May 2007 Archives
Moog is still vogue
"The Asheville Symphony Orchestra will honor the late Moog synthesizer creator (and Asheville resident) Robert Moog in a performance Saturday of Gustav Holst's 'The Planets.' In the orchestra's final Masterworks concert of the season, music director Daniel Meyer will lead a performance that features six Moog 'Little Phatty' synthesizers, which will execute the choral harmonies in 'Neptune, the Mystic' typically performed by a six-woman choir."
Thanks to Paul Clark of the Asheville Citizen-Times)
A beautiful eulogy to a guitar god no one's heard of
"Some prayers never reach the sky. Some wounds never heal. Sometime Friday night, maybe early Saturday morning, the World's Fading Man, proudly unreconstructed, got caught in life's fading twilight. There was nothing left in his field of vision, no curtain to block out the storm that had been raging for years. He could no longer see the exceptionally long shadow that he cast. He had done his job for 40 years. He did it better than most, indeed, a master of his craft. And he had served well, a natural-born man of merit and cool, the quintessential desperado under the eaves. But he was tired. It was time to retire. A sunnier clime beckoned. Sam Moss, 54, died on the couch in his living room. He was surrounded by books, music, memorabilia, guitars - all the personal treasures and manifestos of an extraordinary life led with passion and taste."
(Special thanks to Ed Bumgardner of the Winston-Salem Journal)
Piercing the veil of bling-bling
"Who is Daniel Johnson? His MySpace bio reveals a 28-year-old Florence label owner and prolific rapper heavy on intelligence and light on frills. But Johnson's identity is more complicated than that. The intricately woven tales on 'In the Face of Danger,' Johnson's latest CD, invite listeners into the minds of dueling personalities, one -- called Danger -- acutely maniacal, the other -- Dan Johns -- as cool as a beach breeze. On the CD, which will be released Thursday with a show at Group Therapy, it seems Danger and Johns have shaken hands and agreed to co-exist. Because he's away from the chain popping, champagne drinking and arrests of mainstream hip-hop, all Johnson has is his identity. Let the introductions begin."
(Thanks to Otis R. Taylor Jr. of The State)
Spend a day with a bunch of harpists and learn something
"Since the (American Youth Harp Ensemble in Richmond, Va.) formed as a nonprofit entity in late 1999, these young musicians have seen the world. The list of venues in which they've played includes Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and European equivalents in London, Paris and Rome. A trip to Japan is tentatively scheduled for next year. Graduates of the program have attended Peabody, Oberlin and Shenandoah conservatories, among other schools. Still, the harp? Isn't that what Harpo Marx would play during those musical interludes in Marx Brothers movies? 'It has the potential to be more expressive than people would think,' Ediger-Kordzaia says. 'It's a surprising instrument. People don't realize how powerful it is. They're not sweet and pretty.'"
(Thanks to Dean Hoffmeyer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Richard Schickel's recent condemnation of bloggers as critics/reviewers (L.A. Times, May 20) has certainly been raising the hackles of arts writers in the blogosphere. While his views are passionately held, I believe they're also misguided and don't take much note of the changing media landscape. Part of the reason arts criticism is winding up on the Web is decreased space in local papers. Those who have something to say are simply finding another way to do it, and many of them (contrary to Schickel's view) are highly qualified writers.
And frankly, there are several advantages to arts writing on the Web, namely the chance to have more (and better quality) images than you'll find on newsprint, and the increased interactivity allowed by commenting. I'm frequently lamenting how seldomly readers of print publications write a letter to the editor regarding arts coverage. With blogging and other Web coverage, there is more of a chance for that immediate back-of-forth of real conversation.
The best response to Schickel I've seen so far is by Jerome Weeks, who writes the book/daddy blog on ArtsJournal.com. Rather than reiterate many of his excellent points, I'd rather direct readers there (to the entry "Just who is this guy?"). It's worth the read.
