Results tagged “atca” from Drama Queen

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)

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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)
Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)
Maybe you thought the muted furor surrounding the Tony Awards' decision to eject critics from its voters' ranks died away. After all, it's not like it was such an important decision anyway, right? And it's not like it affected that many people, right? Well wrong. It affects all of you, and by you, I don't just mean those of you who clicked through to this blog. I mean you as consumers of American culture. 

Today, American Theatre Critics Association Chairman Christopher Rawson sent a letter to the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing alerting them that we will not go quietly (though we're pretty polite, considering). Our ranks might be thinner, but if there's one thing critics know how to do well, it's bitch loudly about something we don't like. I'm a member of ATCA, and if you're a critic, you ought to be too. There's strength in numbers, and--being a bookish lot, who've spat out an awful lot of bully sand lately--we could really use those numbers to help the cause.

If you're not a critic, you know you read our reviews, and there might even be a critic or two whose opinion you respect. Send your own damn letter here and here and tell these chumps that a bunch of directors (or producers, or whatever you're not) voting for their friends does not a credible award make. After all, when your mommy told you you were the best one onstage, it was nice, but you didn't really believe her, did you? Did you?

As goes Broadway, so goes the nation, at least within a few years, when national tours begin hitting the road. Without critics slipping through the Tonys' highly entrenched voter ranks, plenty of editorials on the subject assert that the plays and musicals you'd get out here in the hinterlands would be an endless parade of Wickeds, and Legally Blondes--which they are anyway, and p.s., I liked Legally Blonde--but with no hope of a Rent or Spring Awakening surging forward to help electrify regional audiences and expand our dramatic expectations. 

Listen, don't do it for me, I only get to New York once or twice a year anyway. Do it for the benefit of our theater. Because that's what's really hurt by this decision.
August 7, 2009 4:35 PM | | Comments (3)
Just got this comment from Arden Theatre Artistic Director Terry Nolen:

"Thanks for the entries about the ATCA conference. Good to hear what is
going on nationally. Surprised to read that Chris Rawson is now a
freelancer. Has that changed the amount of coverage in the
Post-Gazette? Perhaps the ATCA website should include links to
critics' blogs. I read Chris Jones and John Moore's blogs--useful to
stay connected to the work in their communities and their perspective
on the national scene. Curious to know what other critics have blogs."

And though I hope Nolen doesn't mind that I'm using it as the basis for this post American Theatre Critics Association wrap-up post, I'm glad he asked. 

First things first, yes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Chris Rawson is indeed a freelancer now, having taken a buyout from the paper, which really should come as no surprise to anyone watching the decline of... everything. During a panel on the changing face of theater criticism, he said the Post-Gazette now uses four theater critics, all freelance. It doesn't seem to have changed the paper's coverage, but he would know more about the intricacies of that issue than I do.

As for ATCA's website including links to member blogs, well, funny thing. I was drafted onto a committee headed by ATCA's webmistress Gwen Orel, whose sole purpose is to improve that site. The big plan is to provide both public and private content, but yes, links to member work online, including blogs, Twitter feeds, whatever, will be available to the public, and we realize, the sooner the better. Ideas are welcome, and as soon as the pixels of progress start moving, you'll be among the first to hear.

But posting blog links is really only the portal to a much wider conversation. If most theater critics are bloggers, well, does that make most theater bloggers eligible to be critics? Way back when I first joined the organization and attended my first conference--as a freelancer (albeit the only theater critic) for Philadelphia Weekly--so lowly a thing was I, I barely made conversation with most of the daily news staffers who populated ATCA's member rolls.

Now? Of roughly 50 member critics attending the Sarasota conference, when Rawson asked, "Who in this room is a full-time staff reviewer?" one lonely hand went up. And mind you, that hand, belonging to the Miami Herald's Christine Dolen (the other Drama Queen) wasn't raised very far above her head. After all, who knows what will be happening at her newspaper this time next year? (That count doesn't include the conference's unflappable organizer, Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Jay Handelman, who was no doubt busy organizing at the time.)

So how to evaluate applicants without qualifying ATCA into extinction? One of the reasons New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel was chosen to address the group (aside, of course, from his mad skills) was that his voice--insiderish, gossipy, brash--is now the rule rather than the exception in online theater coverage. But is he a critic? Well, no. And yet he writes about theater full-time, at a moment when most critics are unable to do so. 

