Mike Daisey and arts critics at Philadelphia Theatre Company

Theater and journalism confront the abyss

Say this much for Paige Price, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new producing artistic director: on the surface, at least, she is a gutsy woman.

Philadelphia Theatre Company artistic director Paige Price. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Theatre Company.)

Earlier this year, Price uprooted herself from Aspen, Colorado, to take charge of PTC, a once-cutting-edge, 43-year-old theater company now struggling with a financial crisis and an identity crisis.

Upon her arrival last spring, Price announced that PTC would produce no plays during the current season. Instead, its state-of-the-art Suzanne Roberts Theatre would host outside productions while Price takes a year to “thoughtfully see how we fit into the scene.”

The bill she rustled up this past weekend amounted to a digital-age requiem for theater and journalism alike. First came a panel discussion among theater critics who, to hear them tell it, have been demoted from exalted high priests to grubby flacks surviving on clicks, scoops, and whatever odd jobs they can find. After that, The End of Journalism, a two-hour rant by Mike Daisey, a monologist who drew analogies between theater and journalism (“Everything is performance art!”) and implied that both are going down the tubes. (“Theater has been in retraction my entire adult life.”)

Skewering Broadway

The five high-powered panelists were characterized by a refreshing mixture of candor, gallows humor, and rationalizations concerning their fate. John Timpane, who these days covers theater for the Inquirer as well as books, dance, art, museums, and classical music, noted that the news and editorial staffs of the Inky and Daily News have shrunk from 700 people when he arrived 20 years ago to about 150 today. “We’re not a newspaper anymore,” he explained. “We’re a website that puts out a newspaper.”

BSR’s editor, Wendy Rosenfield, recounted her lifelong ambition to become the Inquirer’s theater critic — a position that was eliminated just as she was on the cusp of reaching it. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune spoke of the new instant gratification of audience feedback, usually measured in terms of clicks and sales of tickets to the shows he reviews. Michael Riedel, the brash enfant terrible of the New York Post, attributed his survival not to traditional reviews and commentary but to his gleeful skewering of Broadway shows and personalities, and scolded critics who think the world owes them a permanent living. John Moore — former theater critic of the Denver Post, now “senior arts journalist” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts — described his current role as “advocacy journalism," or writing promotional features and interviews, which sounds to me more like public-relations work than journalism.

Monologist Mike Daisey channels his anger into social commentary. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)
Monologist Mike Daisey channels his anger into social commentary. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

Amid these paeans to today’s brave new world of instant connection, it was left to Rosenfield to suggest there might still be a role for critics who provide honest and independent insight to their readers or seek to uphold artistic standards. Of course, Rosenfield (like all of us at BSR) works only part-time; she enjoys the luxury of such high-minded sentiments at least partly because she isn't her family's primary breadwinner.

Penis problem

Daisey fashioned his successful career by channeling his anger into humor — surely a more constructive approach to today’s world than, say, casting a protest vote for Donald Trump. Many of his points about journalism struck me as obvious. Do we really need to be told that "there’s no such thing as an objective anything” or that "there never was a period when journalism had no advertising?" But Daisey’s perceptions of journalists as performance artists struck me as novel and insightful, as did his observation that, to judge from mass media, “only recently did men start taking out their penises and doing bad things to women.”

Amid Saturday’s double helping of gloom, I couldn’t help wondering: Is there no silver lining to this cloud — like, perhaps, the demise of pompous critics who functioned for decades as cultural dictators? Today’s model of internet journalism, Michael Riedel reminded his audience, functions at the capricious mercy of Google and Facebook. But is that model any more capricious than the old newspaper model, which was at the mercy of department-store advertisers and often-dysfunctional ownership families? Is it not remotely possible that, sometime between now and the end of time, someone will figure out a way to make money on the internet from good journalism?

A scene from Pig Iron Theatre Company's 2017 Curated FringeArts production 'A Period of Animate Existence.'  (Photo by Maria Baranova.)
A scene from Pig Iron Theatre Company's 2017 Curated FringeArts production 'A Period of Animate Existence.' (Photo by Maria Baranova.)

BSR began operating 12 years ago as a peripheral online observer of Philadelphia’s arts scene. Today, thanks to all those local-media layoffs and buyouts, we now find ourselves a central player. Critics and arts journalists hungry for an outlet now beat a path to our door. The token $50 and $100 fees we have paid our contributors all along are now, we are told, sometimes feeding entire journalistic households.

Foundation models

Why, when arts and culture seem to be growing everywhere, are conventional mass media reducing their arts coverage? On the surface, it makes no rational sense.

Perhaps today’s expansion of arts and culture is driven not so much by audience demand as by the widespread creative urge for self-expression — as well as the growth of foundation support. Everyone, it seems, wants to put on a show, just as everyone wants to be a critic on the internet. If you possess sufficient grant-writing skills to obtain a $300,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts (as Pig Iron Theatre Company recently did for five performances of A Period of Animate Existence), why worry excessively about attracting an audience?

Even newspapers — yes, even Broad Street Review — have rejected the for-profit model. (The Inquirer is now owned by a foundation.) If you lack investors who’ve invested their life’s savings in your play or orchestra or museum or dance company… do you see what I mean?

The existential crisis currently plaguing Philadelphia Theatre Company is a merely a microcosm of a much larger crisis confronting both theater and journalism alike. But as Nietszche put it — or was it Donald Trump? — “Out of chaos comes order.” In electing to take a year off to pause and meditate about the future of her craft, Price proves herself not only gutsy but sensible as well.

Our readers respond

Jason Brando

of Mount Hamilton, CA on November 14, 2017

With due respect, Dan, have you ever criticized Comcast for not doing more to advance the causes you hold so dear? In the interest of full disclosure, how much have your projects been compensated by Comcast, and when have you ever made unfavorable charges against the Roberts family and Davey "good til the last bite'"Cohen?

Author's Response

To answer your questions:

1) Broad Street Review has never received a cent from Comcast, nor have we ever applied to Comcast for support.

2) For my own comments about Comcast posted in BSR, I refer you to "The power and the glory: Brian Roberts meets the press" (April 5, 2014) and "David Cohen meets his maker" (August 1, 2014). Enjoy.

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