This past week, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra named its new music director after a two-year search that included a full season of auditions by five finalists for the position. Although commonplace among most American orchestras today, the search process was probably quite bizarre to locals, who had never before seen a full-time conductor vetted in such a way for the orchestra. (The last time a conductor was hired -- more than 20 years ago -- the job was still part of the duties of a professor at the University of Montana, who was hired through more traditional academic processes.)
The new conductor, Darko Butorac, is at 29 years old less than half the age of the previous conductor, Joseph Henry. He's also less than half the age of some of the members of the orchestra. The 6'4" conductor proudly notes he can dunk a basketball, and is a big fan of the Phoenix Suns.
This is, needless to say, a sea-change for the orchestra (the previous conductor once admitted to having heard OF the Rolling Stones, but was unable to name any of their songs).
There has been much attendant excitement throughout the interviewing and audition process, with good attendance at concerts and much media coverage. The orchestra has sounded markedly better, playing with an intensity and unity that wasn't previously the norm.
On Thursday, I attended an event welcoming our new conductor to the community. The mayor passed him a "baton" to the city, more than 100 people showed up (pretty good for a midweek morning in this small town), and the sense of a New Era for Missoula was palpable.
After the welcoming event, I walked to a nearby coffeeshop with a friend who plays in the orchestra. As we chatted, it emerged that he was preoccupied with a question that has likely crossed the minds of many in this town: What is the real potential for change, now that this new conductor is here?
Ostensibly, theoretically, the sky is the limit. But more realistically, there are issues both practical and philosophical that limit the local orchestra's ability to rise to world-class artistic status.
Like every small-town orchestra today, the first of these issues is the size of the orchestra's budget. Though I've never heard a member of the MSO complain seriously about the pay they receive -- which, in most cases, is less than minimum wage -- it's clear enough that the orchestra is unable to attract professional musicians to this town based on its compensation package; it must instead rely on the charity of whatever players are available and willing. Fortunately, the the University of Montana has a strong music faculty, stacked with pro-level players who are willing to play in the orchestra simply for the experience. However, that faculty can't fill an entire string section -- or even a flute section.
The bigger issue, however, is philosophical. The MSO remains fundamentally a community orchestra, meaning that part of its goal is to provide members of the community with an opportunity to play orchestral music. There are players in the orchestra who likely could pass no professional audition; but they are provided with the priceless opportunity to participate in the glorious experience of playing great classics of the repertoire through their participation in the MSO. These are our doctors and receptionists, our busboys and businesswomen. Some make up in extra effort and preparation what they lack in professional training and experience; but some simply can't.
Thus it's safe to say that, in the foreseeable future, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra will not rival the Berlin Philharmonic on purely artistic standards.
My friend in the orchestra wasn't frustrated by this limited potential of the orchestra. Rather, he seemed more worried about the unrealistic expectations of members of the community who might suddenly lose sight of what the orchestra is really about. He worried that a coinciding push for a new, multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Missoula might further feed the fervor.
He has a point. The value and success of this orchestra to this city cannot -- SHOULD not -- be gauged solely on its ability to play music flawlessly. Rather, its most important role is to engage the community in great music, draw it into interaction with the artistic process, and provide a forum for townspeople to share as actors and audience in the sacred social ritual of performance.
The Missoula Symphony Orchestra has a new leader. I just hope that boosters of the orchestra don't allow the buzz to obscure the true value of this band to this town.
When Lansing, Michigan's resident professional theater company, BoarsHead, faced the loss of state budget money, donor money from the death of a patron, and other unexpected revenue losses, it was forced to change its season mid-year. Their final show originally featured a guest director and a larger cast. Instead, that show was replaced with a one-man show called Underneath the Lintel and was directed in-house by the Artistic Director.
The resulting show is a fascinating one that certainly stands up to the rest of the season's offerings. While it was brought in as a cost-saving measure, it is still an outstanding production.
What's interesting, though, is the number of people calling in for reservations who then decide not to reserve when they learn that the show has changed. Given that neither show was particularly well-known or famous, it surprises me that so many people would decide not to come.
