dedicated to OOB theatre were brought up a lot. On one hand, I’m not against such a magazine, but on the other, this has been tried before many, many times without much success, so I’m not holding my breath (and no, I’m not focusing my efforts and money on such a thing – playwriting and Nosedive are needy enough mistresses as they are).
Of course, like discussions of such lofty goals, someone brought up the simple idea of cross-marketing, and everyone involved in the discussion cooled down and went, “Oh. Okay. Cool.”
And that was that.
(See how I write that there’s no theatre community, then write incessantly about the community? Yeah, I do that.)
Some of Nosedive’s shows have been listed in the New York Times, the Village Voice and the New York Press, and it’s sad to realize that this will no longer happen. The good thing about those listings is that they really impress your close friends and family members (“Hey, ma! My play’s mentioned in the New York Times! Your baby boy’s not a fuckup after all!”).
However, that really is (was) the only real benefit.
Let’s face it: how many OOB theatre companies got significant increases in attendance based on listings in major print publications? We didn’t garner one single audience member from our Times listing, and we got 3…maybe 4…audience members based on listings in Time Out-New York and the Village Voice.
Sure, they can’t hurt, but they aren’t really what draw audiences to such a weird niche market.
Ultimately, an OOB theatre company’s listing in the New York Times is going to mean fuck all unless you’ve already made a name for yourself. “Nosedive’s Christmas Carol” will not rise above the countless other listings of “Christmas Carol” adaptations taking place in the city.
Coverage from free online theatre resources such as TheaterMania.com, NYTheatre.com and OOBR.com has been much more effective, as has coverage from the print publication Back Stage. People who read those sites are actually interested in OOB theatre. (Even though, yes I know, and agree, that there’s something nice about having a listing or review of your play in print.)
If I read like I regard some of this panic as worries from Chicken Little…I kind of do.
Alex Linsker from the OOB theatre company Tiny and Vast Things, playing devil’s advocate on the listserv discussion I had mentioned above, brought up a good point:
“Given that there might be ‘little interest or need to read the publications that do already exist,’ can I ask a really simple question: What are the real reasons to have a listings guide, listings section, or reviews of off-off-Broadway shows? What are these listings and reviews actually accomplishing, and might there be a better/easier/more useful way to accomplish whatever goals are being served? What's the goal?
“Yes, I know that listings let people know about the show, and reviews can be used to help the theater company gain credibility, but if those are the only two goals, then why isn't a publication like OOBR (e.g., circa 2001) ideal, where theater companies had to pay to get reviewed? If reviews/listings aren't worth $50/year to the theater companies (or however much it was), and listings aren't valued by non-artist readers....?”
I’m tired of people coming into my sandbox* and doing nothing but complaining. I like the sandbox, and I’ve been having fun. But recently I’ve been surrounded by people who do nothing but complain about the toys — or lack thereof — or the size of the box or the quality of the sand. And considering that Off-Off-Broadway theatre is one of the few fields where anybody — ANYBODY — can get into without any experience, credentials or permission, I sometimes find it surprising that it’s a field so prevalent to whining, self-righteous outrage and entitlement.
As OOB theatre-makers, we are not entitled to press coverage, reasonable rental rates or funding. We’re not owed anything. Yet a number of us act like we are.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I think it is fairly shitty that resources are shrinking year-after-year for the modern OOB theatre-maker. Certain resources that were completely free when Pete and I started (such as databases of theatres to rent, liability insurance) are new expenses we have to factor into budgets. Certain resources that existed (listings in major print publications, affordable performance spaces in the Lower East Side) are now gone.
I’m not flippant about the increasing difficulties of creating self-produced OOB theatre. These are tough times for putting on plays. But at the same time, anything largely inessential to our breathing (like theatre) will invariably see tough times.
I don’t think the Times cutting their theatre coverage will push OOB theatre further underground. Then again, if it does, is that horrible? For people who do want to get careers in mainstream media, the answer is probably yes. For Nosedive and companies of similar ilk, the answer is “feh.”
I absolutely applaud Martin Denton’s efforts at nytheatre.com (and others who want to promote independent, self-produced theatre). His site is increasing the number of reviews it posts and upping the number of shows it lists. I also applaud those OOB theatre-makers who try to find unique, alternative ways to publicize and promote their shows, and trouble-shoot rather than gnash teeth when obstacles arise.
What’s my conclusion to all of this? Ultimately, I guess it’d be both, “Chill, babies. Chill,” and, “Let’s get to work.” Off-Off-Broadway theatre has been around long before us, and will be around long after we decide to call it a day and devote our time to our desk jobs. Although I do think now may be the time when we need to step up and take the torch that’s being passed to us, there’s no guarantee that many people will be paying attention. Theatre has not been a medium for the masses for a long, long time, and won’t be again.
But that’s fine.
The whole fun of making independent theatre is to genuinely talk to people, and helping to (at least temporarily) de-hypnotize people who have been beaten spiritually and imaginatively by television (the one mass media – the black tar heroin of media). By definition, you can’t really de-hypnotize large masses of people at once, can you?
“Culture today predisposes us to receive our information predigested and prepackaged, and most, as a rule, tend to shy away from anything which hasn't been simplified to the level where anyone could understand it. That is not the job of an artist or a creator, yet all too often in the mainstream you'll find that is what people are doing in order to remain popular. They know their audience, and they know if they push the right buttons in the right order that they can create another bestseller or whatever. I'm very content with this kind of strange, underground ghetto that I've been shunted into. It's a wonderful place and you meet a much nicer class of people.”
I’m glad I was able to finish this before the election, because that may take up a lot of time (either spent ranting online at the election results or hiding under my bed sucking my thumb).
Besides, after November 2, who the fuck is going to have theatre on the brain?
James “Just Needs a Puppy” Comtois
October 29, 2004