What gives a theater writer credibility these days? Money? Insight? We theater writers would love to know.
May 5, 2009 8:19 AM | | Comments (0)

Quite a bit of talk at yesterday's installment of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) annual meeting about the state of both our profession and our organization's website. As I mentioned yesterday, this year's attendees are mostly freelancers, though they didn't all start out that way. Even ATCA's chair, Chris Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, took a buyout recently and now writes for his paper as a freelancer. Rawson said he took the buyout when his union's rules regarding former staffers became more freelancer-friendly. Before, if you took the buyout, it was goodbye forever; now, well, if they did that, it would be goodbye forever to the paper as well. Used to be that freelancers were viewed as industry scabs; now we are the industry. So it goes.

Meanwhile, though theater criticism is experiencing a sea change, ATCA's website is still a distressingly static affair that's used mostly as an online bulletin board--and by that, I don't mean one of those interactive boards with message threads. I mean literally, an online bulletin board missing only the thumb tacks, where notices are posted and left there until someone takes them down and replaces them with other notices. It's kind of a sad metaphor for the state of affairs of a bunch of fusty old outdated opinion peddlers like us.

Happily, at least that facet of the profession is about to change. Gwen Orel, a freelance writer who, in her prolific reporting/reviewing, covers New York theater for the Wall Street Journal and Village Voice among other publications, was appointed ATCA's webmistress. The implications for ATCA's website are grand indeed (Links to member work? A searchable database of reviews? Bring. It. On.), though its specifics are yet to be determined. Got any ideas? Send them my way and I'll relay them at Friday's meeting on the subject.

Oh, and yeah, there's also some actual theater going on. Last night the group saw Asolo Rep's production of The Devil's Disciple, and today we're headed back to Asolo for The Winter's Tale and Jeff Hatcher's Murderers. So did the Shaw evoke a narrowing or widening of all those critical eyes? My extremely informal survey says the eyes generally narrowed, but not to slits, though some actually closed all the way and enjoyed a little snooze. Nice enough performance by an underutilized Dan Donohue, though the production itself is shackled by some significantly less nice performances and Tony Walton's deflated direction. Hey, you invite 50 critics into your home, however lovely it may be (and Asolo, a jewel box on the grounds of the gorgeously lush Ringling Museum is truly lovely) you gotta expect some critique.

April 30, 2009 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)

If you're wondering what goes on at a theater critics' conference these days, it's probably exactly what you'd expect: lots of shows and lots of fretting. The American Theatre Critics' Association's (ATCA) annual meeting here in Sarasota skews way, way older than, say, the median age at the NEA or O'Neill institutes, but the worries are the same, and tellingly, there are almost no full-time staffers here, but plenty of print freelancers and online contributors.

Yesterday saw a posh dinner at the Gulfside of home of Asolo rep's board president and a command performance from Florida Studio Theatre's improv and musical cabaret performers, who, to my surprise, bested the talents I saw at my recent visit to Chicago's Second City. Who knew. 

Today's events (thus far) have included a "Perspectives in Theater Criticism" lecture with New York Post theater columnist Michael Reidel. The Perspectives series began in 1992 with Clive Barnes as its inaugural speaker. So what did we learn this year? Well, for one thing, if you're a journalist, it helps to have your paper owned by Rupert Murdoch; Riedel's travel to the hinterlands to peek in on pre-Broadway tryouts is still subsidized by the Post, while everywhere else you practically have to run down the accounting staff in order to get reimbursed for tolls. Also, during filming for Riedel's The Norman Conquests opening night webcast, the show's producer, Kevin Spacey, was Twittering about it, a fact that's unsettling for both its satirical implications and cut-out-the-middleman directness

But we also learned that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette theater critic Chris Rawson pulled out a press release from that initial year, whose copy read in part,

"These are difficult times for theater critics, with space for theater coverage shrinking, papers relying more and more on part-time or freelance critics, and, in many cities, papers folding. Reminders of the importance and event he high honor of our calling are more necessary than ever."

Ah, the good old days.

Hopefully Riedel's full lecture will be on YouTube shortly, and when it is, I'll add the link in an update here.

Remaining today is another lecture about the state of theater criticism, and a visit to Asolo Rep to see G.B. Shaw's The Devil's Disciple.

April 29, 2009 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Okay, so I took a little "break" from blogging. In the interim, I watched newspapers slide even deeper into the abyss, got scared, wrote a bunch of reviews and features (one that required me to interview children's novelist Jerry Spinelli, which makes me an awfully cool mom), and applied--and was accepted to--graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Isn't that what you do with your time off? And hey, maybe you didn't even notice I was gone, so it's all good. 

