Recently in Arts Issues for Journalists Category
After Barack Obama won the election, my elation clouded my journalism. I was incapable of thinking about anything else. So when it came time to write about an event in Charleston called Kulture Klash, I had to figure out what it meant amid this historic change.
Kulture Klash is really an arts party like the kind commonly organized in New York. I’m told the place to go is PS1, but I’ve never been there and never been to one of those events. Kulture Klash, and I’d imagine events at PS1, are about diversity, creativity, and having a lot of fun. KK injects a radical social dimension into the arts and the arts give rise to a radical social dimension, mostly because the kind of art you’ll find there stems from street art — break dancing, graffiti art, aerial skating, juggling, hula hooping, etc.
In the wake of Obama’s victory, Kulture Klash seemed to have more significance than just an arts party. It seemed to embody a new set of ideals, a grass-roots and egalitarian value system shaped and given expression by the internet and social-networking sites. When all was said and done, more than 2,000 people had gone to Kulture Klash. In a Charleston context, that’s an enormous crowd and an important step in local arts.
Tim Wu, in a review of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), aptly notes that what makes our age special, in technological terms, is its “generative” nature: “‘Generativity’ is a central notion in his book, and he means what it says: that the Net has made us all mini-generators — not of electricity, but of information and innovation. Who today is not at least sometimes an online analyst, poet, or publisher, even if just of Facebook updates?” (Read Wu’s review in full in The New Republic.)
In a piece in a November issue of Charleston City Paper, I attempted to draw a connection between Obama’s win, the ideals of Web 2.0, and this generative nature among those born after 1980, those who not only gave YouTube and Facebook their current cache, but who also expect interactivity in whatever they do. I suggest that this is a turning point.
Of what, I don’t know. But something is turning. You can feel it.
Creativity is a part of their lives. Millennials don’t just dream it. They be it. Kulture Klash’s website tells why the event matters: “For the sake of art and community.”
“We want everyone to have a voice, everyone to get involved,” says Gustavo Serrano. “If we can tap into everyone’s imagination, who knows what will happen?”
The idea of a bottom-up, idealism-based community of creative types, like Kulture Klash, goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Today, it can be found in knitting circles, jazz ensembles, open-source technology like Linux, crowdsourced knowledge consortiums like Wikipedia, community arts projects like the recent The Future Is on the Table art exhibit at City Gallery, and even in pick-up games of basketball (which is, because of its reliance on the integrity of individual players, Barack Obama’s favorite pastime).
These have characteristics that challenge the old guard of established arts professionals whose minds were galvanized, like Clinton and Bush, by “great disruption” of the 1960s. These characteristics include participation over presentation, collaboration over competition, amateurism (in the best sense of the word) over professionalism, and process over product.
Grassroots creativity is an old idea (Walt Whitman exulted the inventive potential of diversity), but the difference now is scale.
Ninety-five million Americans are applying the ideals of Web 2.0 to the real world, including their approach to the arts.
Jennifer asked if I were going to post this to Flyover. I’m still not sure, so I’ll let you tell me if this was the right thing to do. From the Charleston City Paper:
Dear Charleston Arts Community,
You know me, don’t you? I’ve been the arts editor for nearly a year. You know my tastes, my writing style. You know my voice — one that’s for the arts, one that’s of the arts in Charleston.
A voice that’s lately appeared, some of you have said, to be overly critical, dismissive, superior, and a bit snobbish.
Maybe you’re right. I don’t deny it.
When it comes to tone of voice, sensibility, and other subjective matters, there is no accounting. Who am I to say you’re wrong?
I hope, however, you believe me when I say my intentions are good.
Some are surprised after getting to know me. How I grew up in a county with more cows than people. How my dad is a truck driver, my mom an old-fashioned homemaker. How they are severe, practical, stoic, and good.
We were death-oriented. Life was about saving one’s soul. Good and evil, heaven and hell — these were literal. The root of this knowledge was thrust deep. No will but God’s will.
We accepted this. Sometimes violently.
Not much was expected of me. A good and a bad thing. My first job was as a farm hand. I was 13. Baling hay, whitewashing, picking vegetables. A friend, who grew up nearby, calls it a Huck Finn existence. That’s about right.
In high school, I was encouraged to take vocational classes. That my dad drove a truck for a living was reason enough for me to take up a trade, like carpentry or automobile mechanics. Never mind that I wasn’t good with my hands. My parents believed my teachers had my best interest at heart. I’m sure they were right.
Music was a means to an end. I began playing trumpet at 9. I had ability, even talent. Nothing like a gift.
Teachers encouraged me to teach music. That’s what you did. Study education to be a teacher; study plumbing to be a plumber. If you study history, what are you? I didn’t know. Nobody knew.
