Art

Cover Me!: Where have all the arts writers gone?

I should start by mentioning that even writing this would normally be considered a conflict of interest.

That’s because for the past nine years, I’ve run a theater company.

A small one.

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As in, “you could fit in the back of a pick-up” small.

Part of running a small theater company, in addition to producing, you know, theater, involves endlessly chasing down press and coverage for the work you’re doing.

If you’re lucky, you can get a feature here and there for something you’re working on.

If you’re really lucky, you can get a feature and a review for whatever that thing is.

And if you get both, I assume you’re married to Rupert Murdoch.

I’m sure there are parts of the country where getting people to write about your work is not difficult, and goodness knows I am far luckier than most when it comes to press, but that’s partly because when people ignore me, I dress up a pug to look like Ophelia or antagonize the star of Pineapple Express.

I’ve often been accused of producing “stunts,” and it’s not an unfair assessment, but I would always point out that stunts get you a returned phone call from an arts writer or a critic, whereas the best production of some play anyone has ever seen could possibly get you a mention in someone’s Facebook status.

We have a serious problem with arts and arts writing, and while it may be tempting to blame it all on the pandemic, the reality is, it’s been an issue for far longer than that, and it needs to be added to the long list of things we should be addressing before we even think about getting back onstage.

Before we get too far into this, let me just say that I’m sure some of what I’m about to say is not going over well with some people, so I’d like to preface it all by stating that I understand most of these problems are not the result of any one person (aside from Rupert Murdoch, probably), and that systemic elitism and capitalism are likely to blame for it, just like everything else, but by not talking about it, or by pulling the ol’ “That’s just the way it is” mantra that I heard over and over again when I was asking why coverage for my work and the work of other smaller theaters in the area was so inconsistent, we are looking at a problem that is not all that hard to fix and claiming it unfixable.

And if we can’t fix the fixable problems, what chance do we have to fix the bigger ones?

So all that being said, let’s talk about pay-to-play.

(I can already feel you bristling. It’s okay. Take a deep breath. It’s not going to be as bad as you think. Or maybe it is, but there’s no way you’re going to stop reading now.)

I am not naive to the ways in which money affects just about everything, but perhaps there’s a small part of me that would like to believe a state that constantly — and accurately — touts its arts sector as its main selling point would see the value in writing about and spotlighting as much of that sector as possible.

Instead, we see publications giving coverage to the same major arts organizations time and again, and those organizations just so happen to have the money to take out large ads in the pages of those newspapers and magazines.

Now, I’m not faulting any theater for how it chooses to advertise, and indeed, if most of us were able to afford to play the game, I’m sure we’d play it happily as well, but it doesn’t make it any less distasteful that some of the best productions I’ve seen in recent memory went mostly unwritten about, because it was happening at a theater that couldn’t afford to advertise.

Do I have any proof that advertising will automatically get you more coverage?

Well, if you look at who is getting the coverage and who isn’t, and what both of those groups are doing and not doing, it seems logical to assume that ad dollars are playing a part, and if they aren’t, that means the size of the theater or its perceived reputation or longevity is a factor, and I can’t think of a better way to tank a blossoming arts community than to have the media in that community telegraph to its young artists that whatever they do or create will go mainly unrecognized unless they do it somewhere that has been deemed “reputable” or “impressive.”

You can imagine what would have happened to the adventurous spirit in theater communities like New York or Chicago if the arts writers there had balked at going to an opening night that wasn’t catered or asked to review a show without being given two free drink tickets along with their program. I’m starting to pray that the founders of the next Steppenwolf or NYTW aren’t going to make a go of it in Rhode Island, because chances are, they’ll be widely ignored.

And if I sound like I’m being unreasonable, please know that I have tried to meet editors and publishers halfway so many times, I now own a condo at the halfway point.

In fact, I once suggested to an editor that if space in a newspaper was an issue, and I’m sure it is, could he just agree to send someone to write about my theater’s work and only post the article or review online. I assured him that wouldn’t bother me at all since most of my audience base would still see it. I stopped just short of saying, “Because none of them read your newspaper anyway,” because I was attempting to be diplomatic.

I was then told that even writing something digitally would be fiscally prohibitive, and I dropped the matter, believing what I was told.

Two days later, an article appeared on the front page of this newspaper’s arts section all about a random actor in a random tour that was coming through town, and I had to wonder how that kind of coverage could fit within a budget?

A puff piece to promote a project that really had no local ties whatsoever aside from the fact that it was playing a local venue that regularly advertises in the paper.

Now listen, I’m not against puff pieces. I’ve written them and I’ll read them, but if something has to be prioritized, I think it only makes sense to prioritize local arts in a local paper before you get around to writing yet another review of the latest non-eq Jesus Christ Superstar tour that’s rolling through the town for a total of three performances.

I’m not speaking morally either.

Yes, covering local theater is the right thing to do, but it also just makes sense from a business standpoint.

My mother has no interest in who’s playing Elphaba in the latest Wicked tour, but if I’m in even so much as a blurb in The Providence Journal, she buys out the newsstand, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that. Yes, ad money is important, but so is a paper’s responsibility to cover stories based on the interest level of its local readership, which subsequently turns into an investment in that institution.