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In any case, I'm planning a blogging blitz this week, starting exactly tomorrow, Tuesday, April 28, when the 2009 American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) holds its 36th annual conference this year in Sarasota, Florida. The organization is going with the circus metaphor, Sarasota being the home of John and Mable Ringling, but I think it's also a pretty appropriate location for a profession that's being forced into early retirement. I mean, Sarasota may be culturally ascendant--and certainly, it is one of the state's theater centers--but Florida didn't earn the nickname "death's waiting room" among my mishpucha for nothing. 

I'll be down there taking notes and passing them on to you. (Shhhh, don't tell anyone, I don't wanna get detention--detention for theater critics being some form of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, though not Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, because we'll be seeing that one voluntarily, and because I kind of like it.) I'll also be Twittering about the conference every chance I get, using the hashtag #ATCA (unless someone prefers that I just stick with #theatre), and hopefully with some input from you and from my esteemed colleagues. If you have any issues you'd like me to raise, by all means send them my way. And if you haven't signed up for Twitter yet but are online reading this blog entry, well, at this point you're just being perverse.

Alongside the theatrical smorgasbord and festive wine and dines or meet and greets, there will be much discussion about the state of theater criticism in this country. I fully expect this year's conference to be perhaps the most, um, critical in ATCA's entire history. Hope you'll join me.
April 27, 2009 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
I was unable to attend this year's American Theatre Critics' Conference in Washington, D.C. last week (had to review five shows in five nights), and would really like to hear from those who attended. Was there much formal discussion about the state of employment for critics? Discussion of unions? What were the pressing issues and highlights of the event? Lowlights? 

Please report here about what went on and what was missing. I'm eagerly awaiting the news. 
Thanks, and I'll definitely be there next year in Sarasota.
June 24, 2008 9:39 PM | | Comments (2)
I'm just gonna say here that finally, it all got me down. After hearing about the death of criticism, the death of books, the death of theater (actually, this book isn't about the death of theater, but its clarion call for an acknowledgment of theater's sociological significance seems awfully desperate), the death of severance packages, the news from a colleague that her new assignment to her paper's arts beat ended before it began, and the actual death of a laid-off theater critic, I started to wonder what's the point? I mean, I can blog all I want, but isn't that part of the problem? Why buy the cow?...

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Anyway, after a couple of days where I sunk so low I ended up going running with my IPod set to a wrist-slitting all-Radiohead shuffle (try clearing your thoughts with that going on), it occurred to me that Radiohead gave away their last album. Why? Because the dying old model wasn't serving them any longer, and they decided that rather than wait around for the machine to fix itself, they'd make a better, stronger one. And so they did.

Here's what I think: 

  1. We must demand arts education in our schools. You can check my old posts about this issue to see how crucial it is for the future of arts journalism, and for the state of the arts in general.
  2. Cross your fingers and hope we get Obama in the White House come November. Better yet, let everyone you know in on his support for the arts and arts education (this is a blog entry from the days when I was still undecided) and on John McCain's utter disdain for both. If you think things are bad now, wait and see what happens when McCain eliminates funding for the NEA.
  3. Encourage the next generation of arts journalists. Rather than discouraging them, as Eric Bentley suggests, send them to J-schools by the score. These kids never knew a world without the internet, and they will be the ones to re-shape journalism as we know it. We might as well do everything we can to ensure that future has a heavy artistic bias. If you discourage students from becoming arts journalists, then yes, the field will die, it will be your fault, and you will be haunted by Oscar Wilde's ghost for the rest of your days. 
  4. Unionize. Been laid off and re-hired as a freelancer? Join the Freelancer's Union. It's lonely out there scarfing donuts in front of your computer all day, and will only get lonelier. You don't have to form a coven and meet in basements every week with charts and hot coffee (although if you've got that going, then good for you). Get connected and still maintain your computer/donut schedule by signing up for listservs and online discussions.
  5.  Join every relevant organization you can. There's power in numbers, and right now arts journalists are feeling completely powerless. Join NAJP, join your national critics' organization (for theater critics, it's ATCA). You are not the only one freaking out--repeat after me, "I am not the only one freaking out."--but if you're doing it alone, you're wasting your energy; use it instead to create a better, stronger machine.
Take off your headphones (and turn off Radiohead, for God's sake, they'll only make things worse), raise that glazed cruller, and refuse to accept defeat. For arts journalists (unlike Hillary), there is no better option; we do our job, or our civilization loses a record of its contemporary cultural significance. 

Now get to work and let me know what you've come up with.


June 5, 2008 12:43 AM | | Comments (4)
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