I played classical trumpet in college, but eventually fell in love with jazz, in love with the promise of performance, of making that feeling the center of my life.
It was a moment, an epiphany, really, that I believe all aspiring artists have at some point — that moment when you get a glimpse at what could be after so much time accepting what can’t be.
There was more at stake in succeeding than ego.
Music, as I said, was a means. A means of escape. Not just from my childhood and the darkness there. Failure meant confirming what I suspected all along — that I had nothing to offer, that I didn’t belong where I wanted to be. I had to succeed to be normal. Otherwise, just give up. Go back to farm country, take up a trade.
I had my parents’ fear and self-loathing. But I also had my mother’s strength and my father’s courage. So I tried, despite myself. I tried for a long time. A long, long time. I wanted it so badly. I was willing to do anything. Eventually, I walked away.
It was my choice to abandon music. Nobody made me. I won’t go into the details, except to say my dream was in reality a quest to understand myself. It was hard. It was painful. I’m not sure it’s over. But I’ve moved on.
I’ve earned three degrees in music, literature, and writing. I’ve become a cultural critic. I’ve won a couple of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. I write about arts, culture, and ideas in a cosmopolitan city I like a lot. I’m really very happy.
I’ll not soon forget how close I came to allowing my passion to overshadow the truth about myself. I never stabbed my eyes with pins, fortunately, but I know how painful self-knowledge can be.
I know it can hurt. I know it can heal, too.
I run the risk of more criticism by letting you know more about me and about my lost love. I’m now vulnerable for writing so personally, which I’ve never done before. Some will take a stab at a Freudian analysis: that I’m a wannabe artist compensating by being overly critical, dismissive, superior, and a bit snobbish.
That’s wrong, but I can’t stop you from thinking it.
I can hope, however, that you know how tough love can be.
The daily newspaper that I write for has three freelance critics who share most of the reviewing duties plus a staff writer who occasionally writes a theater review. The alternative newspaper in town rotates its reviews among six freelance critics. A local television broadcaster makes it to nearly every single show and posts reviews on his Website as well as on the air. Depending on the semester, the college newspaper will have a critic. Then the Detroit papers send critics to town for the professional shows. An alternative newspaper has three critics that come to town and the Free Press usually sends someone.
We are also blessed that it is a fairly collegial community and we enjoy good relations with each other.
Last fall, Don Calamia, the critic from Between the Lines, a Detroit weekly newspaper, and I were discussing how Patrick Shanley's Doubt was dominating the 2007-2008 professional season. Three groups were performing it in a four month span, with two of the shows opening within a week of each other. The first was in Lansing, the second in Detroit, and the third in Ann Arbor. While these are somewhat spread apart in distance, they are all within an hour of each other and there is some overlap in audience between the three groups.
During this discussion, we agreed that we would each see all three shows and then do some sort of joint discussion comparing the three productions. We didn't know what form that would take when we started, but we eventually turned to our respective blogs: Don's Confessions of a Cranky Critic and my Front Row Lansing.
This week--on April Fool's Day to be specific--we began a week-long blogfest comparing the three productions. On Tuesday, we independently created our own all-star casts drawn from the three productions. On Wednesday, we revealed which of the three productions we thought was the best. On Thursday, we discussed whether the priest was guilty or innocent--and came up with different answers for each of the three productions. Finally, today, we arranged to have a live chat free-for-all and post the transcript on our blog.
We didn't come up with the idea for a live chat until the last minute, so our invitation for our readers to join us didn't get out until less than 24 hours before the lunchtime chat--not really enough time to give people notice. However, both the director of the BoarsHead show and the BoarsHead artistic director was able to join us.
It was a fun way to look at theater in a larger context than an individual show and we had a lot of fun discussing our different takes on the show. It's something we're both planning to do again, though we're still brainstorming what the next topic will be.
In early February, a student veterans' group at the University of Oregon produced a show that was very much based on "reality," a show that might be called a work of nonfiction. The play, called Telling, featured the stories of the actors and other veterans who were students at the UO. More than 20 student vets spent the summer talking about their experiences with two writers (one staff member and one grad student). The students then took a fall-quarter course on stage movement and acting with the chair of the theater department, who signed on to direct the play. They started off winter quarter with intense rehearsals of the script the playwrights produced. The play ran for three performances in Eugene's Veterans' Memorial Hall (where Ken Kesey used to hang out, back in the day, or so they say).
Some of the veterans who acted in Telling were anti-war when they entered the service, and some are anti-war now (but certainly not all of them). Some of them didn't serve in Iraq or Afganistan. Their politics aren't cohesive, and there's a range of ages, experience levels and backgrounds. They told me that the recorded play would eventually be up on their website (though I haven't found it yet), where you can also read more about each actor and her background, should you want to.
