“You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.”
Though I rarely seek it out, I frequently find myself watching the television sports report during the 11 pm news, typically after Jon Stewart completes his guest interview and before Letterman begins. Not being a sports enthusiast, I marvel at, and on behalf of the arts, envy, the nightly recounting of all of the day’s games, interspersed with chats with the players. The interviews amuse me, because they say – and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here – absolutely nothing. Either someone is saying that they’re going up against or have just gone up against a tough team and either the speaker’s team did the best they could or pulled together and showed the other guys what for. Screenwriter Ron Shelton suggested that this speaking without saying a thing is something players are taught, resulting in the quote above from the film Bull Durham.
Arts organizations don’t have it so lucky. There’s no arts slot on the nightly news that has to be filled, regardless of how little news there may be. While most newspapers retain arts coverage, the “news hole” continues to shrink and pop culture is now lumped with the unfortunately named high culture, so the competition for space only increases. Even when we’re the home team, we’re competing for space with every other home team in our community, as well as with national stories about everything from a new avant-garde musical composition to Japanese manga compilations.
As a result, the arts always have to have “a hook” to get journalists interested, and simply doing a good play or ballet, having a good conductor or director, isn’t enough. Often, the media looks to arts publicists to find the hook in order to pique their interest, and that’s certainly the job of any good press rep. But we don’t have it handed to us like sports, or like funny/cute animal videos from anywhere in the world.
Assuming the baited hook has been taken, our artists then have to participate in an interview and often have to be observed (and recorded or photographed) at work. But unlike sports, where the photos are taken from many yards away, or the interviews conducted in locker room haste, arts subjects often sit cheek by jowl with their chroniclers, and may talk for 20, 30, 60 minutes or more, depending upon the reporter’s needs. There is a forced intimacy that immediately influences the experience.
Now I don’t want to suggest that this is bad for the arts, since we need all the attention we can get. But it does force our artists into a situation where they have to make statements and claims about their work, typically in advance of the work’s completion. Let’s not forget: an actor or director might do six shows in a year, an author a new play every year or every other year, while in baseball there are 162 games a season. So for the interview subject in the arts, each interview carries much higher stakes, and the desire to please the reporter and to prove interesting and worthy of their attention is a razor-sharp, double-edged sword.
On the plus side is the attention and space given to an articulate subject, which grows even greater if a dash of controversy is tossed in, intentionally or not. The downside is that in the case of major coverage, everyone who subsequently chooses to see that work has the artists’ words echoing in their heads, and the audience then gets to judge whether the artists succeeded or failed at their own goals, rather than viewing and processing the work discretely, with only one’s own reactions at play.
For those who follow theatre, there is no greater example of this than the recent New York Times story on the new production of Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater, which featured several members of the creative team candidly spelling out what they hope to achieve and why in a reworked version of the classic piece. Given splashy play by the paper in the Sunday Arts section, still the holy grail of arts publicists in a diminished print universe, the story surely set the phones ringing up in Boston where the show debuts. But as we know, it also set keys a-tapping here in New York, where four days later, the Times released a letter from Stephen Sondheim which took the interviewed artists to task for their perspective and their approach. The phones may well have rung even more thereafter, but there is now no question that a significant portion of the audience for the show will view it through the prism of both the creative team and Mr. Sondheim’s criticisms.
I don’t want to enter into that fray, especially because the team at A.R.T., Mr. Sondheim and the Times reporter are all people I know, respect and like. I use this only as an example of the actual dangers of arts coverage, the risk when claims are made and innovations detailed, but also of the perceived necessity to sell art by revealing its secrets, even when that may work to a piece’s ultimate detriment.
Since the arts cannot get coverage without a strong hook, we must be careful how we bait it and what happens once we catch something. We don’t have the luxury of speaking in cliché, but at times it pays to tantalize rather than reveal, and let the work speak for itself, so our own words don’t become tools by which we are filleted.
P.S. Thanks to Eric Grode for surfacing the Bull Durham quote.