Friday Mack Attack, 12/19/08

mickey-mouse-arrest_791131c.jpgThis week I'm macking on: Vacation! I'll be out of town from tomorrow until after the new year, so don't expect to see any posts until then. However, I do plan to take in some Florida theater. Strangely enough, just like last time I went away, when Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre hosted a Philly show--James Sugg and Aaron Posner's A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage--this time FST is producing Michael Hollinger's Opus, an Arden Theatre baby. So if I can't resist, maybe I'll sneak away to a computer for a quickie review or something (I'll probably need the alone time anyway). And also, I'll be in Disneyworld for a couple of days, which should, I don't know, be really freaky, and then up to Savannah, Georgia. If anyone has theater recommendations along that route, please send them to me. Any time I'm on vacation and have a legit excuse to get a babysitter is a good time.

This week I'm hating on: Finite print space for reviews. I reviewed 1812 Productions' Cherry Bomb, a new, full-length musical about the Cherry Sisters--a family act widely considered "the worst act in vaudeville" for today's Philadelphia Inquirer. (p.s., the link takes you to a piece written by WFMU mad genius Irwin Chusid, whose compilation album and companion book Songs in the Key of Z are the definitive primers on outsider music.) I managed to do an okay job, I guess, in a mightily compressed way, of conveying what the show was about, giving some history and throwing forth my likes and dislikes. But I sure could have used some room to stretch out.

Some productions make every syllable of their 420-470 alloted review words into a Sisyphean torment. (Spoiler Alert: ever read a review whose plot synopsis is way longer than the reviewer's analysis? A sure sign it was one of those shows.) Because sometimes, you see a conventional and adequate but unexceptional production of a frequently produced show--in keeping with the spirit of the season, let's say A Christmas Carol. Well, what is there to discuss? It was good, everyone knows the story, and I don't know, I guess you could complain or champion the tradition of mounting it every season. The end.

But in the case of Cherry Bomb and all its incidentals--the rising local talents among the cast and creators, its subject matter, its historical importance, the sisters' place in the pantheon of outsider music, the show's dramatic context, its sociopolitical elements, its conceptual strengths and faults, its music, direction, script, lyrics, none of which have been reviewed before--well, that's where a nice, flexible website would really come in handy. 

Considering all the time invested in the show's development, the grant money involved, and the sheer enormity of producing ambitious new work now, when the city's economy is imploding (Let's just ignore the rest of the world's imploding economies, shall we? ), it is almost a disservice to give Cherry Bomb such a cursory review. And that didn't used to be the case. For example, take Frank Rich's 1993 review of the Broadway premier of Angels in America, which clocks in at a well-padded 1443 words, not including the cast box. Ben Brantley's review for the current revival of American Buffalo is shorter by almost a third at 960 words. My word count at the Inquirer has shrunk by 100 or so words just since 2006. 

Considering the disappearing ranks of paid critics these days, I guess a cursory review is better than none at all. At the same time, with these halfway useful, halfway explored ideas, is print media, in its efforts to remain afloat in its current, tangible, deliverable form and refusal to adapt to an online model, subsequently hastening our demise? I guess we'll know soon enough.

December 19, 2008 8:33 AM | | Comments (3)


From my own technologically challenged, dragged-into-the-21st-century point of view, the newspaper audiences are as slow to make the interweb transition as the papers are. At City Paper, our website is very user-friendly, but when our theater reviews are occasionally relegated to web-only publication, everyone -- writers, editors, theaters -- react like the review has been exiled to Siberia. In-print is still the real thing; web, not so much. Recent local efforts at web-only theater reviews (e.g. Phila. Theater Review and Stage) both died fast. Granted, quality was an issue, from PTR's ugly green-yellow design to Stage's stated aim to publish reviews by real people, not critics. I'm not sure people are really looking elsewhere, and I suspect that what they're finding online is driving them right back to our ever-shrinking print sources.

It's a great idea in theory, except there's the problem of payment, which would have to be higher for a longer review. (I mean, I guess it wouldn't HAVE to be, but no matter how much I love theater, I'm not running a charity and would be pretty annoyed if I were asked to write more for the same amount of money.) Then there's the issue of editing a long review down to a printable size, which, considering how overburdened our editors are already now that they're working with half the staff they once had, would be no small task. Old media needs to adapt quickly or die quickly, and considering that the Inqy's online content generally doesn't even include hyperlinks, I really fear for their future.

I hear you about finding an audience though. Fidelity is a painful dilemma for freelancers. But hey, that's why I'm here blogging away for free, pointing readers to my articles, and happy to have found you.

Maybe this is obvious, but why not write a more lengthy review for online digestion, and then use the print review to point at the in-depth one online?

Or encourage the Philly Inquirer to allow you to print one version and have another longer version on their site, where space IS infinite?

It's quite clear to me that print media's importance in the critical reception of theatre is diminishing, if only *because* there is so much demand for specialized coverage across all arts disciplines, and such a finite space in which to do it. People are looking elsewhere. Find THEM; don't make them find you!

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