I wrote a cover story in advance of the play for my paper. I attended three or four rehearsals, read the script and interviewed the students, the playwrights, the director and a writer who acted as a "consultant" for the process. Though the play itself had a variety of rough moments -- thanks to the demands of melding two dozen veterans' stories into some sort of narrative to be performed by 10 people, few of whom had any acting experience -- I found the entire experience both infuriating and moving.
A week and a half ago, journalist David Wright published an essay about the play on Inside Higher Ed. Although in my piece I record two actors jokingly referring to taking the play to D.C., I now hear this may not have been a mere rumor. And the goal of the playwrights and some of the student veterans is to export the model to other campuses -- to help other student veteran groups find some way to connect with the rest of campus. I'm glad they're getting some national attention for this process of producing art as a way to build community dialogue, But as a theater reviewer, I wonder if I have been in some way spoiled by my immersion in this story for other plays about the Iraq War.
A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK musical and operetta club.
A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.
Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.
That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).
There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.
Should promoting audience etiquette be part of our jobs?
I'm thinking about this because of a Guardian UK blog post about theater etiquette.
I'm also thinking about it because in the town where I grew up (which I believe Terry Teachout calls something like a "second-tier" city, in no doubt much more elegant terms), the classical music critic for the daily paper wrote about audience etiquette. I'd say "often" or "a few times," but the truth is that just because I have strong memories of the few times doesn't mean it was, or wasn't, often.
That critic, whose work I remember reading in high school and perhaps college, was Scott Cantrell, now of the Dallas Morning News. (I emailed him to see if I was making this up; I'll update when I get a reply.)
Michael Friedman, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (L-R) discuss This Beautiful City, the play they created about the evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is part of 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Maggie Huber | Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.
Last week, I saw a performance of Lee Blessing's new play, Great Falls. It was an excellent piece of theater that belied the bells and whistles of so many shows today by focusing on two terrific, well-traveled actors under the guidance of a first-rate director.
And I was nowhere near New York City. Not even Chicago or San Francisco. I was in Louisville, a town most people only think about the first Saturday in May. But every year, somewhere around the last weekend in March, the Derby City becomes the center of the theater world with critics and theater professionals flocking in for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The festival, which has launched critically acclaimed plays such as Crimes of the Heart, is now into its fourth decade. It has had its up years and down years, but with recent hits such as Dinner with Friends and Omnium Gatherum, people still come to Humana hoping to be among the first to discover the next great thing.
Nowadays, when people describe Humana, it's often compared to the Sundance Film Festival, another major arts (yes, it attracts glitterati, but most of its offerings are geared to the art houses) event that thrives outside of major mets. Look south to Charleston, S.C. (John, are you ready?) and we have Spoleto, a major arts festival with a schedule that will make you da-rool, da-rool.
Chatting with Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, the United Arts Fund here in Lexington, he pointed out that one of the common denominators of these and other major arts happenings outside of the cultural capitals of America is that they didn't have great infrastructure to launch. What they had was a great vision that serious and substantial work could be done right where they were. It's the kind of success that should make you look around and wonder what could happen, wherever you are.
Pretend for a moment that I'm the owner of a fine-dining establishment.
I've experienced a success that few would complain about. I have a very loyal customer base, including those who pay me weekly visits. I've enjoyed great profit margins, outperforming most other restaurants in the area.
My chefs have won awards for the quality and creativity of the dishes they create. One review even said that we've helped to change the culinary environment of our region because of our chef's artistry.
Food costs are high and it isn't cheap to produce and serve our food, but that's been more than made up for in profit and customer loyalty.
One day, I look about the food and beverage environment and read about the success of McDonald's. They have far more customers than I do and they make more money. Changes have to be made!
I call a staff meeting and tell my executive chef that he's going to have to start offering chicken fingers and fried burger patties. Also, he needs to reduce the amount of time it takes to prepare orders by pre-preparing the most popular dishes and getting rid of any dishes that take too long to prepare. I skillfully ignore the look of horror that comes across his face and hand him the statistics that point out people want fast food--it's obvious by how many people are buying it.
What will happen to my audience? Even if my chef doesn't immediately quit in a huff, it's pretty certain that I'll quickly drive away all of my loyal customer base. I'll lose the customers I have and will likely find myself unable to compete with the resources and processes of a McDonalds.
The story seems pretty foolish, and yet, sometimes it feels that it is precisely how newspapers today are being run. Rather than work at appealing to the readers that they have, they're chasing after television viewers, Internet junkies, and non-readers. The loyal readers are treated with almost contempt as editors and writers state with conviction that everything needs to be written in bullets and short little bites because, "No one reads anymore."