Perhaps it is the reservations about a one-hander. While many one-person shows can be entertaining, they are also hit or miss as they rely so heavily on the talents of one actor--an actor who then has no one to feed off. It's a type of show that audiences are likely to see a whole lot more of as arts budgets tighten and theaters are forced to look everywhere they can to save a dollar.
Down the road from BoarsHead, Williamston Theatre has been forced to cut short the run of its final show in the season. Money that they were promised was frozen along with all other arts money in the state.
Given the ongoing budget crisis in Michigan and in other states--and the general mood of the populace which is a hostility toward any taxes--arts organizations may need to start finding ways to survive without public money.
The underbelly of an opera house
A writer finds there's more to this venue than music. "The Wortham Theater Center in Houston has a few quirks . . . The three-hour opera ("Aida"), featuring sets and costumes by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, was riveting. But it can be a little seat-numbing. So midway through the first act, I removed the thick wallet from my back pocket, placed it on the floor of the center's Brown Theater and settled in for the rest of the performance. At intermission, I reached down to retrieve the wallet and accidentally pushed it through an air vent in the floor. While it was a stupid thing to do, it helped to discover I'm not alone."
(Thanks to Clifford Pugh who wrote this for the Houston Chronicle)
Avant-garde opera is popular in Augusta, Ga.?
Innovative productions of familiar operas are fueling an uptick in attendance, said Les Reagan, artistic director of the Augusta Opera, before a performance of "La Boheme." "The National Endowment for the Arts most recent survey of public participation said that opera audiences grew by 46.6 percent between 1982 and 2002. That's 20 years of growth, and Les credits innovators in the field. Theater and opera companies aren't modernizing the productions, like producers did when they based the hit Broadway musical 'Rent' on the centuries-old storyline and music. They're simply presenting them in new ways or making them more accessible for modern audiences."
(Thanks to Stacey Hudson of the Augusta Metro Spirit)
The case for negative thinking
A psychologist debunks the so-called law of attraction recently embraced by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. "According to this made-up law, your thoughts attract whatever they focus on - literally. Focus on Britney Spears' thong, feel what it would be like to have it tied around your face, prepare to receive it - and it will soon be smothering you! . . . Indeed, one could reasonably argue that it was George Bush's blind optimism and reliance on his 'gut' that allowed him to invade Iraq without listening to those who anticipated failure. The refusal to consider the negative has mired us more deeply than ever in the negative."
(Thanks to Cliff Bostock, columnist for Creative Loafing Atlanta)
What audiences really think
The Birmingham News conducted a poll of regular attendees to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to see how its new maestro, Justin Brown, fared by the end of his debut season. "Superlatives being relative, it's safe to say that a mutual admiration society has sprung up between Brown and our panelists, all of whom are regular concertgoers and none of whom have a stake in the ASO as staff or board members."
(Thanks to Michael Huebner of the Birmingham News)
Although I will never be a native Madisonian and there are many ways this city can be self-congratulatory and grating, I've become a bit of a
In recent months and years, two well-known writers/consultants on workplace issues and shifting demographics have moved here: Rebecca Ryan (of the forthcoming book Live First, Work Second) and Penelope Trunk (of the Web site Brazen Careerist and the new book of the same name). Ryan is a Wisconsin (but not
I realized I'd become a touch defensive about
I could go on, but I won't. My point is simply that, if you can't find culture and innovation here, you're not tryin' - and the same can be said of many, many small cities around the country.
It seems to be a growing trend. Community bands are reaching out to adults who haven't played their instruments in years. Whether it is a senior band or one for all ages, adults are rediscovering their love for instrumental music.
(Thanks to John Sinkevics of The Grand Rapids Press)
If you're not the type to buy self-help books, watch daytime talk shows, or attend support groups, perhaps you'd like to indulge in the self-help genre by attending an original children's ballet. A ballet company in Holland, Michigan (a small Dutch town on the western coast where the annual Tulip Festival is held) is putting on an original ballet based on Max Lucado's book, You Are Special.
(Thanks to Sue Merrell of The Grand Rapids Press)
One of the crucial roles artists play in our society is in giving us a language to talk about important, societal issues. They may not be the experts, but they can capture the emotion and help clarify issues for us. The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the North Lakeland Discovery Center has created a traveling exhibit of 20 artists addressing climate change in Wisconsin and Northern Michigan.
