I am both vexed and thrilled by The New York Times’ decision to stop hiring writers to write regional theatre reviews as of August 29, 2016, when it discontinues printing regional editions of the Metropolitan Section.
Theatre is critical for personal growth and for a functional democratic society. From our earliest years as humans, we are drawn to “play pretend” with our friends and toys, and we respond to hearing, reading, and watching narrative stories, especially those we can relate to. When we grow up, live performances are more special than television shows or movies, and we demonstrate this by making a big deal about going to the theatre: booking tickets in advance, paying more for them, going out to dinner, and “making a night of it.”
What is the difference between movie night and a night at the theatre? In theatre there is no screen separating us from the characters on stage: replicas of ourselves and our neighbors who show us how to react and not to react to situations we’ve encountered or narrowly escaped. They show us the dilemma of a young black man who has been released from jail and knows he’ll never get a job (The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, produced at Luna Stage Company in West Orange, NJ last winter). They show us how recovering addicts must battle temptation every minute of the day for the rest of their lives (Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, produced by Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union, NJ this summer). They show us what can happen if our country is ruled by a despot (Richard III by William Shakespeare, to be produced by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, NJ this fall).
Yes, these stories can be found on film, television, and YouTube, but in theatre the scenes are played out right before our eyes, by actors who cry and kiss and punch each other only a few feet away from us and we can’t leave the room to get more popcorn. We have made a commitment to coming together with a few hundred—or maybe only 20—friends and strangers, to watch together a show that’s even more powerful than a reality show because it is reality distilled and crafted exquisitely by a troupe of professional artists—playwright, director, actors, designers—for weeks or months or years. We emerge from the theatre engrossed in discussion about what we just encountered, and though the conversation fades, the searing brand in our consciousness does not.
Watching these predicaments play out on stage helps us be better people, better lovers, better parents, better citizens. But not everyone can get to New York to see a show.
The New York Times is a 166-year-old institution that many have come to trust as the source of unbiased information, delivered with the highest journalistic standards, which is necessary to keep us informed of what is happening in the world around us so that we can partake of and contribute to it. People look to The Times to help them decide whom to vote for in an election, and they look to The Times to help them decide how to spend Friday night. The Times used to be more than a news source; it was a curator of pursuits that were worthwhile if not indispensible. And it has decided that regional theatre is dispensable.
A review in The New York Times—even if it was less than stellar—was a seal of approval for regional theatres. The cachet that accompanied a review from the Times could resonate throughout the season. Theatres reported a distinct correlation between ticket sales and New York Times reviews. According to a 2012 report on a survey of almost 19,000 theatregoers across the country, reading reviews has a “small but significant effect on increasing anticipation levels.” The report indicated that about 35% of theatregoers read reviews before attending.
And ticket sales are a source of ever-increasing anxiety. A recent National Endowment for the Arts report indicated that the percentage of U.S. adults attending musical plays at least once in a 12-month period declined 12% between 2002 and 2012. The percentage attending non-musical plays declined 33%. Furthermore, attendance at non-musical plays by young adults age 18 to 24 dropped 44%, and in general the more youthful segments showed a steeper rate of decline. Whether the rapid disappearance of arts journalism is a cause or a result of this is irrelevant. The fact is, theatre needs arts journalists to survive because they are a critical part of the ecosystem, signaling to readers that theatre is fun and important, and constantly raising artistic standards so that theatregoers don’t feel they’ve wasted their time and their money.
I am also concerned that playwrights who have flourished in regional “playgrounds” will migrate to the five boroughs because otherwise they do not stand a chance to have their new plays reviewed by The New York Times. I worry that the fine artistic directors and directors might migrate, as well, like Emily Mann at McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton, Bonnie Monte at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and James Bundy at Yale Rep. (Or if they are happily settled into place, then I worry about finding equivalent talent to replace them in the future.)
I know The Times is not going to change its mind. The editors are on the record as saying that their “2020 Strategy” is driven by the quest for new subscribers. And lately, it has been clear that these new subscribers prefer articles about how to write perfect out-of-office emails and how to make good toast.
This disappoints me, yet it excites me, because I work in communications for regional theatre, and we are using The Times’ decision to roll up our sleeves and tackle the ongoing problem of loss of media coverage. We will be devising effective ways to keep the people who are not fortunate enough to live in New York informed that there is exceptional theatre in their own backyards, and to encourage them to read, write, and evaluate critical responses to theatre, from Kindergarten onwards. Only then will they continue to value theatre, value diverse perspectives, but most importantly value their own informed opinions, when it seems like the old establishments they’ve trusted to foster these things don’t care anymore.