Newspapers slavishly cover pop culture in a pale imitation of entertainment networks while ignoring those readers who really want substance--those readers who have been the bread and butter of subscribers. Newspapers rabidly pursue the masses, seemingly blissfully ignorant of the Long Tail concept that reminds us that today's economy is swinging toward selling more for less rather than less for more.
It's almost a mantra in corporate America that it is more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and please a loyal customer--and loyal customers will earn you more revenue than new ones. They're also more likely to become advocates for you, doing some of your marketing work for you.
So why is it that newspapers have little interest in readers? Yes, growth is important, but there needs to be growth among people who want your product. It's an uphill battle to constantly remake yourself in an attempt to sell yourself to someone who really doesn't want you--especially if in the process you stop being what your loyal customers wanted from you.
What sparks this rant today? In part, it is this article. The vast majority of the article talks about the health of theater in Detroit--the creation of new companies, the expanded seasons, and the fact that despite financial hardships, not a single company shut its doors. Then in the final paragraph, Don Calamia reports that Marty Cohn retired from the Free Press--leaving not a single full-time arts critic at any of the dailies in the greater Detroit area.
It would be one thing if this were just a single incident. Yet, while the arts community continues to grow, flourish, and expand in surprising new directions, the coverage gets smaller and smaller. I've talked to far too many people in both the academic and arts community who say they don't bother to read the paper anymore because there is no longer anything compelling in its pages. There is no longer a reason to convince them to plop down their two quarters. They don't want something they can read in a 30-second glance. They want to read something that will provoke them, get them to think, evoke an emotion, or inspire them to do something.
How can you accomplish those things with three printed bullets?
Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.
It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.
The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.
A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.
As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?
Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?
So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).
That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.
I'm going to depart from both of the two planned entries that I have in partial draft for today's post.
Instead of talking about weightier issues, I'm going to tell you about a party I went to last night. And if you'll bear with me, you'll see that it's not totally off subject for Flyover as the party had to do with both art and journalism.
The soiree took place at the historic Gem Theatre in downtown Detroit, in a beautiful section of the city near the new field for the Lions. More than 200 people packed into the cabaret-seating style theater enjoying a cocktail reception, a show, and then a dessert reception.
The show was the Oscar Wilde Award Night, sponsored and produced by a Detroit weekly, Between the Lines, to recognize excellence in local professional theater. The newspaper puts on an excellent party and representatives from the theater community from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Lansing turn out to celebrate.
The three reviewers from the newspaper reviewed 96 productions from 31 different professional companies. When announcing the nominations, Don Calamia, staff arts critic wrote:
For despite the second worst economy in the nation that seemingly kept a noticeable number of paying customers out of the seats and a governor who reneged on several million dollars of previously promised grant money, not one theater that Curtain Calls reviewed over the past few seasons shut its doors for financial reasons - despite numerous rumors to the contrary.
Instead, the Williamston Theatre set up shop in a sleepy little town near Lansing, and Who Wants Cake? snuck into Fabulous Ferndale with The Ringwald, a renovated home all its own. And StarBright Presents Dinner Theatre doubled its venues, one in southern Oakland County and another in northern Macomb County.
Call them crazy - and you wouldn't be the first - but these brave souls reflect the attitude of ALL Michigan thespians who believe the mitten state is a great place to live, work and raise a family - despite some major obstacles. So they stay and struggle - oftentimes for little money and even less recognition.
The staff at this newspaper understand their community and the environment it works in. More than one person expressed genuine surprise at receiving an award because, as they said, they didn't know anyone knew them. There was an amazement and gratitude that someone saw them and recognized their work.
For any in the journalism world who might wonder whether the arts community has noticed the cutback in arts coverage, let me share a moment with you. The master of ceremonies asked the newspaper's publishers to come to the stage to give out the publisher's award of excellence. Before the two women arrived at the lectern, the audience was on its feet, giving them a standing ovation. They recognized the commitment this newspaper has made to its art coverage and were eager to express their appreciation for it.
Earlier in the evening when I was talking to those same publishers about how thorough their arts coverage is, one of them said, "We're gay, we have to cover theater." A nearby actor came back with, "No, you don't have to, that's why it's great that you do."
Between the Lines is a newspaper that recognizes how vibrant the theater community is and how much coverage matters. Earlier this year, Calamia went to the publishers and said, "We need to do more." This from the critic who reviewed more than 70 shows, outstripping the two Detroit dailies and every other newspaper in that town. The publishers agreed with him. So they're soon launching Encore Michigan, a Website that will contain daily updates with new reviews every Monday morning.
Between the Lines is a shining beacon lighting the way to what is possible for newspapers to do. They demonstrate how to be part of the community while providing outstanding arts coverage. They understand their role in the ecosystem. While the artists may not always like what they say, they're grateful that someone is out there talking about their art, letting them know that they were heard, and telling others what is happening.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog