When You Grab That Cute Ball Of Fur, You Also Get The Teeth

Sometimes I wonder if my first entries for this blog were among some of the best because I seem to find myself drawn back to their topics more often than later entries. A recent piece [ed. original link is broken, updated with 2014 retrospective post] I read via Artsjournal.com by Melodie Bahan, the Director of Communications at the Guthrie Theatre makes me think back to the piece by Chris Lavin I wrote about early on. Bahan, like Lavin argues for better writing by arts journalists. Like Lavin, regarding the depth of coverage sports sports receive, Bahan notes that articles on movies provide a fair bit of background information to a reader while it is hard to discern between preview and review pieces for theatre.

Features about theater are often glossy, shallow puff pieces that are indistinguishable from reviews. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone say to me, after reading a feature story about a show that hadn’t opened yet, “Wow, great review in the paper today.” And the very sporadic stories that do get reported are disproportionately about money – or the lack thereof – and therefore focus on only the large theaters. Plus, because these stories are so sporadic and lacking in context, complex issues are boiled down to one line conclusions.
When the Playwrights’ Center or the Guthrie or Mixed Blood gets a grant, the papers run a paragraph culled from a press release announcing the grantor, grantee, amount and purpose. And then…? Our critics don’t have time to follow the money to see how it actually creates art because they have to write reviews of the six shows that opened this week, an interview with an American Idol reject who’s appearing in a touring production of Grease, another profile of that really gorgeous actress they’ve profiled twice this year, and a Valentine’s Day poem.

In this performing arts community, there are personalities and huge egos and unsung talent and incredible artistry and gossip and bad blood and conflict. Readers are being denied those stories because our writers are spending their time writing reviews that won’t be nearly as interesting, vital, or even as accurate.

Bahan points to the work of papers like Time Out Chicago as something of an ideal. (Though she admits she might not welcome their attention were it turned on her organization.) She cites as constructive contributions to the arts articles examining the causes behind the preponderance of Caucasians in Chicago theatre and the positive and negative impact of large commercial shows on the local theatre scene.

His stories are fully reported and sourced – nowhere in his stories did I read, “Some say…” or “The theater community is buzzing about…” – both phrases used by journalists who have no sources to confirm their own opinions. Real arts journalism is informative and detailed and interesting, and it makes theater relevant.

Artsjournal also carried a rebuttal interview with Claude Peck, senior arts editor for the Guthrie’s home town paper, the Star-Tribune. Peck acknowledges that theatre reviews are generally designed to advise people whether they should spend money on a performance or not. His most pointed criticism for Bahan was that it is difficult to do any substantive journalism because arts organizations, the Guthrie especially, deny them access.

He paused, somewhat dramatically: “Very difficult, for example, in the case of the Guthrie, which has had a long reputation of giving the barest minimum of cooperation for our newsgathering efforts.”

By this point, I realized this had become a February Festivus — a full-scale airing of grievances. Bahan had exorcised some demons about writers, and Peck was now unloading on subjects: If they plead for tougher journalism, they best not be hypocrites when their own phone rings.

“We recently did a story on Guthrie director Joe Dowling’s salary,” Peck said. “Melodie made it clear to me in a conference before the story ran that she and the Guthrie would officially participate in no way whatsoever, be of any help with any numbers for that story.”

He added, “I told her I didn’t blame her, and we would try to newsgather in any way we can. And fortunately, we found board members willing to speak on the record.”

After the piece ran, he says she wrote him an email “comparing that story to a Molotov Cocktail tossed into an already fearful community. And yet we did see the news value in that story: Dowling was making more than any New York not-for-profit theater director or any regional director — even discounting a one-time $100,000 bonus, he was at the top of the heap nationally. As the economy was heading into the shitter, we felt that was some news we wanted to write about.”

This all recalls portions of Chris Lavin’s earlier piece:

When compared to the open access a sports franchise allows, most arts organizations look like a cross between the Kremlin and the Vatican. Casting is closed. Practices closed. Interviews with actors and actresses limited and guarded. An athlete who refuses to do interviews can get fined. An actor or actress or director or composer who can’t find time for the media is not uncommon….How often have journalists either ignored or been kept from financial problems that plague many arts organizations until a “crisis” makes publicity — late as it is — unavoidable.

The parallels with Lavin’s observations go a little further in this case. Bahan criticizes the local papers for not sniffing out the massive financial troubles at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Peck notes that the guarded status the arts world maintains kept his paper from confirming any rumors of problems Theatre de la Jeune Lune had for quite some time.

I just thought the whole situation was a great reminder to us all that when we bemoan the lack of good arts coverage, we should be mindful that what we wish for is a double edged sword situation and not entirely the ideal we envision.