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February 22, 2007

Arts as Community Dialogue

John Stoehr

One of the talking points of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute concerned criticism not just as a mode of assessement but a mode of engagement with the community. With this in mind, I posted an angry email to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website.

The email was in response to a think piece I wrote on Feb. 19 regarding Savannah's lack of a thriving theater scene. It was also about how I detected the possibility of change after seeing a new original play. I then posted a response to her letter, keeping in mind the idea of engagement with the community.

As I say in the preface to my response: "I consider this exchange to be part of a conversation about the arts that every community ought to have. We should get angry about the arts. We get upset about football. We get emotionally attached to baseball teams. Why not theater? We should fight. We ought to disagree. That way there's no mistake this is important to our lives."

Let me know if you think I should have handled this differently, in terms of tone and phrasing. Otherwise, I hope this serves as at least a passable example of a concept that will likely preoccupy all of us in the future, as the print medium shrinks and online forums grow.

Posted by John Stoehr at February 22, 2007 8:27 AM

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I think it is exciting to see an exchange by two people who are passionate about theater. Life would be boring if we all agreed and conversation helps to fuel actions.

I think your preface is perfect. It establishes respect between the two of you and a statement about the commitment each of you feel. I hope the conversation continues and that you both come out of it feeling enriched by the other person.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at February 22, 2007 11:10 AM

I echo Bridgette's response (let's map it out here: I am responding to Bridgette's response to your response to the reader's response. Viva la technology!). I think you handled it in an honest, informative manner and encouraged continued discussion. That's fantastic, and I hope that more readers add their thoughts!

I think this discussion, however, can be boiled down to the differing view of success that a critic and theater companies can have. The example of The Secret Garden used in the reader's response was a perfect one. Great, people were being turned away from the packed house. For The Secret Garden. It's not exactly cutting-edge, enjoyable as many may find it.

I know I'm in a similar situation -- I want vibrant theater that pushes the envelope and dares to be new, not necessarily the latest community theater revival. Companies, however, see high subscription rates and full houses as success.

Two very different takes. Kudos to you for pointing that out.

Posted by: Victoria at February 22, 2007 11:32 AM

Ah, and there we could have an interesting discussion. How is success defined? Or rather, what are the many different definitions of success and what is the relative validity of each one?

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at February 22, 2007 12:13 PM

What is is, really? :)

Seriously, though, I think it is a very important disucssion to have within any of our communities, as I think it would nip a whole lot of potential misunderstandings in the bud. How do various members of the theater community describe success and where do they feel they are on the path that could ultimately lead to that success?

Could make a heck of a think piece.

Posted by: Victoria at February 22, 2007 4:02 PM

I agree with comments already made by Bridgette and Victoria. However, something else about this exchange between newspaper writer and reader jumped out at me. Living in Wisconsin, I am not familiar with the particulars of Savannah's cultural scene and its players. But some interesting assumptions were revealed in the reader's response. These statements in particular struck me: "Mr. Stoehr is the reporter for the city's newspaper and I assume that does allow him to be its critic as well" and "Everyone deserves to have the recognition and advertisement in the Savannah Morning News..."

There seems to be a feeling that an arts reporter should not really be expressing an opinion or critical judgment. I disagree with that, and I think the sports analogy is again apt. Most well-known sportswriters are also commentators -- they've got a bent, a view on the coaches, players, etc. Their personal take is what gives their writing zing. Why should arts writing be any different?

And the word "advertising" in the second statement is also problematic. Yes, any local paper should cover a wide swath of professional and non-professional arts, but coverage should not be equated with advertising. Journalism is not PR. Writers have every right, I think, to take a stance. That doesn't mean others can't disagree -- respectful conversation is, in a way, the whole point! -- but arts writers should not be afraid to be themselves and be analytical in print.

I hope John's think piece, the response (and now other responses coming in on the Savannah Morning News blog) can keep some sort of conversation going in a positive direction.

Posted by: Jennifer at February 22, 2007 4:26 PM