(Thanks to The Daily Press in Ashland, Wisconsin)
A Native American woman wrote a play based on stories her mother told her of Native Americans whom the government placed into residential schools. A staged reading of it is being directed by her sister and being performed in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It handles pretty intense material.
(Thanks to The Green Bay Press-Gazette)
A grant has brought a composer into the middle school where he is helping seventh graders to compose a symphony which they will soon perform in concert. He had each student compose a three to five note melody for their instrument. ""He names the movements after what the music sounds like," said (band instructor Connie) Root. The four movements are "Brett's Solumn Vow" by Brett Ducharme, "Martha's Dorian Dance" by Martha Muchlinski, "Jake's Lament" by Jake Blair and "Kaitlyn's Canzona" by Kaitlyn Young. Together they make up the composition "Motive Alliance.""
(Thanks to Hudson Star Observer)
Geri Parlin's column is fun to read because of the genuine excitement about what is happening in the city's theater community. There is also a strong identification with the community and what speaks to its residents. For her, it's the upcoming summer production ofMusic Man, a musical that deals with small-town concerns.
(Thanks to Geri Parlin of La Crosse Tribune)
How do you keep attendance up at performing arts venues? The new director of Madison, Wisconsin's Overture Center has searched for several answers that he'll be trying out in the upcoming season. Some of it includes dropping classical performances in favor of others in the community who are doing them as well as changing pricing structures.
(Thanks to Jacob Stockinger of The Capital Times)
...being a 60-something teenager. Especially not if your family is far more screwed up than you are. This delightful review in a weekly newspaper proves their having fun with theater in Nebraska.
(Thanks to Steve Eskew of The Reader)
"Two of downtown Omaha's independent spirits again are coming together in the name of art. As part of the Bluebarn Theatre's upcoming production of Six Degrees of Separation, the Bemis Center will present, in tandem, a show of contemporary portraiture in the theater's art space called Separate Selves. Bemis Curator and Assistant Director Jeremy Stern brought together regional and international artists for the show; through many approaches they artfully explore the idea of self. Artists are based in New York, Omaha and from countries around the world. The shows open April 19 and offer the perfect opportunity to get a double dose of creativity in one night. "
(Thanks to Sarah Baker of The Reader)
I tend to follow news of the East Lansing Arts Festival pretty closely. Not only is it one of the city's major events of the year, drawing 70,000 people during the weekend, but I also exhibit at the Michigan State University Arts and Crafts Show that takes place concurrently across the street. In fact, until I became an exhibitor, I had no idea that they were technically two separate shows--nor do most people who come down.
One of the fascinating things about the show (other than that they decided to go electronic for all their applications--a huge convenience for most artists), is that they've created an Emerging Artists Exhibit. For a show that receives 515 applications from around the country and accepts only 225 artists, it can be difficult for young artists to be accepted. The high entry fee can also be a barrier to a prestigious, juried show.
Emerging artists are identified as students currently in an arts program at a university or those who have graduated from one in the past two years. It's a great way to encourage artists to pursue their art in a way that is often considered financially risky.
How to (righteously) piss off a certain kind of Southerner
One day artist John Sims decided to create a work of art in which he dangled a Confederate flag from a noose swinging from a gallows. He called it "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag." It got some attention. The Sons of the Confederate Veterans demanded the work be removed from the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee. The museum demurred. The story doesn't end there, though. Flushed with confidence, Sims has invited performance artist Karen Finley to put on a seance to evoke the voices of the past to comment on the ole Stars and Bars. "I told her she should call up some African slaves and see what they have to say," Sims said. "I'm excited to see what happens and who turns out for this."
(Thanks to Mark Hinson of the Tallahassee Democrat)
More than framed posters of flowers and trees
A new hotel is downtown Memphis is using original artwork to enhance its decor. "The people at Westin thought about art from the very beginning," said Mark Weaver, an architect with Hnedak Bobo Group and lead designer for the project, as he showed a reporter through the building that bustled with activity. "They want a hotel that addresses all the senses, and art is a big component."
