FlyOver: September 2007 Archives
Over the past couple of years, I've attended two separate institutes funded by the NEA, aimed at providing small-market arts journalists with immersion in the best practices and most current theory of the arts journalism world. One institute, held at Columbia University in New York City, focused on classical music journalism. There, I sat at a table and listened as a concert review I'd written was critiqued by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Justin Davidson, and met with people like John Rockwell of the New York Times, Alex Ross of the New Yorker, and pretty much every other important classical music critic in New York. I got a great taste of the music and the writers writing about the music of New York.
The second institute, held last winter at the USC Annenberg School of Communication, focused on theater criticism. I soaked in lectures by John Lahr, the theater critic at the New Yorker; had drinks with Michael Phillips (formerly the lead theater critic at the LA Times; now film critic at the Chicago Tribune); and generally developed a sense of what life as a full-time theater critic is like.
That is not, however, my life. Nor is it the life of any but a few writers in this country.
Here's my life, sampled from the past two weeks:
Preview a concert by a classical guitarist, a concert by a blues sax player, a concert by a south African choir, and a bunch of rock shows at local clubs (the last of which didn't seem to end up online).
Write a spot news piece about a poetry reading at a bus terminal, and a different spot news piece about a party celebrating the end of fire season in Seeley, Montana (please excuse the typo in the first sentence of that one; it was inserted by an editor).
And, finally, write two different columns (first this one, then this one) following up on a question I asked here at Flyover a couple of weeks ago, regarding why free performances draw such better crowds than ticketed performances.
All of this - yes, even the spot news stuff -- falls into my job as arts and entertainment reporter at the Missoulian, a 30,000-ish circulation daily published in Missoula, a town of 60,000-ish people. Because of the staff-size of the paper and the peculiar characteristics of our local culture scene, my job description is quite broad: I am reporter and critic of all arts visual, theatrical, musical; highbrow, lowbrow, and otherwise...And in my "spare" time, I get the occasional fire roundup or car-crash report to write.
My job description calls for me to produce upwards of 250 articles a year, chronicling the entire breadth of our local cultural scene.
In these respects, I am like most arts journalists in America. From what I've seen at those NEA institutes, we tend to be semi-specialists in a certain area of the arts (I'm a former classical percussionist), who by necessity must obtain (or feign) authority in a host of other arts that we may only know passingly, if at all.
Our jobs are not really much like John Lahr's job; but then, our local theater isn't like New York's local theater, and our local cultures aren't that culture.
Make no mistake: I'd love to be the full-time staff theater critic for the Missoulian. After all, that'd mean I'd only have to produce a maximum of 30 or so stories per year for the paper. That's how many productions we see in this town; and that's counting one-off independent productions, community theater, university shows -- pretty much everything.
Realistically though, I have to be a generalist. This fits my nature pretty well, fortunately. I get bored doing just one thing over and over again.
But I know my broad and shallow knowledge may not serve some of our local arts organizations as well as if I were devoted to their particular artistic idiom.
So it's a quandary, not just for me, but for the whole of my local arts scene: How to keep the level of dialogue high in the newspaper, while dealing with the practicalities that come with the nature of the job.
Is it even possible?
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took our four-month-old baby to a park in the center of the University of Montana campus for an outdoor performance by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, a touring company that's been bringing professional theater to rural communities in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for 35 years now. The performance was attended by about 600 other locals, most of whom - like us - brought a picnic dinner and lawn chairs to make ourselves comfortable for the free performance.
As we sat waiting for the show to begin, a girl of about six years walked past, holding her mother's hand, and asked innocently, "Mom, what's Shakespeare about?"
The performance that night wasn't actually a Shakespeare play (the company typically tours with one play by Shakespeare and one by another author, performing the two in alternation). The night we attended, it was George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House," a play that probably few people in attendance had even heard of before last week.
Missoula is not, after all, a theater-rich town. While there's usually some production or another going on somewhere in town, the fact is that Missoula's only professional equity theater company, Montana Repertory Theatre, is a touring company that spends most of its time performing elsewhere. Most local theater is presented by non-professional community groups, university students, and one-off independent production companies.
As I strained to hear the actors that night in the park, shielding my eyes from the blazing sun as it fell toward the horizon, I wondered at the fact that the crowds for these two-nights-a-year performances show up at all. With so little in the way of a cultivated local audience for theater, and given the constraints of the performance space - the poor sound, the distracting sights and sounds that come from setting up in the middle of a college campus in session, and so-on - it surprises me that these performances would draw so many people out on a weeknight in the middle of summer.
My thoughts wandered to the Missoula Symphony Orchestra's August 12 performance in Caras Park, a riverside expanse that plays host to brewfests and other events practically every weekend day during the Missoula summer. Despite a heavy blanket of smoke laid over the city that night from area wildfires, a couple thousand people showed up with their picnics and lawn chairs to listen to the orchestra play a program of light, "pops" fare.
The free concert by the orchestra has been a tradition for three years now, and each time it happens, between 1,500 and 3,000 people show up. That's considerably more people than typically show up during the orchestra's regular subscription season, even if you count both concerts in the orchestra's Saturday/Sunday paired performances.
All this has got me wondering: Why do so many people come to those outdoor events but skip the indoor ones during the rest of the year? Is it the free admission, the relaxed social codes, the repertoire, or what?
I've seen others address this question from various angles. Over at Adaptistration, Drew McManus has delved into the question, several times, of whether these free concerts really help orchestras build audience.
Terry Teachout admits having a soft place in his heart for free performances, but hasn't (as far as I've seen) gotten into why - or why he thinks others share that love.
But none of this really addresses why free outdoor concerts are such consistent hits in the first place - often far moreso than the bread-and-butter core programming of theater companies and orchestras around the country. Why would people endure bad sight-lines, lousy sound, audience noise, and all of that for an outdoor show, yet never set foot inside a concert hall? Some make the crossover, sure. But judging from the vast difference in audience numbers, one must assume that plenty never make that leap of faith.
I have my off-the-cuff theories about this, but I'm wondering first what others think.