The Survival of Theatre Journalism

Brave Girl – Lunchbox Theatre
Photo Credits

The Survival of Theatre Journalism

by Liz Nicholls

Liz Nicholls

Thirty-five years ago I dove into the volatile world of journalism from the more placid waters of academia.

When I inherited the live theatre beat at the Edmonton Journal in 1983, what I joined was a bustling world of night hawks with entertainment specialties — pop music, classical music, country music and jazz, opera, dance, visual arts, books, movies, kids’ entertainment — with an editor, an assistant editor, an entertainment listings person, an entertainment reporter, a columnist, and a clerk/receptionist who knew everything about the club scene (and had the stilettos to prove it).

In short, on a daily paper in a mid-sized city in the Canadian prairies, there was a specialty writer for every species of arts and entertainment— many on staff as full-time employees, with an orbit of busy freelancers. And “local” coverage — shows, events, artists,  perspectives on movies or books from the big wide world —  wasn’t just some sort of marketing slogan like “world-class.”

To boot, there was a competing daily, the Sun, with its own entertainment staff, along with, over the years, a plethora of weekly papers that provided arts coverage (Vue Weekly, one of the few remaining, breathed its last this month). 

It’s not just some wallow in then-and-now Our Town nostalgia to say that those days have vanished into the mists. By the time I left my job at the Journal two years ago, to launch myself into the online world with the theatre website 12thnight.ca, I was the last full-time designated theatre writer in the Postmedia chain across the country. The entertainment “department” at the Journal by then was down to a couple of full-time writers, a half-time writer, a dwindling orbit of freelancers enabled to write less and less frequently.

Postmedia’s continuing staff reductions, the push to general reporting and annotated listings in entertainment writing, the shrinkage in local coverage to a couple of sections a week (a scenario duplicated in the online editions) … it was a gradual but dramatic retreat by traditional media from arts coverage. And as we’ve all noticed, whenever there are cuts to be made, whether in newsrooms or governments, the arts are always targeted first. For “local,” you need people. And live theatre is nothing if not of the place.

It signalled the demise of exclusive beats like mine, and with it the continuity of point of view in reviews. And at the same time, theatre, arguably Edmonton’s leading and liveliest, most ingenious arts industry — which had dreamed up this city’s best-ever idea and exported it (you guessed! the Fringe!) — was expanding, taking risks, applying its creative drive and smarts in new and different ways.

Edmonton has become, after all, a bona fide theatre town. There’s a dazzling amount and variety to see and write about. For me, a website like 12thnight.ca was an impulse to do the full-time theatre writing — the reviews, feature stories, interviews I’d always done — I’d always done, all online. 

And that online landscape, fuelled by Facebook, Twitter and the rest,  would seem at a glance to be where the action is. As a democratic forum for sharing enthusiasm, approval, free publicity, event announcements, invitations, it’s expansive, useful, even fascinating.

Theatre, after all, is all about the combustible relationship between artists and their audiences. And since the discussing has always seemed like an indispensable part of the theatre-going — which is the true agenda of reviewing — the more perspectives the better.

But as a forum for arts criticism, the web seems have some limitations. For one thing, there’s sustainability. To support 12thnight.ca, where theatre coverage is free — which makes sense when you want to expand the theatre audience not restrict it — I’ve launched a Patreon campaign (www.patreon.com/12thnight) to gather small monthly pledges from individual readers to continue full-time theatre content.  

For another, there’s the question of criticism. Has the spectrum of perspectives actually broadened? “Share” or “Like” look pretty much like invitations to agree and approve.  And “like-minded” seems to mean “of a mind to really like.”

Curiously the amount of theatre criticism, reduced to bare-bones selectivity in the traditional media, doesn’t seem to have increased noticeably online. And this brave new world, a realm of universal access where everyone can be an expert and publish views on, well, anything, has turned out to be a more cautious place for the arts than we might have predicted. 

Do social media hits and shares merely gather those already in the fold, and give them dates and ticket prices? Is the theatre audience actually expanding from its home base? Remember the old joke about the New York Review of Each Other’s Books?

The tectonic plates have moved. And clearly there are benefits via the democratization that technology has wrought. But it remains to be seen what these changes will bring to arts journalism. I’m having a go at addressing them in my online theatre experiment.

VISIT 12thnight.ca