(Thanks to Fredric Koeppel of the Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Yet more attempts to seduce those elusive 'younger people'
Hoping to nurture a new crop of concert-goers, the San Antonio Symphony has launched an advertising campaign, along with programs and events, catered to teens and young adults. "Successfully appealing to young people could mean survival for the nation's orchestras. With that in mind, local symphony leaders have launched the rock 'n' roll-style ad campaign this season and, among other efforts, added audio clips to their Web site and started a 'Future Stars Competition' that will culminate today with three students joining the orchestra."
(Thanks to Michelle Koidin Jaffee of the San Antonio Express-News)
It's never too late to start
"At 25, Walter Kovshik reached a crossroads: Would his career be in music or business? He chose business. He faced a similar choice at 50. Did he want to continue his work as a fundraising consultant or revisit the world of classical music? This time, music won out -- at least temporarily. At the end of May, Kovshik will fly from Orlando to Fort Worth, Texas, to compete in the Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation. He will be competing against 74 other pianists from around the world."
(Thanks to Jean Patteson of the Orlando Sentinel)
Wow, John. That letter is a doozy. Since you responded to something I wrote last week, I thought I'd use your post as a point of departure for mine this week.
Living hundreds of miles away from you, I have no firsthand knowledge of
Decent, thoughtful critics, even when they're negative, do care about the cultural life of the community. No one I know relishes writing a harsh review. And even when you hope your words may spark local discussion, your intentions as a writer can be misconstrued. I know that you, and all of us, want the arts to be a vital part of our communities, something that people show up for and care about as passionately as people care about sports in this country.
I guess the question left for all of us is, how can we write thoughtfully and constructively about our local cultural scenes without making people feel attacked? And is there really anything we can do when people feel attacked even when there is no basis for it? I think most of us consider ourselves a part of our local cultures, not imperious outsiders, but it is clear the arts writer's role is not always welcomed.
Below is a letter I received in February from a theater director in Savannah. I won't name the person because he did not want to have the letter attributed to him. I have argued with myself about posting the letter. I'd like to avoid personal beefs (and this writer, as you can tell, has a whole slab of beef against me and has for some time).
However, I feel there may be something constructive here. We arts journalists in the American Outback have to deal with many things, one of them being a kind of thin-skinnedness. If, in a review, you say the sky is blue, someone might slam you for disliking the color green.
At the same time, we are under increasingly pressure to cover the arts as news. To do that we have to nurture sources. But what happens when one of your sources is one of those thin-skinned people with a personal beef against you and your efforts to carry on a critical conversation in the community? What then?
Here is a shortened version of that letter.
February 23, 2007
I am writing this personal note to you (not intended for publication) as someone who has been an avid reader of the Savannah Morning News since the day I moved to town (over four years ago). And though I enjoy reading about local theatre in town, I must admit that every time I see your name at the start of a theatre piece I cringe. Invariably, you serve up a glorious black eye to local artists and the organizations they are working for.
I must admit, I do not have the slightest idea of your level of expertise. I think every person connected to theatre in Savannah would love to know exactly where you studied theatre, and any another scholarly merits that might give your theatrical "critiques" validity. I imagine that anyone who claims to know that "The Savannah Theatre is the best theater in town." (SMN/2/19/07) must be incredibly intimate with all the local theatres and the work they do.
Other remarks that seem to cast dispersion on local theatres such as "Savannah has other groups of course-community theaters, a children's theatre and a seasonal festival group. None so far, however, has had the staying power of Savannah Theatre, nor have any of them established a cultural climate considered to be the life blood of the city, something as essential as a St. Patrick's Day parade." (SMN/02/19/07) leave me speechless.
Perhaps you would enjoy local theatre more if we bared more body parts and threw beads at you. And as far as staying power is concerned, the Bureau of Leisure Services has kept the City's theatre up and running for at least the last ten years.
