I happen to follow a group of smart, funny and insightful television journalists on Twitter – among them Alyssa Rosenberg, Todd VanDerWerff, Linda Holmes, Alan Sepinwall, Kate Aurthur, Roger Catlin and June Thomas. As a result, for the last 10 days or so, my feed has been overrun with their real-time thoughts and intramural conversations about the new and returning crop of television programs, because they’ve all been together at the Television Critics Association‘s summer residency in California, where they’ve had a daily barrage of presentations by dozens of TV networks.
It’s been pretty entertaining and informative watching these folks melt when Tom Hiddleston starts quoting Shakespeare (he plays Prince Hal/Henry V in the upcoming The Hollow Crown) and get riled up when sitcoms try to defend reactionary humor about race by draping themselves in the flag of All In The Family. Even as they acknowledge their own complicity in a grand promotional scheme, they’re proving their value as cultural commentators, generating instant awareness for the upcoming TV season and no doubt stockpiling material for coverage and commentary to come.
So I ask: where’s the corollary event for American theatre?
To be sure, there are few media outlets these days that are likely to underwrite theatre journalists spending a week or more hearing comparable presentations; travel budgets are limited if they exist at all. Unlike TV, the majority of theatre is ultimately a local or regional, rather than national, event. But it strikes me that while there are any number of conferences and convenings within the field itself (i.e. the TCG conference and Broadway League spring road conference), some of which invite the press, they are designed for “internal” field conversations, rather than focused for those who write about the field. The open-to-the-public TEDx Broadway conference is, consistent with the TED template, presentational; the annual “day after the Tony nominations” press event is a mob scene of media outlets scurrying for timely soundbites from shellshocked nominees, shuttling from booth to booth, providing brief access tied to a singular event.
The American Theatre Critics Association meets twice annually, and they regularly invite artistic guests. But by and large, content is geared towards what’s taking place in the locations they visit; their winter/spring gathering is in New York every other year, with alternate spring events and the summer locale varying. I wonder how fully the broad spectrum of American theatre is available to them each year, as a result of purely logistical and budgetary considerations.
Now maybe part of the lure of the TCA events is that it allows TV journalists to be in the same room with people they normally see only on screens, or perhaps in the occasional phone interview. Certainly there’s a thread of fandom running through their tweets when certain figures appear; in addition to the Hiddleston admiration, Sesame Street characters and one of the Bunheads also provoked enthusiasm from the TV tweeters. Theatre journalists, on the other hand, are used to being in the same room as many of the artists they cover, not least because the performances are live, not on some digital medium.
But I’ve also watched as the TV journos take the opportunity to ask questions of the various panels arrayed before them, and even comment upon each others questions, as well as the sometimes informative, sometimes evasive responses from the panelists. While it seems that the networks do their very best to control the flow of events, some of the conversations that ensue can be unexpected and even messy. Still, even after day upon day of seeming incarceration in hotel meeting rooms, the writers can get fired up about the field they’re covering, both pro and con. That has enormous value.
So how do we foster this kind of engagement with the journalists who cover our field? They, like we, face enormous challenges, and we should be bonded together in our support for the arts. Yes, Twitter has created a platform where certain critics and select artistic leaders pursue truncated dialogues and debates, subject to the vagaries of happening to be online at the same time, but sustained interactions between the press and our field are usually limited to proscribed interviews on certain subjects, rarely lasting more than an hour. That’s pretty perfunctory for people who rely on one another for aspects of their livelihood, and we should do better.
I’m not suggesting a marathon event like the TCA’s, for practical reasons. But what if every summer (when fewer companies are in production), artists, commercial producers and not-for-profit heads, of ventures large and small, from around the country, had a platform for candid but on the record conversations with the theatre press? What if the ratio were more or less equal? What if journalists could speak with creators not just from their own community, but hear what’s going on in multiple locations from the people making the work, not just their peers who actually get to see it? Yes, I imagine the prospect might frighten many on the theatre side, since the instinct is to always try to control the story, but don’t you think that’s the case as well for the TV networks? Admittedly, showing the work itself would prove problematic (not an issue for TV or film), but properly constructed, an event of two or three days duration could do more than just hold participants’ interest, but inspire it as well.
This is not rocket science and the TCA event is only one model. Social and streaming media could actually open up such an event even more broadly, and if there’s one thing theatres and theatre journalists could use, it’s a broader platform, rather than an ever-narrowing one. Could this take place under the aegis of an existing entity or several banded together? Of course it could, so long as everyone seeks a common goal, not the singular aim of their own organization. Could this prove contentious at times, as thoughts are openly shared? Absolutely, but that’s what makes news, and disagreement isn’t always detrimental.
None of what I say here should be taken as criticism of any of the events that already exist in theatre or in the broader arts community. They are constructed with certain goals for distinct constituencies and each achieves their ends ably I’m sure. But perhaps we need one more event, one crafted specifically for the mutual needs and interests of those who make and produce work and those who help carry our news and work to a broader audience, instead of, on occasion, inviting them in to watch us talk among ourselves or to serve our immediate promotional needs – or being in a select group from our field invited in to talk with them. We are often in the same rooms at the same time at performances. What about being in a room where we actually converse?