ATCA 2010: Onward Christian Bloggers

Inside the 2010 American Theatre Critics Association conference there was a lot of what's going on outside the conference: hand-wringing about the future of theater criticism. Back in 1999, when I attended my first ATCA confab--conveniently located in Philadelphia--the room was filled with full-time staffers who visibly bristled at the dirty, dirty f-word: freelancer. Just 11 conferences later, I can count the staffers who make their living as full-time theater critics on one hand, and even if I include this year's keynote speaker Michael Phillips, who's technically a film critic these days anyway (no offense, Michael), I'm still not certain that covers every finger. 

(Below: from left, Jay Handelman, Lauren Yarger, Andy Propst, Leonard Jacobs)

IMG_5090.JPG
I sat on a panel titled "Critics in the New Age," moderated by Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman, with AmericanTheaterWeb.com founder Andy Propst, ClydeFitchReport.com founder Leonard Jacobs (you may recall him from this Drama Queen-related debacle), Gail Burns, founder of GailSez.org, and Lauren Yarger, whose theater blog Reflections in the Light tackles Broadway reviews from a Christian perspective. Of all the panelists, only Yarger finds herself in the enviable position of having to turn away potential advertisers. The lesson: You gotta have a gimmick. I'm not saying Yarger is cynical or that she doesn't believe wholeheartedly in her mission. It just helps that her mission occupies a clearly-defined niche that appeals to a very specific (and populous) segment of the American theatergoing public. Amen to that, sister!

Andy Propst also suggested a useful idea: ATCA ought to start offering badges to approved theater blogs. Sounds snooty, I know, but here's the thing, in a filthy, crowded internet, it's nice to find a safe bedbug-free haven where you can try out critics' opinions and know they've been vetted for quality control. As Propst said, "it could be like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Any idiot can tell readers what they thought of a play or musical, but it's the job of a qualified critic to provide context, do research and send you back to the review afterward to uncover additional insights. In theory, anyway. 

There's some disagreement about the specificity of those qualifications (blogger Jonathan Mandell discusses them in terms of ATCA membership, but I imagine the criteria would be pretty similar), but I think it's a great idea, and one that could possibly help generate some ad revenue too, since blogs with an imprimatur are--again, in theory--worth more than those without. 

So, are you more willing to read or lend credence to an officially sanctioned critic? And before you respond with a rant about democracy, please remember that official sanction used to come in the form of a paid position. These days, there are critics with 20 and 30 years of professional experience who have been laid off from their newspaper jobs and are now forced to jostle alongside the Yelpers, Tumblrs and Wordpressers. I say it's time to fumigate.  

July 21, 2010 2:05 PM | | Comments (9)

9 Comments

Hi, Wendy. When I first joined ATCA, I was the youngest critic writing for the smallest daily newspaper (although this claim has been disputed). Fast forward more than 20 years. I'm still an ATCA member. Now hold onto your laptop, honey - I hate blogs! I think they are demeaning to the writer - especially a writer with a solid background in journalism who used to write full-time for a daily newspaper. Why? The newspaper's "cache" would extend to the critic as well. People drooled for a chance to be a critic for a major newspaper. Now theatre writers who blog are doing it for - what? Recognition? Certainly not money. If anyone who reads this is making a living wage off of writing blogs, please let me know. I may be way off base here. When people used to ask me why I write (as opposed to working in some other profession, perhaps) I'd always give the same answer. "I write for money." Period. Not status. Not glory. Not for the respect of my peers (sorry, guys). Maybe for the comeraderie of other writers at the same newspaper or the same magazine. I love ATCA dearly, but I still despise blogs. I think they are destined for the dustbin (yes, I realize the younger generation has no idea what a "dustbin" is ....). Frankly, if I meet some writer who informs me that he/she writes for a blog, I am not impressed.

A lot of interesting bits throughout these posts. I'd take issue with my favorite Drama Queen's assertion about freelancers at the 1999 conference in Philly.

That was the year when ATCA chose its first freelancer to chair the organization: me.

Wendy, yes, the angst (did you think I'd call it tsuris?) that this topic occasioned at the ATCA/O'Neill conference was great. Betsey Maupin is right that it takes only three clips to renew ATCA membership each year, but to start, it takes eight clips published within the last 12 months to join. We say you have to demonstrate that you review with professionalism, substance and regularity, and that's whether you do it in print, online or over the airwaves.
In fact, your critic readers (Steve, that's you) should look at our membership requirements (http://www.americantheatrecritics.org/apply-for-membership) and step forward to make common cause with the rest of the rank and file of the profession. We're not "elite" at all -- just critics organized for the good of the tribe, realizing that in union there is a bit more strength -- and also the accumulated power to hand out substantial awards each year and hold some great conferences. (I'm still catching up on my sleep from last week).
That angst is about how, as the dead tree critic positions disappear, to reach out to the online critics who are becoming the lively heart of the new world order. It takes new criteria, intelligently applied, to fend off the egobloggers and welcome the pros. Try us. (Chris Rawson is the chair of the American Theatre Critics Association.)

Wendy, I think giving some bloggers an official stamp of approval is a good idea. I voluntarily quit my job with the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year (after 26 years) and am now writing theater reviews on a blog. I find myself nonplussed every once in a while when somebody asks who I write for -- and I got my press tickets to this year's Broadway season basically because press agents remember me from the Sentinel. That can be an awkward position.

As for lofty standards, Wendy is clearly joking. To be a member in ATCA (I'm a former membership chair), you simply need to produce three clips of reviews you've done in the previous year -- and they can be online reviews. Not very lofty, but it does distinguish real critics from the rest.

Just a thought from the PR side, I actually like the idea in some ways. Quite often, I have a limited amount of tickets available for press. Sometimes a way to vet blogs to decide who would get press tickets would be nice. I try to keep up with bloggers who write about theater, it would be nice to have a "seal of approval" so to speak from that standpoint.

I love how much access to information the internet gives, but it is really hard for me to offer press credentials to people who don't seem to have legit credentials.

Just my $.02

Right. Of course, you ought to be an ATCA member, but that's another topic for another time. I think the idea was that bloggers could apply for a badge, so if I were a betting woman I'd lay my money on your making the cut. And the only way ATCA will be able to keep up with those rapid changes is to have internet-savvy critics as vocal members of the organization.

I agree in theory.

Yet even though I'm not an ACTA member, I dare say that I've managed to build an audience and gain its trust over my four plus years of blogging with a sizable number subscribing to my feed. And I think I've managed to gain some modicum of your trust in part because you include my blog on your blogroll. Would ACTA's "lofty standards" fence me out?

My point here is that as the Internet - and with it blogging, chat rooms and social networking- changes so rapidly, can ACTA manage to keep up with it?

No, I was just being glib. Quality control means their blog was judged by member critics and found to conform to ATCA's lofty standards, whatever they may turn out to be. And though you can certainly find any review via Google, I think you'd probably be more likely to subscribe to a blog's feed or bookmark it if you trust its provenance.

Wendy, As an association, the ACTA has every right to offer its members its "seal of approval."

I do wonder, though, about the assertion that critics' opinions would be vetted for quality control. Does that mean every review would first go through the ACTA before being posted, or are you simply referring to adherence to ACTA's prescribed guidelines?

Perhaps more important is the question of whether an ACTA seal would ultimately mean anything to general audiences who can easily find any blog with an opinion via Google. The seal certainly sounds high-minded, but I have my doubts as to whether it would resonate with the general public without a costly PR and marketing campaign.

Leave a comment

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.