I hope I am not leading you to believe that I have anything against the St. Patrick's Day Parade or the Savannah Theatre. Quite the opposite: I love Irish-American traditions and happen to think the performers on Bull Street have talent oozing out of every pore. They are very special performers. Notice, I can compliment them without kicking any one else.
I could go on, John, but I think you get my point. To those of us in the local theatre community (and we have all been greatly distressed by your self-entitled role of connoisseur) we recognize that you either don't get what theatre is truly about, or just plainly don't like it. Whichever the case we challenge you to either buy a ticket and ride the ride or, respectfully, put a sock in it.
I believe in the power of the press and the influence it can have, for boon or bane, to local artists. It would benefit us all if the local press presented us in a more authentic and supportive light while letting the public judge the work for themselves.
The trend for shorter and tighter seems to be everywhere.
I've heard many people complain whenever a show goes over 90 minutes. I've sort of scratched my head over that in the past. If the show is good, I'll gladly sit for three hours--especially since most theaters still have intermissions for longer shows. At the point I've made the effort to come to see a show, I want to be entertained and I'm willing to sit for however long it takes to tell the story (provided the show is compelling).
Yet, many audiences don't feel that way. I was recently talking to a director who had abridged George Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan. He rightly pointed out that few people today would sit through the three and a half hour version unless you had star-quality actors. Even with celebrity-name actors the longer shows can be a hard sell.
It's a shame, really. When we cut things down to the bare minimum we often sacrifice the subtelty and complexity. We feed into the movement toward a soundbite society that is incapable of layered decision making and limited in its critical thinking.
Putting it on the line in high school
Talk about kids taking risks: For an end-of-year fundraiser, they're doing a talent show fund-raiser featuring Broadway songs about teenagers. The audience gets to vote on the winners.
(Thanks to Lori Holcomb of the Battle Creek Enquirer)
Finding New Spaces
After the owner of their performance space was murdered in February (during a run of the ironically named world premiere, "Fatal Error"), Icarus Falling needed to find a new space for the rest of their season. They landed in a conference room of a local Internet services provider. It somehow seems apropros for a group whose season was themed "dot human."
(Thanks to Mike Hughes of the Lansing State Journal)
Sometimes it takes a person
Perhaps it is the nature of art itself that arts communities so often thrive on the work of individuals. It is usually the passion of individuals rather than the corporate underwriting or governmental support that makes the arts scene flourish or wither. In Aurora, one person with that sort of passion is gallery owner Dan Hites. "Hites believes Aurora already has a vibrant arts scene, and it just needs some nurturing. He sees himself as a facilitator -- that's what he did with Dreamerz in Wicker Park, he said, by giving away second floor space to theater groups and poets, and featuring local bands on his stage; that's what he hopes to do with River Breeze."
(Thanks to Andre Salles of The Beacon News)
Don't sit in the front row for this performance. At least, don't sit there unless you're OK with being the target of inflatable people and flaming torches. "The show is unique in its dizzying combination of magic, ballet, juggling, bad jokes, physical comedy and the inflatables. At one point, Garbo -- a Maine native who has performed this show for 17 years -- climbs inside a large orange inflatable box and moves around on stage, oozing into the audience every chance he gets."
(Thanks to Benjamin Ray of Hillsdale Daily News)
Ballet Company turns 20
In a city currently obsessed with its returning American Idol finalist, the local newspaper hasn't forgotten its local ballet troupe, a company that turned 20 this year. It's a story in which dancers share some of their fond memories as they celebrate their anniversary with their spring concert.
(Thanks to Carol Azizian of The Flint Journal)
Reaching Out to Smaller Towns
Lansing is far from a metropolis, but its Wharton Center for the Performing Arts is certainly one of the largest performing arts venues in Michigan and in the top ten centers (at least as far as box office is concerned) in the country. According to this Traverse City article, they're now reaching out to bring their programs into communities around the state.
(Thanks to Traverse City Record Eagle)
American Idol at the high school level
I love having multiple critics inthe same town--it's always interesting to read multiple takes on the same show. While I often find myself in agreement with my fellow critics, I sometimes scratch my head and wonder whether we saw the same show. Such as:Â My take on Music from a Sparkling Planet. My colleague's take on Music from a Sparkling Planet. Surprisingly, the critic from Detroit made it out to the small Lansing suburb and also reviewed it.