We frequently hear about how the media is under assault and we need to support our local papers, and I agree with that, but local arts writers, just like our local theaters, also need to be spending this time, as my friend Aaron Blanck says, justifying why they should exist. And if their best argument for that happens to be a thousand words on somebody growing a zucchini that looks like Roger Williams, I’m not sure they’re going to be around much longer.

This might be when you present me with the argument that because theaters are not regularly producing in-person programming right now, there isn’t anything to write about, and you’d be arguing that with someone who has done nothing but write since all of this began. That isn’t me patting myself on the back (okay, maybe a little), but it is pointing out that when there’s no art, there are still artists, and artists are worth writing about, especially as it pertains to how important they are, the fact that they’re human beings with bills and livelihoods and personalities and interests that stretch beyond spending five minutes on the phone promoting their latest project.

What an amazing opportunity we’ve been given right now to talk to artists about their creative process, what they do when they’re not onstage, what they’d like to see happen when theaters come back.

Human interest stories, remember those?

And no, the Roger Williams zucchini does not count as human interest.

I spent months after the pandemic began speaking to artistic directors from all kinds of theaters about how they were weathering the storm. I’ve reviewed digital productions. I’ve written think-pieces like this that nobody asked for, but seemed worth working on anyway.

There is still plenty to write about, and arts writers or editors saying there isn’t is a failure of imagination from a group of people whose job is to celebrate imagination.

This is also not a problem that is specific to Rhode Island. I’ve heard from theaters all over the country about how their local papers and publications are letting them down at a crucial moment. Yes, many of those papers are, themselves, in dire straits, but isn’t that all the more reason why we should be helping each other, and giving each other reasons to champion the work being done on both sides?

While it would be arguably more awful if the arts sections just up and disappeared, at least then, there would be a certain amount of equity to the matter.

Okay, we’re on our own. It’s horrendous, but at least there’s a level playing field.

Instead, what we’re met with is the same, ongoing nonsense that we’ve seen for years–

Smaller organizations not only being ignored, but being given no rhyme or reason for why, and certainly no criteria for how they can find themselves in their local paper, because, chances are, the criteria involves money, but nobody wants to admit that, so instead, many of us just cross our fingers and hope we’ll do something so undeniably brilliant that editors will feel they have no choice but to send in their critics.

I once sat next to a group of women at Trinity Rep who told me they loved theater and wanted to see more of it. My ears perked up, and I asked them what theaters they were currently subscribed to.

“Well, we see everything here,” one of them said, meaning Trinity. “And we go to PPAC, and the Gamm, and Theater by the Sea, but we wish we had a few more to choose from.”

I then started listing other theaters, including my own, that they could check out. They were stunned. They had no idea any of these places existed. They were general audience-goers. A bit older, and not that active on social media. The way they located events and organizations was by reading the Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, Providence Monthly, and one or two other publications. While nearly every theater appears in at least a few of those once or twice, they regular spotlight on the bigger groups guaranteed that, as far people like these were concerned, they only needed to memorize the names of a handful of places.

The age-old argument that reviews don’t matter and you shouldn’t read them is not without merit, but even at the height of online participation, there is still the feeling that if nobody is writing about you, it’s because there’s nothing there worth writing about, and that is unacceptable, but not likely to change, which means what does have to change are the people doing the writing or the ones handing out assignments.

That’s where you come in.

Right now, you’ve probably heard a lot about how much artists need your help, particularly your money, and that’s still true. If you can donate to a fund that’s supporting artists and freelancers right now, please do.

If you don’t have the money to donate, there are still things you can do to help, and I’ll be writing more about them later this month, but for now, here’s one thing you can do–

Call whoever is left at your local paper and tell them they need to be consistently writing about local artists, and they need to be sure to spread the wealth. Chances are, if the first one happens, then the second won’t be hard to do.

If you see that a local theater is putting on a digital production of something, or revamping their Instagram, or even regularly making an effort to keep a presence online until this is over, consider writing to an editor and telling them they should be writing stories about it.

They’re going to tell you it’s a financial matter, and while that might not be a lie, the fact is–

They have to write about something, and if you’ve pursued any of these magazines or newspapers lately, you can see that they are writing about a lot of–forgive the term–utter crap.

If there’s room for movie reviews, there’s room for a profile of a local set designer.

If there’s room for articles online that are rerun from the AP about a celebrity marriage, there’s room for a reporter to spend a day at a small theater that’s struggling to keep the doors open.

If there is room for politics and sports and inflammatory hate-speech masquerading as “opinion pieces,” then there is room for the arts.

If you’re going to put arts on the tourism brochure, you need to put us in The Providence Journal as well.

And if anybody working at The Providence Journal or Providence Business News or Providence Monthly or Rhode Island Monthly, or any of the many papers in cities and towns all over the state reading this, feels angered by what I’ve said, I have good news for you. 

You can do better.

And I look forward to reading all about it when you do.

Ed. note: Motif maintains a strict separation between our ad and editorial departments, and we never engage in pay for play.

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