Thinking About Theater

The Critic, the Worker, and the Business Model

Some striking similarities.

Anti-union boss: Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister in <i>The Cradle Will Rock</i>
Anti-union boss: Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister in The Cradle Will Rock
(© Joan Marcus)

Lately, ominous signs suggest that “theater critic” may be disappearing as a job description. My own dismissal as a staff writer for The Village Voice at the end of May was framed on either side by similar events: A few weeks earlier, Backstage did away with its entire reviews section; a few weeks later, The Associated Press announced that it would no longer review Off-Broadway, classical music, or opera.

These curtailings are part of a larger pattern, and I’m not going to claim that arts critics deserve special exemption from it; this essay is not a personal vent. As journalism gradually completes the transition from print world to Web world, the owners of news outlets find that cutting costs is at least a partial road to survival, maybe even to profit. And the “new” business model, in every field, starts with the premise that cutting staff equals cutting costs. Journalists, and particularly arts journalists, may feel themselves unjustly singled out; the unemployment statistics tell a different story.

The “high” arts — Bacchus forgive me for including theater among them — do get singled out to some degree, and with reason. In strictly numerical terms, they interest fewer readers. Ergo, fewer Web hits, ergo less big-market advertising. Freelancers can take up the slack; they’re paid less, and their hiring doesn’t make the firm shell out for all those pesky extra expenditures like unemployment insurance, Social Security, health care, and so on. Press releases, reproduced verbatim, can fill in any omissions; on the periodic occasions when a big name looms in a “high” art event, like an international opera star arriving at the Met, or a movie superstar condescending to do a Broadway show, some reasonably cultivated staff reporter can be dragooned into covering it.

This isn’t so far from the way newspapers used to operate. Countless ancient anecdotes tell how journalists got hauled off the police beat or the sports desk, because no one else was available to cover a chamber-music series or the Comédie-Française’s latest visit. Here’s how Danton Walker, Broadway columnist for one of the leading tabs in the 1940s and ’50s, began: Because the city editor once heard him say that he had been to an opera, they yanked him from his drudge job editing financial news and dispatched him to cover the opening of Lakmé at the Met. His review caused a sensation by centering on Lily Pons’s naked navel; two days later he was an arts journalist.

Walker, luckily for his overenthusiastic editors, was a cultured gent who actually knew something about theater and music. (He had even seen Lakmé before, having spent a few years in Paris.) But freelancers don’t come with guarantees attached; expertise costs money and time to acquire, and likes to see its remuneration adjusted accordingly, a concept that leaves many of those who run today’s media outlets unenthused. At my termination meeting, the Voice‘s editorial director told me, in a compassionate tone, that management now felt having a full-time theater critic on staff was a “luxury” the paper could do without.

I found it ironic (albeit slightly flattering) to be classed as a luxury, by an executive whose salary was probably triple mine; that she considered a full-time theater critic not a necessity for a New York media outlet struck me as genuinely dismaying. Again, this is not a personal issue; I’ve had a very satisfying four-decade run at full employment. My concern is tripartite. First, I worry for the young journalists who should be ramping up to take my place. The new managerial passion to minimize payroll puts them in a permanent limbo, at least until people discover ways to make the Internet a paying market for writers who can think deeply about a subject. Just now the Web is all about breadth, not depth: If I Google a show’s title to get a range of opinions on it, I can get links to several dozen superficial yeas or nays; criticism that tackles the work seriously, from knowledge, comes up rather less often. Bloggers and chatterati have, all too often, no strong sense of theater, no analytic powers, and no depth of experience to inform me; they’re the online equivalent of what newspapers used to call “boilerplate.”

Second, I worry from a sense of solidarity with everyone, in America and overseas: Who is forced to confront managements determined to take their profits out of their employees’ hides. Reducing arts journalists to freelance contributors not only diminishes their status within their profession; it makes them equals of the hard-working folks whom giant corporations like Wal-Mart strive, through a variety of bureaucratic tricks, to retain as “part-time” employees, while getting as close as possible to a full week’s work out of them.

Please understand: I don’t want young arts journalists to feel greater entitlement than Wal-Mart workers, however much more education they’ve been lucky enough to acquire. I want both groups, the college-educated and the less so, to believe that, as the old saying goes, “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” A decent week’s pay for an honest week’s work — including all those pesky little extras today’s management hates, the ones that go to weave the social safety net — is a reasonable request whether you’re appraising the balancing acts in Pippin or stacking cartons in a warehouse. I value my younger colleagues sufficiently to feel that both they and Wal-Mart’s employees should be able to get by without recourse to food stamps. (And by the way, since you and I pay for those food stamps, I object to Wal-Mart dumping its payroll burdens on us; that its pretentious heiresses endow needless dance companies and art museums in Nowheresville does not offset the outrage.)

In July, just as my personal funk on these matters was starting to settle in, the theater showed its knack for good timing by sending me to two special events, a few days apart, both handy reminders of how old the corporate world’s “new” business model really is: It predates the “progressive” era in which FDR’s administration wove the main strands of that safety net. City Center Encores! presented, to inaugurate its new series of off-Broadway musicals, a concert staging of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 The Cradle Will Rock; ReGroup Theatre presented the first-ever public reading of Clifford Odets’ unproduced early play The Silent Partner. Both, in their contrasting ways, spoke to my concerns about the worker-management opposition, in the theater and beyond. And both, as short-run or once-only events, shed a little light for me on what a full-time critic’s job description involves. But more about that next week.

Workers' friend: Raúl Esparza as Larry Foreman in <i>The Cradle Will Rock</i>.
Workers’ friend: Raúl Esparza as Larry Foreman in The Cradle Will Rock.
(© Joan Marcus)

Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this “Thinking About Theater” column, which will appear on Friday, August 23.