Excellent, excellent post, Jennifer. It really resonates with me. I started to respond in the comments section but realized my comment was getting too long. So I decided to make a post out of it. Perhaps you have started a string of posts, so relevant to our times is the subject.
I have felt for some time that there is an "ageist" mentally at work in arts philanthropy circles. This mentality is also at work in many of the newsrooms we work in or work with.
Case in point is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's recent decision to separate its web product from its print product, the former being a place for breaking news and pop culture-oriented items aimed at a younger generation of readers and the latter being for longer, investigative and narrative pieces aimed at an older, more educated generation.
What's implicit in this calculus is that young people aren't interested in in-depth, investigative and narrative pieces. Why? Because the conventional wisdom says that kids these days are not interested in that kind of stuff. They want pop and glitz and whiz-bang news.
Which is true, no doubt. But I grew up in the Me-Decade, when video killed the radio star. In the 1980s. I watched loads of TV, consumed every middle-market movie you can think of and never read a newspaper until I was in college. Then I discovered a world that was far more complex and varied and colorful and interesting than the surface-level media I had grown up with. There was suddenly a world of ideas in publications like the New York Times, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books. Even the Buffalo News, the dominant newspaper of my childhood, had a robust critical voice (back then, anyway) that was compelling.
Most of all, there was good writing, stuff you really wanted to read.
I am a fan of YouTube, MySpace, multimedia and so on. But that cannot and will never replace the power of language and the power of ideas and good storytelling. I think its a good thing the AJC is recognizing different audiences with different needs, but I think it also should track its readers as it implements these changes. The notion that only older readers will be interested in its print product is a misconception. A print product that's well-written (and timely, interesting, exhaustively reported etc.) will always be relevant.
There's the rub, however: well-written. As we all know, there are bright spots of good writing in newspapers, some in unexpected places. But there's also a dearth of good writing (to be sure, I include myself in this white-wash statement), and there will only be more of it as reporters and editors are asked to do more and more with fewer resources and less time.
Newspapers need to recognize the value of good writing and good writers as they transform themselves for the future. Magazines like the New Yorker, GQ and Vanity Fair haven't lasted this long because they had great pictures (though that's a large part of it). They have survived because of their commitment to, and willingness to pay for, good writers.
I recently took a nationwide survey conducted by Americans for the Arts.Â (If you haven't taken it yet yourself, you can find it here--but responses must be submitted by Friday, May 11).Â Once you finish the questionnaire, you wind up in a public forum where you can comment on an issue raised by the survey, or anything else that strikes your fancy.Â I think that's a great idea, rather than the standard "Thanks for your feedback" page.
One comment I saw there struck me, however.Â It's from a longtime arts educator who laments the cuts to arts in the schools.Â Fair enough.Â But then this person notes, "The baby-boomers are currently sustaining the arts venues through philanthropy.Â This will stop soon.Â We have not trained the next generation of music and art aficionados."
I won't name the commenter here since it is basically irrelevant; I have heard this line of thinking before and I also don't want to seem as if I am harping on one person.Â However, as someone firmly within Generation X (I'm mid-30s), this Boomer-centric mentality gets to me.Â Are X-ers (and Gen Y) really contributing to the arts at a lower rate than Boomers did at a similar age?Â If that is true (and I haven't seen numbers one way or the other yet--if anyone has those, please reply in the comments), we must consider the larger debt load Generations X and Y are leaving college with, as well as larger factors like the instability of Social Security.Â Charitable giving is something most people can manage only after the essential bills have been paid.Â I'm stepping up my contributions this year now that I'm finally in more of a position to do so.
I think the commenter's thoughts reflect a larger fear about what will happen to the culture once Boomers are no longer in control.Â The generation that once distrusted anyone over 30 now seems to dismiss anyone under 40 (important caveat:Â I'm not saying all Boomers react this way).Â Change can be a little scary; I'll admit I already feel out of sync with the current crop of 20-somethings who've never truly known a pre-Internet world (I left for college with an electric typewriter!).Â But culture has a surprising way of regenerating itself--it's just that the new forms may look unfamiliar. Â
Michael Phillips, the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, left a lasting impression on me when he noted during the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Los Angeles three months ago that readers will take the time to read long screeds of text on a blog, but if you took the same amount of text, say 75 inches in newspaper-speak, and put it into print, readers would be overwhelmed by the amount of text presented to them.
It was a salient observation because of its context: a discussion of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism. One concern was that writing such reviews would encourage people to read less, to skip the bulk of the review and just scan for the meat of it.
This is, of course, what all newspaper people have been taught to accept at God-given truth for at least two and a half decades (at least since USA Today began publishing): that readers have short attention spans, that to get them to feel that a newspaper is vital to their everyday lives, we need to get them the information as fast as possible.
Of all the nuances of that mind-set, one stands out from the rest: write shorter.
I am actually an advocate of writing shorter. There is value is writing shorter, tighter, with more pop. But I also believe in questioning received truth and one recent study gives me lots of reason for doing so: the Poynter Institute's recent eye-track study.
According to Editor & Publisher, the study, released in March, found that readers tend to read more than three-quarters of a story when its online, as opposed to in print. When I saw this I immediately thought about Michael Phillips' observation: People naturally read differently when the story is online. Moreover, the study found that people don't like to jump pages in print, again underscoring Phillips' assertion.
So what does this say about the industry we're in? Is there a relationship between the rule of thumb dictating that we write short (with less nuance, less context, less attention paid the power of language, less stuff in general) and the fact that newspapers are losing readers?
Moreover, newspapers are getting rid of the very places that you'd expect readers to actually spend time reading. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just sacked most of its critics, including long-time book review editor Teresa Weaver. The Raleigh News & Observer also axed its book guy, the venerable J. Peder Zane. The San Francisco Chronicle and LA Times shrank their book sections. You can read about some of the changes here in this recent New York Times article.
Michael Connelly, the wonderful mystery writer, wrote in the LA Times that getting rid of book sections (a place where, I might add, the longer writing, say, 800-plus words, has been traditionally tolerated) is a short-term financial solution with long-term detriments: If you get read of reasons for people to spend time reader your product, they will go somewhere else.
"The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down -- and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers."
Where are they going to go if not to the newspapers? Fake news shows. Yep. As traditional news outlets like newspapers are turning their backs on books, authors are turning to fake news shows to be taken seriously, according to a February Times report by Julie Bosman.
Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, ''The Daily Show'' and its spinoff, ''The Colbert Report,'' which has on similarly wonky authors, like the former White House official David Kuo, have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on ''The Early Show'' on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party.
Television programs that devote significant attention to serious authors have practically gone the way of the illuminated manuscript, publishers lament. Brian Lamb's long-running ''Booknotes'' program on C-Span was permanently shuttered in 2004. ''The Charlie Rose Show'' doesn't generate as much buzz as it used to or translate into higher sales after an author appearance, some publishers say. And the morning shows seem to prefer a bad Britney to a good book.
So. Is writing shorter driving readers away?
In this neck of the woods, Madison Repertory Theatre is currently staging Samm-Art Williams' "Home," about a rural African-American man in tiny Cross Roads,
The audience at "Home" on a recent Sunday was more diverse than I usually see at Madison Rep, both in terms of age and ethnicity. The crowd felt a little more alive, thanks to a large contingent of teens. "Home" is being presented as part of the "African-American Artist Series," which I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it's obviously worthy to have a regular, ongoing commitment to working with playwrights, actors and directors of color. Yet on the other hand, why must this be set aside in a special series? Shouldn't this be happening more frequently, as a matter of course?
My review of this show appears later this week in Isthmus,
In the meantime, here's some coverage of the play from Capital City Hues, a local multicultural paper (including an interview with actor Patrick Sims, who is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin).
UPDATE:Â Here's my review of "Home" from the May 4 edition of Isthmus.